June 18, 2009
The Vapors - Turning Japanese
This is the first part in an ongoing series in which I dive into the discographies of bands tagged with the unfortunate moniker of “One-Hit Wonder.”
The One Hit: British New Wavers The Vapors learned a tough lesson that would later be handed down to The Divinyls and Harvey Danger: If your first hit single is a catchy pop song with radio-friendly lyrics about masturbation, you're not getting another one. Granted, it's debatable whether or not “Turning Japanese” is actually about masturbation, but the opening lyrics certainly lead in that direction (“I've got your picture of me and you / You wrote 'I love you' I wrote 'me too' / I sit there staring and there's nothing else”), and a later line, “I want a doctor to take your picture, so I can look at you from inside as well,” puts a sexual spin on the protagonist's longing. Even if it isn't necessarily about self-pleasure, that interpretation likely helped the song, already bursting with quirky charm thanks to its Oriental guitar chimes and angsty vocals, rise in popularity. Unfortunately, The Vapors couldn't snag another hit and called it quits after two albums.
The Un-Hits: Those two albums, 1980's New Clear Days and 1981's Magnets, are among the most consistently stellar albums of the New Wave era. Both are chock-full of bright pop songs with great hooks and clever lyrics, albeit none as cheeky as “Turning Japanese.” New Clear Days kicks off with one of The Vapors' best, “Spring Collection,” a shoulda-been hit just as catchy as their actual hit, which comes next on the album. After two upbeat tunes, the album takes a dark turn on “Cold War,” one of their many political songs. While they can pull off such love-centric stunners as “Trains” and “Waiting for the Weekend,” the number of socially-conscious songs in their repertoire far outweighs their angst-driven numbers. “Turning Japanese” aside, frontman Dave Fenton would rather play the town crier than village idiot, tackling such subjects as the generation gap (“News at Ten”), battlefield experience (“Sixty Second Interval”), and World War II (“Letter From Hiro,” again mining a Japanese obsession).
Magnets carries Fenton's political slant even further, resulting in a considerably darker album, though still containing sprinkles of the power poppy New Wave sensibility from their debut. Its opener and first single, “Jimmie Jones,” still offers strong hooks along the lines of their previous hit, but this time the lyrics are about cult suicide. Again pulling a shift from poppy to foreboding, its second track, “Spiders,” has a grim electronic sound akin to Gary Numan's robotic workouts. The experimentation on this track is certainly not an isolated case on this album. Elsewhere they dabble in reggae flavoring (“Civic Hall”), Gang of Four-style dance-punk (“Daylight Titans”), and an arena rock shift from acoustic to bombastic on the title track. Artistically, their ambition pays off, but unfortunately, it didn't pay off financially, and The Vapors broke up soon afterward. Fenton's connection to the music business now involves a career in music law, while guitarist Edward Bazalgette is now a documentary filmmaker for the BBC.
Just for kicks, here's a video of Rick Moranis performing a lounge rendition of “Turning Japanese” on SCTV.