The original recordings by The Vapors have been largely unavailable on CD for many years. Cherry Red / RT Industries address this perfectly with a comprehensive 4CD set, which not only rounds up both albums and all 7” A & B sides, but also adds two discs of unreleased studio and live tracks.
The line-up featured here came together in spring 1979 after the split of three Guildford bands (including an ‘embryonic’ Vapors). Fronted by vocalist and songwriter Dave Fenton, Ed Bazalgette was on lead guitar, with Steve Smith (bass) and Howard Smith (drums).
Having become regulars on the Surrey live circuit, they attracted attention from The Jam’s Bruce Foxton who later recalled that it was clear when he saw them that they had something special. John Weller (Paul’s dad and The Jam’s manager) and Foxton went on to co-manage the band.
After interest from Polydor, the band eventually signed with United Artists and soon released their debut single, ‘Prisoners’. This was followed by a support slot on The Jam’s 25 date “Setting Sons” tour. Their powerful set from The Rainbow (3/12/79) is included here on CD4, demonstrating what a force they were as a live act.
Producer Vic Smith (aka Vic Coppersmith-Heaven), another Jam connection, oversaw the recording of the next single, ‘Turning Japanese’, an infectious number which became a huge international hit – reaching #3 in the UK, and a major hit in several other countries (#1 in Australia!). A popular track to this day, for many it defined the post-punk New Wave music of the early 80’s.
Touring continued, and debut album “New Clear Days” was completed and released in 1980 to favourable reviews and fan acclaim. ‘News At Ten’ (which wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Jam album) just missed the UK Top 40, before UA was sold to EMI. ‘Waiting For The Weekend’ is another gem of a single, which surprisingly failed to chart.
“New Clear Days” is augmented here on CD1 with all non-album B-sides from the period, along with single versions of the A-sides, and a fiery demo of the urgent ‘Move’ (a previously unreleased song). Other standouts include ‘Trains’, which is driven along by Steve Smith’s melodic bass, and ‘Somehow’ which has a killer chorus. Dave Fenton’s political consciousness also inspired him to write lyrics for tracks such as ‘Cold War’, ‘Bunkers’ and ‘Letter From Hiro’ – overall, a fine debut album.
The second album “Magnets” was recorded in LA with producer Dave Tickle. This was something of a different beast, and darker in places, but overall is arguably an even more diverse listen than its predecessor.
Catchy opener ‘Jimmie Jones’, written about the American cult leader, narrowly missed the Top 40. Next up is the electronic-tinged ‘Spiders’, a pretty quirky effort! ‘Isolated Case’ (the only song not written by Fenton) would have comfortably held its own on a post-punk collection alongside the likes of Killing Joke and Gang of Four. ‘Civic Hall’ has an almost reggae feel to it, the brooding ‘Daylight Titans’ is impressive, ‘Galleries For Guns’ is yet another excellent B-side, while the title track is an epic album closer.
“Magnets” was released on the Liberty label in March 1981, but with a lack of record company support it wasn’t a commercial success and the disillusioned group split a few months later.
CD3 consists of demos, alternative versions and rough mixes of songs from the “New Clear Days” period. These are fascinating to hear and are often very different from the released versions.
There are more versions of ‘Turning Japanese’ than you can shake a stick at! The ‘alternative version’ is a lively and slightly bonkers affair containing some elements missing from the single edit – everything bar the kitchen sink, and guaranteed to make you smile! It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded and is a real highlight of this set. The original demo is fascinating to hear too as the magic was clearly already there, awaiting the production sheen that would transform it into a monster hit. There’s also an ‘alternative extended mix’ and ‘instrumental’.
In addition to the aforementioned live tracks, CD4 also contains a few rough mixes of songs from the “Magnets” album along with the otherwise unreleased ‘Secret Noise’. The 24-page booklet includes extensive notes by Ed Piller, photos and images of the original 7” releases.
Often wrongly termed a mod band, Dave Fenton’s advice was to “listen and find your own category” and I couldn’t agree more! There was always a lot more to The Vapors than ‘Turning Japanese’, and this superb release is a real treasure trove of delights. ****1/2
Review by Jim Henderson
Howard Smith (Vapors drummer) interview
I assume that four of the tracks on CD3 are from the Chestnut Studios demo tape, that was not only passed to Bruce Foxton but also helped you to get a John Peel session?
Yes, that was the first time I’d ever been in a recording studio! All done in a day of course and done purposefully to try and get some more gigs and send off to John Peel. We got the call from John Walters, Peel’s long-time producer who called Dave on the number on the tape. It was produced by Trevor Dann, who Peel renamed Prince Four Eyes due to him usually doing all his reggae sessions. We didn’t get to meet Peel at the session, but we did a few months later when we did a John Peel Roadshow at Surrey University.
The support slot on The Jam’s “Setting Sons” tour must have been some experience, as they were the hottest band in the UK at that time? CD4 includes your set from one of those shows…
To be honest, I wasn’t a big Jam fan at that time. I bought the ‘In the City’ single and got “All Mod Cons” for a Christmas present, but I was keener on The Clash and the bands that followed like Magazine and Gang of Four. But they were completely on fire on that tour, Weller was mesmerising on stage. Also, it was an insight into what life is like on the road for a band experiencing something close to Beatlemania!
Did the success of ‘Turning Japanese’ also hinder you in terms of the pressure to follow it with another big hit?
It’s a double-edged sword. Of course, it is amazing to have such a huge single and one that it seems pretty much everyone remembers. At the same time, it typecast us to an extent as a pop single band. It’s good to see people now recognise there was much more to the band than that.
The quality of the non-album B-sides really stands out. How difficult was it deciding which songs went onto albums and which were used as B-sides?
Dave was just coming up with so many new songs. We’d have a rehearsal session and we’d learn, arrange and work out how to play two new songs in an afternoon. Songs got dropped from the setlist quite regularly. So, if we had a good song but felt the newer ones were going to be played a lot more then we’d think hmm, that might make a good B-side.
44 must have been something of an unlucky number, as two of your singles stalled there just shy of the UK Top 40. It’s hard to understand how ‘News at Ten’ and ‘Jimmie Jones’ (and also ‘Waiting for The Weekend’) failed to be bigger hits.
It was disappointing that some of the follow up singles didn’t do better. I think you can look back and say maybe we could have planned things out better. But rather good singles that failed than bad ones. We were really young and things were happening with management changes and label changes that didn’t help. But I look back at the whole time as an amazing experience and wouldn’t change anything for the world.
The lengthy amount of touring that the band undertook is said to have contributed to tensions which eventually led to the split. In hindsight, with a break from each other, do you think you could have stayed together for a lot longer?
Yes, absolutely. I enjoyed the touring, 3 times across the States was incredible and I think the label felt we could break big there – probably had in mind how the Police and the Pretenders were taking off. Rolling Stone critics voted us 5th best new band that year. But we could have paced it better for sure.
After being unavailable on a physical format for many years, it must be very satisfying to not only re-release the original recordings but also to add such a huge amount of unreleased material? Can you tell us a bit about the process and how the release came about?
The CDs of the albums have been out of print for many years and copies going for 60 or 70 quid on eBay, so it was definitely time for a reissue. Cherry Red got in touch with our management and pitched the idea for the box set. They ran the ideas they had past us and set to work. We didn’t have a great deal of input, but they gave us a rough outline and welcomed ideas. As I say, it’s great it’s out there. Demon are re-releasing the first two albums on coloured vinyl too next month and that’s really good to see too.
Three of the songs here appear unreleased in any other version – ‘Move’, ‘Secret Noise’, and ‘Caroline’ (live) – were these ever considered for a full recording/release? Also, was there ever a studio version of ‘Here Comes the Judge’?
These were mostly early songs that had gradually got dropped from the regular setlist although ‘Secret Noise’ we still played, often as the first song in the set. ‘Here Comes the Judge’ was our encore song, we always played it last. I mean it’s just an incredible adrenalin rush of a song and really only works best live. Can’t remember ever recording it in the studio, I don’t think it ever crossed our minds to. It was just our encore song to get everyone leaping around.
Any particular personal favourite tracks from this set?
My favourite changes from time to time. ‘Daylight Titans’ used to be the favourite. ‘Bunkers’ sometimes. I like some of the more atmospheric ones like that. But Dave had a genius for a pop hook, so ‘America’ or ‘Waiting for the Weekend’. I feel there is a lot to like all in all.
Is this the final word on The Vapors, or is there more material in the vaults that could yet see the light of day?
I think this is it. There’s the radio sessions for the BBC and Capital Radio but nothing spectacular. There’s some more live stuff including the Paris Theatre live radio broadcast where Gary Crowley just tells the audience how great the support band is – thanks Gary. Pretty much everything is in this box set.
And finally, on a personal level, you now organise and promote gigs in Guildford. Are you now seeing the light at the end of the tunnel after what must have been a really difficult 18 months for you and the artists that you book?
We’ve had quite a lot of cancellations and re-bookings but it’s all focused on hopefully returning to normal next year now fingers crossed. There’s a couple confirmed and one in particular that I can’t announce yet that I’m very excited about.
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