Not content to let their pop passions go unloved by the masses, Loser City staff have banded together to provide Pop Rehabilitation to the works that have been unjustly maligned and forgotten. This month, Nick Hanover attempts to revive interest in The Vapors, an ’80s New Wave outfit known for their hit “Turning Japanese” and endless jokes about its status as a masturbation ballad.
“Did you know that song is about jerking off?” Somewhere there is a law that requires every idiot to say some variation of this whenever the Vapors’ “Turning Japanese” comes on. If I had to guess what made this “fact” common knowledge, I’d put my money on VH1’s I Heart the ‘80s, an all-purpose treasure of nostalgic trivia that kicked off an ominous wave of ironic affection for bygone decades with the aid of talking heads and z-list celebrities. Is “Turning Japanese” about masturbation though? I don’t know. I don’t really fucking care, either. What I do know is that the Vapors are perhaps the unsung ‘80s New Wave band, far more than power pop titans the Knack or current en vogue pop throwbacks Tears for Fears.
Initially poised to be usurpers to the Jam’s UK throne, to the extent that they even had Jam dad John Weller managing them while Jam producer Vic Coppersmith-Heaven manned the boards, the Vapors were as tight as their brother band but as lyrically bleak as anything coming out of Manchester at the same time. If all you know of the band is “Turning Japanese” then you’re already aware that they were capable of crafting hooks so catchy you might as well be trying to get your brain to kick heroin. But if you aren’t familiar with the deeper cuts on their sole two albums New Clear Days and Magnets, then you might not be prepared for the complexity of their UK brand of power pop and the often unsettling imagery and themes frontman David Fenton explores.
The group’s debut album New Clear Days makes its Cold War paranoia clear the instant you glimpse its artwork, featuring an anonymous, digitally decayed weatherman pointing at radiation symbols and mushroom clouds over the British Isles. London has a mushroom cloud hovering over it, an ominous statement that is expanded on in midpoint standout “Bunkers,” where a decidedly Fallout-like future is laid out for the UK, “London Calling”-like guitars flanking Fenton’s declaration that we’re all “living in bunkers.” A nameless protagonist thinks back to pre-radiation vibe times, desperately stating “I reckon when tomorrow comes I’ll be normal/I reckon I may even go back to school.”
Those vintage vibes set the Vapors apart from their peers as much as their sci-fi tinged lyrical paranoia, particularly on moments like “Sixty Second Interval,” where a Brill Building bassline from Steve Smith establishes an enchanting groove as the rest of the band skews more straightforwardly power pop. “Sixty Second Interval” was never a single, which is a shame as it’s got more going for it than proper “Turning Japanese” follow up “News at Ten,” perhaps the most shamelessly Jam-like moment in the Vapors’ oeuvre. There are bright guitars, a boxy bassline and a Kinks-ian narrative of the workday grind, and the title might as well slap you in the face with how much it owes the Jam’s “News of the World.” It’s not a bad single by any measure, I’d go so far as to argue that it improves on that Jam stalwart and its own Who debt, but the Vapors were always at their best when they were at their weirdest.
“Cold War” is symbolic of that, having the gall to be an exceedingly dark track placed squarely after “Turning Japanese” on the original New Clear Days track list. Featuring a decidedly Siouxsie and the Banshees-like approach to reverberated rhythm and an embrace of abrupt, unexpected harmonies that the UK wouldn’t see again until the rise of the Futureheads, “Cold War” stills sounds unsettling and unique. Detailing two revolutionaries with a taste for junk, “Cold War” essentially takes macro paranoia micro, shrinking superpower standoffs down to the personal level, illuminating the hopelessness and fear of ground level intel operators or maybe civilians or both. The song opens with the couplet “Little white dogs in black and chains/Screaming indignation at your high class games,” which could today be read as commentary on the way big social media blowups are often eerily timed for maximum distraction for real issues. Later, Fenton calls out an anonymous character’s duplicity, saying “You play lefthanded for the revolution/You overestimate the quick solution,” before impotently wondering “is this a military state I’m in?” Here in 2015, amidst the bodies in the streets gunned down by over weaponized police forces, that’s still a damn good question.
“Daylight Titans” served as the B-side to “Jimmie Jones,” a terrifyingly cheerful tribute to the victims of Jim Jones, constructed like an apocalyptic cult jingle. It’s a song that is less musically weird than “Daylight Titans” but is surreal in its message, first embracing the appeal of a cult, before doubting itself at the halfway point, eventually questioning a benevolent leader’s promises: “Jimmy says heaven is/Logical, heaven is physical, wonderful/Beautiful, saleable, cynical/Heaven is the space between your eyes/Where you disguise your little lives.” The only promise the song’s lyrics historically delivered on is the fact that “Jimmie Jones/And his soul clones/Will get you.”
Magnets also sees the Vapors embracing synth sound, as on the bizarre mod funk of “Spiders,” where Fenton’s vocals seem to be pitch shifted as he talks up a girl who worries about cameras behind her eyes and spiders in her hair as Smith utilizes what I’m pretty sure is an Electro-Harmonix BassBalls pedal, a bass filter device that makes the instrument sound like an out of control Moog. To throw further stylistic deviation into the mix, “Civic Hall” manages to be the rare reggae-indebted song by a group of white musicians that isn’t immediately embarrassing, probably because it keeps the reggae elements to Smith’s lackadaisical bass and a stop-start rhythm guitar contribution from Fenton.
I’d argue the Vapors’ tendency to deviate stylistically from track to track while maintaining a recognizable core sound is why latter day discoverers of the band, like Vice’s Kristen Yoonsoo Kim, have been so impressed with how well the Vapor’s music holds up. The group’s Cold War paranoia likewise manages to thwart its expiration date, being vague enough to comfortably stand in as a series of lyrical references to our current era of extralegal surveillance and endless Wars on Terror. It’s not all masturbation odes and the sooner you can stop giggling about some VH1 co-host’s tidbit, the sooner we can all get on with giving a long underappreciated group its due.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover