Every week, I will be listening to entire discographies of one-hit wonder bands and letting you know if their other songs are worth listening to or not. This week: The Vapors.
As a musician, being reduced to a "one-hit wonder" status can kind of suck, but when your one and only hit is widely regarded as a song about masturbation, can you even complain? The Vapors made a name for themselves with their popular 1980 single "Turning Japanese" and though frontman David Fenton has always denied rumors of the innuendo behind it, the song will probably always be known as a euphemism for self-pleasuring (especially with lyrics like "I've got your picture, I've got your picture, I'd like a million of you all to myself”). Fenton had explained that the song was never supposed to be dirty; rather, it is a post-breakup song, when you feel like you're going crazy and turning into someone else—oh right, like a Japanese person—but that explanation feels a little bit contrived. In an interview on VH1, the singer added: "It could have been [turning] Portuguese, Lebanese, anything that fit with that phrase. It had nothing to do with the Japanese." (Somehow, "turning Portuguese, I think I'm turning Portuguese" doesn't quite have the same ring to it.) In later interviews, though, he has been known to coyly reply, "Maybe, maybe not" to the question of masturbation, probably regretting not having come up with that interpretation first.
"Turning Japanese" is a great song—whatever its meaning—but it's also been called "one of the dumbest songs in pop history" by Rolling Stone, which is both harsh and untrue. I've always been a huge fan of the Vapors, but I've also felt that they were undeservedly underrated, easily forgotten in the mix of other new wave bands that have emerged from that era. I know I usually come to a conclusion about a band at the end of a post, but I'm just gonna tell you upfront: I love EVERY SINGLE SONG by the Vapors. Every single one of them! It may be because the band was so short-lived, having lasted only three years and two studio albums—always better to leave while you're still on top, right?—but the Vapors, for me, is a one-hit wonder that has an untainted streak of only good songs. This seems pretty rare. And if you're not as familiar with their other tracks, then it's time for you to get familiar. Oh my God, this is so exciting; sit back, relax, you're in for a treat.
Their debut album, New Clear Days (1980), is especially one chock full of what potentially could have been chart hits. I may be so bold as to even say that this is one of my favorite records ever because A) there's not a single bad song on it, B) it's something that I always go back to and each time am pleasantly surprised by, and C) I would take this album on a desert island with me, which is a true testament to how well it holds up. Hell, I can't even pick a favorite song (as good as it is, though, it's definitely not "Turning Japanese").
What pissed me off about that "dumbest song in pop history" comment was that New Clear Days is actually a very intelligent album; it's just that it's disguised under the kind of power-pop riffs that lends itself as more of a mindlessly fun album than a thought-provoking one. Firstly, the album title was a pun on nuclear days—a title relevant to the political environment at the time. Though New Clear Days is composed of one cheery pop hook after another, the band wasn't too concerned with being subtle with their words. Beneath the album's colorful veneer lay darker themes that were easily uncovered within the songs' lyrics. The band sung of issues such as fear of Cold War ("get ready for another Cold War […] is this a military state I'm in?"), fear of conformity (in "News at Ten"), and a plea against another World War (in "Letter from Hiro").
Even a closer look at the album cover will reveal something other than your average weather forecast on the news. Looming ominously over London is a mushroom cloud and displayed close-by is a radiation symbol. However, as you can probably tell by the playfulness of "Turning Japanese," the Vapors weren't all doom and gloom. They showed heart and a sense of humor too. In fact, their lovesick tunes, like "Somehow" or "Trains," are some of the catchiest off the album:
"I can't hold you enough / I wanna love you again, I wanna love you again, I wanna love you again…"
Oh, and lest we forget the album opener, "Spring Collection," in which the band makes their first impression by making fun of the popular punk style at the time (what is more post-punk than that, am I right?). If you recall my column from two weeks ago, it's a bit reminiscent of what Dexys Midnight Runners did with their album opener on their debut. In "Spring Collection," singer Fenton bitingly sings, "Black jeans with tortured seams / don't mean that much to me" and in a later verse, "Don't like your plastic shoes / don't like your hair dyed blue / don't like your damned new rose / don't like your casual pose." Dang.
The strength of the album lies in the conviction with which Fenton delivers his words without it being sonically overbearing. What I mean is, most politically outspoken music isn’t as infectiously catchy as these tunes. It’s a kind of balance that is difficult to achieve, yet the Vapors have managed to master it on their first take, which is, sadly, something they don’t get much credit for. But anyway, other noteworthy tracks off this album are…ALL OF THEM, OK? Just listen to the whole damn thing.
The following year, in 1981, the Vapors released their next and final album, Magnets. It unfortunately didn't find much commercial success, which may possibly have to do with the lack of promotion on the label's part and the band's divulgence into even darker subject matters. In the similar ill-omened fashion of their previous album, a close look at the cover art for their sophomore record illustrates an assassination scene:
Illustrated by Martin Handford of the Where’s Waldo books
The Vapors really had a knack for creating the catchiest melodies for even the most bleak and morbid topics. Such was the case for the first single off of Magnets, "Jimmie Jones," which was written about Reverend James Warren Jones of the infamous Jonestown mass suicide in 1978.
The cheesy intro ("The Vapors turned Japanese for their number one hit last year! Will this be another one?") makes me feel really sad because, no, it wasn't another one. :(
I prefer this tune to their actual hit, but "Turning Japanese" is definitely easier to digest, meaning, "turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so" is a funnier and less uncomfortable chorus to sing along to than "Jimmie Jones, Jimmie Jones Jones Jones and his soul clones will get you." Attempting to incorporate a real life mass suicide event into mainstream pop may have been too much of an audacious and unreasonable move. Remember, at this point, the event had happened only three years earlier, so it was probably received a little bit differently than it would now. And it didn’t stop there. Other tracks off the album explored topics like the Kennedy assassination (“Magnets”) and made even more aggressive attacks on the political state of society (“Isolated Case,” “Civic Hall,” etc). While Magnets is far less approachable than their impressive debut, it was a matured follow-up to New Clear Days and deserves far more appraisal for it. Also, from what I can tell, it ages pretty well.
Other favorites from Magnets are: "Silver Machines," "Lenina," "Spiders," "Can't Talk Anymore"…well, OK fine, they're all good. (I told you I liked every single song.)
Anyway, if you listen to the Vapors’ other tracks, it’s pretty clear that “Turning Japanese” is only a very superficial facet of what this band is about. It does make sense that the public would respond best to a song allegedly about masturbation, while their more politically angsty ones get overlooked. So yes, in conclusion, the Vapors are absolutely worth a listen beyond the well-known hit. And unless they decide to reunite and record new material, I will be playing these two albums to death, loving every listen of it.