Saturday, September 07, 2013

Coming down with a case of... the Vapors (they weren't just turning Japanese)

Back in 1980 (at age 12) I was coming off liking the Village People and started listening to pop radio, and remember hearing and really liking some of the unusual hits that flittered on to the charts, in what I didn't realize at the time was New Wave.

A track that I enjoyed then and continued enjoying ever since was the Vapors' only hit, "Turning Japanese." The riff, the beat, the not entirely explicable chorus, that "Think so, think so, think so" part in the final run of the chorus: it was marvelous. And frankly, I have to say I still think so (think so, think so)—not out of nostalgia, but because it remains an excellent slice of power pop.

I never got their record nor even the single, but I listened with anticipation for when the radio station might spin it again. (Yes, kids, there was a time when everything was not immediately available on the internet.) Eventually it turned up on virtually every '80s hits CD that came out, so finding that band's one hit proved easy by the end of the decade.

And for the intervening decades, even as my musical horizons expanded, my relationship with the band remained unchanged. I honestly cannot say why.

Recently I finally came across the band's "best of" collection (another digital trip to rediscover a missed past) and heard other songs by them, only 33 years after the fact. After several listens I have enjoyed that rest of their (still available) material, such as what I have learned was the b-side of the "Turning Japanese" single, a dynamic six-and-a-half minute live track called "Here Comes the Judge."

But back to their hit: I don't recall ever ruminating on what "turning Japanese" meant, even though I did pay attention to the words. Eventually the story of that phrase referring to the face one makes when climaxing while masturbating did come to my attention—and that's a music legend that has been refuted by songwriter David Fenton (although occasionally in interviews at the time apparently was coy about it), and that it's really just about youthful obsessing over a failed relationship—but it didn't really matter to me how to interpret what "turning Japanese" is supposed to suggest.

What's not unclear is that if one enjoyed their one hit, the rest of their output would be worth giving a listen. But before we ponder why I didn't seek it out sooner, first let's visit something else from the time of their hit.


Listening again to "Turning Japanese" in the collection I found myself reminded of their somewhat improbable mainstream popularity (albeit as a one-hit wonder) and their appearance on that early '80s TV show Solid Gold where artists would lip-synch their hits, and seeing them open one episode where host Dionne Warwick came out during the guitar solo to say her intro, closing her little speech with "Go on and turn Japanese" just before solo ends and the band on stage behind her for pretends to sing the last chorus.

There is no good reason why that specific moment of Warwick throwing back to the British pub rock outfit who happened to strike it big with a slightly off-kilter rocker that caught on with program directors perhaps because it resembled the softened punk sound of what came to be called "new wave." The incongruity of the woman who sang "Do you know the way to San Jose?" and them sharing a stage might explain the persistence in my memory. Perhaps it defies explanation in the same way a song nobody was quite sure what it was about became a hit on the same U.S. charts as Kenny Rogers and Rod Stewart and Air Supply.

Of course someone has posted that to YouTube (albeit a grainy, from-an-old-videotape quality image).

(Someday children will be astounded to hear there was a time when we couldn't pull up anything on the web.)


Might the Vapors have better received from a critical standpoint—not to have been touted, per se, but to be judged differently now—had their track "Turning Japanese" never made the charts? Does the weight of one-hit-wonder-dom drag them down irrevocably, rendering them as nothing more than the guys with that one song?

They were perhaps slightly too catchy and not quite weird enough for college radio at the time, but had they been stalwarts of only that proto-alternative scene with little notice from pop stations might they be viewed in a different light these days?

Again, all I can say is I liked their hit back then and I still like it now, but having finally been inspired to find more from them I believe I could have been enjoying more of their tracks for the past 30 years. Sure, it's clear why "Turning Japanese" was the standout, but certainly the rest of their songs are catchy and enjoyable (but sometimes do touch on weighty subjects like war) and worth exploring if one likes their sound at all.

Granted, without their mainstream success back then it's perhaps unlikely I would have known about them at all at the time (because I wasn't listening to college radio back when I was only 12). And even when later when I found bands with better reputations among "serious" music fans (such as the Jam, with whom I've learned the Vapors shared a bit of a sound and also for a while the same manager), in this alternate reality where they never had the hit and lip-synched next to Dionne Warwick, only if they were favorably linked to Paul Weller and company these days might I have ever discovered their material at all.

So we come back around to the conclusion I have made before: The internet allows the past to come to the present in ways that weren't so easy before it came to prominence—whenever one is so inclined to go find it, however long that might take. Maybe when one gets to middle age and one isn't finding the contemporary scene to have as much appealing as it did twenty years ago, and one gets the bug to investigate what one missed in one's youth—that may be the ideal time to find such material.

Perhaps not ideal for the artist from a sales perspective but that someone is still able to get and enjoy your output three decades after its heyday must be superior to it dwelling in undiscoverable obscurity.


Another track that improbably caught on in those days was "Mexican Radio" by Wall of Voodoo.
That had a bit more of a novelty appeal with the lyrics telling a tale of a signal from a south-of-the-border station, presented in lead man Stan Ridgway's talking vocal style. It was more out there in its sound, and (not surprisingly) didn't chart in the same way "Turning Japanese" did, but unlike the Vapors' hit it did get airplay on the likes of Dr. Demento for its really off-kilter sound and subject.

Perhaps it was that difference—being more weird—that led me to seek out WoV records in the mid-'80s (not only Call of the West from which "Mexican Radio" came but their self-title EP and other album Dark Continent). The Ennio Morricone-influenced title track from Call was certainly a better song to my ear (then and now) than "Mexican Radio"; frankly, there are multiple WoV tracks I'd rank higher than the one heard on '80s pop radio, probably because "Mexican Radio" does have slightly too much novelty appeal.

In a head-to-head battle of the one-hits, "Turning Japanese" trumps "Mexican Radio" easily. The former I can listen to over and over without need for a break, but the latter needs a bit of time between plays. But in a competition between their overall catalogs WoV gets the nod without question. Admittedly, I do have decades longer listening to their tracks, but so far there's nothing else I've heard from the Vapors to top "Turning Japanese." Often I tire somewhat of the popular song by a given artist and find a lesser known track that never got overplayed, but for the Vapors that doesn't seem likely to happen. Whereas with WoV that's precisely what happened.

Perhaps on a subconscious level I gleaned WoV had more to offer and hence I sought it out, but the Vapors' best already made it to my ears so the motivation was not there. (Not unlike with the Knack and "My Sharona"—a band and song that sounds more like the Vapors than anything by WoV.)

Obviously the only thing the two bands have in common is having existed around the same time and having lucked into being lumped in with the new wave explosion (even though one could argue neither was "'new wave") that brought them to some mainstream attention.

I shouldn't be comparing them thusly, but I suppose we have the inclination to think of music chronologically.  Perhaps I felt some compulsion to identify I didn't completely gloss over the output of the early '80s until decades and decades passed.

Let's not try to figure that out.


Better ruminations on the Vapors can be found on One-Hit Wondering and Hardly Baked.

1 comment:

  1. Two excellent bands that are still fresh today.


So, what do you think?