Image: The Vapors circa 1980
DAVE FENTON MOVED TO WORTHING A YEAR AGO. Now the Time Machine materialises in his back garden to sweep him off. He’s best known for being frontman of The Vapors, and they, in turn, are best known for one monster hit, ‘Turning Japanese’, but there’s more to his life than that.
Dave Fenton was born 66 years ago to a headmaster and a housewife. The second of three sons, he grew up in Reigate until the age of 12 when his family moved to Redhill, but it was before that, in late August 1963 at the Gaumont Cinema in Bournemouth, that his life changed forever.
“The family was on holiday,” he recalls. “I was ten and my brother was eight. We got the choice of going to the funfair or seeing a gig. The Beatles were playing with Tommy Quickly and Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas. I chose the gig, and thankfully my brother backed me up. After that, I just wanted to write songs myself. I got a second-hand acoustic guitar the next Christmas.”
By 15, with hair as long as his school would allow, he was playing folk clubs around Croydon and Surrey. He went to Nottingham University to study law, and became heavily involved in the social committee. One of his jobs was to get bands on and off stage, including Roy Harper, Chicken Shack, Osibisa and Captain Beefheart (“He was brilliant!”).
On 9February 1972 Dave again encountered Paul McCartney, who was playing his first live dates since 1966 with his new band, Wings, on an impromptu tour of Britain’s universities.
“He just turned up in a van one lunchtime, and we said, ‘Yes, you can play’,” recalls Dave. “From there it was just a matter of getting an audience together, which really didn’t take too long!”
In 1977, Dave became a fully qualified lawyer. He began working for a firm in Guildford, but also sold his car to buy an electric guitar. He soon embraced the new punk sound.
“I loved it, the ethic that anyone can do it,” he says. “It encouraged me, because I’m quite shy but I like writing songs. I couldn’t find anyone else to sing them, so I ended up fronting a band.”
His life might have been very different if his firm hadn’t given him an ultimatum. “In 1978 they asked me to sign a new contract for another year, but they put a provision in that I couldn’t play in a band,” he remembers. “They felt that brought the firm into disrepute.”
Dave took the plunge and threw himself into music. He quit the law firm to work in a fruit shop, but a year later his band, The Vapors, were spotted by Bruce Foxton of The Jam, who saw them play at the Three Lions pub in Farncombe. He got them a couple of support slots on The Jam’s May ’79 Jam ‘Em In tour.
On first, they nevertheless received an encore, impressing Jam manager and Paul Weller’s dad John, who agreed to co-manage them with Foxton. They soon had a record deal with United Artists. The Vapors’ debut single ‘Prisoners’ appeared in late ’79, and they supported The Jam on their Setting Sons tour. The single did nothing, but early in the following year they released a new song called ‘Turning Japanese’. It was a massive hit, in the UK and abroad.
“It was an amazing time,” smiles Dave. “One of the things that’s stuck in my head forever was when I was woken up by the radio alarm playing my own record.”
Unfortunately, although The Vapors didn’t know it, this short period was their commercial peak. “EMI bought out United Artists,” Dave explains. “We had no friends in our own record company.
“Following that we were in the charts at No.3 and The Jam were No.1 [with ‘Going Underground’]. John and Bruce said ‘Sorry, chaps, we haven’t got time to manage you’. So we effectively lost our record label and management at same time.
“The follow-up to ‘Turning Japanese’ was ‘News at Ten’. We went to see our new A&R man and he didn’t even know we had a single out that day. Despite this, it was still the charts’ highest climber, but the BBC had a strike so we couldn’t do ‘Top Of The Pops’.”
‘News at Ten’ stalled just outside the Top 40. It was the beginning of the end. The Vapors produced two albums of spiky, socially aware new wave guitar pop, ‘New Clear Days’ (1980) and ‘Magnets’ (1981), but the writing was already on the wall.
“Our A&R bloke came to rehearsal to hear us play what would have been our seventh single,” sighs Dave. “We jammed it out to him, then we all went down the pub. He bought us a pint, said, ‘Cheers! Brilliant!’, shook all our hands, then went and cancelled our studio time. That was the last straw.”
In 1982 Dave quit The Vapors, which finished the band. He spent the next decade in The Vapor Corporation, known as TVC, with his girlfriend (now wife) Branka and her brother, but never quite made it. His main income came, instead, from sound engineering at Croydon’s Cartoon Club, until he eventually returned to law, becoming a successful music lawyer. He recently took early retirement.
In 2016, although drummer Howard Smith couldn’t commit, The Vapors reformed with original guitarist Edward Bazalgette and bassist Steve Smith, alongside TVC drummer Michael Bowes. They’ve recorded a new album with Steve Levine (producer of Culture Club’s biggest albums), are touring the States as part of Lost 80s Live, and this autumn will be supporting From The Jam, featuring their old mate Bruce Foxton.
“My kids come to the gigs and my wife does merch,” says Dave. “My son even plays guitar when Ed can’t. He’s better than me! People say ‘Do you mind being a One Hit Wonder?’ and I say, ‘It’s better than being a No Hit Wonder!’ I’m satisfied by the way things have gone. It’s amazing people still want to listen and that I still have a fairly reasonable income from stuff I did 40 years ago. Who can say that?”
By Thomas H Green