Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Vapors - New Clear Days (Capitol Records, 1980)

I once wrote a short story about a woman who so vehemently objected to her significant other’s dismissal of The Vapors as a worthless one-hit-wonder that she literally murdered him. My own stance on the matter is only slightly less passionate. If I ever assembled a proverbial desert island disc list, New Clear Days would make the cut, along with AC/DC’s Let There Be Rock, The Clash’s London Calling, Material Issue’s first, and something by Husker Du. The hit, “Turning Japanese”, is well-known by all. If you don’t like it, there must be something fatally wrong with you. The rest of the songs stick to the same new wave pop template, and are every bit as good. Often categorized as one of the standards of the skinny tie power pop genre, New Clear Days is probably more similar to the early works of like-minded English groups like XTC and Squeeze.

As its title suggests, here was a song cycle about love and life set against a backdrop of impending nuclear annihilation – overtly political in spots and otherwise informed by the tenor of Cold War times. While many of the best tracks (“Waiting for the Weekend”, “Spring Collection”, “Somehow”) are simple variations on the songs-about-girls theme, few pop groups in 1980 were referencing military cease fires (“60 Second Interval”) or World War II politics (“Letter from Hiro”). The album’s best track, “News At Ten” is a social statement as pointed and literary as anything ever penned by Paul Weller (whose dad managed The Vapors!). And David Fenton’s lyrics to “Bunkers” read like something straight off the first Clash LP:

Government thugs keep me in for the week/
They call out the cops if I'm seen on the street/
It drives me spoolers in millions of ways/
I think I'll be a government thug one day/
Don't tell me in anger just tell me for real/
Why does everybody try to be a real big wheel/
It doesn't matter but if they live on the street/
With all these cowboys and bunkers and creeps

Fenton’s songwriting muse would turn darker and weirder on the band’s second LP Magnets (the most accessible song was an ode to suicide cult leader Jim Jones!), and the album didn’t even crack the top 100. And that was all for The Vapors. To his credit, Fenton never gave in to the temptation to "unretire" from the music business. He gave up recording and became a solicitor. There have been no half-assed Vapors reunions or warmed-over comeback albums mimicking the new wave glories of yesteryear. The band’s music remains in the early ‘80s, where it belongs, a cultural artifact as enduring and awesome as the Atari 2600, Billy Beer, and movies about truckers.
-Josh Rutledge


robin.barwick1 said...

Crikey! As a massive Vapors who was fortunate enough to see them many times and cherishes their brief moments of musical history, can I just say....what a spot on blog!

gunther said...

There's a Vapors comp with my name on it at Chesapeake Square Mall. I hid it well.