Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #4

The Vapors – Turning Japanese

If you had the good fortune to attend a Friday night dance at Memorial High School during the 1980-81 school year, you might have witnessed me having what could best be described as a spasm whenever “Turning Japanese” was played. I don’t remember if it was my favourite song of that year – though I’m pretty sure these trips down memory lane will inevitably answer that question – but it was definitely the song that gave me the most joy. Never the most graceful of dancers – ask my wife and children if you doubt the accuracy of that statement – this song somehow made me worse, all flailing arms, spastic legs and, oh regret, a racially insensitive bow or two. My friend Sandy Nicholson, who always had an air of chill about him, was definitely embarrassed for me for my gyrations. And I gave zero fucks, which might have been the only thing in my life then that made me feel that way. I wasn’t a good dancer, but I was a committed one, and giving in to a song and just moving was a source of immense joy.

I thought it might have been a Cape Breton novelty, a song that some local DJ fell in love with, but it was actually a pretty big hit across the country, getting to #6 on the RPM chart and ending up as one of the top 100 songs of the year in both 1980 and 1981. It barely made the top 40 in the U.S., but the Aussies loved it even more than we did, and it did well in other parts of the waning British Empire. There is a pretty cool video – David Fenton’s dancing isn’t much better than mine, and he also went on to become a lawyer, so maybe it’s a lawyer thing – and the critics at Pazz and Jop knew a good thing when they heard it, ranking it the 8th best single of 1980.

The band was confident this was going to be a hit, but were concerned it would doom them to be one-hit wonders because it was such a novelty. Which is rather unfortunate, because the album it came from, “New Clear Days”, is pretty fantastic, a great example of the New Wave of the era, bleeding into power pop, sounding often like The Jam on speed, which was probably not an accident, since Paul Weller’s dad was their manager.

The song is either (depending, it seems, on Fenton’s mood when you ask him) about masturbation or just regular teen boy angst, which, if we’re being honest here, is probably the source of more teen boy masturbation than actual lust is. It, of course, starts with that stereotypical Oriental riff, telling you this isn’t like anything you’ve heard before on pop radio, and it keeps coming back throughout. It is propulsive, a high energy rush from end to end, and if you don’t end up bouncing around your kitchen as it plays, I’m not sure I want to know you. It easily remains one of my all-time favourites. Kirsten Dunst loves it, too.

And The Vapors are back, baby! They released an album in 2020, and had a few songs on the lower end of this very British thing called the Heritage Chart. It’s more power pop than New Wave, and a pretty good listen, proving that lawyers can rock, even in their 60s. The bar thanks you, David Fenton.

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