May I Have Another?: The Vapors

Ever watch one of those VH1, “one-hit wonders” specials, where the random D level commentators start talking about these artists that had one hit, where half of them actually had multiple songs that charted? Random commentator probably has no idea but then somewhere in there Matt Pinfield comes in with his “I’m smarter than you and probably no fun at all” persona and makes sure you know they had another song that charted exactly at #98 for one week in 1984. Well, I’m the everyman’s Pinfield but funnier and better looking. This series will go back to the 80s and spotlight one-hit wonders (in the US), real (truly only one charting hit) or perceived (other songs charted low but they are known for just one song) and come to a definitive verdict if we should accept or reject their position as a one-hit wonder.

The Vapors are one-hit wonders of course for “Turning Japanese” from their debut album New Clear Days, released in 1980. But I wonder if enough people even know about their two albums to understand the band a bit deeper.

The band formed in 1978 as The Vapours but then removed the “u” to seem more marketable in the US. Their debut record came out in 1980 and while “Turning Japanese” was a hit, no other songs really were.

The Vapors were a new wave / punk band and while the hit single was a bit quirky, the rest of New Clear Days is not. In what has to be a pretty rare occasion for a one-hit wonder, the album is actually great. The album deftly mixes new wave / punk and post-punk with socially conscious and political lyrical content. The level of musicianship on the record is top notch with Howard Smith’s drumming really standing out to me.

“Turning Japanese” was the second single they released after a song called “Prisoners,” supposedly because they even thought they might be one-hit wonders if “Turning Japanese” was first.

“Prisoners”

“Prisoners” wasn’t even on the original version of the album released outside of the US. In the US, a few songs were taken out (ironically one of them is the track, “America”) and were replaced by the single. Worldwide, it didn’t appear on a record until the 2000 remaster.

As mentioned, “Turning Japanese” was the second release from their debut and of course, you’ve likely heard the legend that this song is about masturbation and the look you get on your face as you’re um, finishing. Lead singer David Fenton, who wrote the song, claims that’s not true – as the song is simply about losing the girl and then changing into a whole different person because of it. A hit song about jerking off is way more fun to believe though. That Asian-like riff you hear in the song actually is called the “Oriental riff” and is very commonly used to represent Asian culture in western songs.

“Turning Japanese”

In 2009, Kirsten Dunst recorded pretty much a note-for-note clone of the song (yes, that Kirsten Dunst).

Kirsten Dunst, “Turning Japanese”

The band released a third single called “News at Ten” and then a fourth called “Waiting for the Weekend” that failed to chart in the US. However the key track on the album for me is the punkier “Cold War.” It’s a pretty brilliant song with some great lyrics such as “Little white dogs in black and chains / screaming indignation at your high class games / ’til the lights go out / shut your eyes and go back home/ cramped and shocked in leather jeans / stoning priests and virgins ‘cos they’re much too clean / for your new machine / shut your eyes and go back home.” Unfortunately, it was the other tune removed from the US version at the time of release. And then the upbeat punk tinged new wave tune, “Somehow” probably should have been the logical follow up single to the hit. Alternately, the opening track “Spring Collection” is a quick 3-minute burst of energy that also would have made a decent single.

“Cold War”

The Vapors followed New Clear Days up pretty quickly with their second album, Magnets. There were two singles released from the album with neither of them charting. “Jimmie Jones” as the second single was particularly good but was written about the famed cult leader Jim Jones, which really doesn’t scream hit pop song. The album itself pushed the new wave aspect of the band moving forward and backed off on their punk roots, not completely, but enough that the edginess of the first record is kind of lost on this one. It’s still a pretty damn fine record but the debut is significantly better.

“Jimmie Jones”

They released both their albums on United Artists and when UA got sold to Liberty records and that labeled failed to give a shit about the band, they decided it wasn’t worth their time any longer and disbanded. Lead singer David Fenton became a lawyer, guitarist Edward Bazalgette went on to become a TV director, drummer Howard Smith ran a record shop while bassist Steve Smith was the only one to stay in music and at some juncture actually joined a rap/rock band.

Verdict: One-hit wonder status rejected. Yes, “Turning Japanese” was their only hit in the U.S. so by definition, they are a one-hit-wonder however, my goal with this series is to determine if they really deserve that status and The Vapors certainly don’t. There should have been multiple hits from the first record at least and that one is definitely worth your time to take another (or maybe first) listen.

May I Have Another?: A-Ha

Ever watch one of those VH1, “one-hit wonders” specials, where the random D level commentators start talking about these artists that had one hit, where half of them actually had multiple songs that charted? Random commentator probably has no idea but then somewhere in there Matt Pinfield comes in with his “I’m smarter than you and probably no fun at all” persona and makes sure you know they had another song that charted exactly at #98 for one week in 1984. Well, I’m the everyman’s Pinfield but funnier and better looking. This series will go back to the 80s and spotlight one-hit wonders (in the US), real (truly only one charting hit) or perceived (other songs charted low but they are known for just one song) and come to a definitive verdict if we should accept or reject their status as that one-hit wonder.

A-Ha is another really remarkable case of the US simply not “getting” a band. The band was from Norway and was a smash across the globe when they released “Take On Me” as the lead single from their debut album, Hunting High and Low, in 1985. However, the version on the album wasn’t the original. A-Ha had cut the original back in 1984 and released it without an album ready at the time. While still maintaining the same basic feel, it definitely wasn’t as polished as the version we all know and love. And the video was certainly not ground breaking in the least bit. If this had been released in the US and was the only version, I’m pretty sure you’d never know the name today.

“Take On Me” (Original)

So I’m not saying at all that this version is bad but it’s not the re-recorded slick version, nor does the video stand out in any way. Funny though, is that the version we know is actually the third release of the song. They had rushed the original version out in Norway and the UK but it still charted very low and then went back in and recorded it after signing a record deal. Then they released it again and it didn’t chart at all. 1985 must have been a different time though because Warner Bros. believed so heavily in the song that it then spent the money to record the video we all know and love which to this day is still pretty amazing.

“Take on Me”

The single went to #1 in eight countries, sold over 9 million copies and make the group superstars. And I guess these things can go one of two ways – something this strong can make you a success for years / decades, or you have set the bar so high that everything else pales in comparison. In the US at least, it seems like the latter happened for A-Ha.

In their native Norway, they’ve had nine #1 songs and another ten top 10 hits. In the UK, “Take On Me” hit #2 and in fact, the third single from the record “The Sun Always Shines on TV” was their only #1 there. Outside of the US, “Love is the Reason” was the second single, while it was the aformentioned UK #1 here in the US.

“The Sun Always Shines on T.V.” is a pretty solid, upbeat new wave tune. Maybe not as great as “Take on Me” but definitely the right choice for the second single. “Train of Thought really should have been the other big hit from the record and would have made a nice 1-2 single punch at the start of the disc but alas, it didn’t get a lot of promotion in the US despite going back to the same general concept for the video as “Take On Me” had.

“Train of Thought”

The band released a follow up a little over a year later, called Scoundrel Days. Though I can understand why it wasn’t a big hit in the US, it was the better of the two albums. However, it didn’t have that immediate in-your-face single anywhere on the disc, least not as the opening track to set the tone for the release. That said, the opening two tracks are fantastic but kind of dark and moody. The title track opens the disc with a mellower, dark & edgy tone. Then “The Swing of Things” has a brilliant synth arrangement where the song goes from upbeat and catchy back to some of the same moodiness of the opening track.

A-ha, “The Swing of Things”

The first single was “I’ve Been Losing You,” which is a pretty great, upbeat synth pop track, while the second single “Cry Wolf” was the dance track on the record and ended up being the only Billboard Hot 100 single from the disc, peaking at #50.

“Cry Wolf”

This proved to be the peak of their output though. The gorgeous title track and the James Bond theme, “The Living Daylights” are the highlights from their third album, Stay On These Roads, however, by this point, the quality ideas seem to be running thin. This record sounded basically like an attempt to recreate the second disc but with lesser quality songs. After all, a song like “Touchy!” should have never seen the light of day.

“Touchy!”

In most countries around the world, they continued to have hits off future records, however out of Norway, their stock dropped quite a bit from this point forward. After releasing two almost adult contemporary albums in the early 90s, getting back together to release Minor Earth Major Sky in 2000. However, this and their next two albums wouldn’t even be released in the US at all, with WB and then Universal choosing to put their focus oversees. It wasn’t until 2009 that the US would see a new release from them, with Foot of the Mountain reverting back to their synth pop roots with pretty wonderful results that could have fit somewhere between Depeche Mode and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” had it had some radio backing.

“What There Is”

And finally, their 2015 record – Cast In Steel – is also a pretty wonderful record, a bit more subtle and grown up pop than the previous record, sort of reminding me of the turn Duran Duran took on the Wedding Album that brought them back into prominence again. That certainly didn’t happen in the US but the material they have made in the last decade is likely the best of their career.

Verdict: One-hit wonder status rejected. Firstly, “The Sun Always Shines on TV” hit #20 on the Billboard Hot 100, so that should cover it right there. But the reality is that the US really shot blanks on this one with some great tracks over the years, simply being ignored. It’s also a shame they don’t have a following in the US beyond those nostalgic for the 80s, as the last two records are great and should have had a chance to thrust them back into the spotlight for a moment or two.