Friday, August 16, 2013

turning Jam-anese

 "Turning Japanese" by the Vapors is by any measure a minor tune of its era. A huge hit  in the UK (Number 3 in 1980) ... something of a radio perennial in the States, on a certain kind of oldies station anyway...  partly from being a minor Billboard hit at the time (number 36) but also its popularity on MTV as a video several years after it came and went (just like the band's career) in the UK.

I liked it at the time, same as I liked things by the Rezillos or Blondie or The Cars or Martha & the Muffins ... even the odd thing by the Boomtown Rats... but I'd never have thought of buying it. 

Hearing "Japanese" it on the radio the other day I was struck by how fresh it sounded, still... and thought about how it was part of this giant wave of freshness at that time - i.e. the New Wave  .... the sense of an all-change that swept over the radio and the charts, that made the Old Wave sound old, and also worried some Old Wavers enough to try to young up their sound a bit

guitar-bass-drums - the standard rock line-up - but "Turning Japanese" doesn't sound like the Sixties or the pre-punk Seventies

the bass is prominent, loping... the guitar, not quite "angular" or "jagged" but definitely not based in blues-derived hard rock, a world away from contemporaries like AC/DC, who were aggressive and thrilling and stripped-down and irreverent and even had punkoid lyrics ("Problem Child", "TNT") but were very much an extension of the Old Wave....  That was how you differentiated New Wave (a break) from Heavy Metal  / Hard Rock (a continuation), i.e. the disappearance of raunch from the music,  the replacement of  "feel' and "swing" with a jumpy exuberance and choppiness.

At the time Vapors were regarded as imitators of The Jam, another group who eliminated
feel/swing/groove from their music (only to attempt disastrously to reinject it at a later stage - "Precious", ugh!)

And they shared the same producer - the disconcertingly named  Vic Coppersmith-Heaven

It's audible on much of New Clear Days the debut Vapors album but I don't hear Jam-iness at all on "Turning Japanese".... if anything I hear maybe just a tiny trace of "Hong Kong Garden" (another Polydor act)

But then The Jam sound itself -- at its prime, i.e. after the shaky start but before they got into direct pomo-referentiality and recycling with "Start"/"Town Called Malice"/"Absolute Beginners" -- is itself  a break from Sixties/pre-punk Seventies

the ideology and the look is mod, but the run of  great tunes from "Down in the Tube Stations At Midnight" via "Eton Rifles" and "Pretty Green" to "Funeral Pyre" -- rarely sound Sixties-evoking or even Sixties-invoking

What, in the actual 1960s, sounded anything like "Going Underground"?

What an odd tune it is, in its arrangement and production! Jerky, fussy (yet pared down), agitated, an epic flail

I don't know if I even like it...  at the time I never bought it (the only Jam record I actually bought was "Down in the Tube Station". I found, and find still, something resolutely non-magnetic about Weller as a character, on recordings and in real life).  I don't know what "Going Underground" is "about", never did ...  But I recognise its originality, its invention, its force on the radio.

Okay, The Who is in there, somewhere.... but the Who were explosive, the Jam implosive

Rock music (is it even really rock music? it's certainly got no 'n' roll to it... it's more like jacked-up-on-neurosis guitar-pop) at its most uptight, repressed.  Its most English, in fact.

1 comment:

  1. Also, the Vapors were managed by Jam bassist Bruce Foxton and Paul Weller's father.