Turning Japanese

OHW Turning Japanese by krin.jpg

Date Aired
September 1, 2015
Running Time
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Todd plays "You're Beautiful" on the piano

A one-hit wonder retrospective

Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we take a look at bands and artists known for only one song. And today, I get to the final request of the four I sold on Patreon. It's been fun doing these. I might do this again. Next time, I'm gonna auction them off or something; these things sold out quick. Now, as you might recall...

Clip of "Killing in the Name" by...

Todd (VO): ...our last requester wanted me to cover Rage Against the Machine because they actually are sort of one-hit wonders in the UK. But as an American, I told him I couldn't work with that.

Todd: So eventually, he sent me a better request.

Video for "You're Beautiful"
James: My life is brilliant

Todd (VO): That's right. Today, we are looking at one of the newest one-hit wonders I've ever covered. Yes, we're going back to the recent past to cover the biggest one-hit wonder of 2006. Writer of one of the all-time wispy, willowy WIGWAG acoustic hits, one James Blunt, who burst onto the scene... [Cut off by text chime]

Todd: [checking phone] Hold on, he just messaged me something. [Reads the message, the gist of it being...] "Hope you didn't decide James Blunt...blah, blah, blah...change my request...blah, blah, blah...Turning Japanese by the Vapours. [sic]" Oh, thank Christ!

Todd plays the Oriental riff from...

A one-hit wonder retrospective

Video for "Turning Japanese"
Vapors: Turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so
[Todd plays the actual song]
Turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so

Todd: Welcome back back to One Hit Wonderland, and friends, it's been too long since we had a good old '80s New Wave act on this show.

Todd (VO): While I have affection for all such one-hit wonders, this is one of the best of the lot, and also one of the silliest. It's frankly the definition of a novelty song. It's almost like they knew they'd have a short career.

Todd: They named themselves [album cover] the Vapors. They were like wisps of air that briefly registered, then vanished without a trace.

Todd (VO): But even if they quickly evaporated, their song has not. "Turning Japanese", alongside [clips of Gary Numan's...] "Cars" and [...and the Buggles'...] "Video Killed the Radio Star", was one of the first of the big one-hit wonders of the '80s.

Todd: Or the '80. 1980 specifically.

Todd (VO): And keep in mind, 1980 is actually a terrible year for pop music.

Clip of Air Supply - "All Out of Love"
Russell Hitchcock: I'm all out of love
I'm so lost without you

Todd: There wasn't much room for Vapors in all the Air Supply we had.

Todd (VO): But that year also produced a number of goofy fluke singles which would set the stage for the entire decade to come. I mean, seriously, this video is basically what you think of when you imagine a generic '80s music video.

Todd: So come with me, won't you, as we explore this odd little number and its connection to the dawn of a genre, to vaguely understood Eastern culture, and to oblique references to touching yourself. Let's begin. [beat] Man, I did not want to do that James Blunt one.

Vapors: Turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so

Before the hit

Todd: Okay, so, there's this band I really like called The Jam.

Clip of The Jam - "Going Underground"
The Jam: I'm going underground
Going underground

Todd (VO): They were a punk band...or a post-punk band, it's fuzzy. They were kind of like the Clash, except a tiny bit more mainstream and accessible.

Todd: And yet the Clash were the ones that crossed over into America.

Clip of Top of the Pops performance of "Down in the Tube Station at Midnight"

Todd (VO): Yeah, they're definitely a music geek's band, at least in this country. I can't think of a reason your average person would've ever heard of them.

Todd: But they were very popular in the UK. Several #1 hits.

Todd (VO): My favorite album from them is [covers of...] Sound Affects, but a lot of people also really like their 1977 album In the City.

Todd: And they...I'm getting off-topic, aren't I? It's just, they were a really good band, I'm a huge fan. The Jam are relevant to this story because they're the ones who discovered the Vapors.

Promo pic of the Vapors

Todd (VO): The Vapors had been opening for a bunch of UK punk acts, and [pictures of Bruce Foxton...] the Jam's bass player caught one of their shows with [...and John Weller] his manager (also lead singer's dad), and they were both like, "man, we've gotta sign these guys. Maybe we should manage 'em."

Clip of televised Vapors performance

Todd (VO): And this was in 1979, so punk was quickly turning into New Wave, and the Vapors were kinda right in between there.

Todd: So The Jam's manager started managing them, and they got signed, [album cover of Clear New Days] they recorded an album which, of course, [single cover] included "Turning Japanese". And once everyone heard it, they were like, "guys, this is perfect, this is gonna be an instant hit." But...

Clip of interview

Todd (VO): ...their lead singer Dave Fenton apparently realized, eh, it's not realized the kind...

Todd: ...of song you want to make your first impression with; you might end up a one-hit wonder. Can't have that. So they released this instead.

Clip of "Prisoners"

Todd (VO): I like this. It's nerdy, edgy, like most good post-punk.

Todd: But I've also heard a billion songs like it, especially from [promo pic of...] The Jam, who the Vapors did, in fact, sound a lot like. Hey, Dave, you know what would make a better single?

The big hit

Video for "Turning Japanese"

Todd: Does anyone know where that Asian riff comes from? You know, [hums the riff]. Tried to look it up and no one seems to have a good answer.

Vapors: I got your picture

Todd (VO): "Turning Japanese" is good because of two reasons. First, that guitar work is just awesome.

Guitar solo, which Todd does in air

I love every little riff of this song. But secondly, there's the chorus.

Vapors: Turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so

Todd (VO): It just grabs you 'cause...well, what does he mean? What the hell's he talking about?

Todd: Some kind of [picture of...] Rachel Dolezal thing where he decided to change races?

Vapors: Turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so

Todd: As Gregor Samsa awoke one day, he found himself transformed into a Japanese person. I don't know.

Todd (VO): I mean, certainly, I know plenty of people who would love [picture of cosplayer dressed as Sailor Moon] to turn Japanese...

Todd: ...but I think Japanophilia was a little different back then.

Todd (VO): Back then, people associated Japan with historical stuff like samurais and [picture of...] cheap electronics.

Dave Fenton: I sit there staring and there's nothing else to do

Todd (VO): So what does it mean? Well, you probably already heard this one. It's one of the most persistent rumors in pop music history, that this song is about...

Todd: ...masturbation. "Turning Japanese" is about jerking off. [long pause] How?

Vapors: I often kiss you when there's no one else around

Todd (VO): I've heard a number of theories about how this is supposed to make sense, like your [picture of man with...] eyes go squinty as you climax.

Todd: You know, as you finish, squinting your eyes...you can't see my eyes. I'm squinting, trust me.

Todd (VO): Or...maybe Dave Fenton was ahead of the curve, and realized that someday, Japan would be [two hentai images] very well-known for its pornography.

Todd: Yeah, Japan and masturbation go hand-in-hand. Something in hand.

Todd (VO): Look, I'm not gonna indulge this any further. It's not true. It's not what this song's about. The band has always, always denied it.

Todd: But I can see why that theory would at least be plausible if you heard it.

Todd (VO): Okay, first off, he's British [Keep Calm and Bob's Your Uncle] God knows what the hell they're talking about half the time anyway. Secondly, it was the '80s. The '80s had a lot of songs that sounded like they were about some self-lovin'.

Clips of...
Billy Idol: Dancin' with myself
...Billy Squier - "The Stroke"...
Billy: Stroke me, stroke me
...Devo - "Whip It"...
Devo: Whip it good
...38 Special - "Hold On Loosely"...
Don Barnes: Just hold on loosely
Michael Jackson: Just beat it, beat it, beat it, beat it

Todd: So there was that.

Todd (VO): Also, the song is, at the very least, definitely about being lonely and bored.

Dave: No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women, no fun, no sin

Todd (VO): He's literally got nothing to do, except he's got a picture.

Todd: I know what I'd spend most of my time doing in that situation. I mean, no, I don't. Anyway.

Dave: I want the doctor
To take your picture
So I can look at you from inside as well

Todd: Boy, that line sure sounds a lot pervier when you think it's about wanking off.

Todd (VO): See, the thing is, if "Turning Japanese" doesn't mean touching yourself, then what the hell could it possibly mean? I've been following pop music for a long time, and I have never, ever in my life seen an adequate explanation for where "Turning Japanese" even comes from. According to Fenton, it doesn't have anything to do with Japan even.

Dave: I got your picture

Todd: Okay, well, it clearly has something to do with Japan! [imitates riff]

Todd (VO): Regardless, it hits that perfect note of catchy and energetic and just weird enough to stick in people's brains. It was big in England, decently successful in America, and absolutely huge in Australia for some reason.

Todd: Wasn't big in Japan, though. Wonder what they think of that song over there.

Todd (VO): They went on several tours in America and Australia, and then after they had turned Japanese,...

Todd: ...they turned into a puff of smoke and disappered. Poof.

The failed follow-up

Todd: The Vapors' first album was released in July 1980. The Vapors broke up in August 1981. 13 months. Dragonflies live longer than their career lasted.

Video for "Waiting for the Weekend"

Todd (VO): Having read the full biography for the Vapors, I have to say this is the first time I'm covering a band whose story really resembles [promo pic of...] That Thing You Do, the ultimate one-hit wonder story. I mean they got signed, got a hit, and flamed out really quickly, not because of a specific reason, but just a whole bunch of things that landed on them at once.

Vapors: And every day I dream my life away,
Just waiting for the weekend.

Todd (VO): I listened to both their albums, and this is actually a really solid underrated band. I mean, listen to this. It's pretty cool, right? I like it.

Todd: But this band was pretty much doomed.

Todd (VO): First off, their first hit was "Turning Japanese". That's not a song that changes your life when you're in high school. Secondly, most of their other stuff was not as silly as "Turning Japanese", so if you did want to hear more, you'd probably be disappointed.

Todd: And then there are a billion other things; just a perfect storm of bad luck.

Clip of performance on Top of the Pops

Todd (VO): First off, they were overshadowed by that other, better, bigger band they were closely associated with.

Todd: Also, there's that old standby, screwed by the label. [Logos for United Artists Records...] Their label got swallowed by that British music behemoth [...and...] EMI, so they immediately got lost in the shuffle. [Pictures from...] And the musicians' union went on strike around that time, so they couldn't go promote themselves for a while. [Picture of performance] They were too busy touring to have time to write. At the same time, the manager was like, "look, I have to focus on managing [footage of...] The Jam." I like to imagine them calling up The Jam like, "hey, wanna hang out?" They're like, "oh, I'm kinda busy right now, Vapors. Maybe we'll hang out later, you know, some other time. Call me."

Video for "Jimmie Jones"
Dave: Do you wanna feel good, Do you wanna feel anything

Todd (VO): Anyway, they did keep it together long enough to record a second album, and I guess Fenton was kinda worried about looking like a joke band, so the lead single off their second album was this. It's called "Jimmie Jones".

Dave: He's got a mission in life, A thousand lives to lead
Do you wanna take his hand and come into the garden with me

Todd (VO): Sounds peppy, right? Uh, no, it's about [pictures of...] the reverend Jim Jones, the cult leader who murdered all his followers with poisoned Kool-Aid.

Todd: Not really something you'd expect the "Turning Japanese" band to start writing about.

Vapors: Jimmie's got a place for me

Todd (VO): They also tried an image change—went from the standard punk outfit of skinny jeans and t-shirts to these silly, frilly blouse things. Not a great look. Oh, and the band hated each other, too, so that didn't help.

Todd: Also, they got [pictures of...] hit by meteors, and their Stonehenge set was too small, and there was probably a Yoko in there somewhere. Like I said, just everything all at once. So, [snaps fingers] that was it.

Did they ever do anything else?

Todd: Now hold on, this is great.

Todd (VO): Now, the rest of the band all, you know, got real jobs, and Fenton released one obscure solo record, tried to start a bunch of other bands, none of which ever got anywhere or released anything. He kicked around for a decade, had various odd musical jobs, you know, songwriting, producing.

Todd: But eventually, when you're a failed pop singer, there's only one real option for you—you go into law!

Picture of older Dave Fenton

Todd (VO): Yeah, not kidding. He's a lawyer now, an actual suit-and-tie lawyer who does law things.

Todd: All right, excuse me, a [with accent] solicitor. Specifically, he is...

Clip from The Music Industry - The Musician's Union by Instant Melodies with the Night Court theme playing in the background

Todd (VO): ...the in-house counsel of the UK Musicians' Union. He apparently doesn't hold the strike in 1980 against them. So, you know, that's what he does now, helpin' out the little guy, getting poor, broke garage bands out of their bullshit slave contracts that greedy record execs force on them. Isn't that cool?

Todd: You know what I want? I want a TV show for this guy.

Separate clips of Fenton

Todd (VO): Think about it, it could be like this LA Law kind of thing with this ex-pop singer-turned-lawyer taking cases, dealing with fallout from his rock star past.

Todd: It could star James Spader. Seriously, if any producers want to take a go at it, I really think you should. Give me credit, though.

Did they deserve better?

Todd: Yes, yes, I really think so.

Todd (VO): Or how about this—they deserved the opportunity to see if they deserved better. No, seriously, they hold up. My life is definitely a tiny bit better because I listened to them. So, if you wanna hear where punk started turning into New Wave, you could really do worse. Good band.

Todd: And if you get the chance, you should really check out The Jam. Seriously, check out "Town Called Malice" or "That's Entertainment", "Beat Surrender"...I'm done.

Gets up and leaves

Video ends

Closing tag song: No Use for a Name - "Turning Japanese"

"Turning Japanese" is owned by United Artists Media
This video is owned by me


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