Photographic Memories

Now that we’ve turned the corner from Sunday to Monday, a bit of British cheer seems in order. Not that the first one of these songs is really all that cheery. It’s actually a missing you/breakup/can’t live without you song that for various reasons has all but slipped from its original subject and into something quite different than even the unchanged lyrics intended.

In 1971, in the first year after the breakup of The Beatles, Ringo had already had a successful run at the sales charts with the single “Don’t Come Easy” which reached number 4 in the U.S. and England, even being scored as a number one on Cashbox. But even with that success, most in the radio and music industry didn’t really take Ringo all that seriously.

Two years later, when “Photograph” was released and headed straight to number one on both sides of the Atlantic — followed shortly by the silly but charming “You’re Sixteen,” which did the exact same thing — Ringo finally began to be looked at as a serious solo artist. 

Unfortunately, this was the time in Ringo’s life when he was living the “rock star life” of partying and drinking all the time — with The Who’s drummer Keith Moon being one of his regular accomplices – so after a few short years of questionable performances and terrible song choices, Ringo slipped back into being considered a nice guy buy kind of a polite joke. It’s something that’s never really left him, and it’s a shame. In those short years of real solo success, Ringo racked up six consecutive top ten singles. That’s more than John Lennon or George Harrison and only two less than Paul McCartney. If that’s not credible, I don’t know what is.

After Starr’s record sales slipped away into oblivion, he created Ringo Starr and His All-Starr Band, which has become one of the most enjoyable regular touring acts around. At any particular show you might have Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Jeff Lynne, Clarence Clemons, or even Bob Dylan on occasion joining Ringo as they perform his hits and anything else that may come up, depending on who is in the lineup for that night.

In November 2002 at The Concert for George, Ringo closed his set at the memorial concert for his old bandmate and friend George Harrison with “Photograph,” which they’d written together nearly 30 years before.

It was a perfect way to say goodbye…

I can’t get used to living here
While my heart is broke,
My tears I cried for you.

I want you here to have and hold
Aas the years go by
And we grow old and gray.

Since that moment, there has been an almost defiant optimism attached to “Photograph” when Ringo performs — it in complete disregard of the actual lyrics. Quite amazing. And quite a tribute to Ringo — and George.

And now – as Monty Python would say – it’s time for something completely different…

The Vapors were one of the many New Wave acts that were popping up all over in the late 70′s and early 80′s, that strange few years when punk and disco had traveled their odd paths from influence to irrelevance, leaving popular music with a short void in which nearly anything and everything really did have a legitimate chance at becoming a hit. And “Turning Japanese” was a hit. It never reached number one but was a very respectable number three in the U.S. and is all but the definition of New Wave music.

The members of The Vapors felt they had a hit on their hands and insisted that “Turning Japanese” be released as the second single from their album New Clear Days, as they didn’t want to be a “one hit wonder.” For once the record company complied, and The Vapors had their hit. As you probably already know, the “one hit” strategy didn’t work out so well; The Vapors broke up in 1981 after they felt their second release didn’t get any support from the record company. They were probably right.

It’s easy to pass off “Turning Japanese” as a novelty record, which, of course, it is on the surface. Starting with the oriental-motif guitar line as the intro certainly gets your attention, in that “Did they really do that?” kind of way.

The speculation when “Turning Japanese” was released in 1980 was that it was a sly reference to masturbation.

I’ve got your picture of me and you
You wrote “I love you” I wrote “me too”
I sit there staring and there’s nothing else to do
Oh it’s in color
Your hair is brown
Your eyes are hazel
And soft as clouds
I often kiss you when there’s no one else around

Perhaps I’m dull or something, but even at the time it was released I never thought that. Not that I spent much time wondering about the important and complex meaning of a song called “Turning Japanese” anyway. I always thought it was more about an obsessive lover. The kind of guy who has pictures of — in those days — Pat Benatar all over his room and only wears Pat Benatar T-shirts to school or a girl with the same kind of obsession for Robert Plant. The really annoying ones, who can’t have a conversation about anything else.

No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women
No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it’s dark
Everyone around me is a total stranger
Everyone avoids me like a Cyclone Ranger

Lead singer and songwriter David Fenton maintains that “Turning Japanese” is about “all the clichés about angst and youth and turning into something you didn’t expect to.” Fair enough.

Fenton delivers his performance with a good bit of edge to it, never going fully into the campyness that is displayed in the video, and Steve Smith’s bass moves right along with the feel of a locomotive, driving the whole thing forward. Howard Smith on drums is solid if not flashy, but that suits the song perfectly — it doesn’t really need much beyond the basics, and it’s a sign of good musicianship that he doesn’t try to overdo it. Edward Bazelgette’s guitars are quite cool and relaxed as his puts his Asian spin on his riff from the intro all the way through. And he puts some slick little runs in here and there that are quite playful, fitting the general goofiness of the song. 

All in all, a fun song that has aged remarkably well, coming from such a brief time in popular music.

About Pete

Pete is a professional-musician-with-a-day-job based in California's Inland Empire, as well as a veteran sound engineer in the studio and for live shows. He's been a lover of classic rock since back when it was known as "rock" and has in more recent years developed a country habit as well.
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One Response to Photographic Memories

  1. Michele says:

    I really enjoyed Photograph and it’s a great, light-hearted (seemingly) song, but I guess that’s what tributes are about, remembering the good times and all the joy they brought. I’m not sold on the speculation that Turning Japanese is sly reference to masturbation, especially not with little tidbits like “No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it’s dark”. I’m more in favor of the obsessive lover/fan idea, it makes much more sense.

    Great pair of songs Pete!