Rational Youth – Photo by Moira Law (2017)
When Rational Youth’s Tracy Howe met China Crisis leader Gary Daly backstage at Belgium’s W Festival in August, they reminisced about a previous billing together at Toronto’s Kingswood Amphitheatre back in 1983.
“We’ll be returning to Toronto to play a gig there in January”, noted Daly. “So will we” concurred Howe. Only to realize the following day that both bands were booked for the same gig! Saturday, January 25th at the Revival Event Centre as part of Ed Sousa’s charity foundation for Ronald MacDonald House.
The two bands; Rational Youth (comprising of Howe and his wife Gaenor) and China Crisis (Daly and partner Eddie Lundon) will also appear together Sunday January 26th at Sousa’s popular Rock N Roll Bowl Intimate And Interactive event at Mississauga’s Classic Bowl venue where the two bands will participate in an intimate performance/ question and answer session before a select audience of just 100 spectators.
Talking on the phone from his residence near Cornwall Ontario, Howe is actively promoting the re-packaged, re-release of `Cold War Night Life’ Rational Youth’s seminal 1982 recording which earned the distinction of being the first domestic new wave synth recording. A recording that proved to be a ground-breaking effort for future Canadian new wave bands and proved to be the top-selling independent domestic release.
But as influential as `Cold War Night Life’ proved to be, Howe is aware that the full commercial potential of that record was never fully realized once the band ended their relationship with Montreal independent label YUL and signed with Capitol Records Canada in 1983.
“The reality is that Capitol Records didn’t have a clue about that first album. We were signed at a time when all the major Canadian labels wanted their own Duran Duran. WEA signed Images In Vogue, RCA signed Dark Room… The problem was, once Capitol did sign us, they had no idea what to do with us,” mused Howe. “They were culturally and blissfully unaware that they had this little record. If they had just got behind the marketing of that album and promoted it internationally, it would have been extremely successful, but they either just forgot about it or they just didn’t want anyone else to have it.”
As a result, band co-founder Bill Vorn left to establish an esteemed academic future as associate dean of fine arts at Montreal’s Concordia University and by the time Rational Youth got around to recording their debut album for Capitol, “Heredity” in 1985, the band had been reduced to a solo performer, Howe, who recorded the release with a group of session players including Loverboy bassist Ken `Spider’ Sinnaeve and Klaatu’s Dee Long who helped produce the release.
Fast forward 13 years and due to online pressure by fans who were still influenced by that seminal release, Capitol Records were pressured into re-releasing `Cold War Night Life. “In the 1990s when the internet came along, we realized we still had quite a following, especially in Europe and Scandinavia and a campaign was launched to re-release the record on CD which they did in 1998.”
The fortunes of this release took a further upturn after Universal Music Group acquired the EMI Music Group (including Capitol Records Canada) in September 2012. As Universal Music Canada started to sift through their newly-acquired library, they hit upon re-mastering and re-releasing past catalogue and Cold War Night Life was one of the releases which came to the attention of Ivar Hamilton, VP of catalogue marketing with the label.
In another life, Hamilton was a deejay at Toronto’s influential new music radio station, CFNY, which used to play the hell out of `Cold War Night Life’. When Hamilton learned a third-party had approached Universal about licensing the record for a re-release, he felt it was better if Universal did it themselves.
“They had just started issuing deluxe re-releases of albums by The Pursuit Of Happiness and Teenage Head (the label’s Music Vaultz series) so Ivar agreed to put out ours as well,” enthused Howe. “Ivar spearheaded the entire project, he had a vision and an affection for the record. He wanted to make our re-release special and he gave me virtually everything I asked for. He made it a double album vinyl release with one side featuring the original tracks and the second side of extended and live versions. I asked for clear vinyl, we got that and we also got pictures and album notes, everything I asked for, he just said `Yes”.
What was really important to Howe was that the re-release be remastered properly. “I always thought that the original album sounded a little thin. When you played the original on a stereo it sounded wimpy! A lot of people liked the original but I didn’t think it sounded right. But now with all these analog compressors, the final record is finished and it sounds like magic, it’s a beautiful re-issue.”
So what was the fuss about the original recording and why was the 1982 release such a pivotal achievement?
“When Bill and I started to work together it was an exciting time for us,” Howe reflected. “European synth bands like OMD, China Crisis and Kraftwerk were big at the time, and our manager Marc Demouy was in the music importing business, so we knew all about these bands.”
The band, originally comprised of Howe, Vorn and keyboardist Mark Spezza formed in the summer of 1981 and released their debut single “I Want To See The Light” on their manager’s independent YUL label, the band’s second-ever gig saw them open in Montreal for Orchestral Manoeuvers In The Dark.
Spezza soon replaced on keyboards by Kevin Komoda and with Rational Youth set about recording with synthesizers and drum machines which were totally endemic to the recording process at that time. “Music industry people would hear us recording with drum machines and just naturally assumed we had recorded a demo. They couldn’t relate to the idea this was a finished record.”
The controversial lyrical theme of Cold War Night Life was focused on the cold war between Russia and the USA in 1982. “It was at a time when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and there was a lot of bellicose rhetoric being tossed around about nuclear warfare, it was like a Doomsday Clock was ticking down,” explained Howe.
“I was also influenced by Michael Caine’s Harry Palmer/Ipcress Files movies at that time and the movie soundtracks scored by John Barry. I wanted to record something like that.”
As a result, Howe created songs like “Saturday In Silesia”, “City Of Light” and “Dancing On The Berlin Wall” lyrics that were symbolic about how young people could still enjoy themselves during difficult times,” he explained. “Dancing On The Berlin Wall was written totally tongue in cheek, it was considered total absurd that such a thing could possibly happen. But when it did, (in December 1989), European distributors pumped that single out like crazy.”
By his own admission, Howe couldn’t possibly replicate the rawness and enthusiasm of that debut indie release. By the time `Heredity’ came out, he was virtually a solo performer, he reformed a new version of Rational Youth in 1999 with Jean Claude Cutz and Dave Rout to record the independent ‘To The Goddess Electricity’ which allowed them to tour Europe and subsequently Howe reunited with Vorn to re-record the single, “Dancing On The Berlin Wall” in 2009 for the 20th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Since then, RY released a rarities compilation ‘Magic Box’ in 2013, teamed with Edmonton’s Psyche band to cover AC/DC’s Thunderstruck and in 2016 issued a new EP on Artifact Records titled `Future Past Tense’.
With Rational Youth now comprised of just Howe and his wife Gaenor, the duo has been touring steadily for the past four years with several trips to Europe and South America. They now have a re-packaged version of `Cold War Night Life’ to sell at their merchandise tables and Howe is thrilled that his seminal work has been given a new lease on life.
“I had a record reviewer in Scandinavia say that “To The Goddess Electricity” was okay but it wasn’t “a tower of glory “ reflected Howe. “So I guess my next task is to do something better, reach in and pull something out. That is my next challenge.”
Ticket inquiries for the China Crisis/Rational Youth concert Saturday, January 25th at the Revival Club in Toronto can be made to https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/china-crisis-tickets-70226319813?aff=ebdssbeac
Interview Above By Keith Sharp
More About Rational Youth
New wave pioneers Rational Youth Present Deluxe Edition of Seminal ‘Cold War Night Life’ LP via Universal Music
From beginning to end, this album is brilliant, with wonderful songs played with emotion on synthesizers. Danceable, melodic, futuristic (for its time), and overall, a treat” – All Music
New wave pioneers Rational Youth are releasing a deluxe expanded and remastered edition of their seminal 1982 debut album ‘Cold War Night Life’ on both CD and double gatefold vinyl. This special edition is being issued via Universal Music Canada, the country’s leading music company.
This extended version is now available as a double LP on translucent vinyl and is also streamable on Spotify and other digital platforms. Now it is being made available on CD. This expanded reissue features extensive liner notes, testimonials, and rare photos from the band’s personal archives. It also includes both the original 1982 album tracks and all of the related original extended remixes and singles.
When ‘Cold War Night Life’ was originally released in 1982, it was one of the first all-synth pop albums released in Canada. It became one of the biggest-selling Canadian independent albums at the time. The album was also distributed overseas, even making the Top Ten on Polish State Radio, despite the fact that Poland was still behind the Iron Curtain. It charted on college radio across Canada and made inroads into commercial radio, particularly in Quebec, where the French version of‘City of Night’ (‘Cité Phosphore’) went Top Ten.
Later, when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the track ‘Dancing on the Berlin Wall’ was re-released as a single across Europe, spreading like wildfire.
The cult following for ‘Cold War Night Life’ has remained steady over the years, with many contemporary synth bands citing it as a seminal influence, including hugely popular artists like Italy’s Frozen Autumn, Sweden’s Covenant, Germany’s Psyche and Australia’s Parallox.
“The most remarkable thing about making this album, from a historical perspective, was the fact that we were making an all-synthesizer pop album, and in Montreal in 1981-82 that was pretty new,” says Tracy Howe.
“A lot of our arrangements and all the synth sounds were worked out at home and sequenced, so when we got to the studio we would set all the synths up and patch everything, tell the engineer to put machine in record and roll the tape, we’d start the MC-4 MicroComposer and half a song would instantly go to tape. The rock and roll engineers we had were kind of stunned by this, and by the fact that we were using a drum machine (a Roland TR-808, one of the first on Canadian shores).”
Rational Youth was formed in 1981 in Montreal, Quebec by Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn, both of whom idolized Kraftwerk. Considered one of Canada’s first synthpop groups, their second gig saw them opening forOrchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. After releasing their first single ‘I Want To See The Light’ in 1981 for YUL Records, an independent label established by Marc de Mouy and Pat Deserio, Howe and Vorn were joined by Kevin Komoda.
Following Vorn’s departure in 1983, the group — now consisting of Howe (vocals, keyboards, guitars), Komoda (keyboards), Denis Duran (bass) and Angel Calvo (drums) — was signed to Capitol Records and released their eponymous EP that year. This was followed by the 1985 release of the ‘Heredity’ LP, produced by Howe and Dee Long, with three charting singles. Howe released it as the sole remaining member.
After retiring the project in 1986, continued interest led to a 1997 CD reissue of ‘Cold War Night Life’ and a reunion concert for Howe and Vorn in Sweden. In 1999, Rational Youth, with Howe joined by keyboardists Jean-Claude Cutz and Dave Rout, released ‘To the Goddess Electricity’, the first LP in 14 years, on Sweden’s October label. The trio toured Scandinavia until playing their final concert at the 2001 Tinitus Festival in Stockholm.
Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn united again in 2009 at the initiative of Marc Demouy, recording a new version of their 1982 track ‘Dancing On The Berlin Wall’ in honour of the twentieth anniversary of the wall’s dismantling. In 2010, it was issued as an EP by YUL Records on CD, followed by 2011’s ‘City Of Night /Cite Phosphore’ EP on CD, consisting of re-recordings of this early single plus remixed versions of the original recording.
In 2016, Rational Youth (now consisting of Tracy and Gaenor Howe), released the ‘Future Past Tense’ EP through Artoffact Records. That year, they appeared on the ‘Heresy’ compilation, released by the Cold War Night Life label. A play on the title ‘Heredity’, this album also featured covers of Rational Youth tracks by 18 artists from various countries, including former bandmates Dave Rout and Kevin Komoda.
Rational Youth have two upcoming shows with China Crisis – on Jan. 25 at Toronto’s Revival Bar and Jan. 26 at Mississauga’s Classic Bowl. The latter is already sold out, but tickets for the first show can be obtained at http://bit.ly/2NOZKCP. Fans can look forward to further European dates in early 2020.
01. Close To Nature
02. Beware The Fly
03. Saturdays in Silesia
04. Just A Sound In The Night
05. Le Meilleur Des Mondes
06. Ring The Bells
07. City Of Night
08. Dancing On The Berlin Wall
09. Power Zone
10. Coboloid Race
11. Cité Phosphore
12. Saturdays in Silesia (Extended Version)
13. City Of Night (Danse Mix)
14. I Want To See The Light
Jan. 25 Toronto – Revival Bar (with China Crisis and Slave to the SQUAREwave)
Jan. 26 Mississauga – Classic Bowl (with China Crisis) SOLD OUT