Rational Youth’s 1982 full length debut “Cold war night life,” released by the fiercely independent YUL records exactly 34 years ago this month, was Canada’s first purely synth-pop release. The album stands in contrast with the more experimental impulses and synth abstractions of countrymen Ceramic Hello and IKO while also serving as the most accessible and commercially viable release of the genre. “Cold War night life” is Canada’s quintessential synth pop album rubbing shoulders with classic releases by European juggernauts such as Kraftwerk’s “Computer World” (1981), Fad Gadget’s “Under the Flag” (1982), and Human League’s “Dare” (1981). A substantial amount of the album’s 20,000 units were sold in Europe, making it one of the nation’s largest selling independent releases.
Despite the band’s Montreal origins, Rational Youth’s European connection remained significant. The band’s formation corresponded with the abrupt changes and experimentation that was taking place in the European new wave subculture at the beginning of the ‘80s. Rational Youth co-founder Tracy Howe’s music career began as the vocalist and drummer of various Montreal punk and new wave acts including The Normals and Heaven Seventeen, who were widely credited as being one of the first punk groups to incorporate synthesizers into their sound. Howe met University of Toronto student and fellow synth enthusiast Bill Vorn in the summer of 1981 and together the pair formed Rational Youth, allegedly taking their name from Canada’s National Youth Orchestra. In contrast to the long-standing tradition of the nations’ premier classical institution, the two were en route to consolidate new generic sounds and conventions in pop music. Vorn and Howe, just like their European peers across the pond, belonged to a generation of musicians who were racing to pawn their electric guitars for synthesizers and drum machines.
Tracy Howe’s punk group “The Normals” pictured in 1979
“Cold War Night Life” is a particularly nuanced album, musically and thematically. Rational Youth’s debut manages to balance dancefloor-ready pop sensibilities with cold war paranoia, caricatured hedonism with existential dilemma. The percussive structure of the record is provided by the iconic Roland TR-808 whose punchy staccato timbre (as would be established by its influence on house and techno) demands movement on the dance floor. Synthetic drum beats provide the framework above which harmonised, arpeggiated synth melodies soar and recede in familiar verse-chorus-verse pop structures on opener “Close to Nature.” The hopeful sincerity of “Just a sound in the night” appears to be a nod to Phil Oakey’s soulful vocals on Human League’s “Open your heart.” The lyrics on this track imagine a planet on the verge of nuclear destruction, wary of fellow humans and the material world; ultimately, the vocalist concedes that he prefers to remain “Close to Nature.” Second track “Beware the Fly” casually name drops Nietzsche in a cautionary limerick on the dangers of being too introspective. Leon Trotsky joins the ranks in another refrain about his Mexican vacation gone wrong, a casualty of being too true to one’s values. The band’s ability to craft songs that vacillate between sincerity and irony comes to the forefront, clearly apparent in the bizarre moralisations of “Beware the Fly.”
Portraits from the 1983 line up consisting of: Tracy Howe, Kevin Komoda, Denis Duran and Angel Calvo once signed to Capitol records
Rational Youth retain the hopelessness and lapsed idealism of the Reagan years that is perhaps residual from Howe’s punk background without ever taking themselves seriously. This is particularly apparent on stand out single “Saturdays in Silesia.” This dance floor favourite illustrates the austere no-man’s land caught between two super powers: an anthem of political hopelessness and hedonist pleasures that references the mortality of all living things, providing a thematic curveball that stands at odds with the song’s raucous dance beat.
Lines such as “working in a big hole just to pay the rent man” may ring too close to home to an entire generation of millennials, but should only serve to strengthen your resolve to “put on your cardboard shoes” and let Rational Youth take you “where the music is loud.” As cold war rhetoric rears its ugly head in political discourse, it is no surprise that Rational Youth’s unique brand of sardonic well-crafted synth-pop appears to be as relevant as ever. The recently reactivated YUL records, operated by former the band’s former manager Marc Demouy, reissued their entire discography in 2011 including newer versions of “Cold war night life” singles “Dancing on the Berlin wall” and “City of night.”
Early performance of Saturdays in Silesia
– Danilo Bulatovic
Danilo hosts Computer Sourire, a show about synth-driven music, every Tuesday at 4pm on CJLO 1690AM