Classic Interview

Dancing on the Berlin Wall | An Interview with Tracy Howe from Legendary Canadian Synth-pop Act Rational Youth

The Cold War Period: 1947 – 1991. The Berlin Wall’s construction began on August 13, 1963, and it was destroyed completely in November of 1991. What a shame for humanity thinking to build walls around the Earth, and such honor to the societies that bring them down! In the midst of the cold war, it was artists who were shouting against this absurdity, and at the dawn of the 80s emerged a new generation with their tools handy.

Thus, new wave pop culture rose as the hope against this injustice. A revolution began scored by the sound of synthesizers and cold romanticism worldwide etched in the grooves of the vinyl records.

Part of this revolution were Canadian synthpop legends Rational Youth, who without knowing had made a huge impact in November of 1991, with their song “Dancing On The Berlin Wall” which to some became an anthem to the closing of the cold war era.

That specific song was included in their debut album which was released a decade before.

Now, on December 6, 2019, Universal Music Canada will reissue Rational Youth’s debut album Cold War Night Life, expanded and remastered!

I sat down with founding member Tracy Howe for a long talk about it all, the cold war, the wall, remembrances, the music, and he also gave me a little info on something new by Rational Youth!

30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Universal Music Canada will (on December 6) publish an extended reissue of your debut album ‘Cold War Night Life’, a record which has a special place as part of the new wave soundtrack of the Cold War era.

How do you see your debut album’s relevance in our current times?

Hello Mike! My great hope for this re-issue is that people will learn about its place in the popular culture of the Cold War period, and its significance as an early example of pure synthpop; and we also hope that we will have a chance to hear from them about how they feel it works (on a musical level) in our current times. The album represents synth music before any of the multitudes of contemporary sub-genres came into being and it is honest in its intent and its execution. As for how it relates to our current times with respect to the lyrical content and social context of the album, I can tell you that it was conceived in dangerous times, similar in many ways to the current ones we are living through now. I hope that comes through to new listeners, and that they will find that they can identify with it.

I read one of your recent posts on FB regarding the single, ‘Dancing On The Berlin Wall’, where you said:

“When we did the original version back in 1982, it was a whimsical fantasy because we really believed the Wall would be there forever. We never seriously thought that people would actually dance on it, but seven years later they did.”

May I ask what was your reaction when you saw it all on TV?

I was absolutely astounded, quite honestly. I mean I had been following the events leading up to the Fall, the demonstrations in Leipzig and so on, and it seemed likely that some sort of change was coming, but I imagined Perestroika and Glasnost in the DDR, not that they were actually going to open the Wall! That wall was something I assumed would be there forever, I really did. It all happened so fast. I have even read that it was actually opened by mistake, i.e. misunderstood orders by the border guards, but of course, once it was opened there was no going back. It was just an incredible thing to see. Now, I was not what you would call an anti-communist cold warrior by any means, but a wall is a wall. It was made to essentially imprison people, so when it came down it was a good thing for humanity, regardless of ideology. At the same time, I would have been very interested to see if the DDR could have been reformed, but that’s all water under the Glienicke Bridge now, isn’t it?

From where Rational Youth artistically emerged?

Very much the Montreal post-punk music scene of the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s. And a mutual love of Kraftwerk.

In the early 80s new wave and electro-pop music became the real urban soundtrack. Both described the uselessness of the cold war, with both genres railing against hypocrisy – mocking the prevailing political ‘ethos’. 

Who were Rational Youth?  What do you remember the most from that time?

Well, we were two young musicians, Bill Vorn and myself, who evolved out of what literally was the post-punk scene in Montreal in the late 1970s and into the 80s. I had been in a band called Heaven Seventeen (yes, that really was the name of the band) which was influenced by John Foxx era Ultravox and Magazine, and was the first local punk/post-punk band to feature synthesizers. Bill had been a member of a five-member all synthesizer band called U. He came more from the Klaus Schulze/Tangerine Dream end of things. We were both big fans of Kraftwerk and decided to try and do a pop band using only synths. There wasn’t any need to decide what sub-genre we had to present ourselves as. Just doing a ‘synth-pop’ band was a statement in itself. We did want to sort of advocate for the democratization of the music production process and the DIY ethic, but in terms of content on the musical side, everything you heard had to be produced by voltage-controlled oscillators, filters, and envelopes, apart from the vocals. The lyrics fell mostly to me, and I had my preoccupations with geopolitics and spy novels, which you can hear on the album. The thing about being in Montreal at that time was that we were all alone. There were a few of us in a sort of post-punk scene, but people there were only finally getting into actual punk rock at that time, whereas we had moved on. The rest of the music scene there was dominated by progressive rock, disco, and Quebec nationalist hippie folk music. To be honest, we were pretty isolated, and our ambition was to make a record and play some shows. The idea that the record we made would be still around almost four decades later was as unimaginable as, you know, that Wall coming down

Now that Universal Music Canada is reissuing your debut album. What do you expect impact of the record to be in this new era of electro-pop and synth-wave?

‘Cold War Night Life’ was always a sort of cult album. People who were really deeply into synth music knew about it, but unlike records of the period from the UK and Europe, because of the way it was released and distributed independently in Canada, and licensed in Europe through a label (Ram’s Horn Records) that mostly specialized in disco music, a lot of people who might otherwise have found the record missed it. Nevertheless, the record has endured in some way all this time to the point that a major label has decided to re-issue it in a rather deluxe package now, so this is an opportunity for the record to take its proper historical place within the broader synth music narrative. As I said, it’s hard to know what the response will actually be, but I think it’s reasonable to say with regard to the current “synth-wave” movement, that what they’re recycling is the music bands like us created in the early 1980s. This is positive for us, but in terms of doing new music and carrying on, we consider ourselves a real band that is functioning now as part of the synth scene, and not a nostalgia act.

Who have been the principal members of Rational Youth through time? Who were and are now the cult of RY? I am asking because we know that in 2016 Artoffact Records released ‘The Future Past Tense’ EP, while the same year you appeared on the ‘Heresy’ compilation, released by the Cold War Night Life label. This album featured covers of Rational Youth tracks by 18 artists from various countries, including former bandmates Dave Rout and Kevin Komoda…

The original founding 1981 lineup of Rational Youth was Bill Vorn and myself. We were joined by Kevin Komoda toward the end of the Cold War Night Life recording process. After Bill Vorn left to go back to university in late 1982, Kevin Komoda and I continued with the addition of Angel Manuel Calvo and Denis Duran through 1983. During 1984 I made an album for Capitol Records with Dee Long as co-producer, and a host of session musicians called Heredity, which was released in 1985. After that, I moved permanently to Toronto, and there was a long period of inactivity until the band was reformed with Dave Rout and Jean-Claude Cutz in 1999. We recorded and released the album To The Goddess Electricity. Dave and J-C were/are fantastic synth musicians and I really love that album that we did. We did several tours, mostly in Scandinavia around that time, then ceased operations again until my wife Gaenor Howe and I reformed Rational Youth about 5 years ago. We have toured quite actively, as well as releasing the album Future Past Tense. As to your question about the cult of Rational Youth, it was largely centered in the Swedish synthpop scene of the 90s and its equivalent in Germany.

photo by Marc de Mouy

I see that you will be playing shows in Toronto on Jan. 25, and Mississauga on Jan. 26. Are you planning other shows too? Will we see any surprises on stage? Are you going to play in Europe in 2020?

Yes, we have tried to get to Europe every year since we reformed. This past year we did a nice tour of Germany and also appeared at the W-Festival in Belgium. We have a new European booking agent now and we hope that this next year will be very active for us.

Do you have any new material from Rational Youth in the works, i.e. a new record?

Yes indeed! We are working on it now and hope to have it out in spring 2020.

Thank you very much for this interview. Anything else you would like to add?

Thank you for this interview. I really enjoyed the opportunity to talk with you and the questions were interesting. I invite Post-Punk.Com readers to check out Cold War Night Life and let us know if THEY find it relevant to these times!

Mike Dimitriou

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