One of Montreal’s foremost new wave groups, Rational Youth was conceived by Tracy Howe, who’d just left the punk band The Normals as their drummer and singer. He’d spent time in several groups prior to that, including Heaven Seventeen (which featured future Men Without Hats frontman Ivan Doroschuk), and was looking for a new musical direction in 1981. He met synthesizers player and U of T student Bill Vorn while clubbing one night, and the two hit it off.
Both were huge fans of synth/pop, and deciding to pioneer the style in Canada, they sought out a record deal. With help from Marc Demouy, a record importer and retailer friend of Howe’s, they managed to release the independent 12″ dance single called “I Want To See The Light/Coboloid Race” to a lukewarm response on Demouy’s newly formed YUL Records label. At this point, they still hadn’t played a live show. But it wasn’t long before that changed, and they were making their way around the Quebec circuit, even opening for Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark.
They released their debut album in the spring of ’82, and COLD WAR NIGHT LIFE spawned a pair of relatively successful extended dance singles in English – “City of Night” and “Saturdays In Silesia,” and the French single version of “City of Night” – “Cite Phosphore” b//w “Le Meilleur des Mondes.” The album went on to sell over 20,000 units, with a good number of the sales coming from Europe.
Encouraged with the band’s potential, Capitol Records signed them to a major deal, but because reviews of the live shows were less than spectacular, and also to augment the sound to make it more palatable and accessible, insisted they revamp the lineup. So Kevin Komoda, who was used for the album, bassist Denis Duran, and Angel Calvo on drums and percussion were added in time for their sophomore release, the 1983 self-titled EP. Two versions of “In Your Eyes” made their way on to the airwaves and in the dance clubs, a 7″ with “The Man In Grey” as the b-side, and an extended 12″ version that featured the previously unreleased “Hot Streets.” While the band was making their rounds throughout Canada, another previously unreleased single, “Dancing on the Berlin Wall,” was also released.
By the time HEREDITY was on the store shelves in ’85, Vorn had left to return to the University of Toronto to continue studying Communications. Although Howe had originally intended to dissolve the band, execs at Capitol talked him into keeping the name alive. They teamed him up with Dee Long of Klaatu fame, and a cast of session players that included Long, Zappacosta‘s guitarist Steve Jensen, Streetheart‘s bassist extraordinaire Spider Sinnaeve, violinist Ben Mink (FM, KD Lang), and drummer David Quinton of Strange Advance.
The album was night and day compared to the earlier synthesized pop of the previous material, and the lead-off single “No More And No Less” peaked at #88 on the Canadian singles chart and also became the band’s first video, which got decent airplay on MuchMusic. The songs “Call Me,” and then “Bang On,” both also doing relatively well. With a revamped live lineup consisting of Howe and guitarist Peter McGee, Rick Joudrey on bass, and Owen Tennyson on drums, came more opportunities to tour, and the band continued to play throughout Canada, and also made a trip overseas to play to the European audiences.
The stand alone single, “Malade” was released before the end of the year, but flopped. By this time the revolving door also saw new guitarist Kevin Breit replace McGee while the band continued to tour smaller venues off and on for the next year, occasionally appearing on stage with Gowan, The Spoons, Strange Advance, Images In Vogue, and China Crisis. They even got a little extra publicity in 1986, appearing as themselves in the Keifer Sutherland movie, “Crazy Moon.” But by the end of the year, suffering from burn-out, Howe pulled the plug on the band and kept himself busy for the next decade with other projects.
Capitol meanwhile continued to pump out compilations with various remixes over the next decade, as well as re-releasing COLD WAR NIGHT LIFE in 1997, after an email campaign by the fans. A vinyl re-issue was scheduled for 2010 but never materialized.
Howe resurrected the band name again prior to the turn of the millennium, prompting a few one-off shows here and there with various backing musicians. One of those shows included an appearance at a major Swedish rock festival, which in turn prompted executives at October Records to convince him to release another album.
With a new lineup consisting of keyboard players Jean-Claude Cutz and Dave Rout, the first Rational Youth album in 14 years came in the form of TO THE GODDESS ELECTRICITY. It featured the single “Everything Is Vapour,” which went nowhere. Although critics noted the strong writing in songs like “Ghosts of Montreal,” “Money and Blood,” and “Talk To Me (I’m Only Human),” domestic sales were disappointing. Things on the European front however, where synth-pop was making a comeback, prompted several tours of the UK, Germany, and Scandinavia over the next year, including several major festivals.
But it wasn’t long before Howe folded the tent once again and returned to domestic life. The definitive Rational Youth collection was released in 2000. Along with the radio and dance club singles, EARLY SINGLES BOX SET also included the entire eponymous 1983 EP, and several remixes and live versions of the band’s hits. Only 600 copies of the set were released, and due to public demand, Capitol followed it up a year later with another collection to celebrate the band’s 20th anniversary.
In 2009, Howe and Bill Vorn teamed up again for the first time in 25 years, recording a new version of “Dancing On The Berlin Wall,” in honour of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall.