Published on December 6th, 2013 | by Gerry Galipault0
Rational Youth: Canada’s synth-pop pioneers
In the new-wave 1980s, it was all about The B-52’s, Blondie, The Cars, The Go-Go’s, Talking Heads and more in the United States. Across the Atlantic, in the U.K., the list was even longer, from Adam and the Ants to the Vapors and many in-between.
What about Canada? The pickings were slim … The Arrows, Men Without Hats, Spoons, Trans-X. And don’t forget Rational Youth, a synth-based quartet from Montreal.
The shelf life for groups back then was short. Rational Youth, for example, lasted only five years (1981-1986) and went through several lineup changes. But through it all, synthesizer players Tracy Howe and Bill Vorn – and later Kevin Komoda – remained committed to a synth-pop sound that was influenced by Kraftwerk.
They made their mark on the homefront with such cult favorites as “Dancing on the Berlin Wall,” “Saturdays in Silesia,” “City of Night,” “Holidays in Bangkok” and “No More and No Less.”
Even though they were signed to Capitol Records, success in the U.S. eluded them. Toronto-based Artoffact Records now is renewing interest in the band with the previously unreleased double album “Live 1983” and the expanded “Magic Box,” both issued in early November.
In a recent email interview, Howe touched on the group’s impact, Kraftwerk and what lies ahead.
Pause & Play: Thirty years removed, what do you think of the RY that’s playing on “Live 1983”?
Howe: Well, neither Kevin nor I had ever heard this live stuff until Kevin found it in an old box of tapes earlier this year. I think really we were sort of surprised at how good it was. At the time, we weren’t really that self-aware and we were just sort of on the road banging it out as best we could and we thought we were pretty good, I guess, but on hearing these live tapes we were actually better than we thought we were.
P&P: And what do you make of this renewed interest in your music from more than 30 years ago? Is it purely nostalgia for your original fans? Or are you noticing a new batch of fans?
Howe: It’s both really. Our demographic is mostly sort of in-between, that is, not as old as we are (LOL) and not as young as all that either, but still quite a few people who are about the age we were when we recorded those live shows, especially in Scandinavia, where we seem to have been handed down from generation unto generation to a certain extent.
P&P: What else do you have planned?
Howe: Kevin and I have got a massive new Rational Youth lineup together: four boys and two girls. A real synth orchestra with no sequencers. Our product is entirely touched by human hands and we are starting to go out and play live again … in Canada this winter and Europe in the spring. We might even try to make a new record.
P&P: Why do you think RY didn’t make it big in the U.S.? Back then, new wave sure was a crowded field.
Howe: We had a U.S. record deal with Capitol and I think the A&R guy liked us but the marketing department not so much, or something, who knows? What we didn’t do on our end though is tour like maniacs, and you know, sleep in the van. If we had done that, I think we might just have had some success there, but it just never happened. Maybe we’ll do it now … but it will have to be a fairly comfortable van! But there have always been a discerning few in America who liked our music, and have stuck with us all these years.
P&P: (This is a loaded question): Kraftwerk … Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-worthy? (I know my answer.)
Howe: So do I! It’s yes …. or no…. First of all, they have Motown artists in there, and representatives of all kinds of styles of music that are not really rock ‘n’ roll but who are great original artists, so they qualify in that respect. They deserve to be in there then based on their groundbreaking innovation and influence, and their output of monumental brilliance. But (Kraftwerk) would probably be embarrassed and wouldn’t want to be in there, and it would be vaguely weird if they were inducted. So yes, no … The thing is the HOF idea is kind of hokey, but I think it’s important to honour these people in this sort of symbolic way.
P&P: What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?
Howe: I had this job once for about three months in a plywood wall panelling factory. My job was to take 4 x 8 foot 1/4 inch plywood sheets off a pile and feed them onto a conveyor belt all day. The thing was you had to feed the panels on so that there was exactly 30 inches between them or when the belt made a right turn they would all buch up and start flying up in the air and off the belt, and I had to then run after them and pick them up and start over again. And everytime that happened everybody on the line would yell it me. It was split shifts too, which really sucked.
P&P: What was the first record you ever bought?
Howe: OK, the first record I ever bought with my own saved up pocket money was the single “The Ballad of Paladin” by Duane Eddy. Killer guitar instrumental! It was the theme music from the TV western “Have Gun Will Travel.”
P&P: What was the first concert you ever went to?
Howe: April 23, 1965. The Rolling Stones at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal. Insane, couldn’t hear a thing because of the screaming girls and their set only lasted about 25 minutes because of kids rushing the stage and a massive feeding frenzy by psychopathic bouncers they must have got out of prison for the night. An incredible thing for a 13-year-old like me to have been a witness to. Any possibility of following the path mapped out for me by my elders died that night.