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Poutine Pop #2 - Rational Youth

Posted by Theo / March 24, 2011

Rational YouthIn this series, I explore music from Montreal artists of yore, attempting to bring to light those that have been long forgotten, or chronically underappreciated. Hopefully it piques your interest in the featured artists as well as your urge to walk down to your local record shop to buy their album(s).

In a belated nod to St. Patrick's Day, today's Poutine Pop will look at Rational Youth's Cold War Night Life in the guise of Boston Celtics fan fiction.


In the spring of 1982, Larry Bird was in a dark place. His Celtics had just lost their Eastern Conference Finals matchup to Dr. J and the rival Philadelphia 76ers - a team they had beaten a year prior on their way to the NBA Championship. The loss was hard to take.

The Celtics had been favoured to win with their imposing frontcourt of Bird, Parish and McHale, and their team-first ethic - one thought superior to the individual flash and cocksure of the 76ers. The seventh and final game of the series had been at home on the fabled parquet of the Boston Garden. It had followed two comfortable wins by the Celtics, in which Larry averaged 17 points and 18.5 rebounds. Momentum had been in their favour.

After jumping out to a 3 - 1 series advantage, the 76ers had collapsed, the series following a trajectory that was eerily similar to their defeat of the previous year. Press and fans alike had expected them to choke again. Instead, buoyed by 34 points from a resurgent Andrew Toney, they won with aplomb. Even Celtics fans recognized the performance, celebrating the team's turnaround by showering them with chants of "Beat L.A! Beat L.A!," the team they would face (and lose to) in the NBA Finals.

Larry was crushed. You can see it in his face in here (1:28 in). Later that year, he would go on to be named to the All-NBA First Team, but this was of little consolation. Individual acclaim meant nothing if it didn't accompany a championship.

After the loss, Larry, a small town guy through and through, wanted nothing more than to return home to French Lick, Indiana. He could clear his head there and get past the loss. He could putter around his parents' house and down a few Michelobs with his friends - just like he did before basketball took over his life, back when things were simpler and his only responsibility was to patch potholes for the town Street Department.

Of course, this was impossible. He had too many obligations in the offseason and the only time he really had to himself was when he was on the team's practice court, late at night, cranking tunes over the PA system and shooting Js. It was there that Larry first heard the music of Rational Youth.


Danny Ainge, a multi-sport athlete, had gotten into the Canadian new wave scene when playing professional baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was a fan of Payola$ and saw early formations of Men Without Hats play live a couple of times, on the second occasion befriending Ivan Doroschuk backstage.

In January of 1982, Ivan sent Danny, who was now playing basketball for the Celtics, an early pressing of Rhythm of Youth, along with another yet-to-be-released album from ex-bandmate, Tracy Howe. The album was Cold War Night Life, the first full-length from Rational Youth, Tracy's new group.

For Danny, it was a wonderful gift. The album displayed a level of reverence for German electronic music greats such as Kraftwerk and Harmonia that matched his own. It combined a cascade of candy-coated synth lines with compact lyrics that mixed scenes of urban tedium and alienation with abstract, and often silly, futurist imagery.

Much like those of Kraftwerk, the simple lyrics were frequently performed in a manner that emphasized the rigidity of the pulsing synth rhythms. In a flat tone and machine-gun staccato, the vocals brought to mind those of the irascible Daleks from Dr. Who or Robot B9 from Lost in Space.

In June, Danny gave Larry a cassette copy of the album for the team's Monthly Mystery Music Swap (similar to a Secret Santa exchange) thinking that it might help his teammate out of his post playoff depression.

For Larry, Cold War Night Life was simply a welcome relief from the influx of Robbie Dupree tunes, courtesy of Tiny Archibald, and the avant-garde music of Peter Maxwell Davies championed by Kevin McHale.

For one thing, the music was great to practice to during those late-night shooting sessions. From the initial quantized drum machine beat on the opening track, "Close to Nature," Larry was able to lock into the groove of the music, timing the release of his shot with the start of every second measure.

Yet, the album offered more than just a metronomic tool with which to throw up shots. It also expressed an acute sense of loneliness - one that Larry could relate to living in a large urban centre, far removed from the comforts of his small hometown.

He had felt this yearning for meaningful relationships before. Back when he first enrolled at Indiana University, Larry was unable to cope with the sheer size of the school and the resulting sense of anonymity he felt. After less than a month, he dropped out, heading back to the security of the family homestead.

In the spring of '82, it wasn't anonymity that was the problem - he could step into any bar in Boston and be greeted with a beer and a pat on the back - it was the inability to connect to people on an empathetic level that led to his feelings of isolation.

As a 6'9" celebrity basketball star, Larry cut an intimidating figure. He was seen as unapproachable, his flowing locks and wisp of a moustache leading many to believe he was the Ferrari-driving playboy type. Yet, despite his love of Tom Selleck, he had little interest in the Wilt Chamberlain lifestyle. In fact, he was somewhat introverted, more content to stay home and tinker with his ham radio kit.

Even if he was more sociable, he didn't have the time to really get to know anyone. In Boston, every minute of his day was planned for him, whether he was getting his thighs rubbed down, or flexing his acting muscles in an offseason commercial. He would have given anything for an opportunity to pack a duffle bag and take off for a couple of weeks, but he was trapped by his commitments.

His sense of alienation was most keenly felt when he listened to the album's biggest hit, "Saturdays in Silesia." The song, told from the perspective of a young man stuck in drab 80s communist Europe, conveyed a malaise that Larry could relate to. He felt the narrator's resigned acceptance of his station mirrored his own.

Yet, the song also offered hope. He could imagine himself escaping with the narrator to "where the music was loud, where the rhythm never stopped." To Larry, Silesia was a wondrous fictional land where he could dance away his insecurities and meet someone that might actually accept him, for who he was. Incidentally, he later found out from teammate, M.L. Carr, that Silesia actually exists.

One night at the end of the summer, Larry was at the practice court again working on his baby hook. He had listened to Cold War Night Life constantly that offseason, his enthusiasm for the album leading to an impulsive purchase of a modular synthesizer.

In learning the differences between a VCO and VCA, he could appreciate the craftsmanship that went into Bill Vorn, Kevin Komoda and Tracy Howe's synth programming. They had obviously taken great pains to achieve the sound they envisioned. The crystalline arpeggios in counterpoint with infectious hooks, the confident gestural accents, and the unique motifs - the attention to detail was inspiring.

Larry thought that if he could apply this kind of pride and confidence to his personal development, perhaps it could translate not only to his relationships, but also to his basketball. He could create deep and lasting friendships, and elevate his game to a level that would take him and his Celtics to another NBA Championship. This realization was overwhelming. Vowing to change, he collapsed to the floor and began to sob.

By the end of his practice, Larry had recovered. Danny, in the building for a late-night Jacuzzi with a lady friend, stopped by the court on his way home. Judging by Larry's puffy, red cheeks, he could tell his teammate had been crying, but he also sensed that Bird had gotten over whatever had been upsetting him.

Out of courtesy, he asked if Larry was going to be OK. Bird, sitting down to take off his Converse and calf-length socks, looked at Danny, a gleam in his eye, and then slowly turned away, his gaze focused towards the bleachers at the far end of the court. With a newfound confidence in his voice, he replied: "for the first time in a long time... yeah... I think I am." With that he got up and walked towards the showers, giving Danny a light pat on the bum as he passed by. Danny could only smile, shake his head, and watch as his teammate, nay his friend walked through the dressing room door to a new life.

Cold War Night Life is Canada's #1 selling independent album of the 80s. It can still be found at various record stores in Montreal. Most of its tracks are available on iTunes (sadly, not in album form).

Photo of Rational Youth taken from the band's website.



Frankenthong / March 30, 2011 at 10:36 pm
Nice, Mr. T. FYI i am stroking myself to your wholesomely diarrhetic and mellifluous musings. Keep up the tappity-tap-tap!
Nicholas / February 24, 2012 at 05:44 pm
Meant to do this months ago - but I wanted to say that this was how I discovered Rational Youth - so my thanks for having posted this entertaining & interesting article complete with youtube links!
Theo replying to a comment from Nicholas / February 25, 2012 at 12:39 pm
Thanks. That's very kind. I've been meaning to get back to this series, so stay tuned.
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