The accepted history of electronic pop music that I was spoon-fed, via compilation cassettes and CDs, ran a well-worn patch cable back to 1981. Like the dutiful school pupil I was, I quickly learned to recite the pivotal, scene-defining albums released that year by Soft Cell, Heaven 17, The Human League, Depeche Mode et al by rote. It was a uniformly British movement, said the history I was being handed.
A conversation with Simon Helm from the Cold War Night Life blog began to dislodge that idea. In 2018, Helm put on a rare London gig for Rational Youth, the Montreal band formed around Tracy Howe (vocals/keyboards) and Bill Vorn (keyboards), whose debut album recorded in 1981 was the source of the blog’s moniker. It was with acute embarrassment that I admitted never having heard of the band – I suspected (or rather hoped) that Helm had received similar reactions from other electronic music journalists. Ashamed, I immediately hunted down the album online and set about redressing my parochial, localised knowledge.
I did most of my learning about the world, history, science and culture in the 1980s through music. Consequently, places like Vienna, bedsit living and figures like Joan Of Arc came into my awareness through the electronic pop I grew up listening to. Alongside its brilliantly astute all-analogue structure and Howe’s engaging post-punk, new romantic vocal style, the incisive lyrical focus was another reason I became immediately smitten by ‘Cold War Night Life’.
Its songs take us to divided Berlin (‘Dancing On The Berlin Wall’), Eastern Europe (‘Saturdays In Silesia’) and feature lyrics about Leon Trotsky (‘Beware The Fly’). My racing, pre-teen mind would have been aflame with new information to help me navigate the world and its history. However, my adult mind has become better equipped at separating the romantic glamour I heard about in song with reality. Consequently, the smart 808 beats and icicle-sharp melodies on ‘Cold War Night Life’ have an identifiable, darkened realism in their framing of Howe’s stories of (night) life in Cold War-ravaged Europe.
We are accustomed to the notion that the instantaneousness of trends could only be achieved through the web. ‘Cold War Night Life’ is undeniable proof that this is just revisionist bunkum – electronic pop was a much more global phenomenon than just something hailing from Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, London or Basildon. The album slots neatly into an expanded understanding of the development of electronic pop, and is a brilliant, under-appreciated tour de force in its own right.