One of my favourite albums as a kid in the 1980s was Rhythm of Youth, the debut album by Men Without Hats. On receiving the album on vinyl for Christmas one year and perusing the sleeve, I was surprised to learn that the band were Canadian: I’d assumed they were part of the British new wave movement, which by then had already mutated into new romanticism.
In those pre-internet days it was easy to make that assumption. I’d seen the video for the Men Without Hats song ‘The Safety Dance’ (1982) on Countdown: a fully realised English bucolic fantasy pitched somewhere between Thomas Hardy and Game of Thrones, complete with little-person jester, maypole dancing and vaguely cultish, Wicker Man overtones.
An upbeat dirge with an insistent droning synthesiser riff and growly lead vocals, ‘The Safety Dance’ sounded like a call to arms for club kids: “We can dance if we want to, we can leave your friends behind/’Cos your friends don’t dance and if they don’t dance then they’re/No friends of mine”. Part of the hallowed tradition of songs about dance moves, stretching from 'Let's Twist Again' to 'Gangnam Style', it made it to number five in Australia but went on to bigger success in the US Billboard charts, and ultimately into the pop culture canon. Family Guy, The Simpsons and Futurama all referenced it (“that dance was nowhere near as safe as they said it was!”), and the cast of Glee gave it a spirited rendition in a shopping mall.
The brainchild of three American-born but Montreal-raised brothers, Men Without Hats appeared on the pop scene wielding their synthesizers proudly, like a Canuck version of Devo (the guys who did wear hats). But their sound dated as quickly as it appeared, and despite five subsequent albums and another novelty hit, ‘Pop Goes the World’ (which incidentally sounds little like the band that made ‘Safety Dance’), Men Without Hats faded into obscurity.
Lead singer Ivan Doroschuk never found a permanent artistic collaborator and churned through dozens of band members over the succeeding decades. After a ten-year hiatus as a stay-at-home dad, Doroschuk brought the name out of retirement in 2010, releasing a new album, Love in the Age of War, and touring again with yet another brand new line-up.
Now Men Without Hats are at last coming to Australia, as part of nostalgia concert Totally ’80s. Doroschuk will share the stage with such ageing stars as Limahl, Martika, Katrina and the Waves, Berlin, Stacey Q and Paul Lukakis, with Australian acts Real Life and Wa Wa Nee joining the bill. Time Out spoke to him on the phone to his home on Vancouver Island.
Ivan, which of the line-ups of Men Without Hats will we be seeing in Australia this July? It’s just going to be myself singing with the house band. One of the reasons I’m doing this is to reintroduce ourselves to Australia and set the stage for a proper visit with the full band. We’ve been wanting to visit Australia forever.
I believe that back in the early ’80s you were rejected by every record label in Canada but eventually signed with Statik in the UK to release Rhythm of Youth. We were actually released in Canada on a distribution deal on Warner Brothers. We had sent them the same demo of the same album and they’d refused it, and they ended up being forced to release it because of a distribution deal from Statik.
What were the origins of the band? I had been studying law in the south of France in 1976 when the Sex Pistols first came out. I came back to Montreal as punk rock was hitting the North American shores. Everybody was starting bands; they were exciting times. We started out playing Cramps covers in the beginning; playing James Chance and the Contortions covers – just doing noise basically. And it evolved. Electronic bands and punk bands were playing on the same bills because nobody else would let them play. That was our scene.
What appealed to you about synthesizers and new wave? For me, new wave music was a blend of progressive rock and disco. I grew up on bands like Genesis and Pink Floyd and Rick Wakeman. I studied piano. I was front and centre for the disco movement. For me, new wave was prog music with a disco backbeat.
When you came up with ‘Safety Dance’ did you feel you had something special? No. We didn’t even release it as the first single. We thought ‘I Got the Message’ was going to be the big hit. We released that in Canada, and nothing happened. We released ‘Safety Dance’, and nothing happened. And we went back into the studio and started recording the next record.
At one point we had to do a 12-inch dance remix of ‘Safety Dance’, because that was the new thing. So we did this remix, sent it off, and that’s when everything hit the fan. It went to the top of the Billboard charts. We were in the studio halfway through the second record, and we had to get back on a bus and go tour America for a year. It was totally fun times.
What is the true meaning of the lyrics? It’s been interpreted as an allegory for safe sex… It originated when I was getting kicked out of clubs for pogoing – for hitting the dance floor whenever they payed Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or the B52s’ ‘Rock Lobster’.
What’s the story behind that surreal music video? That was shot in a village just outside of Bath in England. The director, Tim Pope – it was funny because it was the days before e-mail and we corresponded by letters, and our letters crossed paths over the ocean, and we both got each other’s script for the video at the same time and they were both this Pied Piper theme. We both had the same idea!
We had a lot of fun. It was a two-day shoot, I flew there and back on Concorde. It was pouring rain when we shot the video – I don’t think it shows. The whole village got involved. Nobody knew what was going on: ‘rock video? What’s that?’ Nobody had a clue.
And I think it really worked for the song, because people here in Canada were saying, ‘wow, we were expecting a bunch of guys with zippers and fancy haircuts and pointy shoes and neon clothes, and here is this guy with long hair, like a hippy, with a medieval theme: what’s going on?’ And I think that’s one of the reasons the video is still playing. It’s a classic video of the ’80s, a timeless thing.
The synthesizer sound and chord progression of ‘Safety Dance’ suggest a kind of medieval music. Yeah, it has a kind of bagpipey feel or pump-organ sort of antique feel. It all just fit together. When I got back, MTV started playing it and they only had five or six videos to play – so it was played a lot. That helped the song to be remembered.
It’s one of those songs everyone knows even if they don’t know Men Without Hats. It’s a viral thing. Yeah, it’s weird. I have a lot of new fans from Glee. But my son, who is a teenager now, he found out who I was when he was about seven or eight, and he found out because Crazy Frogdid ‘Safety Dance’. All of a sudden he was a celebrity at school, when his friends found out his father wrote the Crazy Frog song. That’s been the greatest thing: our old fans show up at our shows with their families, and everybody’s digging it. It’s really cool.
Totally ’80s is at the Enmore Theatre on Sat Jul 16 – tickets are on sale now.