The Safety Dance
September 28th, 2012
Todd plays "The Safety Dance" on the piano
MEN WITHOUT HATS - THE SAFETY DANCE
A one-hit wonder retrospective
Todd: Welcome back to One Hit Wonderland, where we look at the full careers of artists known for only one song, and today we are going hatless. Repeat, hatless. [Picks up top hat and puts it on] You see this? [Picture of head wearing a derby under a no symbol. Sound of thunder] We're not having any of this. [Quickly takes it off] Or what about this? [A paddy hat, same picture with buzzer] Uh-uh. We are going to free our minds and our scalps, and we can leave your friends behind 'cause your friends wear hats, and if they wear hats, well, they're no friends of mine! HUH!
- Video for "The Safety Dance"
- Ivan Doroschuk: Say, we can go where we want to
Todd (VO): Yes, today we're going back to 1983—[album cover of 80s Synth Pop compilation] the peak of the synth pop era. [Clip of "I Just Can't Get Enough"] Now, most of the really great synth pop acts—[pictures of...] Gary Numan, New Order, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, the Pet Shop Boys—they were all from England. [Clip of "Whip It!" by...] Devo is the only really big one I can think of from America.
Todd: But we're not looking at either of those countries today, but instead turning to our neighbors to the north, the ever proud nation of [picture of Canadian flag] Ca-nah-da and their biggest contribution to the dynamite early MTV era. Or the [logo of...] MuchMusic era, I guess up there.
- Clip of Men Without Hats
Todd (VO): Yes, Montreal's New Wave band called themselves Men Without Hats, and they were to become the biggest name in Canadian music for a brief moment of time with their only hit, "The Safety Dance." [Clip of "Down Under" by...] And they are not to be confused with the Australians' Men at Work, who had hits around exactly the same time.
Todd: Of course, a few years later, they could've just combined their bands and called themselves Men Without Work. Hah. I cannot be the first person to think of that.
Todd (VO): Anyway, shortly after the release of "The Safety Dance," Men Without Hats became Men Without Hits. Hah!
Todd: Okay, I'll stop. I'll...seriously, I'll stop. Seriously.
Todd (VO): But anyways, Men Without Hats never really were able to capitalize on their biggest hit and soon became forgotten.
Todd: Or did they?! This is One Hit Wonderland, where we are about to explode your preconceptions about hits, about safety, about dancing. Strap in!
- Men Without Hats: We can dance
- Everybody look at your hands
Before the fame
Todd: Let's start with the name first. [Picture of band] Why did these guys choose to name their band after their [album cover of Love in the Age of War] lack of hats? Well, turns out Men Without Hats were named that because they didn't like hats. They thought they looked stupid. [beat] There you go.
- Video for "Antarctica"
Todd (VO): Okay, there is more to it than that. Their name is more than just a fashion statement, it's also a declaration of fearless rebellion.
- Ivan: Ice age is here
Todd (VO): Because, let us not forget, they are from Quebec, and when you live [picture of street covered with snow] deep in the frozen tundra, [picture of kid in very warm clothes] you bundle up and you cover your damn head. If you don't, there's a good chance you will freeze to death, which is admittedly a small price to pay to avoid [picture of...] hat hair.
Todd: All right, considering their brazen disregard for hazardous weather, it's kind of odd that their first hit was all about safety, but...we'll get to how "safe" that dance was in a moment.
- Picture of Ivan Doroschuk, with clips of interview and performance
Todd (VO): Men Without Hats's only consistent member is lead singer Ivan Doroschuk, a Ukrainian-American who moved to Montreal as a child. Doroschuk was a classically trained piano player, so of course, he listened to a lot of prog rock, which is where he started to pick up his love of synthesizers. Eventually, he jumped on the synth pop thing in the late 70s and early 80s and started his band. Eventually, he'd drawn together a lineup which included his brother Stefan on guitar and his other brother Colin on keyboards and a bunch of other people who don't really matter and didn't last very long.
Todd: They went through a lot of band members, trust me on this.
- Live performance of "I Got the Message"
Todd (VO): Anyway, they released their first album in 1982, Rhythm of Youth. Unfortunately, neither their first single, "Antarctica," nor their second, "I Got the Message," got any airplay.
- Ivan: C'est long
- Men Without Hats: I got the message and the message is clear
- Ivan: C'est dur.
- Men Without Hats: I really really really really wish you were here.
- Ivan: Frappons
Todd (VO): Wait a minute. Is this song partly in French?
Todd: Oh, you bilingual bastards. Well, it's no wonder this didn't become big. No one likes their New Wave bands to sing in French.
- Clip of Blondie - "Call Me"
- Debbie Harry: Ooo-oo-oo-oo-oo, appelle-moi mon cherie, appelle-moi
Todd: Right, anyway.
- Video for "I Know Their Name"
Todd (VO): While they were on their North American tour, their record label pulled Doroschuk to England to shoot something they called a "music video"...
Todd: ...to play on something called "Music Television."
Todd (VO): Ivan said he had no idea what was going on, but he went along with it anyway. A week later, this started happening.
The big hit
Todd: In my previous video, I laid down my criteria for the ideal one-hit wonder, and Men Without Hats meets almost all of them.
- Checklist runs down, checked where applicable
Todd (VO): British? 'Fraid not. But New Wave? Check. 80s? Check. Beloved song? Check. Stupid name? Yeah, check. A memorable video?
- Clip of the video
Todd: Yeah, that's a check.
- Ivan: We can dance if we want to
- We can leave your friends behind
- Men Without Hats: 'Cause your friends don't dance and if they don't dance
- Well, they're no friends of mine
Todd: Well, this is...whimsical.
Todd (VO): If Men Without Hats was so opposed to hats, why is the dwarf wearing a hat? Is it because he doesn't count because he's not a full man? That's racist, Men Without Hats.
- Ivan: We can dance
- Girl: [popping up] Or sing
Todd is startled
Todd (VO): MTV had something like ten videos when this song came out, so yeah, this got some serious airplay, which helped launch it into radio play too, peaking at #3.
- Ivan: We can go when we want to
- The night is young and so am I
Todd (VO): And just the fact that this was a synth song with the word "dance" meant they had novelty or their side too. [Clip of Gary Numan - "Cars"] Prior to this, electronic music was aesthetically about machines and robots. Men Without Hats were among the first wave of bands to make synth music bouncy and fun.
- Men Without Hats: We can dance, we can dance
- Ivan: Everything's out of control
Todd: Men Without Hats had their first hit single, but what is this bouncy little tune actually about? What is a "safety dance"?
Todd (VO): Well, my first instinct is to say that "The Safety Dance" is about the same thing that a lot of other big, shiny New Wave pop hits of the time were, which is to say that it's not really about anything at all. [Clips of...] I mean, what is "The Reflex" about? Anything? "Der Kommissar"? "Too Shy"? Can you look me in the eye and tell me you like "Rock Me Amadeus" because of its heartfelt tribute to Mozart? Let's not kid ourselves. After all, there is no literal "safety dance." I mean, this? That's not a dance, that's barely even a cheerleading move. It's the "safety gesture" at best.
Todd: But when I looked further, turns out there is more to it than that. Now, let me show you how people actually danced to "The Safety Dance."
- Live performance with people dancing
- Ivan: S-A-F-E
Todd (VO): Now that doesn't look safe at all. This is called pogoing. Basically, that's just what they called slamdancing in the early 80s. Keep in mind that this was all still new, the mosh pit had barely even been invented at this point, so it had to look like complete violent anarchy back in the day, which was why bouncers would go into the crowd at clubs and break it up. Ivan had this happen to him one too many times, so he wrote "The Safety Dance" in response.
- Men Without Hats: And you can act real rude and totally removed
- Ivan: And I can act like an imbecile
Todd (VO): So that's the meaning of this song. What "The Safety Dance" is about is freedom—freedom to do the things you wanna do, and get loaded without being hassled by the man.
- Ivan: Safety dance
- Oh well, the safety dance
Todd (VO): I'm not sure where the concept of the safety dance comes in. It could be Ivan confirming that moshing is totally safe, which...it isn't. It's a lot of fun if you do it right, but it isn't completely harmless. Let's be real here.
- Ivan: Oh, the safety dance
Todd (VO): Or a safety dance could mean mocking the bouncers with this completely sarcastic song about the world's safest and most boring dance craze.
- Men Without Hats: We can dance
- Everybody look at your hands
Todd: [looking at hands] Ooohhh.
Todd (VO): Either way, the message is the same—we're gonna have fun and you can't stop us. We're gonna dance at the ren faire with tiny clowns around the maypole no matter what Cromwell thinks we should be doing. It's just a fun, upbeat song. And I think that, even more than the silly video, is the key to its appeal.
Todd: The Men Without Hats don't play by your rules, man. Chant it out.
Todd (VO): [with girl in video] S...A...F...
Todd: Okay, you know how it's spelled. But where do you go from here?
Todd (VO): I distinctly remember seeing a clip on VH1 once where Ivan Doroschuk worried about being remembered for dancing with a dwarf in a music video.
Todd: As it turns out, that was a very well-founded fear.
The failed follow-up
Todd: I don't think Ivan's fear about being typecast was shared by their music video director.
- Video for "I Like"
Todd (VO): Boy, this looks familiar. Hi, Tingle. Hi, peasant lady.
- Ivan: I like when they talk real loud, try to tell you what they know
Todd (VO): There's not much to say for this one. It's not a very interesting song. In fact, the two singles they released before "Safety Dance" were far better. I will say this about it, though—I couldn't confirm it, but I will be very surprised if Men Without Hats didn't listen to a lot of Devo.
- Clip of Devo - "Beautiful World"
- Devo: It's a beautiful world
- It's a beautiful world
Todd (VO): In fact, that's the way I would describe them. Basically, just Devo, but without the edge of bitterness or sarcasm, more dramatics and earnestness. And you know, maybe also a little Talking Heads in the vocals there.
- Ivan: I like
Todd (VO): Well, most people didn't like, and this song never really caught on. Maybe they blamed the tiny clown man because they dropped him for their next album.
Todd: Instead, they brought in this guy.
- Video for "Where Do the Boys Go"
Todd (VO): Frosty the Marshmallow Man there is actually Bonhomme Carnaval, the mascot of the annual Quebec Winter Games and he is awful and I hate him. He became a sort of mascot for the band because having Tingle dance around while you play wasn't creepy enough apparently. I vastly prefer the tiny jester. This album also flopped, and at this point, Men Without Hats were in trouble.
Did they ever do anything else?
Todd: Yes! Yes, they had another hit.
- Video for "Pop Goes the World"
Todd (VO): It's called "Pop Goes the World" and it charted all the way at #20, so Men Without Hats' status as one-hit wonder is borderline at best.
- Ivan: Johnny played guitar, Jenny played bass
- Name of the band is 'The Human Race'
- Everybody, tell me have you heard?
- Pop goes the world
Todd (VO): In fact, for a supposed one-hit wonder, I've found that quite a few people remember and like their second big hit. In Canada, this is actually their biggest hit, and they had quite a few hits in their home country that they didn't have here.
This song, "Pop Goes the World," is...well, it's even brighter and softer than "The Safety Dance." Had even more of a hidden edge to it, too. It's got a sound that wouldn't be out of place on The Teletubbies, but it's also got this vaguely apocalyptic bent to it. Of course, that damn snowman is back.
- Ivan: Whatever happened to the Duke of Earl?
- Elvis impersonator: Pop goes the world
Todd (VO): I've read that this song is about environmentalism or worries about overpopulation. Yeah, there were a lot of songs like this in the 80s—blithe happiness in the face of the end of the world as we know it. Indeed, this is probably one of the most 80s songs I've ever heard in my life.
Todd: Unfortunately, the hits ended after that album...
- Video for "Hey Men"
Todd (VO): ...and they were never really able to recover. Next album—tanked. And after that, it was the 90s, which was not very kind to most New Wave bands. Seriously, their time was up. They released one more album...
Todd: ...which I imagine most have sounded just so passe.
- Video for "Sideways"
Todd: Hah! You're kidding me.
- Ivan: Sideways
Todd (VO): Change with the times, I guess. Well, they were right about synth pop being dead, at the very least. But Men Without Hats suddenly deciding they were gonna be Superchunk? It's not really catering to their strengths as a band, is what I'm saying. [Clip of "Let's Get Rocked" by...] I mean, Def Leppard found themselves behind the times too, but you know, that doesn't mean they should've jumped on the gangsta rap bandwagon. You follow? Anyway, this album really flopped, as in it didn't even get an American release. And at that point, Men Without Hats officially disbanded.
- More recent clip of Men Without Hats
Not that the hatless ones ever really went away. Ivan has been spending his time mostly as a stay-at-home dad, but he recorded a new album in 2003 and another one this year. And he's been on tour with a new lineup several times. And during one of those times, just to screw with people, he went on tour wearing a hat.
Did they deserve better?
Todd: Mmm, maybe a little better.
Todd (VO): I was not all that inspired by their work; they're a B-lister band, definitely. I can't imagine someone saying Men Without Hats were their favorite band ever or anything. That said, they do have a pretty strong cult following, and if you're into the poppier end of the New Wave scene, they're certainly worth checking out, and I'd definitely recommend giving them at least a little attention. The 80s certainly put out much worse stuff than this, and they were also one of the first, so they kept a tiny bit ahead of the trends and they didn't end up sounding so tired and lifeless as some of their peers did by the end of that decade. As for "The Safety Dance," yeah, I'd say it's earned its place in the pop pantheon. If Footloose has taught me anything, it's that there are people everywhere trying to shut you down just for the crime of being young, and "The Safety Dance" has forever provided the world with the perfect comeback.
Todd: Also a little person in a clown outfit. Can't beat that.
- Ivan: Safety dance
- Oh well, the safety dance
- Oh, the safety dance
Closing tag song: Crazy Frog - "Safety Dance"
"The Safety Dance" is owned by Island Def Jam
This video is owned by me