Music & Clubs

'Safety' First

The '80s revival has brought Men Without Hats and other groups
that pioneered the sound out of retirement
DON'T WORRY, IT'S HIS DAY OFF: Men Without Hats frontman Ivan Doroschuk sports verboten headwear before coming to Mountain Winery this week.

IVAN DOROSCHUK gets what the '80s revival bands are doing. The leader of Men Without Hats is a big fan of MGMT, one of many current bands that were clearly influenced by the synth-pop of early-'80s New Wave hitmakers like Human League, the B-52s and, of course, his own group, all of whom play together Thursday at the Mountain Winery.

The success of these revivalist bands is a big part of why the Vancouver Island–based Doroschuk has put Men Without Hats back on tour, almost 30 years after "The Safety Dance" turned the band's debut album, Rhythm of Youth, into an international hit, and 20 years since the band was a going concern (although he did reunite with his guitarist brother Stefan, an original member of the Hats, for the one-off 2003 record, No Hats Beyond This Point). He sees in the new bands the same satisfaction he took years ago in drawing from his own influences, like Kraftwerk, Roxy Music and Bowie.

"They're doing the same thing to us that we did to the guys before us," says Doroschuk of the '80s revival. "That's definitely made it possible for us to come back."

That doesn't mean that he can't be a little jealous of the technology they have at their disposal. Men Without Hats was a pioneering band in terms of onstage electronics, in fact, their live show was second only to Kraftwerk in its use of computers. Of course, being the '80s, that meant that they ran on two Macs, each of which had one megabyte of RAM.

"We thought we were this crazy cyber band," says Doroschuk. "My dad's got a watch that does more now."

The other reason that now seems like the optimal time to bring the Hats back is that "The Safety Dance" has become a nonstop pop-culture reference point. In the early '80s, who could have guessed there was a level of fame beyond Weird Al parodying your song (his version was "The Brady Bunch"), but in recent years the song has been played, parodied or name-dropped on seemingly every TV show, from The Simpsons to Glee to Aqua Teen Hunger Force to Family Guy to Scrubs, and many more.

Part of the song's enduring appeal has proven to be its openness to interpretation, with most people who saw the video thinking "safety dance" was some kind of an anti-nuclear statement. Greenpeace even played it at no-nuke rallies. But the video's imagery was entirely the work of director Tim Pope, Doroschuk says, and had nothing to do with the band or the meaning of the song. He's heard a lot of strange interpretations over the years, including its supposed message about safe sex ("I don't see where that comes into play," he says, seemingly truly puzzled).

The real story behind the song has an interesting link to the B-52s, who Men Without Hats are supporting at this show. It seems that in Canada, when punk and New Wave first came out, the clubs would only play a couple of songs from those bands, namely Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and the B-52s' "Rock Lobster." So when those songs would come on, "we'd jump up and start pogoing and slam dancing," says Doroschuk of his crowd. The bouncers, not knowing the style and thinking fights were breaking out, would throw them out. "The Safety Dance" was literally his way of asserting that they could dance if they wanted to. (Whether they dressed real neat or surprised anyone with a victory cry remains a matter of speculation.)

Because they're best known for "Safety Dance" (and the title hit from their 1987 album Pop Goes the World), Men Without Hats haven't completely gotten a fair shake in terms of their legacy. They're remembered as a tad silly and goofy ("I've always done everything tongue in cheek," admits Doroschuk), but the 1982 Rhythm of Youth album was a groundbreaking slice of synth-pop, full of aggressive, angular electronics, and clever lyrics that alternated between angry and confused in the best rock tradition. (A typically great double-meaning line in the song "Living in China" also playfully referenced the budding New Wave movement: "Revolution's out of hand when the Gang of Four try to make it as a Western band.")

"I always called us 'electronic hardcore,'" Doroschuk explains. Since the punkers and New Wavers hung together at that time, Men Without Hats would end up on bills with both types of bands in the early years, further blurring the line.

They went on to do the gentler and more complex Pop Goes the World, and its stylistically similar 1989 follow-up, The Adventures of Men and Women Without Hate in the 21st Century, before changing up to a full-on guitar sound for 1991's Sideways.

The return of the electro sound has inspired Doroschuk to get back to his own electronic beginnings. "I'm going back to my roots now. It's as if the band from Rhythm of Youth was back," he says of this tour. ""There's no pressure, there's no agenda. We're just out there to have a blast."


Thursday, 7:30pm; $35–$85

Mountain Winery

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