“You can dance if you want to.” It was a missive from Montréal. A command given by infectious synth riffs, rap-type singing and a mid-tempo beat perfect for clapping along and yes, dancing. Oh, and a medieval-themed music video in which singer Ivan Doroschuk played pied piper to a group of maypole dancers.
Men Without Hats broke out of Canada with this oddball creation at the height of new wave – landing at No. 3 on Billboard and charting in Australia, Germany, the U.K. and beyond. In 2010, “Safety Dance” resurfaced in the smash TV series Glee; Doroschuk seized the renewed interest to record Love in the Age of War (2012) and assemble a new band, which currently tours around the world. SOCAN spoke to him from his home in Victoria, BC.
Take us back to the scene in Montreal where Men Without Hats came to be.
There was a lot of experimentation, not only in music but clothing, and painting and other audio-visuals, and the technology was changing fast. We started with no keyboards at all – an art-school noise band. Then I got the chance to go electronic and it changed the direction. That was a time where punk and new wave were lumped into the same category. We all shared the same stages and same ideals. One thing about Montréal in that period that allowed for such creativity was the fact that all the record company head offices were in Toronto. It gave us a lot more freedom to express ourselves. We didn’t have to be the next Parachute Club or Spoons. There was no chance someone from a label was at the back of the room waiting to sign us to a contract.
How did you discover synths? They were still rare and expensive at that time.
I took piano lessons all my life. My mother was a teacher at McGill and I grew up with classical music, full on. So I was ready for the technical side of it. I also loved progressive rock bands like Genesis and Yes. Where I went to school, I had a lot of very rich friends. When we got investments, that’s something we worked on right away, getting access to that equipment.
Is it true you wrote “Safety Dance” after getting tossed out of clubs for slam dancing?
Pretty much. It was the dying days of disco. Every now and then you’d hear Blondie or maybe a Devo song in the clubs. Then my friends and I, we’d get up and start pogoing – the precursor to slam-dancing. People didn’t know what we were doing. They thought we were picking fights and we’d get tossed out. So that’s basically why I wrote the song.
Your singing style in this track is almost spoken word. Where did that come from?
I credit my vocal styling to people like Bryan Ferry or Lene Lovich. For the 12-inch single though, we had to stretch things out, so I came up with the idea of talking. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I really modeled the whole spelling out the words thing after Grandmaster Flash and the beginning of rapping. We didn’t use it anywhere else, in other songs. It was just a time and place.
What do you think made it catch on?
It’s the message: That you can dance if you want to. That really resonated with people. That, plus the video. It didn’t look new wave at all – no sunglasses or pointy shoes. So anybody could listen to it. Jocks, punks, goths, your mother. Everybody could relate; there was no uniform or hairstyle that went along with it. And with the video being medieval, it was timeless.
You really did create this term “Safety Dance” out of nowhere. How much is playing with language part of the appeal of songwriting for you?
That’s the magic of music. Sometimes it clicks. Musician and magician are close words. The spell can be in the lyrics.
How did this song change your life?
It was life-changing, for sure. MTV didn’t have a lot of videos in those days, so we were on heavy rotation. I remember getting out of a tour bus in upstate New York and went into a store and the cashier pointed at me and started screaming, “It’s him!” and I thought she had mistaken me for someone who robbed the place. She was literally crying. “He’s the guy from the video.” That was the moment I realized things would be different from now on. It was interesting, to say the least. When you’re writing songs, you don’t set out to write a bad song. But when it actually does stand the test of time it’s quite humbling. It’s gotten to a point that the song is so much bigger than me. I’m just the ambassador of the song – I go around the world presenting it. A lot of people don’t even know the name of the song, or the band, or my name.
And that’s fine with you?
More than fine. That’s great. It makes you realize it’s a big world.
What do you think when you see people dancing to a song you wrote about someone trying to stop you from dancing?
I think the message got through. I got my wish.