I’m a big fan of one-hit wonders. M.A.R.R.S., Robin Beck, Joe Dolce: you know, those singers or bands who get everybody humming one song constantly for months and then are never heard of again?
Men Without Hats were another one of those groups, although to be strictly accurate they were really only one-hit wonders in the UK. They had slightly more success in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand (only ‘slightly’ mind you) but had the most popularity in their home country of Canada.
By far, their biggest hit was with ‘The Safety Dance’, which was written as a protest song against that all-important social topic: bouncers discriminating against pogoing in clubs. Yes. That important social topic.
To be completely fair, lead singer Ivan Doroschuk, has explained (probably more than once) that it was written more as anti-establishment in general rather than as a real diatribe on that one, particularly niche, issue but it was indeed inspired by the problem of club door security seeing pogoing to the new wave music of the time as dangerous. They would frequently stop anybody who was seen doing it and often escort them off the premises.
It’s very hard to accurately write an accurate description of pogoing but if you follow these steps then you’ll get the idea (make sure there are no people or precious ornaments nearby when you do):
Keep your legs straight and together and hold your arms tightly to your sides.
Start jumping up and down, twisting your torso fairly violently to one side or the other every now and again.
Add variety by occasionally kicking a leg out, whirling your arms about or spinning round when you’re in the air.
That’s not exhaustive but you can see why many people all doing that at the same time on a small dance floor could easily cause a few injuries.
Doroschuk has also clarified that it is not, as many think, an ode to safe sex (they would surely have changed their name to ‘Men With Hats’ if so?) or an anti-nuclear call, despite the black and white images that appear at the end of the video. He wrote it as a protest against the establishment and as a ‘call for freedom of expression’. (‘What do we want?’ ‘The right to pogo!’)
The Safety Dance was a single from Men Without Hats’ 1982 debut album Rhythm of Youth. It was released in Canada in February 1983, where it peaked at number 11 in their charts in May. The U.S. first heard it in March but they obviously took longer to appreciate it as it finally reached number three in September (it also reached number one on their specific dance chart). It was released in the UK in August of that year - getting to number six - and New Zealand saw it reach number two in early 1984. The South Africans evidently got behind the fight for pogoing more than most as it got to number one there – I hope their dance floors continue to be filled with people leaping up and down frenetically to this day.
The video for the song was directed by Tim Pope (who has also worked with David Bowie, The Bangles, Paul Weller, Soft Cell, The Cure and Neil Young among many others) and is pretty memorable. It was heavy on the traditional English imagery: watch carefully and you’ll see a maypole, Punch & Judy, a handful of Mummers (a time-honoured troupe of actors performing folk tales) and a load of Morris dancers. Doroschuk is dressed as if he is an inhabitant of the Shires and the first scene is him striding through a field, followed by a man of restricted height wearing a jester costume (actually a 38 year old actor called Mike Edmonds who has also appeared in Flash Gordon, The Empire Strikes Back, The Return of the Jedi and Harry Potter).
They have a bit of a sing by a wall as the jester plays a lute, then continue to walk through what seems to be a medieval village, accompanied by a dancing blonde woman and occasionally a dog. (The medieval theme falls down slightly if you notice the Royal Mail post box and electricity pylons but who’s looking at the details, eh?) After this Doroschuk leads many bopping, costumed villagers, plus the Morris dancers, through the streets, alongside another jester on a horse, before stopping in a square to watch the Maypole dancers. Some people now have chicken masks on. It all looks like tremendous fun.
It was filmed in the idyllic valley village of West Kington in Wiltshire. It sits next to the Broadmead Brook and is wrapped in green fields, hedges and trees and features beautiful cottages built of sandy-coloured stone and an archetypal parish church. It would be hard to find a better representation of middle England.
The Safety Dance may have been Men Without Hats’ only UK hit but it will keep its place in music history as one of those songs that people recognise immediately, even 30-odd years later. The Feeling did a cover version in 2010 that was used in a Lipton tea commercial and it’s made appearances in both U.S. TV shows Glee and South Park.
And in case you were wondering about the band’s slightly unusual name, it is actually extremely literal. Ivan Doroschuk’s two brothers, Stefan and Colin, were also in the band and the three of them grew up in Montreal which, as we know, is subjected to some extremely cold winters. Obviously favouring fashion over common sense the three refused to wear warm headgear, calling themselves ‘the men without hats’. They were lucky that they didn’t end up having to call the band ‘Men With Severe Frostbite’, in my opinion.