Thursday, August 09, 2007

Men Without Hats

One of the sweetest memories from my adolescent years is dancing around the bedroom and singing in front of the mirror while playing Men Without Hats' seminal album, Rhythm of Youth. That was in the early eighties and much water has passed under the proverbial bridge since those halcyon days. Recently, though, I found the cassette buried amidst some old things and popped it in the player (yes, I still have a tape cartridge in my stereo) and found myself dancing "like an imbecile."

That lyric comes from the band's smash hit and signature song of the eighties decade, The Safety Dance. Another memorable line from the still-catchy tune gives the listener permission to "dance like you're from out of this world". Surely these are words to live by.

In my teenaged years I was a big fan of Men Without Hats. I even saw them perform live and found the experience to be very strange (and therefore, in teenage terms, "totally rad"). The lead singer and mastermind behind the band, Ivan Doroschuk, was given to talking at great length between songs and providing weird and esoteric explanations for what his lyrics "really" meant. I remember the rest of the band sort of milling around, hands laid idly on their instruments, waiting until they were needed to play again, usually after a five-to-ten minute interlude. Needless to say, it was a memorable and long night.

It's important to note that no one was wearing hats at the show, not on stage or in the audience. This is of interest beyond just the obvious homage to the band's sobriquet. Originally formed by Ivan and two of his brothers in the late seventies in the cold climes of Montreal, the band in its nascent form was known as Men WITH Hats. This was soon changed, however, since the band always threw off their hats at the end of each show. Thus Men Without Hats was born into legend.

Now, it's fine and good to have a hit pop tune instruct the listener to "act like an imbecile". Who doesn't hold that freedom as dear? I wonder, though, if Ivan didn't take this axiom to mean that he could also write lyrics like an imbecile. As evidenced in other tracks on Rhythm of Youth, there is a cause to wonder.

One of the joys of listening to pop songs -from the eighties in particular- is their regular penchant for celebrating self-evident truths. Pop songs let us in on the heretofore secret knowledge that girls just want to have fun (Cyndi Lauper) , and that one thing can lead to another (The Fixx). In keeping with the times, Men Without Hats also provide precious insight into the hidden corners of existence.

In the song Things in My Life, while thinking that he's walking in a rainy Scottish forest, Ivan sings the words, "There are things you can buy in the drugstore/There are things you can hang on your wall/There are things you can read in the paper/There are things that do nothing at all". The reek of Ultimate Truth is all over this quartet. Lending even greater weight is the song's chorus: "We can never remember the things we always forget". If this stuff was alcohol, I'd be on a bender dawn to dusk.

My love for Men Without Hats is undeterred, even so, because in hearing again the continuous keyboard chartings that provide the skeleton of every track, I am transported to the end of the rainbow, where not only is Truth plain to see, it's danceable. Safety dance, indeed.

And that is what I think Ivan and his band want to do: give the world a reason to dance. In one of two tracks exclusive to the cassette version of Rhythm of Youth ("not included on the LP"), Ivan asks the nation of China if it wants to dance. The response is a lusty wave of applause. We can safely interpret that to mean, "Yes, Ivan, we wants to dance."

In another song, Ivan sings, "I have done a good thing/You're really dancing/Everybody's happy."

Since I saw them perform only the once, I cannot say if Ivan perfected his ability get crowds dancing. I remember people were dancing at my show, but only in spurts. Maybe if he had talked less-! But that was early in their career and for a number of years after the band did go on to have a couple more hit songs. Who can forget Pop Goes The World? Therefore it is entirely possible that he finally did remember what he had always forgot.

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