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35 Years Ago: Men Without Hats Help Define Synth-Pop With ‘Rhythm of Youth’

The synth revolution would eventually be responsible for some of the most over-produced records of the ’80s, but in the beginning, it contributed to a cheap-and-easy aesthetic that was almost punk rock in its simplicity — and the hit novelty pop of Men Without Hats’ signature hit “The Safety Dance” is a perfect case in point.

In fact, the group started out in a punk vein. Founded in Montreal by singer Ivan Doroschuk and a shifting cast of bandmates, Men Without Hats — taking its name from Doroschuk and his brothers’ fashion-driven refusal to wear hats during the cold Canadian winters — spent its earliest years exploring volume over melody. But by the end of the ’70s, with brothers Stefan and Colin in the fold, the band had started to undergo a marked evolution.

“We started out playing Cramps covers in the beginning; playing James Chance and the Contortions covers – just doing noise, basically. And it evolved. Electronic bands and punk bands were playing on the same bills because nobody else would let them play,” Ivan told Time Out. “For me, new wave was prog music with a disco backbeat.”

That awkward-seeming blend served as a fairly apt summation of the Men Without Hats sound, first heard on the group’s 1980 Folk of the ’80s EP. Although it wasn’t a major hit, that release led to a deal with the European Statik label — which would ultimately open a gateway to North American distribution, in some territories through imprints that had previously rejected Men Without Hats’ earlier demos.

The Statik deal was an important step up, but worldwide success didn’t come right away for Men Without Hats. Their full-length debut, Rhythm of Youth, didn’t make much of an initial dent on the charts upon its March 20, 1982 arrival. Licensing to global territories took time; it would be 1983 before the album made its U.S. debut, and most American record buyers weren’t even aware of the band for months.

The turning point proved to be “The Safety Dance,” a song Ivan claims to have been inspired to write after being tossed out of a club for pogo dancing. And like Rhythm of Youth, it wasn’t an immediate hit — as he tells it, it wasn’t until the label commissioned a dance remix from the baffled band that the tide really started to turn.

“The label said to us that we had to do a dance remix of the song, and nobody knew what that was. We were told that there were a lot of them out there, and that we should just go and listen to some remixes and then do the same things,” Doroschuk recalled in conversation with Northern Transmissions. “So, basically that’s all we had to go on.”

It was good enough. “The Safety Dance” — coupled with a memorably absurd video featuring Doroschuk and a little person scampering through the English countryside in medieval garb — nailed the emerging synth-pop zeitgeist of the era. Its insistent melody, coupled with Doroschuk’s distinctive baritone vocals, proved irresistible at Top 40 radio; the song ultimately rose to No. 3 in the U.S., and proved nearly as successful in a number of territories around the world. They might have had a silly-sounding name and a lyrically inscrutable hit, but Men Without Hats were stars.

Unfortunately, their momentum proved short-lived. Their next release, 1984’s Folk of the ’80s (Part III), failed to come anywhere near the chart heights reached by its predecessor, and although they notched another Top 20 hit with the title track from 1987’s Pop Goes the World, their sound had gone through a number of changes at that point — and it’d go through even more in the years to come. With 1991’s Sideways, Doroschuk embraced a guitar-based aesthetic inspired by the arrival of young groups like Nirvana, and the end result alienated the band’s label while continuing their commercial decline.

Men Without Hats split up in 1993, and for a long period, they seemed destined to be remembered as a footnote in ’80s chart history. Eventually, however, ’80s nostalgia caught up with the band’s legacy, and digital distribution — as well as the internet’s ability to unite geographically disparate members of cult fanbases — spurred a return. After a short-lived 2003 reunion ended with another hiatus, Doroschuk opted to revive the Men Without Hats mantle in 2010 with a new lineup, touring with a number of ’80s package lineups and eventually returning to the studio for their seventh studio LP, 2012’s Love in the Age of War.

Proudly embracing his band’s sonic heritage and freed from the sales expectations of his time in the major-label machine, Doroschuk shrugged off the “one-hit wonder” epithet typically applied to Men Without Hats while doing press for the Love in the Age of War LP — and signaled plans to continue following his creative bliss with or without another big single.

“The amount of music and the amount of people that put their life and … their fortune, their families, everything into this and in most of the cases – 99 percent of the cases – [it’s] never been heard,” Doroschuk told Rolling Stone. “So for me to be heard, one song is a blessing, twice is just twice as much. Anything else is just bonus for me.”

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