Twenty-five years ago today--on July 5, 1991--Men Without Hats played the 86 Street Music Hall.
Best known for the poppy, keyboard-based '80s hit "The Safety Dance", the band had recently switched styles, its new album Sideways embracing a much heavier vibe, apparently inspired by a fondness for Nirvana.
I liked what they were doing with the gitboxes, but the album went nowhere, the band left its label, and Men Without Hats wasn't heard from for another 12 years or so.
Shows you what I know.
Anyway, before the Vancouver show I did an interview with lead singer and main songwriter Ivan Doroschuk, which was published in the Straight the day before the gig.
From the sound of past pop ditties like “Safety Dance” and “Pop Goes the World”, you wouldn’t have expected Men Without Hats to eventually emerge as guitar-oriented hard-rockers. But even though the thundering power chords of the band’s latest single/video, “Sideways”—title track on the Montreal group’s new album—are surprisingly tough, Hats front man Ivan Doroschuck claims that they don’t represent a new beginning for his band.
“When Men Without Hats started out it was a guitar band,” says Doroschuck, on the phone from his Montreal home. “In ’79 we were doing Cramps covers and Chris Spedding songs, and a lot of experimental stuff with prepared guitars, like Fred Frith. Then we just got into electronics after that, and we took the electronic thing pretty far. We just wanted to explore different things now.”
Doroschuck—who brings his band to 86 Street on Friday (July 5)—says the politically inclined approach the group took in its earlier days has also lightened somewhat, with more emphasis put on a good-time, carefree attitude.
“The thing about Men Without Hats was always trying to subvert the airwaves,” says the singer/songwriter/guitarist. “A song like ‘Hey Men’ or ‘Pop Goes the World’—or even ‘Safety Dance’ for that matter—had sort of a political message: you can dance if you want to, you know, just do your own thing. So the aim with the Hats was always trying to say things that a lot of people weren’t saying, to get a political message across in a top-40 pop format. But this time we decided to just rock out.”
Doroschuck and his brothers Colin (guitar and vocals) and Stefan (bass, guitar, and production) got some help on Sideways from three other Montreal string-benders: Voivod’s Michel Langevin, the Doughboys’ John Kastner, and Felix Matte from Idées Noires. Kentucky Headhunters lead guitarist Greg Martin also sat in on three tracks, and the half-dozen pickers really get things hummin’ on a riff-riddled version of the Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus”.
“I’ve always been a big Beatles fan,” says Doroschuck. “And I’ve always said that my two main influences in making music were the Beatles—’cause they taught me what a good song was—and the Sex Pistols, ’cause they taught me to get up off my ass and do it.”
The Fab Four also left a lasting impression on guitarist Langevin, as seen by one of Sideways’ more unusual song titles. The title “Kenbarbielove” comes from Langevin’s early belief that those were the words the Beatles were actually singing when he first heard “Can’t Buy Me Love”. And an instrumental on Sideways, “Life After Diamond Head”, was inspired by another influential British band.
“Phil Manzanera of Roxy Music put out an album called Diamond Head,” says Doroschuck, “and it was at that period for me when music changed. I was trying to get back that old Roxy sound, when Eno was playing keyboards.”
Men Without Hats’ own keyboard-based sound paid off in a big way when the group’s first single, 1983’s “Safety Dance”, went top-10 in 20 countries and received a Grammy nomination. But Doroschuck’s early success on the charts hasn’t blinded him to all the other, non-musical factors that go into the making of a hit.
“We were just basically a garage band from Montreal, and the cards just fell together,” he recalls. “There’s a certain amount of talent involved, but the talent stretches out to just getting all the things together—getting the video happening, getting the song moving up the chart, getting the tour happening, all the press and promo. Everything has to come together at the same time to make these things happen.”
While the powerful blare of “Sideways” is certainly a musical departure from “Safety Dance”, one thing that hasn’t changed in the Men Without Hats camp is the band’s distinctly positive world-view. The new album’s title track exemplifies the Doroschuck brothers’ instinctive humanitarianism.
“That song, originally, was a celebration of early-morning sex,” says Ivan. “But it just grew into a celebration of all the different directions you can go in in life and all the different positions there are to be in. We live this very linear life, and it’s a very achievement-oriented society, and a lot of the rewards aren’t that appealing to everybody.
“We have this one set of rewards,” he adds, “and…I don’t know…we don’t pat enough people on the back for being good parents, we don’t give people enough credit for being just nice people and kind to children and animals, or for just being aware of what’s going on around them. And ‘Sideways’ is just sort of pointing that out, saying, ‘You don’t have to achieve, you just have to be, and be good and be nice and live. And that’s it.”