HIDDEN tracks

Music was Pete Paphides' first love. And at this rate, it will be his last.

Men Without Hats

Tue, 1st January 2013

I bet Ivan wouldn’t have found me ridiculous. Ivan would have let me be in his weird gang. I could have been the Donkey to his Shrek, the Ralph Malph to his Fonz.”

It’s almost thirty years since I first heard The Safety Dance by Men Without Hats. I still have a videotape somewhere with the clip that introduced me to the song. Back in 1983, Top Of The Pops used to have a regular feature in which Jonathan King would play bits of songs that were doing well in America. I think we only got about a minute of The Safety Dance, but in that minute, the sight of chief Hatsperson Ivan Doruschuk in artisan waistcoat and chestnut tresses (in 1983, having a lead singer with long unkempt hair was practically a deviant act) skipping through an English village with a the Timotei girl’s mad sister and a dwarf made me a fully paid-up member of Ivan’s weird gang. Of course, the thing about The Safety Dance video is that this is exactly what it was designed to do. The video to The Safety Dance cast Ivan as a synth-pop pied piper, arriving unannounced in a picture-postcard English village with a new message to impart. Don’t listen to “them”! The people who are stopping you from dancing! The dance-thwarters! You can dance if you want to!

I probably developed a bit of a mini-crush on Ivan. I had an older brother, but he thought I was ridiculous. I bet Ivan wouldn’t have found me ridiculous. Ivan would have let me be in his weird gang. I could have been the Donkey to his Shrek, the Ralph Malph to his Fonz. In this world, I was far too self-conscious to dance in public, but, of course, Ivan’s manifesto stipulated that I would have to dance, otherwise “he was no friend of mine.” Well, fine. They looked like they were having a much better time than me over there. Besides, if I join Ivan’s weird gang, no-one would know me. They wouldn’t know that I was too scared to dance. I could jettison my entire personality and get a new one! Finally, I could dance!

So yes, If there was a Narnian portal that would have allowed me access to Ivan’s weird gang, I would have gone there like a shot. Alas, the nearest option available to me was Easy Listening Records in Acocks Green, where The Safety Dance was available both on seven and twelve-inch. Back in those days, the logic I would apply to record buying was simple. If I liked a song enough, I would want to buy as much of it as possible. Hence, if an extended mix was available, I would always opt for that. One Saturday morning, with that week’s freshly-dispensed pocket money in my hand, I walked into Easy Listening and bought an extra five inches of The Safety Dance. I didn’t want regular Safety Dance. I wanted large Safety Dance, thank you. And when I got home and played it, I was delighted. Men Without Hats had extended it by building in an extra bit before the first first. Over a catchy little synth motif, this feature Ivan speaking the first verse, thus ramping up your expectations for the moment when the more familiar synth intro begins.

Of course, most normal 14 year-olds would have left it there. But I was now in a cult. I played the b-sides of The Safety Dance and they pushed Men Without Hats into the realm of Bands Whose Name I Would Write On My Adidas Holdall With My Special Metallic Pen. I Got The Message, in particular, with its talk of “the rhythm of youth” bolstered my perception of Ivan as kind surrogate big brother. When they finally played in Birmingham, I could hang around after the gig. I would tell him about the other bands I liked – The Doors and Dexys Midnight Runners – and he’d say, “Hey kid. You’re pretty cool for a 14 year-old.” Maybe that would be the moment I’d officially join his weird gang.

But no live shows were forthcoming. The follow-up single wasn’t a hit. This was probably because the record company had elected to make the follow-up single I Got The Message, thus giving everyone who had bought The Safety Dance no reason to buy this one. Not me though. I was different. I took I Got The Message home and my faith was rewarded by the two b-sides on the 12-inch. The first of these songs, Utter Space is pretty great, if not hugely dissimilar to the sort of I-am-not-quite-here air of dislocation found on records by the likes of Thomas Dolby, John Foxx and Gary Numan.

Freeways, however, was something else. Freeways was Men Without Hats’ very own Autobahn. “American radio/In your homes and bars/It’s music to my ears/In a foreign car,” sings Ivan over as a succession of icy synth chords fan billow out over a relentlessly basic electronic beat. If you didn’t know any better, you might mistake Freeways for a Flight Of The Conchords track. Just as Flight Of The Conchords approach their favourite records like a stalker approaches their heroes (a stalker knows they can never really be equal, so they default to sabotage) Men Without Hats do something similar with teutonic synth pop. What results is an audible wrongness. But the wrongness isn’t a problem. The wrongness merely makes me like it more: “My seatbelt’s fastened tight/I feel secure/Both hands upon the wheel/My life’s insured/If you’re feeling low, driving’s the cure.” Neither does it matter that Ivan’s not actually trying to take the piss (not even when he does an entire verse in the sort of German you might hear on b-movie depictions of Nazi Germany). As with Flight Of The Conchords’ best songs, Freeways is a love letter to great pop, in this case, almost certainly written in a child’s best handwritten approximation of pocket calculator font.

So, it seemed only natural, at the end of 1983, that if I saw a Men Without Hats album in the next WHSmith record sale I would make it mine. A few months later, my plan went totally according to itself. After handing over £1.99, I took Rhythm Of Youth home and metaphorically joined Ivan’s weird gang. I’m not sure what I made of Living In China, with the chorus, “They got the red book, they got the new look/All the little people that are living in China/They got ping pong, egg foo yung/All the little people that are living in China.” By the time, it got to the bit about “The Gang Of Four trying to make it as a western band,” I think I decided it was about the disconnection between our fetishisation of communism and the reality. But I realise even now that it might just be a song about all the little people that are living in China.

And that was pretty much where it peaked for me and Men Without Hats. For all of that, however, I kept the records. Looking once again at the Safety Dance video, I can see why it pushed the buttons of a socially inept 14 year-old in Birmingham. For a second, it was as though pop had been gatecrashed by a well-meaning if earnest youth club leader saying, “Hey!You don’t have to follow ‘their’ rules! Let’s do away with all this fakeness and talk about what we really feel!” The English village scenery, the folk imagery and Ivan’s look all fed into that, as did the interview in which he ventured, “Boy George has to dress like a goof to get to number one.” Yes, it seems silly now, but pop will always need its earnest youth club leaders. Try muting the Safety Dance video and play an Arcade Fire song over it and you’ll see what I mean.

Back in 2013, after a wait of 30 years, Men Without Hats are finally coming to my town. Tonight, they’re set to play a small show at Islington Academy which, in all likelihood, will be exclusively attended by their fellow Canadians. Needless to say, I’ll be there too. Finally, I get to join Ivan’s weird gang.