by Kevin Burton
What in the world was “The Safety Dance” all about anyway?
That’s just one avenue I walked down during my look into the best Canadian music in honor of Canada Day, which was yesterday, July 1.
I set out to create a top ten list of favorite songs by Canadian acts, but found it too big a task. There are so many acts I had no idea were Canadian!
Men Without Hats, the synth-pop band from Montreal, is one such act. Their signature hit is listed as number 22 on a list of the 50 best songs by Canadian acts compiled by the Penticton Herald from British Columbia, Canada. We’ll circle back to the hatless men and their dance a little later.
The very borders of my musical landscape are patrolled by Canadians. I like pop, R&B and rock if it isn’t any more countrified than Anne Murray or harder edged than Bryan Adams.
My favorite Bryan Adams tune is “This Time” from the 1983 Cuts Like A Knife album. My favorite Anne Murray song is “Shadows in the Moonlight,” which topped the country and adult contemporary charts in both Canada and the US. It was number ten on the Canadian singles chart and somehow rose only to 25 on the Hot 100.
Steppenwolf is listed as number 118 on a list of the 150 best-selling Canadian acts published in 2017 on the Canadian Music blog on WordPress.
With “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride” Steppenwolf was all over the soundtrack of the 60s.
But Wikipedia calls them a “Canadian-American” band. That’s another reason it’s hard to come up with a definitive Canadian list, changing band lineups can easily turn a band international.
The Herald ranks “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell as the best Canadian song of all time, but it might not even be Mitchell’s best. Her “Both Sides Now,” 33 on the list, is another song that makes you think.
Mitchell, quoted on Wikipedia, said that “Both Sides Now” was inspired by a passage in Henderson the Rain King, a 1959 novel by Saul Bellow.
“I was reading … Henderson the Rain King on a plane and early in the book Henderson … is also up in a plane. He’s on his way to Africa and he looks down and sees these clouds. I put down the book, looked out the window and saw clouds too, and I immediately started writing the song,” Mitchell said. “I had no idea that the song would become as popular as it did.”
Singer Alannah Myles is nowhere to be found on the best-selling Canadians list, but her brilliant Elvis Tribute “Black Velvet” is 19 on the best songs list. Canadians Christopher Ward and David Tyson wrote the song.
These three Canadians nailed the whole Elvis vibe and told the story of his influence.
Myles won a Grammy for best female rock performance for Black Velvet. I totally get that. I have always considered the song a sort of one-punch knockout. The way she says “Mississippi” to start the song alerts you that you are in for something special.
“According to Ward, a key line in the song is ‘A new religion that will bring you to your knees,’” according to Songfacts. “He says he got the idea for that line after realizing that Elvis’ effect on fans was similar to what churchgoers would feel after being exhorted by fundamentalist preachers.”
OK, so back to The Safety Dance. I never thought to peel it apart until now, considering it a piece of new wave cotton candy.
“Though music fans have often interpreted the song as a metaphor for nuclear war or a call for safe sex, Men Without Hats guitarist Stefan Doroschuk said in an online interview that ‘The Safety Dance’ is about non-conformism and everyone’s ability to leave their friends behind and strike out on their own,” According to Songfacts.
“His brother Ivan, who was Men Without Hats’ lead singer, claimed on VH1’s show True Spin that the specific inspiration was bouncers hassling people in bars who would “pogo” dance to the new wave songs of the early 80s. Said Ivan: ‘I was telling people it’s OK, you can slam dance if you want to.’”
So much great stuff came from Canada. We’ve just scratched the surface. Let’s talk more Canadian music Tuesday. Until then Canada, I stand on guard for thee.