Down Under (R Strykert/C Hay) – Men At Work 1981
Eighties Oz Rock’s fairytale come true as La Trobe University (Melb.) students Colin Hay and Ron Strykert added Greg Ham, Jerry Spieser and John Rees to form Men At Work and went from Melbourne pub gigs at the Cricketers Arms Hotel (Melb) to simultaneous number ones on the US, UK and Australian album and single charts within two years with the album Business As Usual and the single Down Under and received the Grammy Award for Best New Act in 1983.
The band were just as surprised as everyone else at their overnight success, they were essentially a kind of art-student side project who became iconic spokesmen for their country, not that everyone really understood the deeper context of this song, which Colin Hay would only reveal many years later.
Men at Work came across as fresh, entertaining, irreverent and amusing with their reggae-infused rhythms, off-beat lyrics, front man Colin Hay’s divergent eye (a condition known as exotropia), kangaroo-hopping across the stage at live performances, and Greg Ham’s sprightly Jethro Tull-style flute.
Columbia Records recognised their potential and teamed them with American producer Peter McIan and their debut album Business as Usual, completely produced in Melbourne, emerged as a fresh, whimsical and instantly infectious set of grooves, which would ultimately sell over fifteen million copies. Off the back of intensive touring and supporting such acts as Fleetwood Mac, Men at Work took Who Can It Be Now, with Ham’s storming sax and Strykert’s insistent guitar riffs, to #1 in the US and #2 locally.
Their second single was Down Under a witty, irreverent, hook-laden reggae-tinged song, inspired by Barry Humphrey’s archetypical fictional Aussie Ocker Barry McKenzie, so naturally the first sound you hear is the opening refrain being played by Jerry Speiser striking eight empty beer and spirits bottles with a drumstick. The song has assumed the identity of an unofficial national anthem, replete with references to chundering, blundering, fried-out Kombies, Vegemite sandwiches, Aussies on the hippie trail, and heads full of zombie (potent marijuana).
Down Under originally appeared as the B-side of a single titled Keypunch Operator which was released in 1980 by the band but stiffed, however under the steady hand of McIan Downunder was re-birthed, removing the original bassline, speeding up the tempo and raising the pitch of Hay’s vocals, so elevating what was formerly regarded as a novelty song, to became something altogether more knowing, mocking, accessible and extremely popular. Down Under topped the charts in the US, UK, NZ, Denmark, Germany and Australia, where it occupied the #1 position for 9 weeks.
The cheeky, naive battler spirit inherent in the lyrics and Hay’s expressive vocals made it a natural to become the team song for Australia’s successful America’s Cup challenge in 1983 which saw Australia wrest the cup from the USA for the first time in 132 years. A humorous promo video, made by John Whitterton, and shot mostly at Cronulla beach, further reinforced the band’s sense of fun and flippancy and its release coincided with the rise of MTV which was hungry for such material.
Contrary to these perceptions of the song, Hay is on record as saying that the song had a darker subtext which he revealed in a 2017 interview with Songwriter Universe “It’s not a song about waving a flag, it’s really a song about the plundering… of the wealth of a country for short-term gain.”
The song subsequently became embroiled in a copyright dispute with the owners of the rights to the song “Kookaburra” (Sits in the Old Gum Tree), after the similarities were inadvertently highlighted in an episode of the TV show Spicks and Specks. Kookaburra had been written by Girl Guide leader Marion Sinclair in 1937, and Larrikin Music, the owners of the copyright, claimed that the flute riffs were lifted from this song.
Sinclair’s folk song was assumed by Australians to be as communally- owned as Waltzing Matilda, Greg Ham had included a five-bar sample of the folk song in the ninety-three bar arrangement of Down Under, Larrikin sued for 40% of the song’s total publishing revenue, ultimately being awarded only 5% in 2009.
However legal costs were substantial for all parties, rumoured to be in excess of $4 million, and there were some doubts about the true origins of Kookaburra anway, which sounded like a traditional Welsh folk song, with the less than catchy title of Wele ti’n eistedd aderyn du. But as Marion Sinclair had passed away, the original provenance of her song could not be established. APRA rated Down Under the fourth best song written in the 1926-2001 era. Greg Ham sadly took his own life in 2012.