Eighties Oz Rock’s fairy tale came true as Men At Work and went from Melbourne pub gigs at the Cricketers Arms Hotel (Richmond) to international acclaim, unimagined chart success, and ultimate implosion as the legendary band they had created, literally tore itself apart.
Simultaneous number one on the US and UK album and single charts in November 1982 with the album Business As Usual and the single Down Under, and a 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 their songs. They were bolshie and proudly outspoken, who espoused strong social and political convictions cloaked in larrikin humor and irreverent metaphors, but Colin Hay would only reveal the depth of the band’s ideology 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/lazy eye (a condition known as exotropia), kangaroo-hopping across the stage at live performances, Ron Strykert’s authoritative lead guitar, and Greg Ham’s sprightly Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull)-style flute.
Columbia Records had belatedly recognized their potential and teamed them with American producer Peter McIan (above) 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 and sit atop the US album charts for an incredible 15 weeks, only the unstoppable force of nature that was Michael Jackson’s Thriller, would knock it off the top. The band had already toured intensively and supported Fleetwood Mac on tour in North America, and taken Who Can It Be Now, with Ham’s storming sax and Strykert’s insistent guitar riff, to #1 in the US and #2 locally.
Their second single would be Down Under, a witty, irreverent, hook-laden, reggae-tinged song, partly inspired by Barry Humphrey’s archetypical fictional Aussie Ocker Barry McKenzie, so naturally the first sound you hear, according to the amusing promo video, is the opening refrain being played by drummer 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 (vomiting), blundering (innumerable endearing social faux pas), fried-out Kombies, Vegemite sandwiches ( a spread favored by Australians, but not universally loved), Aussies on the hippie trail, and heads full of zombie (potent marijuana).
Down Under originally appeared as the B-side of a single titled Key Punch Operator, which was released in 1980 by the band but failed to chart, however under the steady hand of producer Peter McIan, Down Under was re-birthed. The original bass line was removed, speeding up the tempo, and then by raising the pitch of Hay’s vocals, the real persona of the song emerged, as it elevated what was formerly regarded as a novelty song, to become something altogether more knowing, mocking, accessible, and instantly popular. Down Under topped the charts in the US where it was #1 for four weeks, UK, NZ, Denmark, Germany and Australia, where it occupied the #1 position for 9 weeks, with global sales in excess of 3 million.
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 (Syd), 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 sub-text 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”, and the promo clip does satirise those who would put up the “For Sale” sign anywhere in the Lucky Country where they thought they could make a buck. The Business As Usual album had cost a paltry $30,000 to make and the follow up album Cargo approx. $70,000, collectively they generated global sales in excess of $40 million, but with success came tension and friction within the band which would buckle under the pressure of the weight of their own phenomenal success.
Down Under 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 (above seated at the piano) in 1932, as a round-the-campfire singalong tune, Larrikin Music, the owners of the copyright, claimed that the flute riffs in Kookaburra had been lifted from this song.
In the song’s promo video, Greg Ham sits in a gum tree with a toy koala bear perched on his shoulder as he plays the flute, and at the end of the song he pulls the same koala along with him over the sand hills on a leash, the imagery was obvious and demonstrated the guileless and completely innocent manner in which Greg and the band had appropriated the country’s cultural icons, be they fauna, or sample riffs from a song that had been around for over forty years.
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 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 $4.0 million. There were also lingering doubts about the true origins of Kookaburra anyway, which sounded like a traditional Welsh folk song with the less than catchy title Wele ti’n eistedd aderyn du, but as Marion Sinclair had passed away, the original provenance of her song could not be authenticated.
APRA rated Down Under the fourth best song written in the 1926-2001 era, and it was performed at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in front of a television audience of 2 billion people. Greg Ham sadly took his own life in 2012, after he became depressed following the claims of plagiarism and subsequent litigation, about the song.