The remarkable story of Men At Work starts with Scottish born singer Colin Hay (above), born in 1953, whose parents James and Isabela ran a music shop in Glasgow, and gave young Colin the run of all the instruments there. In 1967 the family migrated to Australia, Colin was 14, he acquired a15-watt amplifier, and started amateur gigging, in 1978 he met Ron Strykert, a fellow art student at La Trobe University (Vic).
Hay (vocals, guitar, above left) and Strykert (lead guitar, vocals, above right) performed as an acoustic duo in 1978-79, and in the stage musical Riff Raff in Sydney in 1978.
Upon relocating back to Melbourne, the band began to grow out of jam sessions at the Grace Darling Hotel in Fitzroy (Melb), and gradually the classic MAW lineup emerged -Hay, Strykert, Jerry Speiser (drums), John Rees (bass) and Greg Ham (flute, sax, keyboards)- and they soon established a solid reputation around Melbourne’s inner suburban pubs. Left to right – Ham, Rees, Hay, Speiser, and Strykert.
At this time the band did not really take themselves too seriously, and projected a slightly parodic, anarchic sense of humor in their original compositions, and a quirkiness that set them apart at their live performances. They landed a long-term residency at the Cricketers Arms Hotel, Richmond (below), not far from the MCG, and Men At Work soon became known as the best unsigned band in the country, until they inked a deal with Columbia Records in 1981.
In March of that year they headed into the Richmond Recorders studio (Melb) with American producer Peter McIan, below (Franne Gold, Serious Young Insects), to cut Who Can It Be., which would be the first single to emerge from the sessions that would ultimately produce their debut blockbuster album Business As Usual.
In 1979 lead vocalist Colin Hay wrote the music for Who Can It Be Now in a tree house that he and his girlfriend shared in Bermagul (NSW), and he would complete the lyrics in 1981, after he had relocated to an apartment building in St Kilda (Melb). Here he lived next to drug dealers, and people would often confuse Hay’s apartment for the dealers. The number of people that would knock on his door unnerved him to the point where he was scared to open his door, regardless of who was there. The opening lyrics to the song capture this scenario perfectly “Who can it be knocking at my door ?/Go ‘way, don’t come ’round here no more/Can’t you see that it’s late at night?/I’m very tired and I’m not feeling right/All I wish is to be alone/Stay away, don’t you invade my home/Best off if you hang outside/Don’t come in, I’ll only run and hide.” At the time, Hay was also anxious about his music career, which had yet to take off, and in a 2015 interview, Hay explained: “I was trying to get out of the situation I was in, which is that I didn’t really have any money…It seemed at that particular time everyone who knocked on my door wanted something from me that I either didn’t have or didn’t want to give them. That could be money, or it could simply be time that I didn’t want to give them.”
Who Can It Be was an impressive debut single, the call and response between the vocals and Ham’s storming saxophone during the chorus were bang on the money, and the lyrical narrative of seclusion and paranoia, which merged satire with ironic humour, was offbeat and engaging “I’ve done no harm, I keep to myself/ There’s nothing wrong with my state of mental health/I like it here with my childhood friend/Here they come, those feelings again!
Released as a single in Australia in April 1981 it hit the local charts and peaked at #2 but the US office of Columbia remained unimpressed with MAW’s new wave pop, and didn’t believe it would succeed Stateside, in fact MAW would make their initial international break through to audiences in the western provinces of Canada, while opening for Fleetwood Mac on a North American tour. By November ’81 the second single off the album, Downunder, had rocketed to the top of the Australian charts and Columbia were forced to review their original opinion about Men At Work. Six months after Who Can It Be had been a hit in Australia, Columbia rather belatedly released it onto the US market, where it climbed to #1 in October ’82, and top twenty in Canada, South Africa, Israel, and Ireland, notching up global sales in excess of one million. At the 1981 ARIA Awards ceremony Who Can It Be scored the Best Debut Single and Best New Talent Awards, the laconic bar band from Melbourne, who enjoyed deflating the obsession of those preoccupied with vacuous ideals of celebrity and fame, were about to be confronted with those very same demons, and they would be consumed by them.