35 Years Ago: Men at Work Become Stars With ‘Business as Usual’
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Men at Work released its debut album, Business as Usual, on Nov. 9, 1981, in Australia. Buoyed by the success of second single “Down Under”—which had reached No. 1 on the singles chart by the start of 1982—the LP established the troupe as one of the most successful acts of all time in their home country.
The band’s origins were far humbler, however. In, 1978 Scotland transplant Colin Hay and guitarist/vocalist/bassist Ron Strykert formed an acoustic duo. That performing partnership coalesced into a songwriting partnership that produced (among other things) “Down Under,” a song that originally appeared on the flipside of Men At Work’s 1980 debut single, the quirky, country-inflected “Keypunch Operator.”
By this time, Hay and Strykert had been joined by bassist John Rees, drummer Jerry Speiser and flautist/keyboardist/saxophonist Greg Ham on drums. That lineup teamed up with producer Peter McIan for Business as Usual, an LP that still feels like a perfect bridge between classic ’70s rock and fresh ’80s sounds.
Watch the Video for “Who Can It Be Now?”
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Both “I Can See It in Your Eyes” and the Genesis-esque “Touching the Untouchables” possess a prog vibe, thanks mostly due to the guitar tone, while Ham’s saxophone and sudden bursts of unexpected rhythms lend an askew vibe to “Underground.” The frantic tempo and jittery keyboards of both “Helpless Automaton” and “Be Good Johnny” embody the zany new wave popularized by groups such as XTC and Split Enz; “Catch a Star” has a laid-back ska vibe; and “People Just Love to Play With Words” also leverages sax, unique rhythmic cadences and modern keyboards to create a modern-sounding pop-rock song.
Thematically, the latter two songs dance around romantic intentions, while “Down by the Sea” describes a passionate interlude. In general, however, anxiety and restlessness permeate Business as Usual‘s lyrics—from the paranoia of “Who Can It Be Now?” (a song said to be inspired by bill collectors coming after Hay) and sadness of “I Can See It in Your Eyes,” which addresses the moment when someone realizes a relationship is over, to the technology fears of “Helpless Automaton.” The record also contained occasional bits of subtle commentary—as on the hit “Down Under,” which expresses the essence of Australia as seen through the lens of people around the world.
A contemporary Canberra Times review of the album by Garry Raffaele called “Down Under” a “most perceptive piece of music” and says it “strikes a chord with every Australian who’s left these shores to travel, images of the Ugly Australian.” When describing Business as Usual In general, however, Raffaele adds “there is a delicacy about this music— and that is not a thing you can say about too many rock groups. The flute and reeds of Greg Ham do much to further that.” Sadly, Ham’s indelible flute line in “Down Under” became the subject of ugly litigation decades later, thanks to its perceived similarity to the children’s song “Kookaburra.” (Courts ruled against Men at Work in the copyright infringement case, and required the band’s label and songwriters Hay and Strykert to fork over a percentage of royalties for the song.)
Business as Usual resonated with Australians, going triple-platinum by mid-1982 and hitting No. 1 on the album chart. But Men at Work took off around the world as well. The band opened large Fleetwood Mac shows in Canada. “Then after that tour, we went off and did our own gigs in Canada, playing to almost as many people as Fleetwood Mac were playing to in America — 13,000 to 15,000 people,” Hay recalled in a 2012 Rock Cellar interview. “I thought, ‘Wow! This is out of control.'” Yet Men at Work initially had trouble getting traction in the U.S.; in fact, Business as Usual wasn’t released there until April 22, 1982, a delay Hay explained in that same interview.
“The record was rejected twice by the A&R department of CBS in America because they didn’t think there were any hits on the record – despite the fact that ‘Who Can it Be Now?’ and ‘Down Under’ were on it,” he says. “They were idiots. Early on it was really quite difficult to get a release in America.” Things didn’t take off right away there, either: The July 17, 1982 issue of Billboard features a short introduction to the band.
However, after Business as Usual was available in the U.S. and gained traction, it became a sensation. Not only did it land at the top of the Billboard Top 200 for 16 straight weeks, “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” became early MTV favorites. In fact, Men at Work itself became channel darlings for years to come: recording promos, serving as guest VJs and even participating in a “One Night Stand With Men at Work” contest.
Watch a Promo for MTV’s “One Night Stand With Men at Work” Contest
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The 1983 Grammy for Best New Artist followed, capping a 1982 that Hay said 30 years later “was quite phenomenal, but I don’t really think about it all that much. For me, it was tinged with some mixed feelings I had about the band I was in. We really should have made more of it. Yes, we had massive success, but we were in a position where we really could have slammed it home in a way. Creatively, we could have gone further and made some other great albums, but it just wasn’t in that group of people to go the distance.”
In 2016, Hay was blunter in an interview about what the sudden success did to Men at Work. “In a short time we’d gone from a regional band in Australia to international stars,” he says. “The time was pretty crazy. Some tensions already existed within the band, made worse by our heavy drinking, became exacerbated. I wasn’t at all ready for what happened, and Ron was rightfully angry that I became the theoretical “leader” of a band the two of us had founded. Everyone wanted to interview me, and in my arrogance I let that happen.
“As for the rest of the band we did what all kids do when they suddenly become big: We partied far too much, did a lot of drugs and booze, and acted like idiots,” he continued. “A year after the album came out the music was becoming secondary to the lifestyle, something we’d swore would never happen. The second album (Cargo) also hit number one but that was strictly on the coattails of the first. By that time the wheels were coming off.”
Indeed, in 1984 Rees and Speiser left the band—at the behest of Hay, who in that same interview says he “called them up and told them that ‘their services were no longer required.’ Not my best moment. I didn’t even tell them face to face.”
Hay eventually got sober, but lingering struggles dogged other members of Men at Work. Strykert recalled in a March 2016 interview he once was homeless and had been in jail in Livingston, Mont., where he now lives. The band co-founder also allegedly threatened to kill Hay in 2007, a situation the singer addressed with grace in 2012.
“Ron and me worked together as a duo for about a year before Men at Work were formed,” Hay says. “When I knew Ron, he was a very inspirational guy and was really important for the band and for me as a songwriter and musician. He’s a beautiful guitar player and he created beautiful soundscapes. And that’s the Ron I know. There’s really nothing else to say about Ron, because the Ron you’re talking about, I don’t know who that person is. So when I think of Ron, I think of that beautiful, inspiring musician I knew who was so important for me as a songwriter.”
Watch the Video for “Be Good Johnny”
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In another blow, Ham died in 2012. “He went too young — way too young,” Hay told the Plain Dealer in 2012 after the death of his friend, who he had known since high school. “I always imagined getting older with Greg. I used to see him all the time when I’d go back to Melbourne. … We would have coffee and we would talk about a lot of things. He was truly a man with a golden heart.”
However, Hay has soldiered forward and continues to make fine records as a solo artist (including 2015’s excellent Next Year People), and even toured with Barenaked Ladies and Violent Femmes in summer 2015. And even today, his setlists include plenty of Business as Usual songs—the hits, of course, but also “Down by the Sea,” “I Can See It in Your Eyes” and “Catch a Star,” which is a testament to the enduring nature of those songs.
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