Why Men at Work Struggled With Their Second Album ‘Cargo’
When the second Men at Work album arrived on April 29, 1983, it did so amid great expectations. The Australian pop-rock quintet's debut title Business as Usual had been released the previous year and wound up spending 15 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts, despite their American label’s initial doubt over launching it at all.
In fact, Cargo was already in the band’s past, having been completed in the middle of 1982 but held over because of its predecessor’s continuing success. The lead single “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive” had arrived a whopping six months earlier, and already illustrated that frontman Colin Hay and company intended to continue on the path established by Business as Usual while displaying a little more texture than before.
“We were more subversive than a lot of people gave us credit for,” Hay told Classic Bands later, noting that their hit single “Down Under” was an exploration of the “plundering” of foreign lands and not really the light-hearted anthem it appeared to be.
Watch the Video for "Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive"
“Overkill,” the second and best-selling single from Cargo, was an example of the exception proving the rule. While it features Hay’s Sting-like vocals, it didn’t carry Men at Work’s usual reggae touches, instead displaying a reflective, melancholy texture.
“‘Overkill’ was written when [the band] was really starting to take off,” Hay said in 2017. “And I thought to myself, 'Well, nothing’s going to be the same ever again. We’re not going to able to walk in the same neighborhoods with the same level of anonymity as before,' and I knew that things were happening very quickly. I was also developing quite a challenging kind of drinking habit, you know? So, I thought I was going to have to address this at some point. So there were a few things that were concerning me, about diving in the deep end of life with a drink. Was I up for it?”
Cargo hit No. 1 in Australia but only No. 3 in the U.S., while two more singles – “It’s a Mistake” and “High Wire” – followed later in 1983. There was no doubt it hadn’t achieved the level of success that Business as Usual; but then, that would have been something of a miracle. While reviews continued to hail Hay’s voice and lyrics, accusations of focusing on two strong songs and completing the job with fillers were leveled, while other reviews suggested there were no real hits at all.
Watch the Video for "Overkill"
Hay had a different theory as to why the album suffered from the sophomore jinx. “I think we made the classic mistake of releasing Cargo too soon in America," he said. "But we were being loyal to all our fans. We'd been loyal to our Australian fans, 'cause our first album had been out for a long time. We felt we should release the second album because people wanted it.”
Men at Work became a breakneck-speed phenomenon, but they were to slam to a sudden halt within three years. In fact, the bolts were already beginning to strain during the Cargo era, which was their last album to feature the classic lineup. Reflecting on their 1986 split, Hay admitted: “[I]t was never very easy. There were some very strong, underlying problems that we really didn't address.”