Men At Work’s Down Under might be one of the most distinguishable 1980s pop tunes. Heck, it might even be one of the most identifiable songs in pop, period. How many tunes in the genre are guided by a flute melody, in the first place?
But the band from Down Under, not only had the genius of that song in its cannon, from a debut album, no less, but a string of hit tunes which invaded the United States, and the rest of the world, in the early 1980s, a feat also achieved in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
The band from Melbourne, which began life in 1978, started out like most – plying its trade in the club circuit, and soon, gained a reputation as one of the hottest unsigned live acts in the country. CBS Records eventually signed Men At Work, which got its name from a roadworks signboard.
The pop rock riot of a first album, Business As Usual, begins with blower Greg Ham’s cutting saxophone, underpinned by the moodiness of Who Can It Be Now?’s song structure. The jaunty rhythm is perfectly juxtaposed against the slick sounds of the emerging new wave. Lead singer Colin Hay’s paranoia of being hounded by debt collectors, the song’s premise, slices through with his metallic voice.
Down Under, which relates the tale of a proud Australian travelling the world and sharing his life experiences, is of course, the apple of the album’s eye, even if only in the popularity stakes. But take away the glamour of the song, and it still stands tall as a tune exquisitely crafted with the catchiest of melodic twists.
Be Good Johnny, the third biggest track off Business As Usual, is a conceptual take from Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode. Hay sees life through the eyes of a nine-year-old constantly beleaguered by the moral police and adult world.
But the rest of the album is just as enjoyable. I Can See It In Your Eyes is a sweet pop ditty with a sunshiny vibe. But Underground is perhaps the album’s sleeping hit, another quirky gem by the band which had single potential written all over it, yet remained an album track. And the sprawling Down By The Sea, which concludes the album, displays the band’s elaborate arrangement skills with its balminess.
Business As Usual earned Men At Work a number of amazing accolades – the first Australian band to have a No 1 album and single on the Billboard charts simultaneously. That was definitely cause to put some shrimp on the barbie and chug a few.
The album also spent 15 weeks at No 1 on the Billboard 200 from late 1982 to early 1983 and the band won the Best New Artist gong at 1983 Grammy Awards, the same time Michael Jackson swept up everything else.