Men At Work were a success phenomena which comes along once in a decade — in any country. Early in 1983, not much more than three years after formation, they were holding down the number one single and album spot in both Britain and the United States — a grand slam only achieved in the past by the mega-star likes of Rod Stewart and Barbra Streisand. The group's debut album, Business As Usual, became the longest running number one debut LP in American chart history, displacing The Monkees. It remained at the summit for a staggering 15 weeks, shifting around 8 million copies during its stay. The Men's first two American single releases reached number one, as they had done in Australia.
These achievements had far greater significance than the dramatic international explosion of a hot new band. They represented a victory not just for Men At Work but for Australian music in general, For almost three decades this sort of breakthrough had been the ultimate wet dream of down under musicians — to develop a sound so irresistible, so unique that it would sweep the world and leave the titans and moguls goggle-eyed with disbelief. The Bee Gees had come close in the sixties but with Australia just a stepping stone for the three English-born singers, there was no real sense of national pride in their international exploits, The Easybeats, Sherbet, John Paul Young and Little River Band all made their mark but invariably it was short lived and not quite cataclysmic.
|Men At Work 1985 (L-R): Ron Strykert, Colin Hay, Greg Ham|
Being Australian was certainly no disadvantage. "Americans don't know much about Australia but they're fascinated by it," observed founding keyboards/reeds player Greg Ham after a North American tour. "There is this mystique, or at least a lack of knowledge and they have a thing about this being the Last Frontier. I think that a lot of Americans would like to feel that there is a last frontier around because they haven't got one of their own any more.
The irony of this American furore was that, as Colin Hay emphasises, "Americans were almost the last to be sold on us, they weren't quick off the mark at all". By the end of 1981, the band had notched up number one singles in Holland and Germany, a number two in France, and had scored a platinum album in Canada, but were still being passed over by CBS America, the company which would eventually present them with a plaque for generating $100 million worth of international record business.
"The A&R guy in New York turned the album down twice," wryly recalls Hay, "and the decision was overturned by the vice-president of the company. That was solely because Russell Deppler, our manager, used to sit in their offices from 8.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. wanting money. They finally decided to release the LP just to get rid of him, and that's no joke! Even then, at great cost to us, we hired an independent publicist to ring up the radio stations and sell them Men At Work. The first single was quirky and very different from what American radio played. The kids loved it, they thought it was a very cool sound, and it snowballed from there."
As the snowball grew almost ludicrously huge in the northern hemisphere, all was not well down south. As soon as international success became apparent, the heavily ingrained Tall Poppy Syndrome' began to manifest itself at home. As scores of sportsmen, politicians, artists and musicians have bitterly discovered, when the fiercely egalitarian Australians sense their own becoming 'too big for their boots' they set about cutting the tall poppies down to size. "That's why people leave this country," snarls Hay. "That's why they can't stand to be here any more. They have to go somewhere to just do their work and be appreciated for that, and nothing else. Americans are more positive, they put a priority on someone achieving what they can do, which I find is a quality which puts them apart from the rest. In its cleanest, purest form, it's the essence of 'I can achieve my dreams'. If I went to see a band in a New York club and I stood on the end of the queue, people would think I was a bit dumb because they like their star system. If I was in Melbourne and I pushed my way to the front of the queue, the reaction would be 'who the f**k does this bastard think he is'." Greg Ham concurs, "Every person in America is potentially a star, every cabby writes songs or has a friend who is in films. I get off on that sort of positive energy."
Air Supply had already become accustomed to being in the top three in America and the lower thirties at home, but for Men At Work the rejection was a cruel blow. Following their first triumphant US tour they flew home to play Narara, the huge outdoor rock festival, alongside such concert champions as the Angels and Dragon. The punters sat back smugly and said, 'O.K. big shots, show us your stuff. Tired and possibly intimidated, the Men turned in a lack lustre performance which generated derision and saw them widely dismissed as 'wimps'. Many arbiters of public taste were unashamed in their dismissal of the recent heroes as fabricated 'popstars', a venomous swear word. "What did upset us," admitted Ham, "was other bands who shot their mouths off about how they deserved success more than us. It was incredibly short-sighted because what we did helped every other Australian band trying to make it overseas.
By 1983 the roller coaster ride was beginning to lose its sheen for the five flippant but talented musicians who had been lucky to earn $50 a show at the dank Cricketer's Arms pub in the working class Melbourne suburb of Richmond not much more than two years before. They were playing what Rees describes as "a cross between Emerson, Lake & Palmer on speed and hippie punk". Even the American media was running out of angles on the rags to riches story (or 'dags to riches' as the band liked to refer to it). Men At Work were simply running out of interest and the cracks, even if they were not yet showing, had begun to rent the one-inviolable unit. By the end of an arduous 70 city tour, according to Hay, "the group became the Men who didn't care if they ever worked again".
"When the 1983 tour finished, for all intents and purposes it wasn't really a band then," explains Hay. "We all just ran away. Basically, the original line-up did not have a common goal, and we were never a cohesive unit, socially, philosophically or musically. We'd played together for five years and it was just clear that the band had to reform if it was going to survive. When you've worked with people for that long it's like being married to five different people at the same time. There's bound to be a couple of divorces along the way."
"After a while, Greg, Ron and I drifted back together and started playing each other's tunes," says Hay. "It was then that we realised we should really keep going as Men At Work. We tossed around the idea of changing the name but then we thought that'd be really stupid because for the next two years everybody would be asking us why we changed the name. Members of bands change all the time."
The break gave Hay the precious opportunity to slowly craft an album. "We recorded the first album in three weeks. I just had one and a half days to do my guitar bits. We didn't have a clue how things were done. Looking back, that LP has a charm for me. Cargo had just three songs that I liked." American producer Peter Mclan, despite his magnificent success, was dispensed with. Rhett Davies said no to a trip to Australia so Jimmy Lovine was flown in for a week. "We needed somebody to pull a bit of soul from us. Jimmy just didn't work. You couldn't just say it was that we had no common ground, It was more a case of two different planets going whoosh!, whoosh!, completely missing each other."
Agreed on the perilous path of self-production, Hay and Ham, with undetermined input from the seemingly disinterested Strykert, set about recording the
Two Hearts album, their third in Australia. "There were no artistic restrictions," says Hay, "Greg would produce my vocals and I'd produce his sax. It was very exciting to work like that."
Unfortunately, the excitement did not rub off on the buying public. At a glittering Sydney launch party, CBS executives read a cable from head office enthusing over the album and predicting another mega-million sales performance. However, when it hit the shops in America, purchasers stayed away in droves. The album lurched to 50 on Billboard and then faded away gracelessly. Hay's reaction to this debacle differed according to his mood. To one interviewer he snapped, "Cargo was supposed to have flopped because it only got to number three in America! And with this one, people say 'ooh, it's a stiff, isn't it?'. And I say 'yea I guess it is, it's only sold 750,000 copies'. Any other band that sells that much would be over the moon." But in a less defensive mood he conceded, "It was disappointing though. I went into a deep and lasting depression about that. I take it to heart, I make no bones about that. I hate it. I want it one more time, thank you very much. That will happen, if not today, it will happen tomorrow. I'm not in any hurry, but when a two month American tour gets pulled out from under you, you feel distress. We could have done that American tour but we couldn't do it on the level we planned on... I think it's the best album. I don't feel it deserves to be forgotten."
Following an extended break in 1984, the band started to fall apart. By the time they recorded their third and final release, drummer Jerry Speiser and bass player Johnathan Rees were already gone, replaced by session players. This left three core members, Scottish-born singer Colin Hay, keyboard/sax player and occasional vocalist Greg Ham and guitarist Ron Strykert. It's possible that Strykert may have left during the recording sessions, as he doesn't appear at all on two of the ten tracks. Two Hearts spawned the minor hit "Everything I Need."
Greg Ham cooled his heels a little and at least waited until "Maria" and "Hard Luck Story" had been given a chance. Inevitably, he too shuffled off into the sunset, muttering something about working on film and television scores. Both musicians, with exceptionally healthy bank balances, no doubt viewed with some distaste the prospect of hauling their carcasses around the world once more trying to rekindle a flame that had quite obviously flickered and all but died.
Hay would have none of it. His own inner furnace was far from extinguished. He railed against headlines proclaiming 'Men At Work Split' following the announcement of Ham's departure, screaming loudly to all who would listen that Men At Work was very much alive and kicking. "We are not going away," he warned one reporter. "There are a lot of people who want to kill the band off. They say we've had the knife into these guys for a while, now let's twist it. A lot of people felt our success wasn't warranted, they didn't realise how much work we put into it and how many things we did right. It offended people who had been trying for so long and doing things wrong for so long." To another writer the resilient Scotsman who admits to warming slowly to strangers thundered, "Listen, I don't care, I don't give a f**k what people say about my band. It's no concern to me. I'm only concerned with creating quality and that's what I've done, I've got no problems with that."
|Men At Work in the 90's|
Men at Work broke up shortly thereafter. Colin Hay and Greg Ham reformed the band for a reunion tour in 1996, with a live CD from the tour, Brazil, issued in 1998. In May 2001 "Down Under" was listed at No. 4 on the APRA Top 30 Australian songs and Business as Usual appeared in the book, 100 Best Australian Albums (October 2010). In February 2010 Larrikin Music Publishing won a case against Hay and Strykert, their record label (Sony BMG Music Entertainment) and music publishing company (EMI Songs Australia) arising from the uncredited appropriation of "Kookaburra" for the flute line in "Down Under". On 19 April 2012 Greg Ham's body was found at his home "in what police said were non-suspicious circumstances"
I was a huge Men at Work fan in my early twenty's. I listened to those first two albums countless times. Amazingly, I still remembered all of their lyrics after all that time. When Two Hearts first came out, it didn't hit me the same way as their first two. It was different than what I was expecting. It was different than what anybody was expecting. The trademark quirky wit of their first two albums gave way to a seriousness and maturity that must have resulted from their overwhelming international success. Two Hearts is evidence of a more meaningful and intense Men at Work. It's a shame we didn't get to hear more.
This post consists of a MP3 rip taken from the CD release of this album, and includes full album artwork for both LP and CD. Also included are three bonus tracks: 12 inch single extended versions of "Down Under" and "Sail To You" (thanks to Ozzie Musicman) and a live track "Blue Heaven" recorded at the Sun Plaza Hall, Tokyo in 1985 (sourced from Colin Hay's Website with thanks). Hope you enjoy this week's post.
01 - Man With Two Hearts
02 - Giving Up
03 - Everything I Need
04 - Sail To You
05 - Children On Parade
06 - Maria
07 - Stay At Home
08 - Hard Luck Story
09 - Snakes and Ladders
10 - Still Life
11 - Down Under (Extended Version)*
12 - Sail To You (Extended Version)*
13 - Blue Heaven (Bonus Live)+.
Men At Work:
Colin Hay - Vocals, Guitar
Ron Strykert - Guitar
Jeremy Alsop - Bass
Mark Kennedy - Drums
James Black - Guitar
Paul Gadsby - Bass
Ian Hackett - Drums
Kate Ceberano, Renee Geyer - Backing vocals
Men At Work Link (142Mb)