Men at Work were an Australian rock band best known for their 1981 hit "Down Under". Formed in 1979, their founding mainstay was Colin Hay on lead vocals; he formed the group with Jerry Speiser on drums and Ron Strykert on lead guitar. They were joined by Greg Ham on flute, saxophone, and keyboards and John Rees on bass guitar. This line-up achieved national and international success in the early 1980s. In January 1983, they were the first Australian artists to have a simultaneous No. 1 album and No. 1 single in the United States Billboard charts – Business as Usual (released on 9 November 1981) and "Down Under" (1981), respectively. With the same works, they achieved the same distinction of a simultaneous No. 1 album and No. 1 single on the Australian, New Zealand and United Kingdom charts. Their second album, Cargo (2 May 1983) was also No. 1 in Australia, No. 2 in New Zealand, No. 3 in the US, and No. 8 in the UK. Their third album, Two Hearts (3 April 1985), reached the top 20 in Australia and top 50 in the US.
At the Grammy Awards of 1983 they won the Best New Artist category; while at the ARIA Music Awards of 1994 they were inducted into the related Hall of Fame. Men at Work have sold over 30 million albums worldwide. According to Australian musicologist, Ian McFarlane, "[i]rrespective of the band's fairytale rise to prominence, [their] phenomenal success inextricably created worldwide interest in Australia and Australian music ... [they] simply opened the floodgates with little more than a clutch of great songs" The group disbanded in 1986 and reformed in 1996 to disband again by 2002.
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 was found dead at his home of an apparent heart attack.
The nucleus of Men at Work formed in Melbourne in 1979 with Colin Hay on lead vocals; Jerry Speiser on drums; and Ron Strykert on lead guitar; they were soon joined by Greg Ham on flute and keyboards; and then John Rees on bass guitar. Hay had emigrated to Australia in 1967 from Scotland with his family. In 1978, he had formed a duo with Strykert, which expanded by mid-1979 with the addition of Speiser and progressive rocker Greg Sneddon on keyboards (ex-Alroy Band). They formed an unnamed four-piece group. The band's first experience in the recording studio was recording the music to Riff Raff, a low-budget stage musical on which Sneddon had worked.
Sneddon left and was replaced in late 1979 by Ham, and when Rees joined they adopted the name Men at Work from a construction zone sign near an early venue, The Cricketer's Arms Hotel, Richmond. The band built a "grass roots" reputation as a pub rock band. In 1980 the group issued their debut single, "Keypunch Operator" backed by "Down Under", with both tracks co-written by Hay and Strykert. It was "self-financed" and appeared on their own independent, M. A. W. label. Australian musicologist, Ian McFarlane, felt the A-side was "a fast-paced country-styled rocker with a clean sound and quirky rhythm". Despite not appearing in the top 100 on the Australian Kent Music Report Singles Chart, by the end of that year the group had "grown in stature to become the most in-demand and highly paid, unsigned band of the year".
Early in 1981 Men at Work signed with the Australian branch of Columbia Records on the recommendation of Peter Karpin, the label's A&R person. Fran of the Woroni caught their performance at the Refectory in Canberra in April, she noted that they provided "some reggae-ish type music and the minimum of audience attention. From what I saw of them they were perhaps a little bit boring but quite competent and probably deserving of more notice". The group's second single, "Who Can It Be Now?", was released in June 1981 which reached No. 2 and remained in the chart for 24 weeks. It had been produced by United States-based Peter McIan, who was also working on their debut album, Business as Usual.
Their next single was a re-worked version of "Down Under", Ham added an improvised flute solo, and the group had revisited its tempo and arrangement with McIan. It appeared in October that year and reached No. 1 in November, where it remained for six weeks. Business as Usual was also released in October and went to No. 1 on the Australian Kent Music Report Albums Chart, spending a total of nine weeks at the top spot. The Canberra Times' Garry Raffaele opined that it "generally stays at a high level, tight and jerky ... 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". McFarlane noted that "[a]side from the strength of the music, part of the album's appeal was its economy. The production sound was low-key, but clean and uncluttered. Indeed, the songs stood by themselves with little embellishment save for a bright, melodic, singalong quality".
By February the following year both "Down Under" and Business as Usual had reached No. 1 on the respective Official New Zealand Music Charts – the latter was the first Australian album to reach that peak in New Zealand. Despite its strong Australian and New Zealand showing, and having an American producer (McIan), Business as Usual was twice rejected by Columbia's US parent company. Thanks to the persistence of the band's management and Karpin, the album was finally released in the US and the United Kingdom in April 1982 – six months after its Australian release. Their next single, "Be Good Johnny", was issued in Australia in April 1982 and reached No. 8 in Australia, and No. 3 in New Zealand.
Men at Work initially broke through to North American audiences in the western provinces of Canada with "Who Can It Be Now?" hitting top 10 on radio stations in Winnipeg by May 1982. It peaked at No. 8 on the Canadian RPM Top Singles Chart in July. In August the group toured Canada and the US to promote the album and related singles, supporting Fleetwood Mac. The band became more popular on Canadian radio in the following months and also started receiving top 40 US airplay by August. In October "Who Can It Be Now?" reached No. 1 on the US Billboard Hot 100, while Canada was one single ahead with "Down Under" topping the Canadian charts that same month. In the following month Business as Usual began a 15-week run at No. 1 on the Billboard 200.
While "Who Can It Be Now?" was still in the top ten in the US, "Down Under" was finally released in that market. It entered the US charts at No. 79 and ten weeks later, it was No. 1. By January 1983 Men at Work had the top album and single in both the US and the UK – never previously achieved by an Australian act. "Be Good Johnny" received moderate airplay in the US; it reached the top 20 in Canada.
"Down Under" gained international media exposure in September 1983 through television coverage of the Australian challenge for the America's Cup yacht trophy in September 1983 when it was adopted as the theme song by the crew of the successful Australia II.
The band released their second album, Cargo, in April 1983, which also peaked at No. 1 – for two weeks – on the Australian charts. In New Zealand it reached No.2. It had been finished in mid-1982 with McIan producing again, but was held back due to the success of their debut album on the international market, where Business as Usual was still riding high. Cargo appeared at No. 3 on the Billboard 200, and No. 8 in the UK. The lead single, "Overkill", was issued in Australia ahead of the album in October 1982 and reached No. 6, it peaked at No. 3 in the US. "Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive" followed in March 1983 made it to No. 5 in Australia, and No. 28 in the US. "It's a Mistake" reached No. 6 in the US. The band toured the world extensively in 1983.
During 1984 the band took a break as members pursued other interests. Upon reconvening later that year, tensions during rehearsals between Hay and Speiser over songwriting and the band's management led to a split in the band. Both Rees and Speiser were told they were "not required", as Hay, Ham and Strykert used session musicians to record their third album, Two Hearts (23 April 1985). Studio musicians included Jeremy Alsop on bass guitar (ex-Ram Band, Pyramid, Broderick Smith Band); and Mark Kennedy on drums (Spectrum, Ayers Rock, Marcia Hines Band). Two Hearts was produced by Hay and Ham. It was a critical and commercial failure compared to their previous albums and only peaked at No. 16 in Australia, and No. 50 on the US chart. Strykert had left during its production.
Four tracks were released as singles, "Everything I Need" (May 1985), "Man with Two Hearts", "Maria" (August), and "Hard Luck Story" (October); only the lead single charted in Australia (No. 37) and the US (No. 47). The album relied heavily on drum machines and synthesisers, and reduced the presence of Ham's saxophone, giving it a different feel compared to its predecessors. Hay and Ham hired new bandmates, to tour in support of Two Hearts, with Alsop and Kennedy joined by James Black on guitar and keyboards (Mondo Rock, The Black Sorrows). Soon after a third guitarist, Colin Bayley (Mi-Sex), was added and Kennedy was replaced on drums by Chad Wackerman (Frank Zappa). Australian singers Kate Ceberano and Renée Geyer had also worked on the album and performed live as guest vocalists.
On 13 July 1985 Men at Work performed three tracks for the Oz for Africa concert (part of the global Live Aid program)—"Maria", "Overkill", and an unreleased one, "The Longest Night". They were broadcast in Australia (on both Seven Network and Nine Network) and on MTV in the US. "Maria" and "Overkill" were also broadcast by American Broadcasting Company (ABC) during their Live Aid telecast. Ham left during the band's time touring behind the album. The final Men at Work performances during 1985 had jazz saxophonist Paul Williamson (The Black Sorrows), replacing Ham. By early 1986 the band was defunct and Hay started recording his first solo album, Looking for Jack (January 1987), which had Alsop and Wackerman as session musicians.
By mid-1996, after a ten-year absence, Hay and Ham reformed Men at Work to tour South America. They had enjoyed strong fan support there during their earlier career and demands for a reunion had persisted. The 1996 line up had Stephen Hadley on bass guitar and backing vocals (ex-The Black Sorrows, Paul Kelly Band); Simon Hosford on guitar and backing vocals (Colin Hay backing band); and John Watson on drums (The Black Sorrows). The tour culminated in a performance in São Paulo, which was recorded for the Brazilian release of a live album, Brazil '96, in 1997, which was co-produced by Hay and Ham for Sony Records. It was re-released worldwide in 1998 as Brazil with a bonus track, "The Longest Night", the first new studio track since Two Hearts.
In 1997 drummer Tony Floyd replaced Watson but by 1998 the lineup was Hay, Ham, James Ryan (guitar, backing vocals), Rick Grossman (of the Hoodoo Gurus) on bass  and Peter Maslen (ex-Boom Crash Opera) on drums. In 1999 Ryan, Grossman and Maslen were out and Hosford and Floyd were back in, along with bassist Stuart Speed. Rodrigo Aravena was brought in on bass in 2000, along with Heta Moses on drums. Moses was replaced by Warren Trout in 2001 as Stephen Hadley returned on bass.
The band toured Australia, South America, Europe and the US from 1998 to 2000. Men at Work performed "Down Under" at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, alongside Paul Hogan of "Crocodile" Dundee (1986).
One of their European tours for mid-2000 was cancelled and the group had disbanded by 2002, although Hay and Ham periodically reunited Men at Work with guest musicians (including an appearance in February 2009, when they performed "Down Under" as a duo at the Australia Unites Victorian Bushfire Appeal Telethon).
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", originally written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair and for which Larrikin owned the publishing rights, as the flute line in the Men at Work song, "Down Under". Back in early 2009 the Australian music-themed TV quiz, Spicks and Specks, had posed a question which suggested that "Down Under" contained elements of "Kookaburra".
Larrikin, headed by Norman Lurie (now retired), then filed suit after Larrikin was sold to another company and had demanded between 40% and 60% of the previous six years of earnings from the song. In February 2010 the judge ruled that "Down Under" did contain a flute riff based on "Kookaburra" but stipulated that neither was it necessarily the hook nor a substantial part of the hit song (Hay and Strykert had written the track years before the flute riff was added by Ham). In July 2010 a judge ruled that Larrikin should be paid 5% of past (since 2002) and future profits. Ham took the verdict particularly hard, feeling responsible for having performed the flute riff at the center of the lawsuit and worried that he would only be remembered for copying someone else's music, resulting in depression and anxiety. Ham's body was found in his Carlton North home on April 19, 2012 after he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 58.
Hay maintained a solo career and played with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. Strykert relocated to Hobart in 2009 from Los Angeles, and continued to play music and released his first solo album, Paradise, in September that year. He expressed resentment towards Hay, mainly over royalties. Ham remained musically active and played sax with the Melbourne-based group The Nudist Funk Orchestra until his death. Rees was a music teacher in Melbourne and also played the violin and bass guitar for the band Beggs 2 Differ. Speiser played drums for the band, The Afterburner.
The group won the 1983 Grammy Award for Best New Artist; the other nominees were Asia, Jennifer Holliday, The Human League and Stray Cats. In August 1983 they ware given a Crystal Globe Award for $100 million worth of record business by their US label. That same year in Canada they were awarded a Juno Award for "International LP of the Year". Men at Work have sold over 30 million albums worldwide.
At the ARIA Music Awards of 1994 they were inducted into the related Hall of Fame. On 28 May 2001 "Down Under" was listed at No. 4 on the APRA Top 30 Australian songs. In October 2010, Business as Usual was listed in the book, 100 Best Australian Albums.
Colin Hay has been the only constant member in all configurations.
|Awards and achievements|
|Grammy Award for Best New Artist