When Men at Work released their debut Business As Usual in 1981, I’m sure that international stardom was one of the last things they expected. Naturally every artist longs for recognition of their talents, however what this quirky, down to earth quintet must have least predicted was the sheer scale of their popularity around the world less than two years later. Because Business As Usual would go on to sell in the millions, while the band’s video clips became staples of the newly established MTV channel in America, which was their biggest market.
Nowadays, some may feel a little embarrassed, ashamed even, to possess a copy in their collection, no doubt buried somewhere between Barry Manilow and The Thompson Twins. Yet what is one man’s musical ignominy is another’s forgotten treasure.
I cannot express how much I loved this LP at the time, to the extent that I would listen to it every day after school, on the weekends, and probably drive more than a few of my friends nuts by putting it on whenever they came over. Mind you I was only nine years old when all this was happening, so I guess that sort of behaviour is fairly normal. I should also add that I grew up in a relatively isolated coastal village, so a record such as this, maybe even any pop/rock record, truly was worth its weight in gold. Not that our village was so far removed from civilisation that everyone who lived there had the same surname, it’s just that popular culture seemed so far away, so much so that should anyone have turned up to school looking like Simon Le Bon they probably would have got bashed behind the nearest tree, and not just by the boys.
Side One opens with the confident yet intimate “Who Can it Be Now?”, where Colin Hay’s lyrics delve into the theme of paranoia, and possibly even mental illness (the line “There’s nothing wrong with my state of mental health” would allude to this it seems). Well, either that or we’re dealing with an individual (starving artist most likely) who owes the dole office a lot of money and is afraid to leave the house because of it. Regardless, it is a solid, well crafted pop song, and one which became an unexpected hit worldwide. “I Can See It in Your Eyes” is another quality pop tune with a slight New Wave feel to it. The lyrics, by Hay, are especially engaging, and fraught with imagery, such as “Winter kisses when your lips were blue/Like chasing wild geese in the snow/Pressing faces on the window panes/But that’s a long, long time ago.”
And now we have the song the band are, for better or worse, most famous for, the peculiar and highly eccentric “Down Under”. Ironically this is the one track I tend to skip, having heard it about a billion times in my youth. Actually I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the back of my brain resides a community of neurons which if looked under a microscope probably spell out all the lyrics. Looking back, it’s difficult to tell whether Hay was actually celebrating Australian culture, or denigrating it (the line “Where women glow and men chunder” seems to suggest the latter). My guess is that it’s somewhere in between, otherwise how can one explain its immense popularity and inclusion on every single ‘Aussie Hits’ compilation these past twenty years.
“Underground” is another Colin Hay penned tune, with some nice sax by the late Greg Ham, and keeps the album moving along, while the Ham written and sung “Helpless Automaton” is a bit of pop/new wave fun, with lyrics that appear to be about a robot with manic depression. A little like Gary Numan only with a sense of humour.
Side Two begins with the colourful and upbeat “People Just Love to Play with Words”, the only song on the album composed solely by guitarist Ron Strykert. “Be Good Johnny” is both silly and fun (there’s that word again) at the same time, but not the sort of track I tend to listen too very often, no matter how cleverly constructed it might be (actually the main chorus kind of gives me the shits after a while). Not so “Touching the Untouchables”, with lyrics that deal with the subject of homelessness, and the way (some) people tend to turn their backs on those less fortunate than themselves. The reggae-ish “Catch a Star” follows and it’s arguably this song more than any other which explains people’s tendency to liken Hay’s vocals to Sting (I don’t really hear it myself) and The Police. But comparisons aside, “Catch a Star”, with its John Donne inspired title, is an excellent example of Hay’s talent for words if nothing else.
My favourite song on the LP was and remains “Down by the Sea”, a lovely, almost meditative number in this instance credited to the whole band (although I’d say it was Hay who likely contributed most of the words). The song moves along at a slow and leisurely pace, while Hay sings “Down by the sea/I found your hidden treasure/Just you and me/We overdosed on pleasure”. I can almost feel my blood pressure lower just thinking about it.
Business As Usual is, for me at least, something of a time capsule, and as such, it never fails to take me back to what is now a very different era from the one we live in today. The fact that Men at Work went from playing working class pubs in Melbourne to performing in international stadiums is nothing short of staggering. Although such a seismic shift in fame and fortune also resulted in ongoing friction between band members. Hardly surprising really, since Colin Hay was no Michael Hutchence and Men at Work was no Inxs. Therefore it seemed inevitable that this entire popularity thing would get the better of them at some point, resulting in both John Rees (bass) and Jerry Speiser (drums) being dismissed from the group in 1984, leaving only Hay, Ham and Strykert to carry on. Strykert himself would depart the following year, while the recording sessions for Two Hearts were taking place.
This album brings back many fond memories, which I guess is all that matters at the end of the day. Memories as old as the grooves in my original worn out pressing.