Men At Work were a quintet of quirky new wave wonders, each of whom must have had to pinch themselves when their debut album Business As Usual began to soar the international charts, and the money starting rolling in. How they dealt with all the attention on a personal level I have no idea, but it sounds as though each member wasn’t exactly dealing with it all that well, because by the time of Cargo, the band’s second album, fractures were beginning to appear. What exactly went on is between them, however it’s the music which matters most. For all their bickering and tedious arguments, the boys still managed to pull off a fairly decent follow up.
Opener “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive” is one of those eccentric pop songs that wouldn’t have a hope in hell of being popular today, even with the advent of the internet. But let’s face it, the 1980’s was a pretty weird time, what with Dolly Parton banging on about working “9 to 5” and Michael Jackson teaching the living dead how to perform complex choreography, it would seem that almost anything was possible. So long as you had shit taste in clothes, and used enough hairspray to blow a hole in the ozone layer, then you probably had a pretty good chance of getting your tune played on MTV.
The moody “Overkill” is the best song here, and continues the theme of depression/paranoia explored on “Who Can It Be Now”, from Business As Usual. “Settle Down My Boy” is a Ron Strykert composition which concerns itself with the rather serious subject of the generation gap between father and son, “Settle down, an eat your peas and gravy, my boy/Settle down, settle down my boy settle down” he sings. Fun yet forgettable. “Upstairs In My House” has plenty of intelligent and observational lyrics courtesy of Colin Hay, before we head into “No Sign of Yesterday”, which is another highlight, and where the band resembles a light-pop Pink Floyd – utilising atmospheric keyboards and soaring guitar solos to fine affect. In fact if David Gilmour heard this, I’m sure he could turn it another depressingly glorious excursion of the sort he is so good at.
Side two begins with the anti-nuclear commentary of “It’s a Mistake”, a theme that was still very much in the minds of many people at the time. “High Wire” is another one of those upbeat ‘80s numbers one can live without, while the white-man’s reggae of “Blue for You” has a tendency to stir the bowels whenever I hear it (which isn’t very often I can promise you). Not that there’s anything particularly bad about it. Maybe it’s just me. Gregg Ham sings lead vocals on the mechanical “I Like To”, just as he did on “Helpless Automaton”. “No Restrictions” is an energetic though unremarkable way to end an LP that could never quite live up to the fans expectations. To be fair, there is not one single dud track, the album being consistent as a whole. However were it not for Hay’s astute musical craftsmanship and talent for penning a quality tune, the record would have been a fizzer. And while the band itself had begun to implode under the weight of fame and fortune, a situation which they could never have expected back in the days of playing the Melbourne pub scene, much less prepared for, they bravely carried on. At least for one more year, before two of its members, Jerry Speiser (drums) and John Rees (bass) decided to finally call it quits (or were they sacked?), leaving Colin Hay and Co. to carry on, releasing in 1985 the rather disappointing Two Hearts.
Cargo is not a brilliant album by any means, however it’s not without its moments. Hay’s lyrics are what carry it, ultimately, and being a lyrics man myself, that’s what I enjoy the most. As for some of the music, that’s like stuffing in a way. Speaking of which there are four bonus tracks on the remastered edition, most of them what were originally b-sides: “Shintaro”, “Till the Money Runs Out”, the live “Upstairs at My House”, “Fallin’ Down” as well as “The Longest Night”, which is a splendid composition, and was included on their 1996 album Brazil.
Say what you will, at the end of the day, I have a soft spot for Men At Work. They were part of the soundtrack of my youth, and living in the country let me tell you that there weren’t too many soundtracks getting around in those days. Yes, some of their songs were daggy, but there can be an underlying depth between the chords on occasion. Not to mention those lyrics by Hay. Oh those lyrics…