Business as Usual, the debut album by Men at Work, was released forty years ago this month. It would go on to become one of the best-selling albums ever by an Australian artist.
Men at Work was founded in 1979 by lead singer Colin Hay, guitarist Ron Strykert and drummer Jerry Speiser; they were later joined by multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham (saxophone, flute and keyboards) and bassist John Rees. They quickly became one of Australia’s most popular unsigned acts. In 1980, they recorded two songs, “Keypunch Operator” and “Down Under”, and released them as an independent single (“Down Under”, by the way, was the B-side). Although the single failed to chart, it was successful enough to get the band a contract with CBS Records.
Men at Work began recording Business as Usual in the summer of 1981. In the meantime, CBS released the band’s first Australian single, “Who Can It Be Now?”, which went to #2 in August and earned the band Best Debut Single at the annual Countdown Music Awards (the Aussie version of the Grammys). Business as Usual was released in October, along with their second single, a “popified” version of “Down Under”; both album and single went to #1 in Australia.
Despite Men at Work’s success in their native land, CBS was hesitant to release the album internationally. But the label’s A&R rep, Peter Karpin, believed in the band and convinced the label to release the album in Europe and North America.
Business as Usual arrived in the US in April of 1982. “Who Can It Be Now?” was the first single released in the US. Aided by a video that showcased the band’s quirkiness (and a stint opening for Fleetwood Mac on their North American tour), “Who Can It Be Now?” became Men at Work’s first #1 single in the US in October. Shortly thereafter, Business as Usual reached the top of the Billboard 200 – and stayed there for an astonishing fifteen weeks (the album would ultimately be the second-best-selling of the year in the US, behind only Michael Jackson’s Thriller).
“Down Under” was the band’s second US single, and also reached #1 in January 1983. Men at Work’s most iconic song, “Down Under” is a love letter to their homeland, complete with a reference to Vegemite. Once again, the band released a promotional video highlighting the goofy lyrics and Greg Ham’s iconic, and ultimately controversial, flute riff (more on that in a minute).
“Be Good Johnny” became the third and final single from Business as Usual, but by then the band was already working on their second album, Cargo.
At the 25th Grammy Awards, Men at Work received the coveted Best New Artist award, beating out Asia, Jennifer Holliday, The Human League and Stray Cats.
Cargo, released in 1983, proved a more modest success, peaking at #3 on the Billboard 200 and producing two top-ten singles, “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake”. Long-standing tensions between Colin Hay and Jerry Speiser led to Speiser and John Rees being dismissed from the band in 1984. Men at Work released just one more album, 1985’s Two Hearts; it was a critical and commercial flop. Men at Work disbanded the following year, though they have reunited for live performances over the years.
About that “Down Under” controversy: in 2007, on Australian quiz show Spicks and Specks, host Adam Hills asked, “What children’s song is contained in the song ‘Down Under’?”. The answer was “Kookaburra”, a popular Australian nursery rhyme. The following day, Larrikin Music, which owns the copyright to “Kookaburra”, was flooded with emails and phone calls. Larrikin decided to take legal action, and sued the song’s writers, Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, for copyright infringement. On 4 February 2010, Justice Peter Jacobson ruled that “Down Under” reproduced “a substantial part of ‘Kookaburra'” and that Larrikin’s copyright had indeed been infringed. Although he was not named in the suit, Greg Ham, who performed the flute riff in the song, took the judgment particularly hard. Ham lamented, “I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered—for copying something.” Ham began struggling with depression; rumors spread that he was using heroin as an escape. Ham was found dead at his Melbourne home on April 19, 2012. Though several newspapers reported that Ham had suffered a heart attack, his cause of death is still being debated.
It’s hard to overstate how dominant Men at Work was for about a two year period. Their brand of new wave/pop rock was infectious and fun, and they were a smash crossover success. And though the band flamed out quickly, we’ll always have Business as Usual to remember them by.