In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
In the 1980s, for presumably complicated reasons that I can’t pretend to fully understand, the American public was fascinated with three things: Squawky quasi-jazz saxophone riffing, general all-pervading paranoia, and the nation of Australia. (America was probably fascinated with other things, too, but those other things are not relevant to this particular blog piece.) The only way I can think to explain the runaway success of “Who Can It Be Now?,” the debut single from the Melbourne group Men At Work, is that it involved all three of those things.
For people my age and younger, it’s truly strange to learn just how big Men At Work were, at least for a brief window of time. Business As Usual, Men At Work’s debut album, sold six million copies and spent 15 weeks at #1 on the American charts — the longest reign, at that point, of any debut album in history. At the end of 1983, Billboard named Business As Usual the #2 album of the year. The Men At Work album sold more than Synchronicity or H2O or 1999. It was a legitimate chart rival for Thriller. America was really into these twitchy Australian weirdos.
Nobody expected Men At Work to hit the way that they did. The band was new and untested. Scottish-born frontman Colin Hay, who’d moved to Melbourne at 14, had put together Men At Work in 1979, when he was already well into his twenties. They’d put out a self-released single and generated a bit of a regional buzz as a pub act when they signed with the Australian branch of CBS Records. Business As Usual came out in Australia in 1981, but Columbia turned down a couple of chances to release the LP even after “Who Can It Be Now?” had hit in Australia. Business As Usual didn’t get an American release until six months later, when Men At Work landed the opening slot on a Fleetwood Mac tour. “Who Can It Be Now?” first charted in the US that summer, and it took the song 16 weeks to climb to #1.
“Who Can It Be Now?,” the opening song from Business As Usual, is a strange little piece of business. Colin Hay wrote the song while living in an apartment building in a suburb of Melbourne. His next-door neighbors were drug dealers, so people would get the wrong apartment and bang on Hay’s door at all hours of the night. Lyrically, the song is an extended freakout, a plea for solitude: “All I wish is to be alone/ Stay away, don’t you invade my home.”
There’s nothing threatening about “Who Can It Be Now?” Instead, Hay’s narrator cowers in his room, hoping whoever’s knocking will simply get tired of waiting and leave. He creeps around quietly: “If he hears, he’ll knock all day/ I’ll be trapped, and here I’ll have to stay.” He wonders if the person knocking is “the man, come to take me away.” As the song is ending, Hay wonders if the knocking is even real, if it’s “just [his] fantasy.”
Hay sings all of this in a nervous and ticcy sort of bray. Other artists with Australian roots had hit #1 in the US before Men At Work: The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, Rick Springfield, Air Supply. But Men At Work were the first who sang in a truly unmistakable Aussie accent. The music has a nervous, restless new-wave energy even as it attempts to borrow the deep, off-kilter pulse of reggae. In that, it recalls the Police, who’d started racking up American hits shortly before Men At Work and who will soon appear in this column.
But where the Police were graceful in their twitchiness, Men At Work had an engaging sort of go-for-it amateurishness working for them. They also had Greg Ham’s saxophone, which American producer Peter McIan was smart enough to move up to the song’s intro. That saxophone wriggles its way all through the song, almost becoming a character. Hay asks who’s at the door, and Ham’s saxophone answers him back, almost as if it’s mocking him. Unfortunately, that saxophone, which probably helped “Who Can It Be Now?” stand out in 1982, now makes the song a tough hang. Without that sax, “Who Can It Be Now?” would still be a slight, gimmicky record. The saxophone is an effective hook, but it’s also a sort of maddening one.
In another era, a song as strange and sloppy and borderline irritating as “Who Can It Be Now?” never would’ve stood a chance on the pop charts. But Men At Work came along just as MTV was beginning to boom as a cultural force, and they took advantage. The cheaply-shot “Who Can It Be Now?” video shows that Men At Work, like Hall & Oates before them, perfectly understood just how goofy they had to be.
In the “Who Can It Be Now?” clip, Colin Hay, bugged-out and cartoonish, strikes terrified horror-movie poses in his apartment, cringing and gulping with silent-film-star flair. “There’s nothing wrong with my mental health,” Hay sings, as the camera pans down to show that he’s not wearing pants. The other Men At Work come knocking at his door in costume — a couple of cops, a drag queen, an alien. Hay’s not particularly handsome, and most of the other band members are downright weird-looking. But Hay can hold the camera’s attention just by being a total lunatic. When MTV only had a certain number of videos in rotation, that, I’m guessing, was enough to stand out. It worked. Men At Work will be in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Producer JR Rotem interpolated the “Who Can It Be Now?” sax hook on Jason Derulo’s 2010 track “Love Hangover.” Here it is:
(Jason Derulo will eventually appear in this column.)