The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Men At Work’s “Down Under”

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.

***

Men At Work – “Down Under”

HIT #1: January 15, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

Before we get into today’s column, I’ve got to attend to some business. Earlier this year, my boss Scott Lapatine, the founder of Stereogum, bought the website back from its former parent company. Stereogum is now an independent website. As an independent website, we need your help.

Today, we’ve launched our Save Stereogum campaign, a crowdfunding initiative that will hopefully keep Stereogum going for a long time. As the person who writes the Number Ones, I’ve been amazed and humbled at the community that’s sprung up around the column. At this point, I know I’m just a part of that, but it’s still been enormously rewarding to see my writing become a part of people’s lives. I want to keep writing this column for as long as I can. Nobody wants to see the Number Ones end in 1985. We still have to have long, elaborate, digression-heavy conversations about C+C Music Factory and Céline Dion and Chamillionaire. Let’s keep this going.

As part of the Save Stereogum campaign, we’re offering a bunch of perks to donors — including T-shirts, swag, a Zoom party, and a very cool compilation that we’ve put together specifically for this campaign. If you want to really go big, I’m also offering custom Number Ones-style columns. For those willing to put up enough money, I’ll write a Number Ones-style piece on just about any song you might want. If anyone is really hoping I’ll reconsider whether or not the O’Jays’ “Back Stabbers” is a 9, this is your chance.

Anyway, let’s talk about “Down Under.”

Michael Jackson’s Thriller, the biggest album of all time, came out in November 1982, but it didn’t hit #1 in the US until February of the next year. For months, Thriller stalled out behind Business As Usual, the debut album from the bugged-out, twitchy Australian new wavers Men At Work. For 15 weeks between ’82 and ’83, Business As Usual was the #1 album in America. In the time that MTV was gathering steam as a cultural force, Men At Work were the act that profited the most. When the rest of the business was struggling to catch up to what this new development meant, Men At Work were thriving.

If “Who Can At Be Now?,” Men At Work’s first #1 single, was an unlikely triumph, then “Down Under,” their second, was a juggernaut. “Down Under” is the true Men At Work moment, the group’s anthem. Its four-week run at #1 overlaps with the Business As Usual run atop the album charts, and it stands as a monument to a strange and anarchic moment in pop music.

When Men At Work first recorded “Down Under,” they were an unknown Melbourne pub group, and they presumably had no idea that their impenetrable Aussie slang would make them an exotic novelty in America. In fact, frontman Colin Hay has said that “Down Under” is an angry song about the creeping Americanization of Australia. Hay, it’s worth noting, is not Australian. He’s Scottish, and he didn’t move to Australia until he was 14. But I like the idea of Hay getting super defensive over Australian culture anyway. It reminds me of Oak Park, Illinois native Ludacris enthusiastically rapping about Atlanta, or Austin-born Nelly loudly repping St. Louis. (Both Ludacris and Nelly, who moved to their adapted hometowns as teenagers, will — hopefully — eventually appear in this column. Here’s that link again!)

“Down Under” dates back to 1980, before Men At Work signed to Columbia. When the group self-released their debut single “Keypunch Operator” — a song that did not make the cut for Business As Usual — “Down Under” was the B-side. Colin Hay co-wrote “Down Under” with Men At Work guitarist Ron Strykert. Hay based the song partly on Barry McKenzie, a stereotypical Australian blowhard character from the Aussie comedian Barry Humphries. Outside Australia, we mostly know Humphries as Dame Edna and as the voice of Bruce, the shark from Finding Nemo. From what I can glean from YouTube, that Barry McKenzie character is basically Crocodile Dundee, 15 years earlier.

On “Down Under,” Hay sings about wandering the globe, encountering fellow Australians and people who are fascinated with Australia. There’s another Aussie, a tall and muscular bloke, working at a bakery and handing out Vegemite sandwiches. But there’s also someone in a Mumbai opium den who may or may not be attempting to “tempt” Hay, whatever that means in this context. The track is full of Australian lingo. Until researching this piece, for instance, I didn’t know that “head full of zombie” meant “high on weed,” or that “a fried-out Kombi” was a broken-down old VW bus. I did know that “chunder” meant “puke,” but I was never convinced that I was hearing it right. I was. Australia, Hay tells us, is a place where women glow and men puke.

The original version of “Down Under,” from that self-released 1980 single, is a slow and eerie creep with David Gilmour-style blues-rock guitars. Listening to that version, you might figure that traveling the world as an Australian would be a terrifying experience.

Working with American producer Peter McIan, Men At Work re-recorded “Down Under” for Business As Usual. They tightened it and brightened it, transforming it into a brisk and energetic quasi-reggae lope. McIan’s production foregrounds Greg Ham’s flute, which borrows a melody from the old Australian children’s song “Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree” — something that would cause big problems for Men At Work down the line. In its final version, “Down Under” isn’t just a weird song; it’s a fun one, too. It’s got an infectious sense of swagger. In this version, Hay might be nervous about venturing out into the world as an Australian, but he’s proud, too.

As with “Who Can It Be Now?,” the “Down Under” video was a huge deal. Men At Work’s second big video is a fun piece of absurdist comedy, with the various members of Men At Work playing most of the different roles. Drummer Jerry Speiser, for instance, stands on a box and puts on a blonde wig to play the 6’4″ baker in Brussels. (This is the obligatory part of the column where I get vaguely annoyed, as a very tall man, about people mentioning 6’4″ like that’s an impressive height. If I’m at a loud party, I have to stoop down to talk to someone who’s 6’4″.)

The “Down Under” video improves on the “Who Can It Be Now?” video because it’s bright and sunny and scenic, shot at Sydney’s Cronulla sand dunes. I absolutely love the shot of the group all on that one dune — one guy dancing, one guy juggling, all suddenly jumping off in clumsily choreographed sync. It looks like a group of friends fucking around together. That’s why it works.

Thanks to all its MTV exposure, “Down Under” is probably the theme song of the weird little ’80s stretch where the rest of the world became fascinated with Australia — the same phenomenon that led the terrible low-budget comedy Crocodile Dundee becoming a box-office juggernaut. The biggest movie at the American box office in 1986, Top Gun, only barely outgrossed Crocodile Dundee. That might not have happened if “Down Under” hadn’t been all over MTV a few years earlier. (A song from the Top Gun soundtrack will eventually appear in this column.)

The success didn’t last. Men At Work won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1983, and they worked quickly to crank out a follow-up album, Cargo, that same year. Cargo wasn’t a Business As Usual-level blockbuster, but it still went triple platinum and spun off two top-10 singles. (“Overkill” peaked at #3; it’s a 7. “It’s A Mistake” peaked at #6; it’s a 6.) In 1984, Hay fired bassist John Rees and drummer Jerry Speiser from the band. Men At Work recorded their third album, 1985’s Two Hearts, with session musicians replacing Rees and Speiser. John Strykert left the band while they were still making the record.

Two Hearts was a massive, historic flop. Lead single “Everything I Need” peaked at #47 in the US; the other singles didn’t even chart. That same year, Men At Work broke up, and Colin Hay kicked off a hitless solo career. He’s kept working since then, playing in Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and popping up on the Garden State soundtrack or in a series of appearances on Scrubs. (Zach Braff is a fan.)

In 1996, Hay reunited with Men At Work flutist and saxophonist Greg Ham. Hay and Ham, backed up by a bunch of different musicians, toured as Men At Work for a while, and they even recorded a live album. But then that flute bit from “Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree” came back to bite them in the ass. In 2007, an Australian quiz show called Spicks And Specks had a question about that “Kookaburra” lift, and the “Kookaburra” music publishers came calling.

“Kookaburra,” it turned out, was not some old public-domain folk song. Marion Sinclair, a music teacher at a girls’ school in Melbourne, had written the song in 1932. If Sinclair knew about “Down Under,” she didn’t much care. But Sinclair died in 1988, and a publishing company bought the “Kookaburra” rights from her family. After hearing about the flute bit because of that quiz-show question, the music company sued Men At Work, and the court battle raged for years. Ultimately, the publishers won 5% of the rights to the song. The court battle cost both Hay and the publishers millions.

Greg Ham didn’t write that flute bit, but the court battle still stressed him out. Ham worried publicly that he’d only be remembered for stealing someone else’s piece of music. In 2012, a couple of years after the court battle ended, Ham died of a heart attack at the age of 58. Colin Hay later said that the stress over that lawsuit may have contributed to Ham’s death.

Down the line, this column will tell of plenty of strange, intense court battles over song copyrights. But most of those court battles won’t kill anyone.

GRADE: 8/10

BONUS BEATS: Here’s the “Down Under” cover that the California punk band Pennywise released in 1999:

Tags: Men At Work