The Men Were The Men Back Then

Amidst the news last week of the deaths of Dick Clark and The Band’s Levon Helm was that of Greg Ham’s passing.

As I was a high school kid in the early ’80s, the name was immediately recognizable as the saxophonist for the Australian band Men At Work.

Men At Work arrived on American shores at a time when I had just developed enough interest in music to be listening to a lot of radio, but I hadn’t ventured much beyond mostly Top 40 stations. Most Saturday mornings, I’d tune for at least a portion of American Top 40.

The first time I ever heard – or even heard of – Men At Work was when Casey Kasem announced their song Who Can it Be Now? debuting on the countdown. It was August, 1982, and I had just entered high school.

By the end of that weekend, I seemed to be hearing the song hourly on one or more station as I surfed the band.

Men At Work was the first band that truly blew up on my watch. Who Can It Be Now? was quirky, New Wave rock full of irresistible hooks and punctuated by Ham’s honking saxophone bursts.

Within the next several months, both Who Can It Be Now? and Business As Usual, Men At Work’s debut album, had topped the charts. As 1982 closed out, the band’s second single, Down Under, was duplicating the success of Who Can It Be Now? and I received a cassette of Business As Usual for Christmas which I wore out.

I remember reading an article on the band over that break and quotes from the members that they were already tired of Business At Usual. The album had been released in their homeland in 1981 and the band had its follow-up ready for release.

(Columbia, who had signed the band after Business In Usual took Australia by storm, rejected the album twice before belatedly issuing it here – well played Columbia)

That follow-up, Cargo, arrived quickly on the heels of the debut in the spring of ’83. I recall a neighbor being the first of my friends to get a copy and how eager we were to hear it.

Cargo was a success, but not on the scale of Business As Usual, which would have been unrealistic to expect.

That autumn, Dr. Heckyl & Mr. Jive became the third single from Cargo to reach the Top 40 and the first hit by the band to not reach the Top Ten.

Just over a year after Men At Work had burst onto the scene, it was over.

Men At Work would issue one, final album in 1985, but during the lengthy break, the band was reduced to a trio of lead singer Colin Hay, Ham, and guitarist Ron Strykert.

Two Hearts came out as we began summer break before our senior year of high school, but it was greeted with indifference and Men At Work broke up with little fanfare.

Here are four songs from Men At Work…

Men At Work – Who Can It Be Now?
from Business As Usual (1982)

As catchy as Who Can It Be Now? is, the song’s accompanying video certainly hastened Men At Work’s breakthrough in the US.

MTV was about eighteen months from availablity in our are, but I caught the clip somehow and was amused and captivated by lead singer Colin Hay’s portrayal of a paranoid recluse and his lazy-eyed glances into the camera.

Men At Work – Down Under
from Business As Usual (1982)

Hailing from Australia made Men At Work an exotic import to us and Down Under played on that aspect with its playful, eccentric take on the band’s homeland.

(as well as teaching us about vegemite)

Men At Work – People Just Love To Play With Words
from Business As Usual (1982)

Though the two hits were the most memorable songs on the album, Business As Usual could have had another hit single or two had the band not had Cargo waiting in the wings.

Be Good Johnny got a lot of airplay, but the delightful People Just Love To Play With Words would have made an ideal choice as a third single.

Men At Work – Overkill
from Cargo (1983)

Cargo, like many a blockbuster follow-up, wasn’t quite as good as its predecessor, but it did contain Men At Work’s finest moment.

Overkill was as quirky and engaging as the previous hits, but it was also wistful. The song always made me think of rainy, empty streets illuminated by streetlights in the early morning hours as most of the world is asleep.

(perhaps because I so often heard the song on the radio that spring, as my friends and I – having finally gotten our driver’s licenses – would be out late, killing time)


10 Responses to The Men Were The Men Back Then

  1. Chris says:

    I was getting ready to start the 6th grade when “Overkill” was a hit. I learned more vocabulary from that song than any textbook could teach me.

    As for Business as Usual, I had a friend who played the cassette often. “Be Good Johnny” seemed to be his favorite song, as often as I heard it.

    • barelyawakeinfrogpajamas says:

      Be Good Johnny was fun the first few times, but it wore on me quickly (especially since I heard it on the radio almost as much as Who Can It Be Now? and Down Under).

      p.s. I still can’t leave comments on your site, but it’s a favorite.

  2. J.A. Bartlett says:

    “Overkill” was on the radio about the time the nuclear freeze movement started getting a lot of publicity, and as the Reagan Administration started talking about nuclear war being winnable, so the associations I have with it are more unsettling than wistful.

    • barelyawakeinfrogpajamas says:

      And then, the band followed up Overkill with It’s A Mistake (which reference nuclear war).

      • J.A. Bartlett says:

        I’d forgotten entirely about “It’s a Mistake,” largely because I find I’ve forgotten most of 1983.

      • barelyawakeinfrogpajamas says:

        Well, as ’83 might arguably be my ’76, I feel far warmer and fuzzier about the year, but I concur on It’s A Mistake.

  3. adrianqiana says:

    It’s sad to think that Greg Ham may have taken his life because of the Down Under copywright lawsuit, started by people whi inherited a song in their library and had nothing to do with writing it or were fighting for the songwriter. Just greedy folks

    There always seemed to be a layer of paranoia in MAWs songs, most obviously in It’s A Mistake

    I saw Colin Hay in a one man show in the mid-2000s and it was one of the most entertaining nights I’ve ever spent listening to a guy play his songs and tell his stories

    • barelyawakeinfrogpajamas says:

      I know that there was some issue regarding some children’s song or something and I’ve read that Ham felt Down Under‘s legacy was tarnished which is unfortunate.

      Yeah, there was a twitchiness surrounding a lot of the Men’s song and I can imagine that Hay would be an entertaining cat (just based on his brief cameos on Scrubs)

  4. Jeff says:

    That was a more coherent and to-the-point post about Greg Ham than the one I did. Well done.

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