Men at Work just announced their first tour in nearly 20 years, but anyone calling it a “reunion” is really stretching the definition of that word. The only member of any previous lineup returning is frontman Colin Hay, who will be joined by members of his solo band. “The set list obviously will feature all the known and even lesser known Men at Work songs, perhaps with a couple of later songs thrown in,” he wrote on his website, “but make no mistake, it will be a Men at Work show, billed as such so that the people know they will be coming to hear a Men at Work set list!”
It goes without saying that the set list will include “Down Under,” the band’s 1981 single that shot to Number One all over the world. (In a bizarre battle of the continents, as Rob Sheffield recently pointed out, it was briefly knocked out of the top spot by Toto’s “Africa.”) But the version that everyone knows is actually a remake. The original — which you can hear right here — came out in 1980 as a B side to their single “Keypunch Operator.” It’s significantly slower and has a strong reggae vibe to it, at least as close to reggae as a bunch of guys from Australia could pull off.
Hay wrote the song in the late Seventies about his travels across the world where he met an interesting cross-section of people that wanted to hear about his home country. He co-wrote the music with Men at Work guitarist Ron Strykert, though when they recut it for their 1981 LP Business as Usual multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham added a distinctive flute part in an effort to make the song sound more Australian. It wasn’t until decades later that anybody pointed out it was remarkably similar to the 1930s children’s song “Kookaburra.” In 2009, the copyright holders of the tune sued the band and demanded 60 percent of the royalties.
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The suit dragged on for years and eventually cost both parties an estimated $4.5 million even though the copyright holders were ultimately granted a mere $100,000. “After five years of litigation, it’s four and a half-million dollars chasing $100 grand,” Hay said.“So they didn’t really win, they just lost less than us.”
According to Hay, the suit also cost Ham his life — the musician was so shattered that his most famous creation was labelled the product of musical theft that he descended deep into drug addiction. He died of a reported heart attack in 2012. Hay also said the suit possibly contributed to the death of his own father. “He knew that when I wrote the song that there was nothing appropriated from anybody,” Hay said. “He was incensed. Smoke would come out of his ears … I can’t make any claims that this (court case) was the reason that he died, but I do feel instinctively it contributed to knocking him off his perch.”
Somehow or another, Strykert managed to avoid all the hassles surrounding the endless “Down Under” lawsuit even though he has a co-writing credit on the song. He did make headlines in 2009 when he was arrested in 2009 for allegedly threatening violence against Colin Hay. He denied making the threat and Hay told investigators he didn’t believe that Strykert posed a danger to him. Still, they haven’t played together since Men at Work split in 1986 and he definitely won’t be a part of this new lineup.
In a 2012 interview, Hay took the high road when asked about Strykert. “Ron and me worked together as a duo for about a year before Men at Work were formed,” Hay told Rock Cellar Magazine. “When I knew Ron, he was a very inspirational guy and was really important for the band and for me as a songwriter and musician. He’s a beautiful guitar player and he created beautiful soundscapes. And that’s the Ron I know. There’s really nothing else to say about Ron, because the Ron you’re talking about, I don’t know who that person is. So when I think of Ron, I think of that beautiful inspiring musician I knew who was so important for me as a songwriter.”
All of this adds up to an insane amount of drama, turmoil and heartache for a little band from Australia that released a mere three albums. “We really should have made more of it,” Hay said in 2012. “Yes, we had massive success, but we were in a position where we really could have slammed it home in a way. Creatively, we could have gone further and made some other great albums, but it just wasn’t in that group of people to go the distance.”