Men at Work: Out to Lunch - Rolling Stone
×
Home Music Music News

Men at Work: Out to Lunch

Catching up with the biggest new thing in the land down under

'Men at Work', John Rees, Jerry Speiser, Colin Hay, Greg Ham, Ron Strykert

Men at Work in Melbourne, March 3rd, 1983.

Dave Hogan/Getty

Sunday down under. A slight but shivery breeze blows through the greenery and out across a manicured meadow in Melbourne’s Fairview Park. Beneath the cloud-crowded late-summer sun, an afternoon cricket match is under way. Cricket, about which Australians appear to be as crazed as their British cousins, is a curious sport — –not what you’d call briskly paced. A full game takes five days to play, and this particular contest, which has been crawling along for three hours now, has yet to arrive at the end of its first inning. Compared to cricket, boccie and backgammon seem games of heel-kicking high purpose.

Or maybe it’s just the players — because this is no ordinary cricket match. The two teams out on the field are made up of members of three of Australia’s best-known pop bands: Mondo Rock, Mental as Anything and the world-beating Men at Work. That’s Colin Hay, the Men’s lead singer and media symbol, up at bat now. He’s wearing shin pads over his characteristically capacious black pants, and a pair of brilliant turquoise-colored shoes peeks out from beneath them. The pitcher bowls a “yorker” — a low fast ball — and Colin somehow connects, deflecting it from toppling the three-stick wicket set up behind him. In cricket, it matters not where the ball goes as long as you hit it, and Colin’s swat with the wide, flat bat sends it scuttering sideways across the grass, eluding the outfielders — many of whom seem preoccupied with quart-size cans of beer — and bobbling off toward the banks of the nearby Yarra, a middling stream so murky of hue that Melbourners call it “the upside-down river.” An explosion of cheers erupts from the modest gaggle of friends, families and fellow musicians who are lolling under a tree on a gently sloping verge just above the meadow.

“Run, you idiot!”

“Go on!”

This spasm of animation quickly subsides, however, and the game resumes its slow, inscrutable pace. Non-cricket-wise eyes glaze over once again.

Upon reflection — which cricket’s clumping pace certainly encourages — there seems something odd about this scene. In almost any of the world’s other pop-music capitals (a national distinction that Melbourne shares, rather grudgingly, with Sydney, its more charismatic rival some 550 miles up the eastern coast), this sort of all-star outing would draw hip-seekers and hangers-on by the drove. But not here. Amid the stately, shimmering eucalyptus trees, Sunday path strollers and passing cyclists pay scant notice to all the famous faces out there on the field. Look, it’s Greg Ham! Greedy Smith! Reg Mombassa, too! Not a twitch, not a flicker of recognition. In Oz, one’s told, musicians encourage this sort of so-what attitude.

“It is peculiarly Australian,” says Ross Wilson, popping open a bottle of lager. Wilson, the lead singer in Mondo Rock and founder of the early-Seventies good-time band Daddy Cool, is a legendary figure in Australian music – although, of course, he doesn’t act it. “Musicians here tend to shy away from showbiz traditions,” he says. “Offstage, they want to be accepted as regular guys, you know? Men at Work, for instance: they’re very, very successful, and yet I think they still like to be thought of as that — –just regular guys.” Wilson sucks on his beer as bat thwacks against ball out on the field. “Maybe that’s part of their charm,” he says.

***

Maybe. There must be some auxiliary explanation for Men at Work’s extraordinary success, beyond the undeniable appeal of their music, with its carefully crafted melodies, chugging guitars, sunny rhythms, stick-in-your-head horn lines and rich, throaty vocals. Somehow, the whole of their commercial achievement seems greater than the sum of its artistic parts. Men at Work may be the biggest home-based rock band in Australian history (the immigrant Bee Gees had to return to their native England to crack the international music market in 1967), but like the city from which they hail, they’re not particularly charismatic — at least, not in any traditional rock & roll sense. There’s none of the Beatles’ compelling personal panache about them (although their celebrated videos do display a likable, low-key cuteness), and none of the Stones’ druggy funk. They’re not crowd flatteners like the Who used to be, or — God forbid — –the Sex Pistols; and they boast no heroic charms on the order of Bruce Springsteen, or even U2. Closer to home, they certainly bear little resemblance to Sydney’s ferocious AC/DC, or to such compatriotic fluff merchants as Air Supply and the Little River Band.

Men at Work write good little songs. They make good little records. Their music — –largely the work of Hay, who’s written or cowritten 16 of the 20 tunes on their two albums — –seems unlikely to change anyone’s life, but it sure does sell. “Who Can It Be Now?” their first single, spent ten weeks in the Australian Top Five in 1981, and went on to conquer the world, as did its irresistible followup, the anthemic “Down Under.” Their debut album, Business as Usual (recorded, like the singles, with radio-wise American producer Peter McIan), topped the Australian charts for ten weeks, and has so far spent 30 weeks in the U.S. Top Ten — 15 of them at Number One. To date, Business as Usual — which cost about $30,000 to record — has sold more than six million copies worldwide. And Cargo, their second album, sold 1.25 million copies in this country in its first two weeks of release – rocketing up the charts to keep company with Business as Usual, which was still in the Top Ten one year after its release. Facts, figures.

It seems so simple: Men at Work mint money, record biz rejoices. But is that all there is?

***

“Success went to my head,” says Colin Hay, “but it didn’t like it there, so it moved down into my left lung, where it lives quite comfortably, except for an occasional bit of congestion….”

Hay, whose drifting right eye is Men at Work’s most famous visual feature (“Unilateral myopia,” he explains. “I was born with it; it doesn’t bother me”), is sitting with his four fellow Men — keyboardist and horn player Greg Ham, lead guitarist Ron Strykert, bassist John Rees and drummer Jerry Speiser — at a plastic-topped table in the small, tidy dining room of the Grace Darling pub, a whitewashed, colonial-era inn, all polished wood and rampant bric-a-brac, where the nucleus of the band (Colin, Greg, Jerry and Ron, who initially played bass) first assembled in mid-1979. “We used to play in the other room there for about 20 people,” Hay says, as the strains of “Who Can It Be Now?” mysteriously begin pulsing from the jukebox in the bar.

It is my third day in Melbourne, a not particularly scintillating place even at the height of the annual Moomba Festival, whose float-filled parade must surely rival similar civic celebrations in, oh, Boise, or maybe Buffalo, for sheer fun and frolic. Things have not been going well. At the cricket match two days ago, I had managed a preliminary introduction to Hay, who responded with what I took to be a look of some distaste and simply walked away. British reserve, I figured (Hay is a native Scot). No further introductions were offered, even though most of the members of the band were present; nor, I was informed, would it be possible to talk to them until two days hence — no reason given. When I explained to the rather scattered young woman from the band’s management that it was usual in the interview game to talk to each member of a group individually, she just stared off into space, speechless. Assholes? I wondered.

Well, not the Men themselves, as it turns out two days later, over lunch. In the course of what winds up being less than 90 minutes, they are cordial, but rather remote — and determinedly not forthcoming about details of their personal lives. Girlfriends? Wives? “No one is married,” says Colin, ambiguously adding that “everybody’s got attachments.” Like that. Are they simply exercising their right to privacy, or are they hiding something? Nothing is revealed. As they rehash their history for what may be the hundredth time in their brief career, I wonder if they’re simply tired of talking to journalists. Who could blame them?

Anyway, they came together, from diverse directions, around Melbourne’s La Trobe University, where Speiser was a science major, Ham studied law and Hay — he says vaguely — applied himself to “this and that.” Now about 30 (an age that most of the rest of the band is also approaching), Colin grew up in a town on the west coast of Scotland called Saltcoats, where his father owned a music store (“I learned a little piano, tried the recorder — until the teacher caught me looking down at her breasts, and I was too embarrassed to go back. Eventually, I found the guitar”). In 1967, when he was 14, he moved with his parents to Australia.

“There was a huge campaign by the Australian government to encourage migrants,” he says. “You know: koala bear in your backyard, kangaroos running around….”

“Shark in the swimming pool,” Greg Ham snickers, playing off Hay’s narrative with practiced wit.

If Sydney is the most lighthearted, most American of Australia’s cities, Melbourne — the country’s former capital and the southernmost major settlement on the Australian continent — was more like home to immigrants such as the Hays. “It’s more insulated,” says Colin, “more English — due to the weather, probably.” (The further south you go in Australia, the closer you get to the South Pole.) And if Sydney had a reputation for being a center of flashy, trendy pop, Melbourne — which, over the years, has spawned such highly regarded rock acts as Spectrum, Skyhooks and the Sports — was more serious about its music, more “progressive.”

Around the time Colin arrived, Melbourne had a thriving amateur music scene in its sprawling suburbs — garage groups, schoolboy bands, teenage combos that played church socials and Saturday-afternoon hops on the village green. It was a staid place, but it was changing. Back in the Fifties, when licensing laws shut down all pubs at six p.m., Melbourne had been downright grim.

“That was a disgusting stage,” Greg Ham recalls. “They had this thing called the six o’clock squeal, where people would go to the pubs at five and just try to get as much drink down as they could before six. There were revolting scenes — they’d have to hose the bar down, you know?”

“They used to have little cribs,” says Colin, “actual little wire-mesh cribs next to the bar where they’d throw in people who were too drunk. Just chuck ’em in there. They still have them up north in Queensland.”

Like the rest of the world, Melbourne loosened up in the Sixties (“Even if you weren’t born there,” says Angry Anderson, leader of the veteran hard-rock band Rose Tattoo, “if you wanted to play the heavier, more aggressive type of rock & roll, you just found yourself being very drawn toward Melbourne”); and by the late Seventies, a whole new “inner city” rock scene had opened up, in which bands of every variety flourished. Colin and Ron Strykert, a country boy from outside of Melbourne, met at a band audition, discovered they had a mutual interest in acoustic 12-string guitars, and — after Colin returned from a stint in the chorus of a stage show called Ned Kelly — –they began working together as a duo. With world conquest in mind? “Conquer our living rooms is more like it,” says the quiet, soft-spoken Strykert.

“We used to play our own sort of style,” says Colin, “which in some ways is being translated across to the band, I think. It’s a combination of picky stuff and lead things. Ronno plays more licky things than I do; I’ve always been a rhythm sort of guitarist, but playing with the fingers as well.”

Eventually, they were joined by Jerry Speiser, the affable, rock-solid drummer from a local band called Numbers, and impish Greg Ham, who had been toiling as a flute, sax and harmonica player with a group called Sneak Attack. With John Rees, a classically trained pianist and violinist, added as bassist a few months later, Men at Work began building a following at the now-renowned Cricketer’s Arms Hotel pub in suburban Richmond.

“It was great to find musicians who were so into what they were doing,” says the amiable Rees, another transplanted exurbanite. “It was exciting music. There was something happening.”

“We were playing lots of different styles, really varied,” says Colin. “We went through quite a lot of streamlining, in an unconscious way — our basic guide was the live audience.”

Record companies didn’t know what to make of the Men for a long time, but CBS Records in Australia finally signed them and put them together with Peter McIan, a Los Angeles-based producer who happened to be in the country to record an album with New Zealand pop singer Sharon O’Neill. “I saw them and flipped,” says McIan. “Basically, we did the ‘Who Can It Be Now?’ single together, and I ended up staying seven months.”

McIan provided more streamlining for the Men’s abundant repertoire, and a sense of direction that eventually led them into heavy rotation on American radio stations — no mean feat for an unknown foreign band. The secret? “We’re not presenting anything incredibly new or innovative,” Colin allows. “Over here, we’re pretty mainstream — and in England we’re old hat, almost — in terms of the sounds we use. But in the States, in a lot of places, it’s like, ‘Oh, I haven’t heard anything like this before.’ And basically, that’s because no one plays it — –plays anything. We get a lot of fan mail now, and a lot of it reflects a real dissatisfaction with what radio plays in America. We’re still looked upon as being a New Wave band — whatever that sort of huge categorization means. It happens that we are just on the palatable side of it.”

According to producer McIan — –who has since worked with such Australian acts as Mondo Rock, Angel City, Dear Enemy and New Zealand’s Mi-Sex— the Men came along at a very fortuitous time in American musical affairs. “Radio started to shift right about the time Men at Work came out. The Police sort of started it a few years ago, and then suddenly Flock of Seagulls, Human League, Duran Duran, the Go-Go’s and so forth began to make new music viable.”

Another important building block in Men at Work’s American conquest was MTV. “At about the same time,” McIan continues, “MTV began to expose bands that radio, in its sort of traditional wisdom, hadn’t really allowed any exposure. MTV provided a competition — along with the new radio stations like KROQ in Los Angeles — –that mainstream radio simply couldn’t ignore any longer.”

The MTV connection cannot be overstressed. Men at Work weren’t simply another group with a record out, they were an audio-visual package – essentially, a new commodity in what was quickly becoming a whole new music-marketing ball game.

“MTV was important in helping us break this band,” says Al Teller, senior vice-president and general manager of Columbia Records in New York. “The exposure of the video clips gave a large number of kids the opportunity to see and hear the band before they heard them on radio. Radio’s receptivity to the band took a while to move into high gear; it was a process that lasted a number of months. At the time, radio was still very much mired in that tightly formatted, oldies-reliant kind of sound. Men at Work were very influential in finally getting that logjam at radio broken up, and that, to me, is one of the really, really important aspects of the band. I think from an industry point of view, we owe a debt to Men at Work.”

“The reaction we’re getting,” says John Sykes, MTV’s director of programming, “is that the audience grows with each video for this band. They seem to have real longevity. They’ve done an excellent job of tying together very good music and visual images. Achieving that marriage is really the key to success, I guess, with video music.”

And what if they hadn’t had the videos? “That’s a good point,” says Sykes. “I wonder how they would’ve done just with radio.”

As Teller says, Men at Work’s phenomenal success did build slowly — Business as Usual was far from being a monster when they recorded Cargo last summer. Then it began to grow — and grow. “At first,” says Colin, “we just took it in our stride, really. But as we went on, the strides became longer.”

“We’d do something,” says Jerry Speiser, “and it would work, and we’d go: oooh! What’s the next thing we have to do? And then we’d do that, and that’d work, too. It’s like every step we take, it sort of works.”

How long can this last?

“Touch formica!” says Greg Ham, knocking on the table.

***

Naturally, in the wake of Men at Work, many Australian groups are eager to take a crack at repeating the Men’s commercial coup in America. Some of them are already being seen on MTV (although, as Michael Hutchence of the Sydney band INXS says, “Being associated with it worries me sometimes, after watching it”). But much of the best is yet to come.

“It took Australia a long time — up until Men at Work — to realize that we don’t have to suffer from an inferiority complex,” says Shane Howard, whose band, Goanna, has an American radio hit with “Solid Rock.” “There are a lot of hardworking musicians and positive music in this country, and it’s important that people get that out.”

Peter McIan agrees: “There’s just an endless list of really strong Australian bands, a lot of whom haven’t been heard of outside Australia.”

If Americans think Men at Work are big news, one wonders what ecstatic effusions are likely to greet the arrival of the ravishingly melodic Pel Mel — not to mention the fire-breathing hard rock of Midnight Oil (reputed to be Australia’s most formidable live act), or the furious postpunk thrashing of the Celibate Rifles. Midnight Oil, Mondo Rock and the Little Heroes have U.S. deals in the works, and others — Serious Young Insects, the berserk, inventive Laughing Clowns — are sure to follow, joining such already familiar (or semifamiliar) Aussies as the Mentals, Icehouse, Cold Chisel, Ignatius Jones and New Zealand’s brilliant Split Enz.

For some of these groups, cracking foreign markets is a matter of survival as much as stardom. “There is still little encouragement here for certain kinds of bands,” says Angry Anderson. “Like Rose Tattoo, bands that are extreme. The accepted rock magazines and television programs are mostly geared toward promoting the middle-of-the-road acts” (a category into which he decisively, if predictably, dumps Men at Work).

For such groups, the U.S. may be a more amenable market. It’s a tough nut to crack, though. For one thing, says Christina Amphlett, lead singer of the Divinyls, “it’s difficult for Australian bands to get over here — –it costs like $20,000 to get on the airplane.” The payoffs, however, can be enormous, and with MTV paving the way, the task of making it in the States is no longer quite so daunting as it once was. If Men at Work — a relatively simple songwriting band — can do it, the feeling runs, there’s hope for plenty of other groups. “There are lots of good things happening in Australia,” says Amphlett. “I think people in America really have no idea.”

Ross Wilson, for one, suspects they soon will. “It’s funny,” he says. “Every year I feel like, gee, it’s just beginning, you know? Just startin’ to happen. And then it goes to another level. It just gets bigger and bigger.”

***

And what of the men who — along with such filmmakers as Peter Weir, Gillian Armstrong and Bruce Beresford — –have created this sudden interest in all things Australian? Success, they contend, really hasn’t changed them. “I don’t know what it means to let it go to your head,” says Colin Hay. “I mean, especially if you live in Melbourne, what can you do — run around in a limo? That’d look pretty silly here. Arrive at a club and try to get in first, before everybody else? You’d just get hit, you know?”

There’s a bit more money about now, of course, but they still move among the same circle of old friends, and they plan to stay put in their rather staid hometown. Charisma? Who needs it? This isn’t the Sixties, after all. If the press dismisses their music as “pop ordinaire” (as England’s New Musical Express recently did), well, what’s wrong with that? And if they’re put down as Police clones (a common criticism), well, at least their hits are unaccompanied by the Police’s sometimes insufferable intellectual pretensions. They’re just regular guys, you see? Just men at work.

“See, we’ve never had a chance to really stop and look at what’s happened,” says Greg Ham. “We’re continually inundated with something new happening in front of us. We just kind of keep falling into situations without really being able to stop and relax and think. Instead, we’ve been doing what we’ve had to do, which is follow the success of the album.”

According to Ham, Cargo is just “more stuff we’re packing up and sending overseas.” But the cargo-cult allusions of the album’s cover illustration suggest a certain amusement over the fact that a simple pub band from Melbourne can be hailed as commercially godlike exotics in the West. Cargo may contain no cuts as instantly appealing to the ear as “Who Can It Be Now?” or “Down Under,” but then ears are only half of what this band is all about. Equally adept at writing songs and scripting videos, they remain supremely confident of their proven abilities. According to Hay, “We could go and do a third album now, I think, and not sacrifice any sort of quality standard.” Their current six-month tour will bring them to the U.S. this summer — on a stage bracketed by fake palm trees — and after that, they hope to fit in a few months’ vacation. They crave rest, reflection. The band’s sudden fame, if not ego bloating, has been slightly disorienting.

“You may like it if it’s at one level,” says Jerry Speiser, “because then everything is geared toward coping with it. But then, just before you get that set up, the whole situation changes again.”

Too much success? Colin cracks a mordant grin. “It’s a reasonable sort of problem to have,” he says. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Men at Work

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.