Can it be … Men At Work?

By  Peter Lindblad

Colin Hay (bottom left) wrote Men At Work's hit

Colin Hay (bottom left) wrote Men At Work’s hit “Who Can It Be Now?” in an Australian bush hideaway. (Aaron Rapaport/Ketna Ltd., USA)

If only all A&R people had the precognitive abilities of Colin Hay’s former lover.

In a hideaway located somewhere in the wilds of Australia, Hay, writing very quickly in a fit of inspiration, came up with “Who Can It Be Now?” Peering into her crystal ball, with the all-seeing, all-knowing wisdom of Nostradamus, she predicted the meteoric rise of that humorous paean to paranoia.

“I remember being in South Wales with my then-girlfriend,” relates Hay, who led the quirky pop sensation Men At Work to superstardom in the 1980s.

“We used to have a bit of bush land, if you like, a little bit of country that we managed to buy back in the ’70s. We would go there, and we built a little tree house, ’cause we were kind of hippies (laughs). And I just wrote that song in about half an hour or something, and we were sitting by the little campfire we had. And she said to me, ‘That’ll be the first hit you’ll ever have.’”

Recognizing that “it just had an immediacy to it,” as Hay says, she called it: “Who Can It Be Now?” and its prowling melody pub-crawled all the way to #1 in Australia for Men At Work in August 1981. There would be no going back to the Cricketers Arms Hotel.

Before there was a Men At Work, Hay, who recently released a solo album titled American Sunshine on Compass Records, paired up with guitarist Ron Strykert to do an acoustic residency at the small Melbourne club, honing and shaping the material that would make the band the toast of the pop-music world in the early 1980s.

“I started working there, I think it was 1978,” recalls Hay. “I started playing there myself and then I was joined by Ron, the other guitar player. We played there for awhile by ourselves, and then, when the band formed, we started working there, and that was what happened in those days. You would get a residency to actually try and make some money and play your music.”

Eventually, the duo would grow to include drummer Jerry Spesier and keyboard player Greg Sneddon. Sneddon eventually left and was replaced by Greg Ham, a multi-instrumentalist, as the band continued its Cricketers Arms residency. A fifth member, bass player John Rees, was soon added.

A couple of months passed, and Men At Work’s audience exploded exponentially, becoming too big for the Cricketers Arms.

“It wouldn’t have mattered where we played, I don’t think,” says Hay. “The idea was that we sat in one spot every week at this very, very small room. I mean, it’s nothing. You know, it’s just like a small bar. We played in the corner. I mean, there was no stage or anything like that … and people came, you know. Lots of people came to see us, and the audience built up over a period of probably about a year I suppose … and then it got ridiculous, because it was just too many people, and they couldn’t fit in. So they used to stand out in the street and so on and so forth. So it became, you know, unhealthy (laughs).”

Fire codes be damned, Men At Work had a following. Their Thursday night gigs at the Cricketers were augmented with shows elsewhere in Melbourne, and Men At Work was packing them in by the time 1980 was nearly over. But record labels still weren’t sure about this band with the skewed pop sensibilities, oddball rhythms and clever guitar hooks that combined woodwinds and brass instruments with traditional rock elements and the sound of the islands.

“Even in Australia, I mean when we started, we didn’t even get an album deal,” says Hay. “We got a deal for a single … it took some convincing.”

And it took “Who Can It Be Now?” making its way up the charts before labels would wake up. Before that, Men At Work put out an independent single on their own M.A.W. label that featured “Keypunch Operator” on the A-side and a future classic on side B, “Down Under.”

The release didn’t spark anything approaching a label bidding war. But there was somebody who believed in Men At Work, an Australian A&R man named Peter Karpin. It was Karpin who worked to get the band signed to Australian Columbia in early 1981.

Four months after “Who Can It Be Now?” peaked at #1, Men At Work got on a hot streak, as a re-recorded “Down Under” and Business As Usual, the group’s debut album, rose to #1 on the Australian charts. The LP also made a big splash in New Zealand, where it landed at #1.

Still, the U.S. arm of Columbia was leery of Men At Work, who twice declined to release Business As Usual.

“I think what happened was that the A&R department in New York decided that they didn’t want to release the album, because they didn’t think there were any hits on it — a supreme example of cultural arrogance, you know,” says Hay.

Karpin, who had worked in New York City prior to going back to Australia, wasn’t done.

“He worked for Dick Asher, personally,” says Hay. “He worked for him on one of the labels in New York. They came back to Australia, and one of the first things he did when he came back was sign our band. So he called up Dick Asher and said, ‘Look, this record is gonna happen. It’s happening in all these different places. You have to release it, you know. It’s really gonna work.’”

Like Hay’s old girlfriend, Karpin was right. Business As Usual arrived in the U.S. and the U.K. six months after its Australian coming-out party. By October 1981, “Who Can It Be Now?” was #1 in the States and Business As Usual joined the song at the top in November. The album stayed there for 15 weeks.

“Down Under” followed, going to #1 in early 1983, a spot it also occupied in the U.K. at the same time.

“It always was a big song,” says Hay of “Down Under.” “And even before the band it was a big song when we played it, when Ron and I played it the year before Men At Work … People liked it, and they responded to it. So, yeah, I mean, lyrically it’s … it’s an interesting song. It means something very different for me than perhaps what it does to other people. I mean, people have this attitude that it perhaps has an element of novelty to it, but there’s more to the song than meets the eye.”

Now a new-wave phenomenon, Men At Work won the Best New Artist of 1982 Grammy. Because of the huge success of Business As Usual, the band’s follow-up, Cargo, recorded in the summer of 1982, would be delayed. But when it was unveiled, it, too, made noise, going to #3 on the U.S. album chart, fueled by Top 10 hits “Overkill” and “It’s A Mistake.”

Though more career highs would occur, namely headlining the US Festival with The Clash and The Stray Cats, Men At Work would unravel after 1985’s Two Hearts.

“There were many memories, and there were fond memories and some that weren’t so fond, you know,” says Hay of his years with Men At Work. “I mean, it was really something that I’d been working towards for many, many years. So it literally was … it had a dream-like quality to it. This was happening. It was all of a sudden, all the things you wanted to happen in your life were coming true, you know … very rarely does that happen to anyone where you, you know, first cab off the rank, your first album that you release sells like wildfire.”

These days, Hay is experiencing a career revival, thanks to the TV show “Scrubs,” which he’s appeared on three times, twice performing songs. And American Sunshine, with its well-crafted, often bittersweet, pop songs and lyrical themes of broken dreams and broken hearts, offers a new perspective from this weathered troubadour. It has much to do with the history of relocation associated with his adopted home of California.

“Just that movement of people that decide to go somewhere and start again, you know,” says Hay, whose family moved from Scotland to Australia when he was young. “I mean, my father did that when we went to Australia, which was like an approximation of coming to California, because when I was still in Scotland, I remember listening and hearing ‘Good Vibrations’ by The Beach Boys, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, I wanna go there.’”

Eventually, he did. As for Men At Work, Hay says, “I had a great time, then. It was never a band that was meant to go the distance in terms of the respective personalities of the band … early on, it was clear to me that it was gonna be something that wasn’t really going to go the distance. But apart from that kind of sadness, if you like, or that realization, I really enjoyed the days with Men At Work.”


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