Though Australia's Men at Work may have displayed a foundational interest in reggae that placed the band in the general realm of the Police and utilized a chiming, jangly guitar attack that seemed quite new wave, the group ultimately occupied a significant space of its own during the early '80s. Unfortunately, the quintet lasted only two albums before a reduced lineup spat out a rather listless, forgotten third release. Still, a look back at the band's catalogue reveals an impressive body of work, including these fine songs.
2. "Down Under"Following up the No. 1 "Who Can It Be Now?" was far from an easy task, but the deceptively eclectic Men at Work harbored an ace in the hole in this exotic, strikingly different-sounding tune, which repeated the feat in early 1983. Greg Ham's flute is one of the unique instruments that helps complement this track's off-kilter, intoxicating rhythms. Co-written by Hay and lead guitarist Ron Strykert, the song also evokes mystery and singularity in its lyrics, which take the listener on a trip of the senses ranging from the Australian foodstuff vegemite to excursions to Brussels and Bombay. A true cultural geography lesson.
The difference between Men at Work and many other early-'80s new wave acts is that the former's albums were filled with original, quality tunes that deserved audiences far beyond the pop music fans who devoured their hit singles. This deep album track from Business as Usual is but one example of this, featuring a lovely, rueful vocal performance from Hay, its songwriter. Musically, it doesn't differ all that markedly from the band's other work, or from many guitar-based, new wave contemporaries, for that matter. What stands apart, rather, is the obvious songwriting and instrumental quality on display here.
As the lead-off track and single from Men at Work's sophomore 1983 release, Cargo, this song made an immediate announcement that the group had not curbed its odd sense of humor or imagination in order to deepen its commercial viability. Supported by rollicking, typically jittery guitars, this Hay composition builds its strength through fierce versatility, swinging from loopy to profound in split-second shifts. So ultimately, even if it's quite difficult to navigate Hay's dense narrative, he slays us with nimble, often aphoristic lyrical touches like this: "He loves the world, except for all the people."
Despite this track's high level of commercial versatility (it reached the Top 10 on the adult contemporary and mainstream rock charts as well as the Hot 100), it actually serves as a rare example of high quality yielding high popular returns. I've always thought of this moody, textured track as a total stunner, a song built on solid foundations across the board. In recent years, I've rediscovered Hay's brilliance on a number of levels, but in this song alone there are numerous layers of craftsmanship, from Ham's haunting saxophone to Strykert's clean lead guitar part to the simple complexity of the chord progression.