A curious feature of Britain’s number ones is how they mirror the history of global travel: “Summer Holiday” in the 50s, Demis Roussos in the 70s, and now Men At Work’s paean to the Australian diaspora, spreading back along the old hippie trail and into Europe. “Down Under” is a song for anyone who’s ever felt the happy shock of familiarity in a strange place.
You could make a strong case, of course, that familiarity is precisely not the point of travel in the first place. Imagine an English-abroad version of “Down Under”, in which a laddish singer expresses his intense relief at finding someone who not only speaks the Q’s E but has fish and chips on hand too. “Down Under”‘s cameraderie is built on – and has contributed to – an idea of Aussies abroad as an ever-jovial brotherhood of chunderers on the rampage: an image which, I’d guess, annoys more travellers than it empowers.
But even if every Australian backpacker in the country bought a copy of “Down Under”, it wouldn’t have topped the charts without crossing over. Its cause was surely helped by the Police being on holiday – Men At Work’s take on pop-reggae is a cruder, bouncier knock-off of Sting’s, albeit with a bizarre Ian Anderson style flute break shoved in the middle.
The flute helps take the edge of the chorus’ unsubtlety. and there’s a taut and well-practised new wave group in here somewhere – but in the end “Down Under” lives or dies by how well you can cope with its high-participation afterlife.