May 09

MEN AT WORK – “Down Under”

FT + Popular148 comments • 9,361 views

#514, 29th January 1983

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.



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  1. 1
    poohugh on 13 May 2009 #

    This is the most base song ever. It is enjoyable to hear it with at least 50 other people, anything less and its crapness shines through.

  2. 2

    Between some time in 1978, when I started listening to the charts as some kind of ultrapunky disciplinary project — as defined by me and not really imposed on the world at large! (pogo in yr bedroom! but only when yr mum’s gone out!) — i had treated number ones as a signal of value, that had to be acknowledged

    not that something getting to no.1 was actually by definition good, but that something getting to no.1 was a sign that a significant cultural micro-polity within the world-at-large considered it good, and that this had to be factored into my own understanding of what music meant; what its values were and what its value is

    this is the song where my confidence in this metric totally broke down — where my dislike for it (and its success) absolutely overrode my attempt to keep distinct a private sociological-anthropogical research schema from the energies of my own taste

    three possible reasons:
    A: i was confident enough in my own knowledge of what i knew and didn’t yet know but needed to, to take absolute as opposed to provisional stands (as noted, my earlier year-zero punky extremism was very fierce, but very largely kept to myself)
    B: i had now left college and was — sorta kinda — earning my own living and paying my own way (yes hullo dole office), so couldn’t afford keeping my options open any longer
    C: this is the worst record ever made ever (!)

  3. 3
    rosie on 13 May 2009 #

    Although of course Men at Work were scarcely more Aussie than the Bee Gees were – singer and songwriter Colin Hay being a Scottish laddie.

    A pleasantly agreeable little ditty which I suspect owes more to Barry Mackenzie and promotions for the intruder Foster’s lager (disgusting stuff) than to the affections of the genuine Australian diaspora. A few years later when I lived not far from Earls Court I commented to a young Aussie, who was gay like most of those I knew and worked with seemed to be, that the Australians I met were very far from the standard ‘ocker’ image. He said that’s why they were all in London.

    I seem to recall a video in which members of the band put on the ocker act including bush hats with corks attached and tubes of ice-cold piss, and the flautist playing up a gum (or whatever) tree.

    As for Vegemite – it’s Marmite for wimps, innit!

  4. 4
    pinkchampale on 13 May 2009 #

    knowing it was coming up, i concentrated on this more than usual when I heard it on capital gold the other day. i actually found myself quite moved by the song’s central idea that everywhere the singer went he could find an aussie being cheerfully vulgar, and everything would be alright. mind you, i was already a bit primed for this reaction after witnessing, and admiring, some spectacular public drunkenness outside the covent garden walkabout last week.

  5. 5
    Steve Mannion on 13 May 2009 #

    I remember thinking the video was fun and the song slightly less so. I can’t see my own views differing much from Tom’s for the rest of the 80s which makes commenting difficult.

  6. 6
    Tom on 13 May 2009 #

    The video boosted my score when I watched it last night.

  7. 7
    Billy Smart on 13 May 2009 #

    #2 Watch: A week of Eddy Grant’s patently superior ‘Electric Avenue’.

  8. 8
    Pete Baran on 13 May 2009 #

    Totp watch in my house: Dad pshawing and saying “Men at work, what do THEY know about work”.

  9. 9
    LondonLee on 13 May 2009 #

    I’ve been trying to construct a cricketing joke about Australia and Electric Avenue being not too far from The Oval but without success.

    I don’t know anything about Men At Work but this is always struck me as some old duffers (Dire Straits maybe) attempting to make a “new wave” record. I’m not surprised it was huge in America.

  10. 10
    Erithian on 13 May 2009 #

    Pinkchampale #4 – my office isn’t far from the Covent Garden Walkabout – are you sure this public drunkenness was Aussies and not disgruntled Arsenal or Chelsea fans after the “Champs League” semi-finals?

    The flute and the percussion intro (sounding like a pinball machine) are the hooks here, and it’s one I remember fondly. How you feel about the subject matter possibly depends on how you feel about Aussies: personally I can honestly say I’ve never met an Aussie I didn’t like – an Aussie friend told me there were plenty she didn’t like but they generally didn’t come over here. But the rhyming of, for instance, “speaka my language” and “Vegemite sandwich” shows a band not taking itself too seriously and producing a highly listenable shuffle into the bargain.
    Men at Work had a dramatic and brief impact – for a week or two their single and album were at number one in the US and UK simultaneously, which is rare enough but must be unique for such a new band. I’ve just looked it up and the “Business As Usual” album was top of the US album chart for 15 weeks, replaced by “Thriller” which stayed for 17 weeks. An Aussie invasion of the US predating Crocodile Dundee by three or four years.

    Incidentally – Eurovision Watch – the first semi-final was on last night, and I note that Finland’s entry is by a band called Waldo’s People. The boy’s been moonlighting!

  11. 11
    Tom on 13 May 2009 #

    At the time this was popular at school, especially because it taught us all the word chunder.

    My other contemporary memory is of huge confusion between Men At Work and Men Without Hats – a health and safety official’s nightmare.

  12. 12
    Tom on 13 May 2009 #

    #9 LondonLee – yr “old wine in new wave bottles” hypothesis surely confirmed by their having a single called “Dr Heckyll And Mr Jive” – perhaps THE most pub rock title of all time.

  13. 13
    Steve Mannion on 13 May 2009 #

    #11 especially when it then also starts raining men

  14. 14

    #11: i think the chunder-factor was actually another of the reasons behind my (basically unreasonable) loathing — i have never liked the whole giggly area of “mainstream-sanctioned naughtiness”, i used to get terribly cross even as a kid when grown-ups said “sugar” instead of “shit”, and i am completely allergic to the whole look-at-us-we-smoking-DOPE thing in amsterdam bars — if yr expecting a medal for behaviour with zero negative consequences, I WILL HAPPILY SUPPLY THE NEGATIVE CONSEQUENCES D00DS and earn you yr medal

    yes, yes i was a weird kid

  15. 15
    mike on 13 May 2009 #

    #12 – Wasn’t that also the title of a Pigbag album? They’re not pub rock!

    #11 – There was also a Men At Play in 1983 – an obscure electro/hip hop act as I recall, who had a tune called “Dr. Jam”.

    Um, yes, “Down Under”. You know what: I must have heard this many dozens of times over, but I’ve never bothered to work out what they were singing about. It’s amiable enough, and it provokes a pleasurable Proustian rush, so I’m happy to leave it there. A five from me. Terrible album cover, wasn’t it?

    I also quite liked “Who Can It Be Now”, the single which preceded it.

  16. 16
    pinkchampale on 13 May 2009 #

    eritian – no it was early on saturday evening. a load of aussies taking advantage of the unseasonable weather by playing a pissed-up game of aussie rules in the street. with attendant risks to passers-by and parked cars. all quite entertaining to witness, though clearly destined to end in a massive ruck.

    glad it’s not just me who was confused by the men at work without hats

  17. 17
    Rory on 13 May 2009 #

    Hello everyone. I’ve been watching from the sidelines for about ten years’ worth of number ones, wondering when would be the right moment to join in. I decided it had to be a song that I bought myself when it was a hit, which ruled out the Arrival tape my parents bought me and the countless songs I overheard through my early teens, when I was spending all my pocket money on comics and Rubik’s Cubes. And even this one I bought as part of an album rather than as a single… but 1983 was my First True Year of Pop, and this is near enough to where it started, so here I am.

    Rosie (if I can launch into first-name familiarity), it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that Men at Work weren’t an Australian band because one of its five members only moved there at age 14, half a lifetime before they released this! Certainly my generation of young Aussies (I was fifteen when the band’s popularity was at its peak at the beginning of 1983) thought of them as Australian; most of us didn’t know much about Hay’s background. Our equivalent of TOTP, Countdown, was obsessed with the band for months, not least because of their international success.

    As a portrait of Aussies this was obviously a cartoon, even to 15-year-olds, but in that time and place the mere presence of lyrics about chundering in number one songs was intriguingly transgressive – a seven-inch dose of theory just as we were starting to do the practical. We hadn’t yet been there and done that when it came to the travelling, but that only added to the aspirational appeal. One striking feature (in hindsight) of “Down Under” is its reference to destinations that seemed tantalizingly obscure to young Aussies, in the form of Brussels and Bombay; the 1984 Redgum song “I’ve Been to Bali Too” spoke more to the actual experience of most young Australian travellers in the 1980s. Perhaps that’s down to Hay’s cross-cultural perspective; come to that, perhaps even the title is (we weren’t in the habit of thinking of ourselves as “down under”, although the phrase gained more currency in Australia after this song charted).

    Again in hindsight, it’s no surprise that the band were bigger in the US than anywhere else. Not only did they have the “band from far away” novelty they would have had here in the UK, the themes of their biggest hit would have spoken to young Americans just as much as to young Australians (Brussels being as exotic to them as to us, and a similar “ugly American” stereotype hanging over them as well).

    The music on this sounds less dated than on some of their other songs, thanks to the flute being more difficult to place in time than the saxophones on most of Business as Usual. The “taut and well-practised new wave group” is really elsewhere, on “Helpless Automaton”, and could have done interesting things if they’d let it. But they were part of an Australian pub rock tradition that produced some weird hybrids during these few years, few of which made it out of the country, and the musical tension shows. You had to be there, I suppose. Because I was, and as a nod to my 15-year-old self at the start of his new obsession with popular music, I’m tempted to give this a higher rating, but it’s also a song that any Australian my age is thoroughly sick of by now, so five sounds about right.

  18. 18
    intothefireuk on 13 May 2009 #

    Loathed it when it came out and for some time, having only caught a glimpse of the video, actually thought they were a bunch of hippies (the flute didn’t help). However, come their next single, ‘Overkill’ all was forgiven as I thought this was a little gem.

  19. 19
    Tom on 13 May 2009 #

    #17 hi Rory – great first contribution and welcome aboard. Excellent to get some Aussie perspective on this.

  20. 20
    Glue Factory on 13 May 2009 #

    #17 – I like the idea of Americans finding as much to identify with as Australians. I have to admit that as a twelve year old Londoner, Brussels and Bombay sounded exotic to me.

    It made me wonder if other countries have their own “Down Under”. As I might have mentioned elsewhere, for West-Coast Canadians of a certain age, Spirit Of The West’s “Home For A Rest” seems to occupy a similar role, with it’s themes of travel and references to traditional music (the flute in Down Under echoing the Australian nursey rhyme Kookaburra).

    Despite it’s “high-particpation afterlife”, I struggle to dislike this. It’s one of those songs where any reservations I have (based on grim nights in theme pubs) are simply worn down by the melody.

  21. 21
    johnny on 13 May 2009 #

    as an american i always noticed a tendency for british travelogue songs to be very unappreciative of the destination in question, with a palpable eagerness to return back home as soon as possible. this as opposed to the stereotype of the ignorant-but-happy american/australian/european traveller some of you have been talking about. the only two examples i can think of off the top of my head are the clash’s “Safe European Home” and the Kinks’ “Holiday in Waikiki”, but maybe there’s something to this observation? you tell me.

  22. 22
    LondonLee on 13 May 2009 #

    ‘Dreadlock Holiday’ is probably the most famous example of that.

    We don’t really do “road” songs either

  23. 23
    peter goodlaws on 13 May 2009 #

    I’m a little surprised at the negativity towards this number one and indeed this band, as I think the fleeting visit afforded us by Men at Work was one of the highpoints of the period. I loved “Down Under” from the moment I heard it and had no hesitation in acquiring “Business as Usual” in an instant on the back of it and being far from disappointed. Let the sociologists gloomily pick the “meaning” of DU apart but for me there is nothing to get one’s knickers in a twist about here and in fact I detect a definite feelgood element to it, as demonstrated by the ludicrous “speaka my language – vegimite sandwich” line. What we have here imho is a fine little pop song, with the flute (was Midge playing it? suggests Waldo. And he doesn’t mean Mr Ure) leaping around all over the place to add to the fun. The accompanying album is also first rate (DU by no means being the best track on it) and for me, Men at Work were like a breath of fresh air. I repeat my puzzlement that they have been red-carded so enthusiastically here. But that’s Popular!

    Bit surprised too at the Men at Work/Men Without Hats confusion, the latter being French Canadians.

    Colin Hay certainly an Australian and not a Scot, despite his birthplace. Consider Frank Ifield, late of this blog. Born in Coventry to Australian parents who then went back to Australia where Frank grew up before he came back here to embellish his career, with not inconsiderable success. Nationality? Australian surely…

  24. 24
    Erithian on 13 May 2009 #

    About as Australian as Rod Hull.

  25. 25
    LondonLee on 13 May 2009 #

    Frank Ifield cannot be contained by your puny geographical classifications.

  26. 26
    peter goodlaws on 13 May 2009 #

    # 24 – Not quite, Erithian. Hull went to Oz by himself as an adult in his mid twenties. Ifield was a child of eleven and went with, I repeat, his Australian parents.

    #25 – Sorry, Lee. I’m afraid I don’t agree with you at all.

  27. 27
    AndyPandy on 13 May 2009 #

    I didn’t mind this at the time (in my immature way I liked it because it seemed to be all about getting off your tits everywhere which was basically all I was doing back then before it all went a bit sour for me). However now I think its just quite a catchy tune but also tinged with nostalgia for those couple of years before the partying got out of control and things started to go wrong.
    I reckon it’s a 7 or 8 for me.

    12 & 15 etc: and Jackie McLean had a bit of classic jazz-funk out a couple of years before called “Dr Jackyll and Mr Funk” I think it was even a minor hit

  28. 28
    Rory on 13 May 2009 #

    Thanks for the welcome, Tom – glad to join the conversation at last!

    #23 Agreed about the album – there are at least four tracks on it that I prefer to this, including all the other singles.

  29. 29
    wildheartedoutsider on 13 May 2009 #

    I wonder how this would have fared if they’d employed Aussie accents to go with the coloquialisms?!

  30. 30
    lonepilgrim on 13 May 2009 #

    I don’t mind this too much although I can’t get too excited about it either. Whereas my feelings for Phil Collins were soured by his association with prog (of which I had been an avid consumer only a few years earlier) Men at work had no such baggage, however there’s something a bit pedestrian about them as performers which is why I don’t care too much about them now.
    I can’t remember whether the Castlemaine XXXX Australian stereotype pre or post dates this tune. I know Barry Humphries had promoted the idea back in the 70s(?) but I don’t think it was too mainstream then.

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