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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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Comments

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  1. 91
    lonepilgrim on 30 Jul 2009 #

    ..and seems like someone else made the Kookaburra connection:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/8175974.stm

  2. 92
    Rory on 30 Jul 2009 #

    Kookaburra’s writ in the Old Bai-ley,
    Merry, merry king of the flute is he,
    Laugh, IP lawyers, laugh, IP lawyers,
    Pay for you must we.

  3. 93
    Tooncgull on 21 Oct 2009 #

    #61 Davey – re the appearance of Colin Hay on Scrubs – yes, I got quite excited by that, especially as he plays the far superior (to “Downunder”) song “Overkill” in that episode. I’d long forgotten MAW at that stage, and rushed out to buy Cargo on CD purely for that track! Sadly “Overkill” is the only track on the album worth having.

  4. 94
    punctum on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Whoops.

  5. 95
    Tom on 4 Feb 2010 #

    “A big win for the underdog” where “underdog” = “a publishing company that saw an opportunity to buy a song copyright off the Girl Guides”!

  6. 96
    Rory on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Bah. Hope the damages make up for all the biscuit sales they’ll lose… although who knows, maybe the nation will side with the Guides.

    Writing songs with a mate down under,
    Looked around for some riffs to plunder.
    Said to him, “Do you think we’ll risk it?”
    He just smiled and handed me a Girl Guide biscuit.

    And I said, “Ohhh! ‘Kookaburra’ is huge down under,
    And one man’s ‘quote’ is a judge’s ‘blunder’.
    Can’t you hear the reporters thunder?
    We better run, we better take cover.”

  7. 97
    wichita lineman on 4 Feb 2010 #

    Cos the flute ‘riff’ is the bit everyone remembers…

    The band should be compensated for the free publicity they gave Vegemite. How many non-Australians had heard of it before 1983?

  8. 98
    swanstep on 5 Feb 2010 #

    Wow, the trilling flute phrase is just a bar or two (albeit repeated), so a 40-60% share of profits seems utterly insane on those grounds alone (settlement for 5% would be more like it in my view). Also, since it’s the rhythm of the trill that’s the ‘tell’, it should be material that essentially the same rhythm (in upper registers) is *all over* versions of the trad. hymn, Gloria in excelsis Deo, including Vivaldi’s. (I imagine that the original girl guide author would concede that, of course, she was building on trad, hymns, were she here.) My money’s on a vigorous appeal followed by settlement at a more reasonable figure.

    @Rory. ‘Laugh, IP layers laugh.’ Brilliant!

  9. 99
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    I can’t believe how annoyed this has made me. As you say, swanstep, the riff is a tiny quote within “Down Under”, so minor that the connection had never occurred to me before this story broke last year; and I’m guessing I’m one of the last generation of Aussie kids who would have grown up singing “Kookaburra”. Its key line is “Laugh, kookaburra, laugh, kookaburra, gay your life must be”, and I can’t see that getting much air post-1970s – not out of rampant homophobia, but out of embarrassment over the double entendre, which is so easily avoided by not teaching the song to littlies in the first place.

    So if the 1970s were more or less “Kookaburra”‘s last laugh, even that tiny quote would be the only way anyone nowadays would hear anything from it. “Kookaburra”‘s author died in 1988, so her only immortality is in the memories of middle-aged-and-above Aussies like me… and in those few notes in “Down Under”.

    So even if it was a conscious rip-off (which I’m not convinced it was), I don’t care. I don’t want to see Hay and Strykert bankrupted for the benefit of a copyright that has long since left a dead songwriter’s ownership, which sixty percent of megabucks of long-spent royalties could easily do. In the grand scheme of things, “Down Under” matters more to Australia than “Kookaburra”, the legal wranglings of lawyers looking for their “My Sweet Lord” moment notwithstanding.

    (“My Sweet Lord” mattered more, too.)

  10. 100
    thefatgit on 5 Feb 2010 #

    The issue of copyright seems to be a ticking timebomb these days. What with the clumsy and unweildly Digital Britain bill (clause 17 is an attempt to future-proof the legislation, but looks like some kind of draconian measure dreamt up by George Orwell) being read in the Lords, and these occasional plagiarism cases that crop up from time to time…

    …we should be asking in the context of the current climate, just how artists should be paid, and more importantly who should be paying them?
    Is the current copyright law adequate? And can publishers and distributors force internet providers to cut off an entire household’s broadband, with total impunity?

  11. 101
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    The riff wasn’t even incorporated into the song by Hay and Strykert, but by the band’s flautist Greg Ham.

  12. 102
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    I bet that the Wikipedia entry that Davey noticed up-thread (before the lawsuit arose*) was what tipped Larrikin off that they had a potential goldmine on their hands. They’ve owned “Kookaburra” since 1990 and the similarity only occurred to them now? After a bit of hunting through the Wikipedia page’s edit history, the claimed similarity with “Kookaburra” appears to have been added on 31 October 2006 by an anonymous contributor (and completely unsourced, at that). I hope 210.10.994.244 is proud of themselves. Their only contribution, yet!

    *Horrible thought: given the delay between 31 October 2006 and July 2009, perhaps this thread was what actually tipped Larrikin off.

  13. 103
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    We can rest easy: Larrikin launched their proceedings in 2008. But that Wikipedia entry is still in the frame.

  14. 104
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    Colin Hay’s response deserves attention.

    I wonder who was using 210.10.199.224 on 31/10/06. (I miscopied the IP address above, for some reason.) It just resolves to an Australian ISP, so the trail goes cold.

  15. 105
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    Justice Jacobson said that Hay’s admission he morphed the two songs during some concerts in 2002 helped make his decision. “Perhaps the clearest illustration of the objective similarity is to be found in Mr Hay’s frank admission of a causal connection between the two melodies and the fact that he sang the relevant bars of Kookaburra when performing Down Under at a number of concerts over a period of time from about 2002,” Justice Jacobson wrote.

    Gah! Bono morphed “Electric Co.” into “Send in the Clowns” during the Red Rocks concerts, but that didn’t make them the same or even similar.

  16. 106
    lonepilgrim on 5 Feb 2010 #

    re105 any legal proceedings by Steven Sondheim against Bono would be warmly welcomed in these quarters though

  17. 107
    Rory on 5 Feb 2010 #

    That case was settled long ago, lonepilgrim – it’s why my US-purchased CD of Under a Blood Red Sky doesn’t have 30 seconds of my old LP. (To the great annoyance of early-’90s me who foolishly sold the old LP before listening to the newly purchased CD.)

  18. 108
    Snif on 7 Feb 2010 #

    “…a 40-60% share of profits seems utterly insane on those grounds alone (settlement for 5% would be more like it in my view)…”

    The way these things normally go, IIRC, is that the litigants ask/demand a ridiculously unrealistic sum, then the lawyers for both sides haggle it down to something more appropriate – the thinking is usually that if you start big, there’s the occasional chance you might finish big.

  19. 109
    MildredBumble on 7 Jun 2010 #

    Funny thing, reading about the Kookaburra plagiarism – one Karel Fialka completely ripped off MAW’s Down Under flute bit for his appalling car-crash of a hit that mixed Mary Whitehouse sensiblities with his square-eyed brat lisping his fave telly: “Hey Matthew”

  20. 110
    lonepilgrim on 6 Jul 2010 #

    swanstep @98 was right – they’ve awarded a 5% share of the Down Under profit:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/jul/06/men-at-work-down-under

  21. 111
    Rory on 6 Jul 2010 #

    “A statute of limitations restricted Larrikin from seeking royalties earned before 2002.” The band will be relieved about that, at least. Even five percent of its total earnings since 1982 would have been daunting.

  22. 113
    thefatgit on 19 Apr 2012 #

    And we say goodbye to Greg Ham. He was 58.

  23. 114
    Rory on 19 Apr 2012 #

    Oh no, that’s far too young. Farewell, Greg. I’ll always love “I Like To” and “Helpless Automaton”.

  24. 115
    Jimmy the Swede on 19 Apr 2012 #

    Yes, very sad news, this. RIP, Greg.

  25. 116
    enitharmon on 20 Apr 2012 #

    58? Aaargh!

    Very sad news indeed.

  26. 117
    john c on 31 Aug 2012 #

    My memory tells me that Australia as a place and an idea, and Australian people in general, were going through a phase of popularity in the USA when this song came out. It was a huge hit over here.

    I was under the impression that everybody loves Australians, and that everybody loves Canadians, except that the two nations do NOT like each other.

    Well, this song helped people in the USA to like Australians plenty. And how could a pop-music fan dislike Men at Work?

    Well, eventually they did . . . I remember a local radio station advertising and holding a “Men At Work Less” weekend, when they promised not to play a single song by the band. Seemed cruel to me . . .

  27. 118
    Auntie Beryl on 14 Feb 2013 #

    Spinning backwards through Popular, at last a number one that isn’t steeped in cocaine. The last (future) six have been.

    Two things about Men At Work. The first, and more important, is that Overkill is a wonderful single; hugely underappreciated and in the shadow of this here number one. Also, the first single I bought from Oldies Unlimited, a mail order operation based in Telford I think. Surely I’m not the only one on Popular to have drunk from this well.

    Additionally, I can’t hear Down Under without calling to mind how I spent some Sunday afternoons in my lost, wayward 90s. The Church was a gathering place for ex pats. Kiwis, Americans, South Africans, Aussies; and us lot; nowhere else to go but top up on yesterday’s starting point. It was a warehouse with a stage, and five hundred maniacs intent on drinking another twelve beers by two in the afternoon.

    When Down Under was played over the PA in between comedy acts and strippers, there was a huge reaction. Ex pat Aussies would throw beer in the air and high five… everyone else would hiss and boo. In a good natured way of course. And we’d stay quiet… we were there for the atmosphere, and to be revealed as English would have ruined that.

    Anyway, this song plays to me as an Aussie travellers anthem. And I don’t mind that. Six.

  28. 119
    punctum on 11 Nov 2013 #

    TPL tries to be fair to the album, but it’s an uphill struggle, the hill being Ayres Rock: http://nobilliards.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/men-at-work-business-as-usual.html

  29. 120
    Cumbrian on 11 Nov 2013 #

    Wow – my efforts not to spoil TPL for myself have just yielded a genuinely exclaimed WTF? at my computer screen. A Men At Work album got to #1? Blimey.

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