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. 61
    Davey on 15 May 2009 #

    Hi all,

    A bit late now the discussion’s moved on, I know but as a newish reader (and ex-Aussie) I’ve been waiting for this one for a little while too. Over the past few weeks via Youtube I’ve revisited the Men At Work ‘canon’, if you can call it that – and agree with posters above that while MAW had better singles (I love the anti-war sentiment of ‘It’s A Mistake” in particular) this one still makes me smile, thanks mostly to that fantastic little intro.

    I have to confess though I don’t know what they’re talking about on W’pedia when they say the flute melody is based on the childrens’ song ‘Kookaburra (… sits in the old gum tree’), but think also it’s one of the best parts of the song. Maybe it’s one reason why it sticks in the brains of so many Australian kids from that and earlier generations …

    Tom, I think it’s a bit unkind to say this one was helped to Nr 1 by the Police being on holiday – even though I agree there are similarities between the bands. If anything, I think I prefer Colin Hay’s voice to Sting’s, though they both have those faux-reggae inflections. Hay sounds to me more likeable and warm. I mean, would you catch Sting singing lyrics like the ones in this song? I love the silliness of it all: “lying in a den in Bombay/ with a slack jaw and not much to-say” et al … ehm, actually, now I think of ‘Walking On the Moon’, I’ll admit Sting did sing lyrics like that – only, arguably, he wasn’t joking. Ever.

    I also remember the America’s Cup victory, and probably can’t convey how exciting the atmosphere was at that time in Oz. It did have a lot to do with American cultural dominance, and was therefore a Phyrric victory. That this song got a second go at the top because of it though was a bonus. But to risk sounding cliched, they did have better songs: “Jonny (Be Good)” was another good one.

    Though I’ve probably heard Down Under about a thousand times, in too many venues to name, my favourite experience was being in a crowded bar in Seoul in 2005 with some friends, one of whom is Liberian. When he heard that song he just went nuts, and so did I. Something about that weird global appeal … who can ever explain it.

    My second favourite MAW experience was seeing Colin Hay turn up on Scrubs only to have his acoustic guitar smashed at the end of the episode.

    A definite 8 for me, but Tom I’m pleasantly surprised by your 5!

  2. 62
    Davey on 15 May 2009 #

    Oops, sorry for the double posting.

  3. 63
    Erithian on 15 May 2009 #

    #51 – of course not all British and Irish emigrants to Australia went voluntarily! A good many convict songs are collected in “The Fatal Shore” by Robert Hughes, and indeed one of them provided the title of the book. Then, some 200 years after the First Fleet, there was the oddity of a convict song, “Van Diemen’s Land” by U2 turning up on their Great American Album, “Rattle and Hum”. (Oddly enough, U2’s first UK top ten hit came while “Down Under” was number one.)

  4. 64
    rosie on 15 May 2009 #

    Those of us of a certain age will fondly remember, as children, watching Shirley Abicair on the telly singing “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree”. She had long blonde hair and played the zither, and one can well imagine Waldo having one of his moments.

  5. 65
    Conrad on 15 May 2009 #

    MAW – not to be confused with Masters At Work

    Very hard to connect with Men at Work; so much of being into bands as an adolescent is wrapped up in wanting to be like that artist, associating with them/their gang. Men at Work seemed like a novelty act to the average Brit teenager at the time, and not a particularly inspiring one. You didn’t want to be in Men at Work (don’t think the name helped).

    The intro is catchy and the song is harmless enough though.

  6. 66
    Rory on 15 May 2009 #

    #61 – “the Men At Work ‘canon’, if you can call it that” – it’s a shame they fizzled out, really, as there were such high expectations for them. They even beat the Human League to the best new artist Grammy! It’s kinda sad to read the discography on Wikipedia with three times as many live and compilation albums as studio releases. Cargo was a more-than-respectable follow-up, with lots of good stuff on it, but they took a hiatus after a couple of years of touring frenzy and that was pretty much the end of them; the third album Two Hearts had a few decent songs (“Hard Luck Story” was my favourite), but they’d dropped some members and their music already sounded like yesterday’s news. I wonder if the main problem was their age when they hit it big; Colin Hay and Greg Ham both turned 30 in 1983. If they’d all been 20, would they have been taking a hiatus just as the game got started? Maybe they knew they’d never top it.

    (#34 – I forgot to say thanks before, Doctor Casino, but thanks for the welcome. Right, I’ll stop saying thanks for welcomes now. Itching to get onto our next instalment… which I knew would happen once I got started here.)

  7. 67
    Erithian on 15 May 2009 #

    Rosie #64 – it’s not a 1983 memory, but those of a certain age might also remember “Kookaburra” featuring in “Singing Together”, an early 70s schools radio programme which brought primary school classes countrywide together to learn then vote on a selection of folky tunes from around the world. (Another popular tune in the programme was “Stenka Razin”, the original Russian song from which “The Carnival is Over” was adapted.)

    Rory #66 – the next instalment is somewhat topical!

  8. 68
    Billy Smart on 15 May 2009 #

    Re #35 – Does ‘Sloop John B’ count? It’s a pretty definitive being away from your homeland song, but not really specific to any one group of people.

  9. 69
    ace inhibitor on 15 May 2009 #

    wichita#54 – well it kind of begs the question of what we mean by ‘english’ songs, given that english cities and industrial towns were full of migrants/immigrants from the 19th century on… Is ‘the Leaving of Liverpool’ an english exile song, for example? very place-specific, but given that Liverpool was getting on for 50% Irish during the years before and after the famine in the 1840s…there are recorded versions by the pogues and the dubliners, but also by euan mccoll (salford, but 2nd generation scottish) and the seekers (australian!!)

    the songs I know about, or knew pretty well in a previous life, were printed on sheets of paper & sung in the streets – if you liked the song or the performance, you bought the sheet. So, a commercial practice – we’re talking ‘pop’ rather than ‘folk’, & they’d print and sing anything that sold. For a city like Manchester (the collection I know) there are huge numbers of these things collected – thousands. a big proportion of the songs were Irish or scottish (traditional, or imitations of) -but then so were a fair proportion of their audience. A fair number of ‘english’ exile songs look like straightforward imitations, with ‘farewell to old Ireland’ replaced by ‘old England’ – but some reworked the theme for more obviously industrial, northern English settings. the other thing about exile songs is that they seem to be as popular in the setting they lamented ‘leaving’ as in north america/australia – which probably links with jonathan #55’s point, but in ways that I can’t work out now cos its time to leave work :)

  10. 70
    AndyPandy on 15 May 2009 #

    so is the plaque at the station in Widnes all because of Rosie’s mythmaking – they even tried to get Paul Simon’s girlfriend/muse Kathy to unveil it!

  11. 71
    wichita lineman on 16 May 2009 #

    K-Tel alert. Down Under was the opening track on Hot Line, followed by:
    Level 42 – The Chinese Way
    Sharon Redd – In The Name Of Love
    China Crisis – Christian
    Steve Hillage – Kamikaze Eyes
    Billy Griffin – Hold Me Tighter In The Rain
    The Maisonettes – Heartache Avenue

    It was a BOGOF double album. Quite uninspiring artwork, but a good random track list. Anyone recall the Steve Hillage track? Sounds intreeging.

    Re 64: I’d rather have seen Shirley Abicair’s Am I Losing You, a gravity defying zither-based heartbreaker, at no.1 than MAW’s proto-XXXX ad.

    Re 69: Ace, thanks. Yes, The Leaving Of Liverpool is an English song in my book, the whole country is mongrel so let’s not get too choosy.

  12. 72
    Davey on 16 May 2009 #

    Hi Rosie @64 – that’s interesting … but can you hear any resemblance between Kookaburra and the flute on ‘Down Under’ at all? Maybe in a different key or something …

    Rory @66 – just looked up ‘Hard Luck Story’ – interesting video! How cool are those dancing kids?

  13. 73
    Mark M on 16 May 2009 #

    A pair of migration songs from 1980s, heading from Thatcher-blighted parts of the UK to the supposedly booming capital: The Smiths’ London (with trace memories of Billy Liar) and Shop Assistants’ Caledonian Road.

  14. 74
    DV on 16 May 2009 #

    I’ve got quite fond of this in retrospect – not so much the fatuous vocals but the liquid bassline.

  15. 75
    AndyPandy on 16 May 2009 #

    re emigration songs and the countries of Britain: it should be also born in mind that post 17th century proportionately fewer people emigrated from England than from Scotland and Wales. There was extreme poverty in all three countries but in England it was more about migrating from the country to the new industrial towns.

  16. 76
    peter goodlaws on 20 May 2009 #

    Rosie #64 – Waldo has asked me to ask you whether the show to which you refer also featured “Tinger and Tucker the two little bears”?

    Is this a wind-up?

  17. 77
    lonepilgrim on 20 May 2009 #

    #76 Tinga and Tucker were two koala bear puppets who appeared on a 60s kids programme with the host Auntie Jean. The show also featured Willy Wombat and something called the wibbly-wobbly way. I don’t recall the kookaburra song on the show – I remember it from school music lessons.

  18. 78

    i associate tinga and tucka (and the kookaburra song) with rolf harris — am i confusing all australian high culture with itself?

  19. 79
    mike on 20 May 2009 #

    I was a member of the official Tinga And Tucka Club, and hence the proud owner of my very own “Boomerang Woomerang”. This might have been an early attempt to wind up my mother, who thought that the show’s puppet-based dramatisations of Bible stories were in poor taste. (The show’s whole premise was a religious soft-sell, as I recall. So you’d get T&T putting on head-dresses and pretending to be King David and the Pharaoah of Egypt, stuff like that.)

  20. 80
    Tom on 20 May 2009 #

    And nowadays we get the Koala Brothers! (Only parents of current tinies may understand this)

  21. 81
    mike on 20 May 2009 #

    There is – of course! – a Wikipedia category for “fictional koalas”

  22. 82

    omg “the magic pudding”! i remember this book as clear as day yet i never owned and don’t know where i read it! (best tbook-itle ever incidentally)

  23. 83
    rosie on 20 May 2009 #

    Tingha and Tucka certainly set some bells ringing but I don’t think that was where I encountered Shirley Abicair. For one thing, Wikipedia tells me that the show didn’t begin until 1962, by which time I was fairly au fait with, and enthusiatic about, the top ten and Radio Luxembourg. For another, watching ITV was mostly (ie with the exception of Coronation Street) a no-no in our household. I think my encounter with Shirl was rather earlier.

    The song “wibbly-wobbly way” I’m pretty sure was a taunt used by my sister’s boyfriend, eventually to become my brother-in-law-whom-I-hate – because him singing it was guaranteed to set me off in uncontrollable giggles.

  24. 84
    lonepilgrim on 20 May 2009 #

    I too was/am? a member of the Tingha and Tucker club which according to wikipedia had 750,000 members. Perhaps like the Manchurian Candidate we will have been programmed to respond to a Woomerang Boomerang broadcast that will see us rise up to introduce a new world order.

    #82 ‘The Magic pudding’ gets a mention in Peter Carey’s ‘Theft: A love story’ which is how I’ve heard of it. It is a great title. The author was the basis for the film ‘Sirens’ featuring Sam Neill and several nekkid ladies.

  25. 85

    as i recall the pudding wears its bowl as a hat, has legs which it runs around on, and gets grumpy when you eat a slice of it, even though this in no way diminishes it

  26. 86
    AndyPandy on 21 May 2009 #

    Willie Wombat! I probably haven’t thought about him since I was about 4 and probably forgotten about since the age of about 8 – another one of those memories which the internet miraculously rediscovers in some dimly lit recess of my mind…

  27. 87
    AndyPandy on 21 May 2009 #

    Willie Wombat! I probably haven’t thought about him since I was about 4 and probably forgotten about since the age of about 8 – another one of those memories which with the help of the internet I miraculously rediscover in some dimly lit recess of my mind…

  28. 88
    lonepilgrim on 22 May 2009 #

    Watching the ‘Down under’ video yesterday I experienced a Proustian rush equal to memories of Tingha and Tucker when I saw ‘Tanelorn rules’ on the front of the VW combi. It brought back memories of devouring Moorcock books in my early teens – probably while rocking out to Yes and Hawkwind on headphones. According to the wikipedia entry for Tanelorn:

    The music video by Men At Work of the song Down Under shows “Tanelorn Rules” on the front of a van,perhaps referring to the Tanelorn Music Festival, held on the October Labour Day holiday weekend in 1981 near Karuah, north of Newcastle in Australia. This festival was subsequently regarded by some as being the ‘end’ of the age of Aquarius, as subsequent Australian outdoor festivals such as Narara ’85 had much of the atmosphere of an outdoor ‘beerbarn’, dominated by pub rock.

    I’m still hoping that Martin will revive his Sci-fi authors thread – maybe looking at Moorcock?

  29. 89
    wichita lineman on 22 May 2009 #

    Ronco alert: opening track on Chart Runners (part 2) followed by:
    Tunnel Of Love – Fun Boy Three
    Sexual Healing – Marvin Gaye
    Hold Me Tighter In The Rain – Billy Griffin
    Cry Boy Cry – Blue Zoo
    Breakaway – Tracey Ullman
    Endlessly – John Foxx
    Let’s Forget – White & Torch
    European Female – The Stranglers

  30. 90
    lonepilgrim on 22 May 2009 #

    ♯89 ‘Let’s forget’ has lived up to it’s title

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