Down Under by Men At Work
Men at Work sing about travelling the world and what it means to come 'from a land down under’.
Summary by Martin Ford
Men at Work’s front-man, Colin Hay, describes the song as being ‘about the selling of Australia’ (the chorus ironically refers to a land where ‘men plunder’). Wherever the song’s narrator goes – Bombay, Brussels or on a 'hippy trail’ – and, no matter how far he is from Australia, he’s recognised as being from down under. Men at Work’s success in the US also coincided with a period of growing fascination with Australian movies – another instance of 'selling’ Australia.
The sing-a-long chorus means the tune is not easily forgotten and makes the song perfect as an unofficial anthem. The lyrics memorably rhyme 'Brussels’ with 'muscles’ and – rather more inventively – 'language’ with 'Vegemite sandwich’. The quirkiness is another likely explanation for the song’s success. 'Down Under’ gained a whole new lease of life and popularity in the wake of Australia’s victory in the America’s Cup in September 1983.
Down Under synopsis
'Down Under' was recorded for Men At Work’s first album Business as Usual in 1981. It has become an Australian icon recognised internationally and considered by many to be an unofficial national anthem.
'Down Under' was written by band members Colin Hay and Ron Strykert. Hay had emigrated to Australia in 1967 from Scotland. Men at Work had its genesis in a band that used to play at Melbourne’s Cricketer Arms Hotel in the late 1970s. Hay first formed a duo with Ron Strykert, and they were joined by drummer Jerry Speiser, keyboardist Greg Sneddon and John Rees on bass. Sneddon was replaced by Greg Ham (1953–2012), who played saxophone and flute on the band’s records, in addition to keyboards. An early version of 'Down Under’ was the B-side to their first single, 'Keypunch Operator' (1980). The band took off in Australia in 1981 with 'Who Can it Be Now', the lead single from Business as Usual. It wound up the biggest-selling single of the year and paved the way for the successful release of 'Down Under'.
'Down Under' quickly reached number one in Australia and later also in the UK and the USA. Men At Work are one of only a handful of artists to achieve simultaneous chart success in both Britain and America. Nor were they 'one hit wonders’ overseas, with Business as Usual also reaching number one in both territories. The group managed three follow-up Top 40 hits in the UK but did even better in the US, where 'Who Can it Be Now' had also reached number one. 'Down Under' was succeeded there by Top 10 hits 'Overkill' and 'It’s a Mistake' from the Cargo (1983) album.
The band toured extensively in the wake of their international success and a Grammy award for Best New Artist in 1983 confirmed their American breakthrough. By 1984 the band members took a break to pursue their own interests. Speiser and Rees left the band while the remaining three members – Colin Hay, Greg Ham and Ron Strykert – put out a new album, Two Hearts. The record failed to match the spectacular success of their earlier recordings and the band split up in 1986.
A reunion ten years later saw Men at Work tour for a few years and they performed at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics. In 2009, music publisher Larrikin Music successfully sued songwriters Hay and Strykert for copyright infringement, claiming that part of the song’s memorable flute riff was based on the children’s song 'Kookaburra’, written by Marion Sinclair in 1932. When Colin Hay produced a new version of 'Down Under’ for the song’s 30th anniversary, he changed the flute part.
'Down Under' still gets regular airplay and has retained its tag as an unofficial Australian anthem. It entered the Australian Top 40 singles chart on 16 December 1981 and spend five weeks at number one during the summer of 1981–82. 'Down Under' returned to the Top 40 for another couple of months in October 1983 as the unofficial anthem to Australia’s victory in the America’s Cup yacht race in September 1983, and in the wake of reaching number one in the US and UK in late 1982–early 1983.
Notes by Martin Ford