Top Songs from Australian ’80s Rock Band Men At Work
Though Australia’s Men at Work may have displayed a foundational interest in reggae that placed the band in the general realm of The Police and utilized a chiming, jangly guitar attack that seemed quite new wave, the group ultimately occupied a significant space of its own during the early ’80s. Unfortunately, the quintet lasted only two albums before a reduced lineup spat out a rather listless, forgotten third release. Still, a look back at the band’s catalog reveals an impressive body of work, including these fine songs – presented in chronological order.
“Who Can It Be Now?”
This is one of the ’80s songs that most sounds of its time even though it also transcends completely as a fantastic rock song. Plus, since I’ve loved this tune consistently for close to 35 years, it stands for me personally as one of the seminal moments in my long tenure as a rock and pop music fan. I can remember riding the bus home from school and looking out the window as I recounted this song’s melody and lyrics, fully enchanted even though I barely knew what great music was at 10 years old. Simply put, Colin Hay’s songwriting on this track seared through a thick fog of fluff that often governed early-’80s pop music.
Following up the No. 1 “Who Can It Be Now?” was far from an easy task, but the deceptively eclectic Men at Work harbored an ace in the hole in this exotic, strikingly different-sounding tune, which repeated the feat in early 1983. Greg Ham’s flute is one of the unique instruments that helps complement this track’s off-kilter, intoxicating rhythms. Co-written by Hay and lead guitarist Ron Strykert, the song also evokes mystery and singularity in its lyrics, which take the listener on a trip of the senses ranging from the Australian foodstuff vegemite to excursions to Brussels and Bombay. A true pop culture geography lesson.
“I Can See It in Your Eyes”
The difference between Men at Work and many other early-’80s new wave acts is that the former’s albums were filled with original, quality tunes that deserved audiences far beyond the pop music fans who devoured their hit singles. This deep album track from Business as Usual is but one example of this, featuring a lovely, rueful vocal performance from Hay, its songwriter. Musically, it doesn’t differ all that markedly from the band’s other work, or from many guitar-based, new wave contemporaries, for that matter. What stands apart, rather, is the obvious songwriting and instrumental quality on display here.
“Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive”
As the lead-off track and single from Men at Work’s sophomore 1983 release, Cargo, this song made an immediate announcement that the group had not curbed its odd sense of humor or imagination in order to deepen its commercial viability. Supported by rollicking, typically jittery guitars, this Hay composition builds its strength through fierce versatility, swinging from loopy to profound in split-second shifts. So ultimately, even if it’s quite difficult to navigate Hay’s dense narrative, he slays us with nimble, often aphoristic lyrical touches like this: “He loves the world, except for all the people.”
Despite this track’s high level of commercial versatility (it reached the Top 10 on the adult contemporary and mainstream rock charts as well as the Hot 100), it actually serves as a rare example of high quality yielding high popular returns. I’ve always thought of this moody, textured track as a total stunner, a song built on solid foundations across the board. In recent years, I’ve rediscovered Hay’s brilliance on a number of levels, but in this song alone there are numerous layers of craftsmanship, from Ham’s haunting saxophone to Strykert’s clean lead guitar part to the simple complexity of the chord progression.
“It’s a Mistake”
In its short career, Men at Work may have accumulated only four Top 10 pop hits, an achievement that could seem modest from the perspective of three-plus decades of hindsight. However, very few bands of the new wave era can claim to have produced as many genuinely different hits as this band, instead relying on relative rewrites of their core sound, either consciously or unconsciously. But this band’s four Big Ones certainly cast individual spells of their own, as this track finds Hay pondering nuclear annihilation with a deft eye for detail. Also, Strykert’s guitar lines help the song achieve an appropriately somber atmosphere.