Glenn A. Baker called it a success saga even Holly-wood could not have invented. Five scruffy pub musicians become international household names with a flippant, irresistible style of 1980s pop. The debut album sells ten million copies around the world and the band tours to great acclaim. The pressures of mega-stardom mercilessly break the unit's resolve. A third album sells less than one-tenth as many copies as the first and an infatuated world looks elsewhere for amusement.
Irrespective of the band's fairytale rise to prominence, Men at Work's phenomenal success inextricably created worldwide interest in Australia and Australian music. Little River Band, Air Supply and AC/DC paved the way in the USA; Men at Work simply opened the floodgates with little more than a clutch of great songs. Until INXS claimed the mantle of international superstars in the late 1980s, Men at Work was Australia's most famous group. The band's achievements during 1982 have ensured a place in the record books.
Scottish-born singer-songwriter Colin Hay met guitarist Ron Strykert when they worked on the stage musical Heroes in Sydney during 1978. The pair formed the nucleus of Men at Work when they began working around Melbourne as an acoustic duo. In mid-1979, Hay and Strykert (then on bass) recruited drummer Jerry Speiser. With Greg Sneddon (ex-Alroy Band) on keyboards, one of the band's earliest gigs was providing the backing for the West Community Theatre's amateur rock musical Riff Raff. An album of the songs and dialogue from Riff Raff (on the W.E.S.T. imprint) comprised the band's first recording venture. Sneddon had issued an impressive symphonic rock album on Mushroom Records in 1974 called Mindstroll which featured Speiser on drums. Sneddon did not remain with Men at Work, but by the end of 1979 Greg Ham and John Rees had joined. With Rees on bass, Strykert switched to lead guitar. Over the next 12 months, Men at Work built up a grassroots following, initially playing to modest crowds in small, dank Melbourne pubs like the Grace Darling and Richmond's Cricketer's Arms.
In 1980, Men at Work issued a self-financed, independent single, `Keypunch Operator'/ `Down-under' on their own M.A.W. imprint. The record sold in limited quantities and became a highly collectable item once the Men became famous. `Keypunch Operator' was a fast-paced country-styled rocker with a clean sound and quirky rhythm. The flip was an acoustic prototype version of the later hugely successful international hit single. By the end of 1980, Men at Work had grown in stature to become the most in-demand and highly paid, unsigned band of the year. In early 1981, CBS signed Men at Work on the recommendation of A&R man Peter Karpin. American producer Peter McIan worked on the band's debut single, `Who Can It Be Now?'/`Anyone for Tennis?' which reached #2 on the national charts in June. It stayed on the charts for 16 weeks. The band's second single, `Down Under'/`Crazy', did even better by reaching #1 in November and staying on the charts for 18 weeks. The band's third single, `Be Good Johnny'/`F 19', reached #8 in April 1982.
The debut, the Peter McIan-produced album Business as Usual (October 1981), immediately hit #1 on the national chart. At the end of its six-month Top 40 run, the album had sold over 300000 copies. It eventually went on to sell over 400000 copies in Australia. The album also made its debut at #1 on the New Zealand charts, becoming the first Australian album to achieve that honour. Aside from the strength of the music, part of the album's appeal was its economy. The production sound was low-key, but clean and uncluttered. Indeed, the songs stood by themselves with little embellishment save for a bright, melodic, singalong quality. By the end of 1981, Men at Work had also notched up #1 singles in Holland and Germany, a #2 in France and had scored a platinum album in Canada. The Americans and British took a little longer to catch on. In fact, CBS America had turned the album down twice before capitulating and issuing it in June 1982 (on Columbia). CBS/Epic also issued the album in the UK that same month. `Who Can It Be Now?' came out in May and in August the band toured across the USA as support to Fleetwood Mac.
By October, `Who Can It Be Now?' was #1 in the USA and #45 in the UK. In February 1983, Men at Work achieved a grand slam when both `Down Under' and Business as Usual held down the #1 spots in the USA and UK. Only the mega-star likes of The Beatles, Rod Stewart and Simon and Garfunkel had done so in the past. Business as Usual became the longest running #1 debut album in American chart history (15 weeks), shattering The Monkees' 16-year-old record in the process. Men at Work's American success coincided with the introduction of the revolutionary 24-hour-a-day television rock service called MTV (Music Television). The video image of five irreverent, self-effacing young musicians who sang about Vegemite sandwiches and fried-out Kombis struck a responsive chord with viewers. Men at Work were named Best New Artist of the Year at the 1982 Grammy Awards, and Best New Artist in the Rolling Stone (US) Readers' Poll. The band spent most of 1983 touring the USA and Europe.
Meanwhile, back in Australia, Men at Work picked up Most Outstanding Achievement at the 1982 Countdown Awards. The first single, `Dr Heckyll & Mr Jive'/`Shintaro', from the band's second album, Cargo, had already reached #6 in October 1982. `Overkill'/`Til the Money Runs Out' reached #5 in April 1983; Cargo went straight to #1 upon release that same month. `It's a Mistake'/`No Restrictions' was relatively unsuccessful having stalled at #34 in August. Likewise, the 12-inch `Highwire'/`Fallin' Down', `I Like to' single was only a minor hit. `Down Under' made a return to the Australian Top 40 in October 1983, and again in January 1987, when it was used as the theme song for the Alan Bond/Ben Lexcen/Australia II syndicate's successful America's Cup challenge.
The band's international success continued. Cargo reached #8 in the UK and #3 in the USA (selling one million copies on advance orders alone and four million all up). `Overkill' (US #3, UK #21), `It's a Mistake' (US #6, UK #33) and `Dr Heckyll & Mr. Jive' (US #28, UK #31) were all hits. On 4 August 1983, CBS awarded Men at Work the Crystal Globe Award in honour of generating $100 million worth of record business (five million albums sold) outside of their home country. The award put Men at Work in the same category at that time as other CBS artists like Santana, Simon and Garfunkel, Earth, Wind and Fire and Bob Dylan. From there, the band's downhill slide was slow but inevitable.
Once the 1983 world tour was over, the band returned to Australia for a year's break. Hay got married, went to France on his honeymoon and then produced Melbourne band Le Club Foote's debut album. Strykert travelled to Europe and Ham moonlighted with Melbourne pub band Relax with Max. Internal pressures within the band came to a head and Rees and Speiser received their marching orders. At the start of 1985, Hay, Ham and Strykert were joined in the studio by session players Jeremy Alsop (bass) and Mark Kennedy (drums; ex-Spectrum, Ayers Rock, Marcia Hines Band) for the band's self-produced third album, Two Hearts (June 1985). Upon release in the USA, the album stalled at #50, barely selling 750000 copies. In Australia, it peaked at #16 during June before dropping from sight.
Of its four singles, `Everything I Need'/`Sail to You' (May 1985), `Maria'/`Snakes and Ladders' (August), `Hard Luck Story'/`Snakes and Ladders' (October 1985) and `Sail to You'/`Children on Parade' (November), only `Everything I Need' cracked the US Top 50 (at #47). It also reached #20 in Australia. The band's first American tour in 18 months was cancelled due to poor ticket sales. Strykert resigned from the band even before `Everything I Need' came out. Hay and Ham recruited a new line-up comprising Alsop, James Black (keyboards, guitar; ex-Mondo Rock), Colin Bayley (guitar, ex-Mi-Sex) and Chad Wackerman (drums; ex-Frank Zappa) and prepared to tour. Eventually Ham also left and Hay brought in Paul Williamson (ex-Black Sorrows) on sax.
With Hay determined to keep the band alive, Men at Work undertook the Back To Business tour of the Australian pub circuit to a positive response. The tour extended briefly to South East Asia, but it was all over for Men at Work by the end of 1985. Colin Hay made no secret of wanting to return to his Gaelic soul roots and set off on an often interesting, but relatively low-key, solo career. Men at Work were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the 1993 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Awards. In various parts of the world, interest in Men at Work has grown, and in mid-1996 Hay and his old comrade Greg Ham took a re-formed version of the band on a sell-out tour of Brazil.
In 1998, Colin Hay and Greg Ham revived Men At Work (with session players filling out the band) for two highly successful tours of Brazil. The tours produced the live album, Brazil, which sold 100 000 copies in three months when issued in that territory. The album also came out in Australia (January 1999). It featured all the hits played live in Sao Paulo in front of 10 000 Brazilian fans. Hay and Ham toured with Men at Work throughout 1999.
They appeared at such prestigious concert events as the launch of the new Australia Stadium at Homebush, Sydney (June), with Wendy Matthews, Mike Brady and INXS, and the New Year’s Eve Rock the Millennium concert at Sydney’s Darling Harbour in front of 25 000 people. The song, ‘Downunder’, appeared on the Various Artists album, Rock the Millennium 99: A Live Celebration of Australian Music (April 2000).