Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Living a Life Down Under: Men at Work

 By Alli Sinclair

Warning, an earworm is about to attack:

Living in a land down under
Where women glow and men plunder
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover!

If these lyrics mean nothing to you, either you’re waaaaaaay younger than me or you’ve been living under a rock for the past thirty-odd years. Downunder by Men at Work unofficially became Australia’s national anthem back in the 80’s and is still heard playing on radio stations from Turkey to the U.S.A. to Brazil. So how did a relatively unknown group from Melbourne become so popular?

In 1978 in the now trendy, but then derelict, Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, a four piece band got together and recorded the music to Riff Raff, a low-budget stage musical one of the band members was working on. A year later saw a couple of line-up changes and shortly there after, the unnamed band became Men at Work.

Columbia Records signed the band in 1981 and their first single, Who Can It Be Now? was released, achieving great success in Australia. North America rejected their first album, Business As Usual, twice but with unending persistence from the band’s management, they finally struck a deal and released the album in the USA and UK. Canada was the first country to embrace the lads and the band quickly released their next single worldwide, Down Under, and this is the song still sung by Aussies around the world (usually in pubs or large sporting events).

By 1983 Men at Work achieved a feat no other Australian band had managed up until then. They held number one album and single at the same time in the USA and UK. At the time, Australia was considered a wild-west frontier and we had struggled to achieve international success in the arts. Men at Work got Australia onto the world stage and the ‘80s subsequently became the decade where people all over the world thought we were exotic (ha!) and longed to visit our sandy shores. This also was the era of Crocodile Dundee.

With a Grammy Award for Best New Act and Juno Award for International LP of the Year, Men at Work were well on their way to achieving their dreams. They released a second album, Cargo (my favourite), and it rose to the top of international charts while Business as Usual kept it company. With their recording success, the band undertook a worldwide tour and sold out most concerts.

But their great achievements came at a cost. Two years of constant touring had taken its toll and the incessant infighting among band members resulted in two members leaving and pursuing individual projects. With three members left, they released a third album, Two Hearts, and only the first single made it into the Top 50 of the USA The lineup changed a few more times over the next couple of years and by 1986, Men at Work disbanded.

Ten years later, two of the original band members, Colin Hay and Greg Ham united to tour South America, where they still had a large fan base. They released Brazil ’96, a live recording of their concerts there. I’ll never forget my first trip to Brazil in 1995. I was sipping some wonderful Brazilian coffee in a café and low and behold, Down Under blasted from the tinny speakers. Luckily, I had plenty of serviettes to mop up my spilt coffee.

In recent years, the band have been involved in a copyright lawsuit due to their song Down Under. It’s a long, complicated explanation but to keep it short and sweet, a record company who held the rights to a popular 1940s Australian song, Kookaburra, believed the flute component in Down Under contained the riff from the Kookaburra song. As Down Under had played a large role in the band’s success, the people who owned the Kookaburra rights demanded royalties. The band (and many other people) had thought Kookaburra was in the public domain but unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The judge ruled against Men at Work and band member, Greg Ham (who played the flute in Down Under) is quoted as saying that the ruling destroyed his life. In 2012, Ham passed away in his home, and no reason has been publicly given for his death.

Down Under was played in the Sydney 2000 closing ceremony of the Olympics, the closing credits of Crocodile Dundee Los Angeles, and in 2001 the Australasian Performing Rights Association named Down Under as fourth in the Best Australian Song of All Time (Friday On My Mind by The Easy Beats was number one).

Who knew a small band back in the ‘80s could achieve so much international success for themselves and Australian tourism and business. And for your viewing pleasure, I present Downunder.


  1. I love that video! This song shows my age because I have so many happy memories from college years listening to it. Thanks for the history behind the song. It is definitely the song that comes to mind when I think of Australia.

  2. I love the song too, although I think I've had the words wrong for the past thirty years--ack, is it possible it's really over 30 years old???

  3. Thanks Jenni and Edith.

    Edith, I'm excellent at inventing my own lyrics to existing songs. One of these days I'll get it right...

    Jenni, I definitely think this is Australia's unofficial national anthem. The America's Cup win many moons ago probably helped it become more popular because it was played to death in the media!

  4. Thanks for the ear worm, it brought back good memories...certainly it cannot be over 30 years old? Eeek- thanks for the tune!

  5. No worries, Kelly! Yeah, I'm finding it hard to believe it's over 30 years old. That makes me... how old? Let's not go there.

  6. Alli,

    Check out the Daily Show with John Stewart from 4/18, which features this song...it made me smile at the timeliness of your post!


  7. I would love to say I'm too young to remember the song, but since I know the words too (and like Edith, only the words I made up to go with the tune), I guess I'm in the appropriate demographic. Love the song and that oh-so-analog music video! Brings back memories...

  8. Fun post, Alli! You can't visit an expat bar in S.E. Asia without hearing this at least once a night for the Aussies, and "Wonderwall" once for the Brits.