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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Men at Work, Business as Usual (1981) and Cargo (1983)

At the start of the 1980s, like so many other people, I became a fan of Men at Work because of their singles “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under.” I recorded these songs from the radio to a cassette tape, so I could listen to them over and over, until I could afford to buy the record Business as Usual. I still love these songs. They are infectious, while being a bit haunting with lyrics such as “these little men come to take me away, why do they follow me.” I was obsessed with “Down Under,” listening to it repeatedly late at night when I supposed to be asleep. The lyrics and music filled my mind with wonderful images and intrigue. I always felt that Men at Work were the Australian version of The Police, given the quirkiness of their songs and how they also incorporated various styles of music, such as reggae and ska. This is not to say they were derivative, as they gave their music a fresh spin. Men at Work were also one of the 80s bands that incorporated the saxophone in a tasteful way.

Men at Work are primarily known for a few of their singles, which are undeniably good. However, the first two records are quite remarkable and present a band who were writing exceptional songs. “I Can See It in Your Eyes” has a strong chorus and speaks of lost love and disappointment. I like the guitar solo and the way the bass moves to the front toward the end of the song. I am drawn to the drive and percussion in “Underground.” “Helpless Automation” sounds like it could be a song by the Split Enz—the new wave band from the New Zealand in the 1970s. (“I Like To” on Cargo also seems like it could be a Split Enz’s song.) It is a very good song, which a punk rock band should cover. Side A of Business as Usual is more immediately assessable, and I listened to it much more than the flipside.

I bought Cargo right when it was released, eager to follow this band. While it is not necessarily as strong as Business as Usual, it is still an interesting record. The opening notes of “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive” sound like a Huey Lewis song. Nevertheless, Colin Hay’s vocals and some of the additional instrumentation distinguish the song. The chorus is also darker than what would be found on a bright Lewis song. “Overkill,” the second single from the record, is a gem, featuring a nice vocal performance and chorus. I always liked the line, “ghosts appear and fade away,” as we reflect upon the consequences and/or implications of our actions. I was quite taken by “Settle Down My Boy,” with its reggae vibe. Colin Hay sings about the various adult responsibilities being imposed on a young lad. There is a darkness to many of the songs. “No Sign of Yesterday” is a languid song, which speaks to the sheer exhaustion of an individual trying to grapple with a changing world and loss of connections.

Pull out the stop plugs, drain all the waste
Who needs it anyway
Fill all the big holes, leave no trace
No sign of yesterday…

Out in the yard, was such a lovely place
It's where we used to play
Inside, outside you can feel and taste.
No sign of yesterday

While it is not one of my favorite songs, I feel the weight being expressed. One of the stand out tracks on Cargo is “It’s a Mistake,” with a strong Police-influenced, ska-guitar line. “No Restrictions” is a good track, which could easily fit on a record by The Police. In general, Men at Work wrote catchy songs. Colin Hay’s vocals were great. The lyrics were at times terse, but also contained great imagery.

Like most people, I was introduced to Men at Work via their first two videos, “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under,” which were in heavy rotation on MTV in the early 1980s. They were weird and a little bit creepy. They were from Australia. The lead singer had a wondering eye. They were from some far-off land, yet I felt a kinship with them because, at this time, I was living in the blistering Arizona sun. I assumed Australia was similar. Vegemite sandwich, anyone?

Shortly thereafter I played Business as Usual a lot. I liked it and still think it is great. All the songs are good—very up-beat, new wave-type stuff. I really liked their lyrics, which always seemed to be harboring some sort of secret. Often, I would think, “What is this song really about?” They still maintain that mystique to this day, and “Down by the Sea” continues to haunt me after all these years. 

Listen to your heart
Screamin’ at the sky
Can’t you feel it tremble?
Don’t you wonder why?

I still pull the record out and listen to it a couple of times a year. It always takes me back to the early 80s and the burning Arizona sun; yet, it also still sounds fresh, somehow. The unusual personality of their sound remains intact. Also, I always picked up a certain working-class sensibility in their work.

I never owned their second album, Cargo, but I knew the singles that were played on the radio. Men at Work were a good band. I am always surprised when I am reminded that they only recorded three records.

‘Are you going to play football this year, John?’
‘Oh, well you must be going to play cricket this year then? Are you Johnny?’
‘No! no! no!’
‘Boy, you sure are a funny kid, Johnny, but I like you! So tell me,
what kind of a boy are you, John?’

‘I only like dreaming
All the day long
Where no one is screaming.’

I felt a certain kinship.

Wait!?! Men at Work had more songs than “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under”?

As you may know, I grew up in a town with limited access to music. I am not sure why, when, or how Men at Work caught my ear. My guess it was the quirky “Who Can It Be Now?” or the even quirkier “Down Under.” You youngsters may not realize this, but when we tried to figure out what the fuck a “vegemite” sandwich was, we couldn’t just look it up on the internet. We actually had to do a bit of research. My cousin would bring up, from Dubuque, radio recordings of Dr. Dementia, and we would giggle our way through the strange songs. I vaguely remember a song about poppies and another about dead fish. Men at Work was goofy enough not to be a serious attempt at pop music or the “easy listening” that dominated my local radio station that was anything but easy to listen to.

For that reason, Men at Work’s Business as Usual was one of the first cassettes I spent my “hard-earned” allowance on. I still have it and Cargo, which I also picked up. Without listening to the tracks to remind me, I do recall the infectiousness of “Be Good Johnny” and that “Helpless Automaton” caught my attention. Cargo is a bit more nebulous in my recollection. The first track “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive” seems familiar, but I cannot pick out the tune.

The release date for Business as Usual is around 1981 or 82, based on print date on my cassette. I was either finishing up junior high or starting high school. At that point in my life, I was still trying to use humor to spackle over the challenges of my youth. I was slowly moving from my class-clown defense to my angry-teen stage as life kept throwing me curve balls. Men at Work, Huey Lewis, and Stray Cats probably represent the last of my goofy, quirky stage before I began my slow descent into alcohol-fueled violent depression and the more appropriate rock and heavier metal. I can justify Men at Work because of my age when I first enjoyed them, but I still get a nostalgic buzz from them.

Looking over my well-worn cassettes, I noticed the scotch tape used on Cargo as attempted cassette surgery. I do not recall if I was successful, but the tape developed a high pitched squeak. I think I replaced the inner film, or the spools using some other donor cassette. I am going to give Cargo a listen and get back to you….

I can say 35 years has not been kind to my cassette (Business as Usual did not fare any better). The sound is quite muddy and drops out at times. The squeak was almost as unbearable as the two artists I recently endured for a future review. I will keep you all in suspense, but I will give you a hint—they have been feuding recently—that should narrow it down!

 “Overkill” brings back memories of fucking around with my D&D beginners set and obsessing over my growing Star Wars action figure collection. Men at Work definitely have their own sound. I am not sure that it would be anything that I would be drawn to today if I had never heard them, but there are certain elements that I still find interesting. If you are able to get past the 1980s synth, “No Sign of Yesterday” is a bit haunting in its sound and lyrical content. “It’s a Mistake” seems to be a comment on something, but I am not sure—war, Reagan, police violence?

“High Wire” is pretty trippy, and contains the line, “I may be an idiot but indeed I am no fool.” I am sure that line resonated with my mid-teens angst. What is really weird about these albums is that, on their face, they are exactly the genre of music that made me want to vomit. Perhaps, they just caught me at the right time in the right mood. “I Like To” is certainly new wavy as I understand it, but it is just too weird for me to take it seriously. I like the song, more for the weird sense of humor than the music itself.

Overall, I am not sure how seriously Men at Work took themselves, especially since the photo on the inside of the jacket is the band, all in tuxes, sitting on shitters and stools in a restroom. For nostalgia’s sake, I give the two albums one sweet sticky ball, maybe two if someone could find me a CD of Cargo. It was nice to go back down memory lane.

Sweet Dreams Motherfuckers.

1 comment:

  1. I am glad I was not the only one to think "I Like To" has a new wave vibe. I avoided new wave like the plague, so I am not sure what it really is besides something that I did not like.