Singer/songwriter Colin Hay grew up in a town on the west coast of Scotland called Saltcoats, where his father owned a music store. In 1967, at the age of 14, he moved with his parents to Australia.
After working in the 70s as part of a musical duo with guitarist Ron Strykert, he formed Men At Work in 1979 around Melbourne’s La Trobe University, where drummer Jerry Speiser was a science major, keyboardist and horn player Greg Ham studied law, and Hay applied himself to “this and that”.
The group took up a residency at the tiny Cricketer’s Arms Hotel in Richmond, Melbourne. Within a short time, the band were a big drawcard at venues all around the city. In fact, before releasing any vinyl, the band were Australia’s highest paid unrecorded band.
CBS Records eventually signed them and put them together with Peter McIan, a Los Angeles-based producer who happened to be in the country to record an album with New Zealand pop singer Sharon O’Neill.
Their first single, Who Can It Be Now? (May 1981) went to #2, but bigger things were to come. The band followed up in November with Down Under which went straight to the national #1 spot.
The single ultimately made the #1 position on the Australian, US, British, Canadian and several European charts. Not only did it introduce the Vegemite sandwich to the world, but it also declared Australia to be the place where “women glow and men chunder”.
In October 1983, the song was officially adopted as the theme to the Australian ‘America’s Cup’ challenge (which was eventually won by the Australian syndicate led by Alan Bond).
The album from whence Down Under came was called Business As Usual and sold more than 10 million copies throughout more than fifty countries and stayed at #1 on the US charts for 15 weeks.
Not bad for an album that only cost around $30,000 to record . . .
Their second album, Cargo, was not as successful overseas (although it did reach #1 in Australia). Regardless, the LP sold more than a million copies in the US on advance orders alone.
Following the break-up of Men At Work at the end of 1985, Colin Hay embarked on a solo career, enjoying minor success with the Looking For Jack album (March 1987) and the single Hold Me (March 1987).
In February 2010, a Sydney court decided that a flute riff from Down Under was swiped from the 1934 song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, written by Marion Sinclair for a Girl Guides Jamboree.
Kookaburra copyright holder Larrikin Music hoped totrouser 40-60% of the song’s earnings from songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, although a costs hearing “ordered that the band must pay 5% of money earned from the song since 2002 as well as future royalties”.
Hay defended that any reference to Kookaburra was “inadvertent, naive, unconscious”, adding: “By the time Men At Work had recorded the song, it had become unrecognisable.”
EMI Music appealed in March 2011, describing the offending flute riff as “at most, a form of tribute to the tune”, which can only be detected by a “highly educated musical ear”. The court disagreed, allowing Larrikin Music to proceed with its claim for “millions of dollars” from Hay and Strykert.
Flute player Greg Ham was discovered dead at his Melbourne home on 19 April 2012.
Keyboards, horns, flute