Monday 11 November 2013

MEN AT WORK: Business As Usual

(#274: 29 January 1983, 5 weeks)

Track listing: Who Can It Be Now?/I Can See It In Your Eyes/Down Under/Underground/Helpless Automaton/People Just Love To Play With Words/Be Good Johnny/Touching The Untouchables/Catch A Star/Down By The Sea

By the time Business As Usual had conquered the American and British charts, the album was just over a year old. Released in Australia in November 1981, two of its songs, “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” (the latter reworked somewhat for the album), had already been Australian number one singles. Despite this, Columbia in the US twice passed on the record, but the band’s management were persistent and the album was eventually released in the States and Canada in April 1982. Interest and sales began in Winnipeg, and thence slowly spread eastwards and southwards; the band also promoted the record by supporting Fleetwood Mac on tour throughout both Canada and the USA. In combination with the then still relatively new phenomenon of MTV, their popularity systematically rose, and “Who Can It Be Now?” became a US number one that November, although a sceptical British public stopped the single at #45.

However, “Down Under” also shot to number one in the States, and when rush-released as a single in Britain at the beginning of 1983 – and heavily discounted in chart return shops – the feat was repeated here. By the time Business As Usual made number one in the UK, it was well into its fifteen-week run at the top in the USA. In other words, Men At Work had achieved the transatlantic double/quadruple, the first Australian act to do so. The albums it kept off number one here were the eponymously-titled debut album by treacly French MoR pianist Richard Clayderman, and Porcupine by Echo and the Bunnymen, a third album recorded under fairly trying circumstances and a tough (though not unrewarding) listen; the title track, largely because of L Shankar’s string arrangement, is as patient and desperate as “Kashmir,” while the closing slow-motion double punch of “Gods Will Be Gods” and “In Bluer Skies” has its own turning-back-on-the-band’s-past chewed-up logic (McCulloch reckoned that the songs benefited from the inter-band tensions).

But the question remains about what exactly the world of early 1983 found so attractive about Men At Work. “Who Can It Be Now?” had been routinely dismissed in Britain as Playdoh Police, but “Down Under,” particularly when accompanied by its “wacky” video, seemed either to confirm everybody’s worst stereotypical assumptions about Australia or to be somewhat ashamed of being Australian.

I think the song’s intentions are rather more complex than that; co-songwriter and lead singer Colin Hay has said that it was meant to represent the commercial overselling of “Australia” as a way of life and the manner in which the Australian spirit would naturally overcome any attempt at hype. So the song finds Hay on eternal walkabout across the globe, but every time he comes across an especially strange place or scary person – in Brussels, in Bombay, or wherever – his heart audibly lightens when he learns that he is speaking with one of his own. For people still “lost” in so many ways, this message was reassuring; do not search for Australia, since “Australia” is always all around you.

The removed exoticism of Men At Work was undoubtedly a major part of their appeal; they were from “far away,” not easily graspable – remember that the success of Love’s Forever Changes in Britain was ascribable to the band never touring, their “otherness” (and while you are at it, it is worth drawing some parallels between Greg Ham’s gumtree flute on “Down Under” and Tijay Cantarelli’s work on Da Capo). And when, some months later in 1983, Australia sensationally won the Americas Cup, “Down Under” served as the soundtrack to the latter’s television coverage.

So complaining about Business As Usual not being Junkyard or Send Me A Lullaby – or, for that matter, INXS, then three albums into their career - misses the record’s point. There is in any case a certain degree of perspectival relationship between light and space – feel how easy it is to breathe in the sunlit and distinctly un-American boulevards of “Be Good Johnny” – which is peculiarly Australian and persists even to later records like the Go-Betweens’ “Streets Of Your Town,” although songs like “I Can See It In Your Eyes” illustrate how effective the band’s music would sound on broad freeways.

It is also beside the point to talk about Men At Work being a Police stand-in act, although that was the principal impression given at the time. Hay’s voice doesn’t really sound like Sting’s, apart from the same irritating emphasis on cod-Jamaican labials – broken down periodically when the singer drops his guard and his Kilwinning diphthongs come to the fore; he came from the same county as Bill Shankly, and his voice if anything reminds me of a pre-emptive Paolo Nutini. Also, despite the band having two more members than the Police, the activity and dynamics are noticeably reduced in comparison; they sound less busy.

For in spite of all its good intentions – and the anti-corporate lyrical thrust of “Underground” confirms that they are on the right side – Business As Usual is uninvolving, unengaging and anaemic. They cast themselves as Numanoid isolationists on “Who Can It Be Now?,” which is only really distinguished by Ham’s aggrieved, gruff tenor sax riff, and more avowedly on “Helpless Automaton”; despite the occasional rhetorical computer bleat, the latter is undermined by its low budget Blondie musical setting – although the song’s last instrumental twenty seconds or so suggest a possible fruitful alternative musical road, one that won’t be properly grasped until Throwing Muses’ House Tornado.

The band never move out of this first gear. In such a context, “Down Under” sounds little more than a reluctant update of “Yellow Rose Of Texas.” By the time of “People Just Love To Play With Words” – their “De Do Do Do…” – Ham’s saxophone has become actively annoying (he does not really improvise as such throughout the record). No matter however Hay casts himself – the schoolboy misfit (“Be Good Johnny”), the self-deluding old wino (“Touching The Untouchables”), the reluctant reunion suitor (“I Can See It In Your Eyes”) – he always runs up against the brick wall of what I suspect is an inescapable Australian pub rock tradition which the band are really too timid to try to break down, or open. Even the closing epic “Down By The Sea,” which could have been a majestic achievement, Hay’s observer watching the gradual erosion of what he perceives as his country, doesn’t become a useful precursor to Blue Sky Mining; it finds its beat early on, and more or less stays there for the best part of seven minutes.

So the album plays like musical rice cakes, bite into it and you quickly find that there is little of substance. Their next album, Cargo, was a little more adventurous, containing as it did their one great song, the apocalyptically autumnal “Overkill” (“Ghosts appear and fade away”). But not long after its release, “Every Breath You Take” came out, and Men At Work rapidly drifted away from the foreground.

Worse was to come; the flute riff to “Down Under,” which Ham had added himself, was found to be derivative of the old nursery rhyme “Kookaburra,” which was still in copyright. The song’s publishers launched a lawsuit, and a judge found in their favour in July 2010, awarding 5% of back royalties (but only from 2002) and future profits. It could have been a lot worse – the publishers were lobbying for 60% of royalties – but the case and its outcome seemed to exhaust Ham, who in April 2012 was found dead at his home in Melbourne, of causes unknown, aged just fifty-eight.

The musicians have continued, and sometimes quarrelled, in their own ways. But the key to Men At Work’s influence on the rest of the eighties – particularly in the States – can be found in the jerky staccato organ and general rhythmic rush of “Be Good Johnny”; this is the template for a decade of Ferris Buellers, fast, unapologetic, amiable and invariably rather more old-fashioned than their surfaces might suggest. Then again, I finally remembered what, and whom, Ham's roughly mournful saxophone reminded me of; Jan Garbarek (another musician who always gives the impression of being a very long way away from anybody or anything else), and therefore, by extension, that four-note call to arms repeated throughout Public Enemy's "Show 'Em Whatcha Got."

Next: “And though you fight to stay alive, your body starts to shiver…”