What Happened to Men at Work?

Men at Work in the 1980s

Men at Work, the eccentric darlings of 1982, invaded the U.S. from Australia by way of Canada, with their monster-selling album Business As Usual and their No. 1 hits “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under.” They were named Best New Artist at the 1982 Grammy Awards but seemed to fall victim to the “Best New Artist” curse. After their debut album, they only had two albums and two Top 10 hits.

So what happened to Men at Work?

Failure and breakup

Fresh on the heels of Business as Usual came Cargo, a 1983 album that yielded two Top 10 hits, “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake. But it seemed hastily put together, and compared to the smashing success of its predecessor, Cargo was deemed to be a disappointment.

Then the wheels fell off.

Disagreements over the management of the band led to the firing of two members, bassist John Rees and drummer Jerry Speiser. Lead singer Colin Hay got session musicians to take their place for the recording of their third album, 1985’s Two Hearts. But the magic was gone; the album tanked, not even hitting the Top 50, and yielded no hit singles. The band soon broke up.

Colin Hay’s solo work

Hay, the chief songwriter behind Men at Work’s songs, decided to go solo, releasing 15 mostly acoustic albums over the next 35 years. The albums were met with good reviews but tepid sales until Hay found a fan in Zach Braff. The actor/director included several songs in the TV show “Scrubs” and his movie, Garden State; the former show included a poignant acoustic version of Cargo‘s hit single “Overkill.” Hay’s music found a new generation, and he enjoyed a brief surge in popularity.

Colin Hay, 2022
Colin Hay, 2022 (colinhay.com)

‘Down Under’ and ‘Kookaburra’

On Sept. 26, 2007, the Australian TV music trivia game show “Spics and Specks” featured the following question: “Name the Australian nursery rhyme this riff has been based on.” The show then played the flute solo from Men at Work’s 1982 hit “Down Under.” One of the contestants answered correctly, “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree.” No one knows where the question came from; no one had noticed the similarities before.

The question got around to Larrikin Music Publishing, who owned the rights to “Kookaburra,” and it filed suit against Men at Work for copyright infringement. It sought 60% of the royalties, even though the part in question took up just seconds of the 3-minute-and-45-second song. In the end, Larrikin won the suit but was awarded just 4% of royalties. Still, it was a defeat for the band, and the allegation stung the members of Men at Work, especially Greg Ham, the flutist who performed the riff.

“I’m terribly disappointed that’s the way I’m going to be remembered — for copying something,” Ham was quoted as saying. He died, still distraught, at the age of 58 in April 2012.

A reunion (of sorts)

Hay reformed Men at Work in 2019, despite there being no other original members in the group. The band toured Europe during that year. And despite the copyright suit, “Down Under” remains their signature song, having been remixed in 2021 by Australian producer Christian “Luude” Benson and becoming a viral hit online.


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