HomeWorld NewsColin Hay Talks ‘Down Under,’ Remembers Barry Humphries – Billboard
Colin Hay Talks ‘Down Under,’ Remembers Barry Humphries – Billboard
May 14, 2023
Colin Hay has touched the impossible. For a time in the early 1980s, Hay’s band Men at Work was owning sales charts, setting records, and making music that has stood the test of time.
Ask any Australian to sing the national anthem, you’ll receive the official version, “Advance Australia Fair,” followed by the unofficial cut — Men at Work’s “Down Under.”
With “Down Under” and its parent, Business as Usual, Hay and Co. simultaneously topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, at the time a feat as rare as rocking horse poop. The group went on to win the Grammy Award for best new artist.
It’s ubiquitous, a song with more than one billion streams and played everywhere Australians gather and celebrate. Where folks are having fun. When this reporter interviewed Shaquille O’Neal, the retired NBA great spotted the Australian accent and sang back the chorus of “Down Under.”
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See latest videos, charts and news
Since its release in 1981, “Down Under” has forged a life of its own — from the struggle of a bruising copyright lawsuit over the catchy number’s flute refrain, to a drum ‘n’ bass cover by Luude which cracked the U.K. top 5 in 2022, and a fresh interpretation by Yolŋu surf rock band King Stingray.
“No, it doesn’t really happen, to hardly anybody,” he says of the breakout success of Men at Work. “It was massive. Having said that, we were always very ambitious. We always felt that we could do well. But we didn’t really know how well, but we got hints at it. We seemed to bypass a lot of the typical things that Australian bands did to achieve even national success. We just immediately tried to find an audience. That was our thing. We found that audience pretty quickly, albeit a quite small, very very passionate one, and quite engaged. We always knew we had a strong live following.”
On Thursday night (April 27), Hay will take a bow at the 2023 APRA Music Awards at ICC Sydney, where he’ll receive the Ted Albert Award for Outstanding Services to Australian Music, one of the highest honors in this market’s music community.
Hay will be honored for an outstanding career, that included so much more than a single hit. “Who Can It Be Now” logged a single week at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1982. “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake” both hit the top 10 on the Hot 100, “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive” cracked the top 40 (at No. 28).
Speaking to Billboard from Sacramento, CA, Hay admits “blunders” made, which included an “absolutely horrendous deal” done at the start with CBS Records (“It was a really horrible, horrible record deal,” he insists), and a followup album that didn’t meet expectations, with the band at least.
“We made some pretty, pretty sizable mistakes, really, early on in our career. Being five musicians, having had that success, we didn’t really know what we were doing, you know. We thought we did, but we didn’t, really.”
“Down Under” introduced the rest of the world to the Australian vernacular, and specifically the word “chunder,” a variation on “puke”. For that we can thank the late comedian Barry Humphries, and his character Sir Les Patterson.
Late Men at Work bandmate Greg Ham and Hay “were hugely inspired by Humphries and Peter Cook. We were massive fans of Humphries. A lot of that video was inspired by him and certainly the use of the word the word ‘chunder,’ because that he had a great fascination it.” Humphries died last Saturday (April 22) aged 89.
The U.S. was late to the party with Business as Usual, though the rest of the world arrived on time (Business as Usual was released in November 1981,and wouldn’t hit the summit of the Billboard 200 chart until November 1982).
With followup Cargo, reps from the band’s label said to hold off on its release. “Wait for six months, a year, before you release the second album, which made perfect sense,” was the advice, he recounts. “It makes perfect sense now, but at the time, we didn’t listen to him.”
Cargo peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard 200. “It still was a successful record. We still sold millions of records, but it wasn’t like the first one,” says Hay. “With the benefit of hindsight, of course, we should have waited. That was a classic blunder as they say.”
The band went their separate ways in 1985, but the music still moves. Career record sales top 30 million, according to PRO APRA AMCOS.
Hay was born in Scotland, before settling in the land Down Under. And like many of his Australian rock ‘n’ roll peers, including Angus Young and Jimmy Barnes, his still carries the accent.
Regrets, he has a few. Highlights, many more. Among the highpoints, Hay recounts a performance in Brazil, “playing in this jungle for 25,000 people” with indigenous dancers alongside him on stage. “They were just incredible. They gave me this kind of energy and I was kind of like floating singing the third verse. I thought to myself and the court case, they can’t touch it. This is just incredible. People in courtrooms will never ever understand that.”
Hay isn’t slowing down. His music was introduced to new generations through Scrubs and Garden State, and he continues to tour, both as a solo artist and as a guitarist in Ringo Starr’s All-Star Band. The full-length solo album Now and the Evermore dropped in 2022, just a year after I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself.
“I’m going to be spending the second half of this year probably messing around with a few ideas,” he admits.
But first, APRA will salute Hay and the late concerts giant Colleen Ironside at the 2023 APRA Music Awards — “two uniquely Australian music industry figures,” comments Dean Ormston, CEO, APRA AMCOS. “Colleen championed Australian songwriters and artists and created live music pathways into Asia with a business acumen that was years ahead of her peers. Colin is a songwriter of the highest level and with the biggest heart, whose songs continue to connect and hit No. 1 on the charts.”
Hay will be in the room as the man of honor. “It gives me a great excuse to come down (to Australia),” he says. “Not that I really need an excuse.”