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The "Land Down Under" is Australia, where the group is from. The lyrics were written by lead singer Colin Hay, who told us: "The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It's really more than that."
Hay told us about composing the song: "It's a very important song for me. It always felt like a strong song, right from the start. Originally, the idea came from a little bass riff that Ron Strykert, the guitar player for Men at Work, had recorded on a little home cassette demo. It was just a little bass riff with some percussion that he played on bottles which were filled with water to varying degrees to get different notes. It was a very intriguing little groove. I really loved it, it had a real trance-like quality to it. I used to listen to it in the car all the time. When I was driving along one day in Melbourne, the chords popped out and a couple of days later I wrote the verses."
Barry Humphries is an Australian entertainer who has created many popular characters, including Dame Edna Everidge. He was also the voice of Bruce the Shark in the movie Finding Nemo. Colin explained his influence on this song: "He's a master of comedy and he had a lot of expressions that we grew up listening to and emulating. The verses were very much inspired by a character he had called Barry McKenzie, who was a beer-swilling Australian who traveled to England, a very larger-than-life character."
Some lyric translation:
Fried out Kombi - a broken-down van. The lyrics are often translated as "Combie," but the correct spelling is Kombi. It came from the VW Kombivan which was very popular in the '60s and early '70s, especially with surfers and hippies.
Head full of Zombie - Zombie was a particularly strong batch of marijuana which was floating around Australia for a long time. People called it "Zombie Grass."
Vegemite Sandwich - Vegemite is a fermented yeast spread that is pretty much a national institution in Australia. Some people love it and can't start the day without a piece of toast spread with Vegemite, and some go so far as to carry a small jar of it with them when they travel overseas. Some are indifferent to it, and others can't stand it. It kind of resembles smooth black tar, and is similar in taste to the English "Marmite," but Aussies will always tell you that Vegemite is far superior. Regarding the lyrics, "Where beer does flow, and men chunder..." Chunder is Aussie slang meaning to vomit.
This song is often misinterpreted as a patriotic anthem. Says Colin: "It's ironic to me that so many people thought it was about a specific thing and that really wasn't the intention behind the song. If you listen to 'Born In The USA,' it's a similar song in that there's a lot of nuance missed because people like drinking beer and throwing their arms up in the air and feeling nationalistic. It's ultimately a song about celebration, but it's a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place. White people haven't been in Australia all that long, and it's truly an awesome place, but one of the most interesting and exciting things about the country is what was there before. The true heritage of a country often gets lost in the name of progress and development."
Colin: "I love the song, I have strong feelings about it because it's looked after me for many, many years."
In 2003, Colin recorded 2 new versions for his album Man At Work. The first is an acoustic version he included so people could hear how the song sounded originally, before Men at Work did it. Colin's wife, Cecilia, has a Latin Salsa band, and on the second version he recorded her horn section and flute parts, combining them with his tracks.
This became an unofficial national anthem when Australia won the America's Cup in 1983, an event the United States had never lost. The then Prime Minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, was so delighted with Australia's win, he gave the whole country the day off and announced on the news that any boss who fired an employee for taking the day off "is a bum!" (thanks, Jude - Melbourne, Australia)
The quirky video became a huge hit on MTV. The network had been on the air for only a year, and they didn't have many videos to choose from. Men at Work didn't know much about MTV, but British and Australian bands had been making videos for some time. The band made videos that fit their personality, often improvising scenes and using their friends for help. The guy who stands up and offers the Vegemite sandwich is the band's drummer, Jerry Speiser. He wasn't really "6 foot 4 and full of muscles," he had to stand on something to get extra height. He also wore a wig.
Men at Work hit big in the summer of 1982 and through the next year had 5 Top 40 singles: "Who Can It Be Now?," "Down Under," "Overkill", "I's A Mistake" and "Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive," the first two of which vaulted all the way to #1 on the American charts. 1982 was also the year the band won the Best New Artist Grammy. (thanks, Victor - Boston, MA)
This was a huge worldwide hit. For 2 weeks, both the single and album were #1 in the US and UK. It was also #1 in Australia. (Thanks to Colin for speaking with us about this song. To learn more or to check out his album, go to www.colinhay.com)
Men at Work recorded the first version of "Down Under" in 1980 in Melbourne and released it independently as the B-side to a forgettable song called "Keypunch Operator." They released it on a label they called M.A.W. - about 300 copies. This early version of the song here is a crude, pale predecessor to the global hit and testament to the wonders a good producer can do. (thanks, steve - Sydney, Australia)
In 2009, the music publishing company that owns the rights to the Australian children's song "Kookaburra
" sued the "Down Under" songwriters, claiming the flute riff copied the children's classic. On February 4, 2010, Justice Jacobson ruled in favour of Larrakin Music who own "Kookaburra's" publishing rights - the song having been originally penned by music teacher Marion Sinclair in 1932. In his judgment he said that Men At Work had infringed Larrikin's copyright because "Down Under" reproduced "a substantial part of Kookaburra."
Colin Hay said after the judgment: "I'll go to my grave knowing 'Down Under' is an original piece of work. In over 20 years no one noticed the reference to 'Kookaburra.' Marion Sinclair never made any claim that we had appropriated any part of her song, and she was alive when 'Down Under' was a hit. Apparently she didn't notice either."