Colin Hay of Men at Work

by Carl Wiser

Since the age of 14 when he traveled by ship from Scotland to Australia, Colin Hay has been playing the acoustic guitar and singing his stories. In 1978, with Ron Strykert, he formed what was to become Men at Work, the first Australian band to win the Best New Artist Grammy and one of the few Aussie acts outside of Air Supply and AC/DC to break out internationally in that era.

Colin was the group's lead singer and primary songwriter - the guy responsible for their hits "Who Can It Be Now?," "Overkill," and "Down Under." He launched a solo career in 1987 and has become widely known for his songcraft; he will sometimes perform acoustic versions of his Men at Work favorites that reveal their unshakable foundations.

"Down Under" has a much deeper meaning than you might think. Colin let us in on the significance of the song, and explained what it means to be riding in a "fried-out Kombie" with a "head full of Zombie."
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): I'd like to start by talking about "Down Under."

Colin Hay: Okay.

Songfacts: Can you describe how you started writing it and what it means to you?

Hay: Well, it's a very important song for me because it always felt like a strong song right from the start. Originally the idea came from a little bass riff that Ron Strykert, the other guitar player in Men at Work, had recorded on a little cassette, a little home demo. It was just a little bass riff with some percussion, which we played on bottles which were filled with water to varying degrees and got different notes.

It was a very intriguing little groove and I really loved it. It had a real trance-like quality to it. I used to listen to it all the time, and then I was driving along one day in Melbourne and the chord popped out. And then a couple of days later I wrote the verses and some music to the verses. So it all originated from that little home cassette tape that Ron had done.

Songfacts: Were you actually playing bottles when you would play that live?

Hay: No.

Songfacts: Growing up here in the States, that song was the first time I heard the phrase "down under." Can you explain what you wrote the lyrics about?

Hay: Well, the lyrics are really about my belief about what Australia was becoming - really, the selling of Australia in many ways, none of them particularly pleasant, with the overdevelopment of the country. It was what I was feeling at that particular time.

It was really a song about the loss of spirit of that country, because it's truly an awesome place. It's difficult to explain and it's very hard for me to put into a sentence. It's been a while since I've thought about this, but it's just really about the plundering of the country by greedy people.

Songfacts: I thought it was more of a sense of pride in the country.

Hay: Well, that's what most people think. That's why it's a little difficult to put into words my take on it. It is actually about ultimately celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way, not in that pride sense that most people associate with flag waving and so forth. It's really more than that.

I don't really use the term "irony" a lot, but it's ironic to me that so many people really thought the song was about a specific thing and that really wasn't the intention behind the song. It's like if you listen to "Born in the U.S.A." it's a similar thing, the lyrics in that song, as well. Sometimes there's a lot of nuance that gets lost just because people like drinking beer and throwing their arms up in the air and feeling very nationalistic, you know?

It is ultimately a song about celebration, but it's a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place or whatever. People haven't been in Australia for all that long, and it's truly, 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 the country often gets lost in the name of progress and development.

Songfacts: So would you say that those lines in the chorus, "can you hear the thunder" and "you'd better take cover," are political statements?

Hay: I don't like to say it's political, because that really narrows it down to something that is ultimately sometimes quite boring. It is not necessarily political. It can be, or it could be environmental, or it could be a climatic, or it could be political in this sense. I don't want to limit it to that.

It's really about what happened in the '80s, as well. That could be economic, which did, indeed, happen with a lot of greedy people. And In the end it all came apart, the decade of greed, in many ways. It was corporate greed.

Songfacts: Did you set out to put a lot of Australian references to that on purpose?

Hay: I don't really set out to put anything on purpose in many ways. It was really just one of those songs that was inspired. The verses were inspired by Barry Humphries, who's a very famous Australian who's created a lot of characters. The most well known here in America is probably Dame Edna Everage.

Songfacts: I've actually seen Dame Edna. I went to one of her, or his, shows not too long ago here in Connecticut.

Hay: Barry Humphries was responsible for creating many different characters. Of course, he's a master of comedy. And he had a lot of expressions which we grew up listening to and emulating and getting inspired by. So the verses were very much inspired by a character that he had called Barry McKenzie, who was a beer-swilling Australian who traveled to England and was a very larger-than-life character.

Songfacts: What's a fried out Kombie?

Hay: It is a Kombie van that doesn't go anymore.

Songfacts: And what would be the head full of Zombie?

Hay: Zombie was a particularly strong batch of marijuana which was floating around Australia for a long time. People called it zombie grass.

Songfacts: Good thing we didn't know that in the States. A lot of radio stations might not have played it.

Hay: That's another conversation altogether.

Songfacts: How do you feel about the song now?

Hay: I love the song. I have very strong feelings about the song because it's really looked after me for many, many years. (laughs)

Songfacts: You recorded a new version for your album Man @ Work.

Hay: The new version is really the old version. The new version is the second track on the new record. I put that on there because I wanted to let people hear how the song sounded originally before Men at Work did it.

Songfacts: I believe there's also another version on the album, as well.

Hay: Cecilia, my wife, has a big salsa band. I recorded her horn section playing the flute part.

Men at Work released just three albums. Their 1981 debut (issued in America in 1982), Business as Usual, held their biggest hits, "Who Can It Be Now?" and "Down Under." Cargo followed in 1983 and then Two Hearts in 1985. The band split up in 1986, but Colin remained very productive, releasing a solo album every few years.
Songfacts: Your first hit, here in the States at least, was "Who Can It Be Now?"

Hay: Yeah.

Songfacts: Can you tell us how that came about?

Hay: I was up in the bush in southern New South Wales with my girlfriend, just sitting out at night. We had this little tree hut that we built in the middle of the bush, and I was just sitting around - it was a great place to play guitar and mess around with ideas.

So it was just an idea that popped out. It took about half an hour to write that song. I was actually living in St. Kilda in Melbourne, which was a particularly great part of Melbourne at that particular time - it was a very interesting area. It was frequented by everybody from the high Jewish population and punks and red light district and movers and shakers and all kinds of different people. So it was a very interesting part of Melbourne that I was living in at the time.

It was about six or seven hours drive away sitting in the middle of the bush in New South Wales and that song just popped out. My girlfriend at the time said, "That will be your first hit, that song." She was right.

Songfacts: And how about the song "Overkill"? That sounds like it's got some meaning behind it.

Hay: That was the first song that I wrote where I thought that maybe I could actually make a living as a songwriter, perhaps. I thought that was a good song that I'd written, one that will stand the test of time. I felt at the time it had something to it. I was very happy with that song.

It was really a song about what was happening at the time, a feeling that the experience that we were going through was like stepping into the unknown and having a certain amount of steel about that, but also knowing that what was going to happen was inevitable, as well. Leaving behind where you are and stepping into something that is really out of your control to a certain degree. That's what it felt like at the time.

Songfacts: Are you talking about you personally, or with the band?

Hay: Both, really. Primarily Men at Work, but you could relate it to any kind of relationship: a relationship with a person, a relationship with a place. I was in St. Kilda and I felt that my time there was coming to a close and that I was going to probably leave there quite soon.

Colin has done some acting. TV shows he has appeared on include The Larry Sanders Show, JAG and Scrubs.
Just about to leave somewhere, knowing that you're about to step into something that's like leaving your comfort zone, you know? Because you spend a lot of years trying to get something - for example, fame or recognition - or getting to a certain point, and then when you actually achieve it, there's always a certain amount of fear that comes with that. Not necessarily fear, but a sense of loss of control. Because all of a sudden, you're not in control of a situation anymore. There are other people involved so it's much, much less controllable.

Songfacts: So was this a result of your sudden fame?

Hay: It didn't really seem sudden. Again, it's very limiting in a sense. It's not just the fame, it's a whole lot of other things, as well. Certainly that's part of it.

Songfacts: The song "Be Good Johnny." Can you tell us what that is about and how you came about writing that?

Hay: It was a song written from the standpoint of a 9-year-old boy whose parents are constantly telling him to be good and he's feeling like he can really understand certain things, but is completely misunderstood by the adult world, which I think a lot of people feel. I think everyone can relate to that, you know?

Songfacts: Any personal meaning in that song, or is that a character?

Hay: Well, I think it's always a combination of things. Songs for me are always, you could say, fictitious. But there's always a certain amount of autobiography in there, as well. I think by the nature of the fact that you're writing things, there's always a certain amount of sentiment involved. Often, songs start off as being one idea that you've had, or something that's happened to you, and they often morph into something else.

Songfacts: When you guys came on the scene, I remember MTV played a very big part in your success, because I don't remember them having all that many videos at the time, and you guys were all over it. Did you have any idea that MTV was going to play your videos so much when you made them?

Hay: We were hoping they would, but we didn't really know what MTV was. In Australia there was a lot more people doing videos and in Britain, as well. I think that America was a little bit late in the game as far as making videos was concerned. So when MTV first came out, they didn't really have a huge amount of product to play. And also our videos have a certain amount of personality and the whole medium just seemed to click with what we were doing. So it was still really radio-driven more than anything else. But MTV was certainly important for us.

Songfacts: Do you remember anything in particular about the "Down Under" video, how you made it or how it came about? That has become a classic of MTV.

Hay: What do you want to know?

Songfacts: I'd like to know how you decided to do it and where it was shot.

Hay: We used to sit around, mainly Greg [Ham, keyboard and flute player] and myself and the guys that made the videos - it was usually the same group of guys. It was always three or four people involved and we would just roughly storyboard what we wanted to do.

We didn't have much money to make the videos, only five or six thousand dollars to make the whole thing, so we would just find friends who had an apartment that we could use or else we would find a good location and just shoot it, and with a certain amount of narrative involved, as well.

We would play to our strengths: whatever each one of us could particularly do, we would cater to that. But mainly it was more kind of spontaneous in the sense that it wasn't that thought-out. It was more trying to inject the personality of the band.

Songfacts: Were those friends of yours that appeared in the videos?

Hay: Sometimes, yeah. Sometimes they were.

Songfacts: Like in the "Down Under" video, where you're seeing all these characters?

Hay: Which ones do you mean?

Songfacts: Well, like the guy that's 6'4" and full of muscle.

Hay: He was the drummer in the band. He just had a wig on.

Songfacts: He probably wasn't exactly 6'4." you probably had him standing on something.

Hay: Exactly.

November 7, 2003
Photo 1: Beth Herzhaft

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