Colin Hay (lead vocals, guitar), a native of Scotland who moved to Australia at the age of 14, formed Men at Work as an acoustic duo with Ron Strykert (guitar, vocals) in Melbourne in 1979. Within a few months, the duo had expanded to a full group with the addition of John Rees (bass), Greg Ham (saxophone, flute, keyboards), and Jerry Speiser (drums).
Over the next two years, the band became regulars at the Cricketers Arms Hotel in Melbourne for a couple of months. They recruited bassist John Rees. Men at Work played every Thursday night at the hotel for over a year to ever growing audiences. Eventually becoming the highest paid unsigned band in the country.
By 1980 the word about Men at Work issued single Keypunch Operator on their independent label MAW Music. The band went to Sydney and Melbourne indie shops and show no interest in stocking it. The remaining copies were sold at gigs. The flip side has earlier version of “Down Under”, both recording have never been issued.
The following year, the band got the attention of CBS Records Australia, which signed them to a record contract. The label introduced them to Los Angeles based producer Peter Mclan, who was in Australia recording an album with New Zealand pop singer Sharon O’Neill.
Their first single “Who Can It Be Now?” was released in May 1981 and reach number 2 on Australian single music chart for 16 weeks, the single became a huge hit. Peter Mclan produced Men at Work debut album Business As Usual, which included the songs “Who Can It Be Now?,” “Be Good Johnny,” and “Down Under.” The album reached number one on the Australian album music charts. The album spent ten weeks at the top of the Australian charts, beating a record held by Split Enz’s True Colours.
The album was released in America in the summer, and within a few weeks “Who Can It Be Now?” began its climb to the top of the USA charts. In November, Business as Usual hit the top of the charts, where it would stay for 15 weeks. “Down Under” became the group’s second American number one early in 1983, and it became the band’s first British hit single; the song reached number one in both countries simultaneously. In February, the band was named the Best New Artist of 1982 at the Grammys.
In 1982 the band traveled to the United States to open for Fleetwood Mac on that group’s tour. Soon after, “Who Can It Be Now?” made its way to the top of the American charts. Both the single and Business As Usual stayed at number one on Billboard’s charts for 15 weeks.
Men at Work weren’t simply another group with a record out, they were an audio-visual package essentially a new commodity in what was quickly becoming a whole new music-marketing ball game.” During two straight weeks in 1983, Business As Usual and “Down Under” were the number one album and single, respectively, in both the United States and Britain. At that time, the only other artists to have achieved that landmark were The Beatles, Rod Stewart, and Simon and Garfunkel.
Men at Work second album, Cargo, had been recorded during the summer of 1982, but its release was delayed because of the remarkable success of the debut, Business as Usual. Peter Mclan produced and engineered their second album, Cargo which included the singles a goofy fun “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” soaring ballad “Overkill,” and anti-nuclear “It’s a Mistake”. After the release, the band toured twice in the United States and Canada and performed in the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, Australia, and Japan. In the summer of 1983, the group played at the USA Festival Westwood One Superstar Concert in front of 300,000 people. The concert, which took place in California, was broadcast live all over the United States and via satellite to Russia. The speed of their success and the growing audiences at their concerts only fuelled Men at Work’s ambition.
Following an extensive tour, during which the group co-headlined the USA. Festival with the Clash and the Stray Cats, Men at Work took an extended break in 1984, which caused Jerry Speiser and John Rees to leave the band. Colin Hay used his time off to produce an album for a friend’s band, and Greg Ham performed in an R&B band with his girlfriend.
They were replaced by session musicians for the group’s third album, Two Hearts recorded at Fast Forward Studios in Melbourne, Australia. Men at Work music had become a bland, synthesised variation on mainstream pop, featuring none of the melodic sensibilities or subtle humour of their first two albums. Although the album went gold, it featured no Top 40 singles. The commercial performance of Two Hearts was a considerable disappointment after their first two multi-platinum records and the band broke up shortly after its release. The album was producer Colin Hay, Greg Ham.
The group followed up Two Hearts with a tour that included the United States, Australia, Japan, Europe, and the Caribbean. Their total record sales at the time had reached more then 12 million albums. With their greatest success behind them, the band members decided to call it quits. Colin Hay and Greg Ham pursued their respective solo careers. Hay released five solo albums between 1986 and 2000. Every once in a while, Ham would appear at some of Hay’s shows, and the two members would showcase a couple of Men at Work songs.
Compilation Men at Work ’81 – ’85 the opening track hit singles “Down Under”, “Be Good Johnny”, “Hard Luck Story”, “It’s a Mistake”, “Shintaro”, “Everything I Need”, “Who Can It Be Now?”, “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive”, “Still Life”, “Overkill”, “Underground”, “The Longest Night”, “Sail To You (Extended Mix)” and “Down Under (Extended Mix)”.
Colin Hay and Greg Ham re-formed Men at Work in 1996, recorded at Sao Paulo, Brazil their live hits collection Brazil during Men At Work Brazil The album including “The Longest Night” written by Greg Ham and was recorded in March of 1998 as bonus studio track. Titled Brazil 96, the slightly renamed Brazil was finally released stateside two years later. But the new members sound almost identical to the originals, and with a stellar set list comprised almost entirely of classic material, it’s nearly impossible to hear the difference between the Men at Work lineups of 1983 and 1996. Colin Hay and Greg Ham along with guest musicians resurrected the Men at Work name for occasional live appearances. The album Brazil was released in the United States two years later.
Out of the remaining members, Colin Hay was the only one to pursue a solo career, but neither of his two American solo albums Looking for Jack (1987) and Wayfaring Sons (1990) were successes. Hay continued to release albums in Australia during the ’90s, he also began an acting career.
On 19 April 2012, Greg Ham was found dead in his home in Melbourne’s Carlton North suburb, he was 58 years old.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine