Business As Usual

Men At Work

Columbia Records, 1982

REVIEW BY: Christopher Thelen


I think the first band I ever really got into when I was a kid was Men At Work - at least, as far as I can remember. It was the first time that I absolutely had to go out and pick up an album by a group because I liked what I was hearing on the radio and seeing on MTV. I obviously wasn't alone; the chart success their debut album Business As Usual and their Best New Artist Grammy spoke volumes about how big Colin Hay and crew were in 1982 and 1983.

Of course, fate is a fickle thing, and within a few years, Men At Work were almost nothing more than a trivia question. Their follow-up album, Cargo, wasn't seen as the success that their debut was. The band splintered apart amid rumors of in-fighting; a third album, Two Hearts, was released to commercial indifference.

Damned shame that it happened to such a talented band. You see, sixteen years after their initial success, Business As Usual still proves itself to be a damned good album filled with pop hooks up the yin-yang and solid craftmanship of songs -- with one minor exception, but we'll get to the nitpicking later. (And no, you can't say that these are old biases I'm using here; to review this album, I pulled it out of the Pierce Archive and listened to it for the first time in at least five years. So there.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Keep in mind, Men At Work were once considered the name in Australian pop music - long before INXS became popular. (Side note: Way back in 1983, I remember Men At Work performed at the now-long-demolished Mill Run Theatre in Niles, Illinois... and opening for them was an unheard-of band in America -- named INXS.) On the surface, this might have seemed to be a strange mixture. While the guitar work of Ron Strykert was prominently featured, more often than not the saxophone work of multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham took the center stage during solos. Their biggest hit, "Down Under," featured a flute solo -- holy Ian Anderson, Batman!

Ah, but what made this so special is that it worked. With the rhythm section of bassist Johnathan Rees and drummer Jerry Speiser quietly building a solid backbone in the music, Men At Work set out to write songs that were infectious and well-crafted. The album's opener "Who Can It Be Now?" is a prime example of this; happy-pop meets the paranoia of the song's subject. (They did it much better than Rockwell a couple of years later.)

And they weren't afraid to show their Australian roots. Their song "Down Under" probably sold more Vegemite than Kraft Foods (or whoever the hell makes/made the stuff) than anyone could have anticipated. (Hmm, anyone know how to work "The Daily Vault" into a song? Nah...) They introduced more colloquialisms into the language (at least for a short time) faster than you can say "Paul Hogan." They talked about sports like cricket and football (which Americans know as soccer, it goes without saying) that normally didn't get play in songs.

Fact is, Men At Work were charming, and as cuddly as a koala bear in 1982. Today, the novelty of these songs is long gone, but tracks like "Be Good Johnny" still sound fresh as the day they were released. However, the "undiscovered" gems on this one include "Helpless Automaton" (with lead vocals from Ham), "I Can See It In Your Eyes," "Touching The Untouchables" and "Down By The Sea" -- songs that would have been nice to hear on the radio (even though "Down By The Sea" clocked in at just under seven minutes).

With all the happy-happy on this record, only one song strikes a dischord with me: "People Just Love To Play With Words." Proof positive that cute can be carried too far, Men At Work take a halfway decent song concept and club it to death with silly imagery. (They almost do the same on "Be Good Johnny" -- and took it to new extremes on Cargo, which we'll talk about another day.) Still, that's one false step out of ten -- not bad in my book.

Men At Work are beginning to experience a rebirth of interest in their music. For my part, I was glad to have recognized in 1982 that Business As Usual was a killer record, and I'm glad I had the chance in 1998 to re-discover that fact.

Rating: A-

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© 1998 Christopher Thelen and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia Records, and is used for informational purposes only.