Down Under

Down Under - roo beach

Australia is sometimes known as “the land down under” so it’s fitting that the biggest hit by the Aussie band Men At Work should be called Down Under. It tells of an Australian who travels the world and the people he meets along the way. There’s a woman on a hippy trail who makes him breakfast, a body-building baker who makes him a Vegemite sandwich and a pusher in Bombay who offers him drugs.

The song was written by Colin Hay and Rob Strykert, the founding members of Men At Work, and according to Hay it’s both a lament for the tacky overdevelopment of Australia and a celebration of his adopted country. Australia, it says, has become a land overrun by the nouveau riche where “women glow and men plunder” but it is also a place of fun where “beer does flow and men chunder”.

Picture of Redcar steel works.  Looking along the coast from Redcar beach, towards the steelworks and South Gare at mouth of the River Tees.  The steelworks at Redcar has the largest blast furnace in Europe and dominates this stretch of coastline.

The Redcar Ironmaking Site

The lyrics always remind me of the time I worked on the ‘Redcar’ project. Back in 1976 I was a young computer programmer working for a large software company in the UK. My employer had a contract to develop the control and monitoring software for the ironmaking plant being constructed just outside the town of Redcar near the mouth of the River Tees in North East England. I was one of dozens of programmers temporarily relocated to the towns and villages around Redcar so that we could work on the site.

The project was huge¹. At its peak there were something like 30 of us writing software in the prefabricated offices sitting on the clinker amid the cranes, the lorries and the raw materials for making iron. It was a dirty industrial site with mounds of iron ore, dusty black coal and other minerals for the coke ovens, the pellet plant, the sinter plant and the blast furnace. But that 2-mile by 3-mile building site was also an exciting place to be and the software project soon developed a lively social life.

The Redcar software project ran on beer and curries. The most enthusiastic imbibers and diners formed a club known as the GACC. The last ‘C’ stands for ‘club’. But I am digressing and I can hear some readers fidgeting in their chairs and asking “what of the music?” so I will explain the other letters later.

Down Under is a gently rocking pop/rock track with a subtle ska-influenced beat. The right word for it, perhaps the only word for it, is ‘catchy’. It grabs our attention immediately with a dull cowbell and drums intro backing funky guitars and a jaunty flute motif. Then we hear a male voice with an unusual quality to it. The singer doesn’t have a definite accent, but he’s clearly not from the UK. Listening to the lyrics confirms an origin in an antipodean culture. “Travelling in a fried-out Kombi” conjures up a vivid picture of a VW camper van carrying several sun-tanned adventurers down a dusty desert road with a fierce sun threatening to toast them alive. Then, when the chorus comes, there are some surprisingly haunting harmonies and in between the flute chuckles at some unheard joke.

Down Under was originally the B-side of Men At Work‘s first single, Keypunch Operator, released in 1980. It was re-recorded for their first album, Business As Usual and released as a single in 1981. That version was a smash hit (as they say in pop music circles). It got to number 1 on the pop charts in Australia, New Zealand, the UK and the US. It was so popular, in fact, that it was certified Gold in the UK (500,000 sales) and Platinum in the US (1,000,000 sales).

Between 1981 and 1983 several of Men At Work‘s singles entered the lower regions of the charts in several countries but, sadly, they never managed to match the phenomenal success of Down Under. Crotchety Man had heard only one other song by Men At Work before researching this post (Who Can It Be Now?), which is a pity because they were a good band². I wonder if they were eclipsed by the one-in-a-million song that brought them international fame.

Down Under - band

Now, I promised to unravel the mystery of the name of the Redcar project’s dining club. In the early 1980s Aussie slang was not at all well-known here in the UK. Someone on the project must have been a fan of Barry Humphries, though, because the letters of the acronym GACC stood for the Gourmet And Chunder Club. Men At Work would have recognised the humour instantly, I’m sure.

Footnotes

  1. At a company meeting around 1981 we were told that the Redcar project had recently hit a milestone. My employer had billed £1 million in expenses alone (accommodation, travel and meals for the contractors). Heaven only knows what the fees were for writing the software.
  2. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with Men At Work‘s other offerings I recommend Maria and Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive.
  3. The ironmaking site at Redcar had a troubled history. It shut down permanently last year. There’s an informative and somewhat disturbing article about the closure on this page from the Guardian newspaper website.

6 thoughts on “Down Under

  1. The song has a troubled and ultimately sad end.
    Around 2007, a business man who had purchased the rights to Australian children’s nursery song ‘Kookaburra’ was alerted to the similarity to the flute riff in ‘Downunder’.
    A long and expensive court case ensued, largely because the man from Larrikin music was demanding a massive 60% of royalties for the two bar sliver of tune. He won, got a total of $100k reward for millions spent on legal fees and years of wrangling.
    Greg Ham, flautist in Men At Work, became depressed during the protracted process. Deeply upset that he would be remembered for stealing something, Ham was reclaimed by alcohol abuse, and died of a heart attack in 2012.
    A book and Colin Hay doco are around. Below is a link to an article on the case.

    http://www.news.com.au/entertainment/music/men-at-works-colin-hay-says-down-under-lawsuit-contributed-to-death-of-his-dad-and-bandmate/news-story/db47d17797386c960b7a7737974ea1ce

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that link, Bruce. I had read about the court case and Greg Ham’s death but I didn’t know Ham was an alcoholic or how big an effect the case had had on the band.

      I’ve only been in a courtroom once. I was in the public gallery at the Old Bailey in the early seventies where my dad was representing an insurance company. The company was fighting what it believed to be a malicious claim for damages as a result of injuries suffered in a road traffic accident. The appellant did have injuries but the medics thought they pre-dated the accident. In the end the road crash victim won the case but was awarded a tiny sum in damages – a sum far smaller than his legal costs. As I sat in the gallery I was astounded to hear the judge say in his summing up that he didn’t believe a word the appellant had said at any time during the trial. So the injured party was shown to be a liar and a crook, in public, and had to pay through the nose for the privilege. Technically, he won his case, but justice was done nevertheless.

      Ever since then I’ve felt that there is something horribly wrong with a justice system in which lawyers get paid ridiculously large sums of money arguing over relatively trivial matters. That episode also instilled in me an immense admiration and respect for British judges – something I retain to this very day.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I chose my words badly there. My dad wasn’t a lawyer, he was the man instructing the company’s barrister. In practice, of course, the company almost always took the advice of their expensive legal team.

    Like

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