MAN AT WORK
Men At Work were one of the most successful bands of the ‘80s. The Melbourne-based band, led by COLIN HAY, shared the stage with icons like Little Richard and Miles Davis, appeared onSaturday Night Live twice, won Grammy Awards and sold over 30 million albums. A string of unbelievably successful and catchy songs (Who Can It Be Now?, It’s A Mistake, Overkill and of course the unofficial national anthem that isDown Under) hide the fact that they only ever made three albums and only barely managed to enjoy their success.
Such a rapid rise was followed by the seemingly inevitable steep descent. ‘We did some amazing things and had an astonishing, phenomenally successful three years. But with that particular group of people that’s all it could sustain. I couldn’t have imagined going on any longer than that given the personnel. Men At Work was pretty much done at the end of 1983. You could almost say it was over before it started really.’ For a little context, Down Under was released in late 1981.
For what it’s worth, Hay did see potential in sticking it out and making the most of the accruements and largesse on offer. But there was a sense that the band’s creativity had peaked. ‘We could have stayed together and made great music. But I don’t think that was what the cards held for us. There’s always a part of you that wants to keep that going but it just didn’t happen. I’ve tried to capture what was great about the band and carry that through to what I have done ever since. I like bands. I have great respect for bands that manage to stay together and make great music. That’s just not what happened to us.’
After Men At Work split, the Scottish-born Hay relocated to Los Angeles. Far from being the hell-hole of clogged highways and broken dreams, California has proven a friendly and successful relocation. ‘People have this presumption that there’s something distinctly uncomfortable about Los Angeles. But I’ve always found it to be a creatively stimulating place to be. I think a lot of other people have too and there’s been some astonishingly amazing music made there for a long time. Most of the music we grew up listening to was made there. It’s not surprising people find themselves there.’
Like many relocations, scratch the surface and you’re bound to find more pragmatic reasons than eternal sunshine and the iconic record stack-shaped Capitol Records building. ‘I ran away in a sense. I had a record deal that was based out of LA. But I was getting divorced. I was drinking a lot and it was very difficult to stop the drink in Australia. It was difficult because people didn’t really seem that interested in what I was doing and it was difficult to get songs on the radio. So I just kind of went away to a place where there seemed to be a lot of people like me there. I was just trying to do something new, wipe the slate clean and start again.’
Start again Colin Hay did, releasing 11 highly regarded solo albums that have moved naturally away from the big-sounding commercial sound of 1982 but retained the sly, quirky aspects of Hay’s best songs. On albums like American Sunshine and Gathering Mercury there’s no sense Hay is trying to recreate or replicate his earlier success. Somewhat interestingly then, Hay’s thriving solo career in Europe and North America brought him to the attention of Bill Lawrence in 2002, just as the show he created, Scrubs, was going through the roof. Soon enough, Hay was performing an acoustic version of the old Men At Work song Overkill in the opening episode of the show’s second season on NBC in primetime. It certainly didn’t hurt Hay’s career. ‘That came out of nowhere. But what people usually don’t consider – and nor should they consider because they don’t walk around thinking about what happens to you – is that I had been touring for a decade, making records and playing to small audiences, big audiences – any sort of audiences. They only notice when it happens.’
Despite the huge success of Men At Work and being the singer of Down Under, Hay is at ease with his back catalogue. He doesn’t perform on the heritage circuit because real effort has been made to stay creative and write new material, regardless of whether audiences would drunkenly request the old hits or not. ‘Look, the reality is I love those songs. They’re big songs. They have been very good to me; you can’t walk away from them. Well, you can. But I don’t see the point. There was a time in the late ‘80s when I didn’t want to play them because it was just too close to home – all a bit emotional. But you reclaim your past. That band and these songs are part of who I am. If you give them the respect, they will continue to be good to you. I’m lucky because the people who come to see me, whether I’m here in Australia or in the US, or Glasgow or Boise, Idaho, they tend to follow me through the years so they always hit me up for new songs. If they were the only songs I had it would be a bit glum, traipsing around dragging out the old tunes again. That hasn’t been the case for me.’
Colin Hay will hit Canberra Theatre Centre with his musical comedy act, Finding My Dance, Saturday February 23, 8pm. Tickets are $42-$49 + bf through canberratheatrecentre.com.au.