In August 1983, I took my younger brother to a much promised concert that he was dying to go see, Men at Work with special guest INXS. It was a MTV-promoted tour with two rising Australian bands that were burning up air play on the 24-7 music video channel. As a matter of fact, Men at Work arguably may have been the first artist to attribute their success between the years of 1982 and 1983 mainly to the popularity of their videos on the young cable-only station. The 21-and-under crowd were taken with Men at Work’s ironic take on The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night-charm of their music videos that made fun of all-things Australian. The band’s music was tight, simple, with a sing-song quality to it, that was based upon a simplified version of The Police’s reggae-based sound. In order words, Men at Work made perfect new wave pop/rock music for the time period, which much of their debut album sounding even timeless.
Business as Usual was the band’s debut album, and formed the missing link between the decidedly pre-MTV hit albums by Asia and a non-Mellencamp John Cougar and the MTV-driven hit albums by Michael Jackson, The Police, Prince and Bruce Springsteen. Men at Work’s success was driven by the songs and videos for “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under”. Plus, Business as Usual was full of new wave pop songs that could have been hits in their own rights. At the time, it was easy to write off the band as pop stars manufactured by the music industry, but you have to remember that MTV had no idea what the were doing at that stage in being part of the industry. The channel was still regarded as an industry rebel, much like Napster and streaming would become in the twenty-first century. Men at Work was simply a sign as to what MTV’s potential was.
Basically, Business as Usual was a perfect soft rock-based album that was perfect to initially break to Americans. The band’s lead singer, Colin Hay, was a strong songwriter who had a firm handle on what was a hit song. Additionally, he was of the new wave generation, so many songs had the “herky-jerky” rhythms that characterized New Wave, as well as danceable pop/rock sounds. “Who Can It Be Now” stayed at the #1 position on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the better part of two months, while the album remained at the top of the Album Chart for 15 weeks. Additionally, “Down Under”, a whimsical take on Australian life, also hit the top of the Hot 100 for a couple of weeks. Still, as I said earlier, the album was full of strong songs, as “Be Good Johnny” was released and registered in the Hot 100, it never hit the Top 40.
Now, in Australia, this album was released in 1981 with similar artwork but a white background. In the rest of the world, the album had a yellow background and was not released until 1982. So, while Australians were hungry for new material, the rest of the world was not. Unfortunately for the band, a new album, Cargo, was released world-wide after many delays. The songs on Cargo had the exact sunny sound, but the lyrics were now a bit jaded. Plus, in the rest of the world, Business as Usual was still riding high on the charts. Now, the two albums were competing against each other, and since unsurprisingly Cargo was a darker album, fitting for a sophomore album, fans were still turning to the happy-sounding debut. So, instead of Men at Work being commended for their musical and lyrical growth, the band was unintentionally penalized. And, although Cargo was a multi-platinum success, it was a disappointment when compared to the success of debut.
And, of course, the ones who suffered because of this mismanagement of not looking at the big picture, the members of Men at Work became dissatisfied with each other. And, although they gave a very professional performance when I saw them in a partially-filled basketball arena in Indianapolis that late-summer evening in 1983, you could not help but notice the stress among the members of the band, especially when contrasted with the members of their opening act, the up and coming INXS. INXS seemed enthusiastic and hungry for success, while Men at Work seemed jaded. And, this stupid music industry can do that. I guess that’s why so many artists today attempt to maintain their artistic integrity by micromanaging their career and refusing to have a confusing release schedule of their albums.
As I listen to the end of Business as Usual, I do pine for strong songwriting skills exhibited on this album in today’s music. Right now, we are going through a period in which the production values and “beats” are more important than the craftsmanship of a good pop melody. It is remarkable that Colin Hay had such songwriting skills at a young age. Plus, there was nothing like songs about paranoia during the age of Reagan when you had no idea if Ronnie knew the difference between the buttons on his T.V. remote and THE button for the bomb. Remember, when you think, “Who can it be knocking at my door?” Remember just to “tiptoe across the floor.”
Ah! Words to live by.