By Eleni P. Austin
When MTV was in its infancy, no band was more ubiquitous on the music channel than Men At Work. Colin Hay was the band’s quirky front man. But if all you know about Hay is outback tales of traveling in a “fried out kombi” eating vegemite sandwiches, you have missed a lot of amazing music.
Colin Hay was born in Scotland and his family immigrated to Australia when he was 14. By the time he was in his early 20s he had formed Men At Work as an acoustic duo in Melbourne, with Ron Strykert. (The name was inspired by a construction site sign). Soon they added Jerry Speiser on drums, Greg Hamm on keyboards, saxophone and flute, and John Rees on bass.
For the next couple of years, the band honed their chops on Australia’s pub circuit. Their popularity soared after an extended stint at the Cricketer’s Arms Hotel. For a time, they were the highest paid unsigned band in the country. By 1981, they secured a contract with the Australian division of Columbia Records.
Their debut, Business As Usual, was released in Australia in November of 1981 and arrived in America in the spring of 1982. Their sound was a canny combination of shiny New Wave and gritty Pub Rock. Something like the Police-meets-the-Kinks.
MTV was less than a year old when Business… hit these shores. They immediately embraced the band’s clever videos and the album shot up the charts, spending an astonishing 15 weeks perched at #1.
Although they quickly recorded their sophomore effort, Cargo, during the summer of 1982, Columbia Records held the album back, wringing additional sales from their debut. When Cargo finally arrived in April of 1983, it received positive reviews and phenomenal sales, peaking at #3 on the Billboard charts.
In 1982 Men At Work were opening for acts as disparate as the Clash and Fleetwood Mac, by 1983, they were headlining World tours. Overwhelmed by the instant success and punishing tour schedule, the band took an extended break in 1984.
When they reconvened to begin recording their third album, infighting spurred the exit of John Rees and Jerry Speiser. Hay, Hamm and Strykert carried on as a trio, adding session players as they recorded.
Their third album, Two Hearts, was released in 1985 to lukewarm reviews and lackluster sales. Men At Work quietly disbanded the following year.
By 1987, Colin Hay had embarked on a solo career with his first album, Looking For Jack. It was as though he had to re-introduce himself to the 15 million people who had been Men At Work fans.
First he relocated to California, making Los Angeles his home base. Touring tiny clubs armed with only his acoustic guitar, Hay’s following grew slowly. His second album, Wayfaring Sons was released through MCA in 1990, which marked his last foray with a major label.
He recorded several albums throughout the ‘90s, Peaks & Valleys, Topanga, Transcendental Highway, and Going Somewhere and released them on his own Lazy Eye imprint. But it was his live shows that sustained him. Hay is somewhat of a raconteur, the yarns he spins between songs are as entertaining as his music.
Zach Braff from the television series “Scrubs” became an ardent fan, inviting Hay to act and perform music on his show. Although Braff’s directorial debut, “Garden State,” was one of the most pretentious, overrated movies of the early aughts, it did include some killer music. Alongside 21st century favorites like the Shins and Frou-Frou, Colin Hay’s contribution, “I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You” stood out.
Capitalizing on his slightly raised profile, Hay continued his cycle of writing, recording and touring. He released Are You Looking At Me in 2007, American Sunshine in 2009 and Gathering Mercury in 2011. He has just returned with his 12th solo album, Next Year People.
The album kicks into gear with the spirited “Trying To Get To You.” Sugar rush acoustic riffs crest over a jaunty hand-clap rhythm. Hay’s mien is sunny and optimistic as he charts a journey home that is fraught with unforeseen complications. “Through firestorms and hurricanes, I’m 16 hours on an aeroplane/10,000 miles of ocean view, trying to get to you.”
Both “If I Had Been A Better Man” and “Lived In Vain” feel autobiographical. Chiming, Byrdsy guitar chords cascade over the jangly melody of “…Better Man.” Hay recalls the whirlwind early days of his career and wonders if he let stardom slip through his fingers. “There were kings and queens and could-have-beens and pretenders to the throne/I was a sweet contender then, now my seeds have all been sown/I scorched the earth behind me, I Could have made a better plan, if I had been a better man.”
“Lived In Vain” is accented by acoustic, electric, and baritone guitars, xylophone, congas and bongos. The breezy melody belies the serious soul searching lyrics. Hay longs for a jumpstart; “Waiting for my second spring, when I’m connecting everything, no fixed address or destination, no more lines of separation/Where only love, only love is real.”
Four songs, “Scattered In The Sand,” “Waiting In The Rain,” “To There From Here” and “Are We There Yet?” offer mordant takes on mortality. Anchored by table melodica, mystical sitar fills and pillowy harmonium runs, the relax-fit psychedelia of “Scattered…” blunts the melancholy of saying goodbye to a loved one; “I watched you sleeping as you drifted away.”
“Waiting In The Rain” is also a tender farewell for someone who has passed away powered by a chugging rhythm and sprightly Spanish arpeggios, Hay pledges his undying fealty. “I will wait for you, don’t fade into blue/I still see you in my dreams, and time it never heals the pain, I’ll be waiting in the rain.”
“To There From Here” is a low-key charmer, propelled by thrumming baritone guitar. Hay attempts to wrap his head around the vagaries of the human condition, concluding “There’s no time for regret, it sailed into the mists of yesterday.”
Finally, “Are We There Yet?” makes peace with the past. Prickly acoustic notes pinball through a bare bones arrangement, accented by plangent piano. Hay employs a road trip metaphor for our circuitous journey through life. “And you say ‘are we there yet?’ as we drive into the sun, We are almost there my love, my innocent one/A picture perfect moment, a moment we could share, laughter from the back seat, we’re almost always there.
The album’s two centerpieces, “Next Year People” and “Mr. Grogan” function as musical novellas. The title-track has a sing-songy, folk feel that recalls Bob Dylan’s nascent protest period. The instrumentation is stripped down to acoustic guitar, accordion and harmonium.
Hay paints a grim portrait inspired by Ken Burns’ Dust Bowl documentary. “We’ve had dust storms before and spit out the dirt, we’ve had droughts before, but none quite like this/We’ve had winds that cut up your face all to pieces, black blizzards that strip all the paint off your car, fires like twisters, no sisters of mercy/They come with no warning, only that sound, God is roaring drunk and out on the town.”
“Mr. Grogan” is a painterly character study on par with the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” The lyrics sketch out a tender vignette of a solitary shopkeeper and his devoted dog. “Tonight he’ll walk home as he’s grown soft in the middle, and his life is not what he had hoped/His Labradoodle paces down the hallway and she loves him just the same.”
Other interesting tracks include “I Want You Back” and “Did You Take The Long Way Home.” Both songs capture the feelings of bitterness and ennui that accompany the end of a marriage. The album closes with the lilting acoustic instrumental, “Lament For Whisky McManus.”
Whether he’s fronting Australia’s most successful musical act, or going solo acoustic, Colin Hay’s music is always compelling. Next Year People is no exception. It will be nice when the rest of the world catches up to that fact.