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Colin Hay on Men At Work’s Legacy and His Current Tour

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Back in the early ‘80s, Men At Work owned the radio airwaves with a flurry of insidiously infectious hits, “Who Can It Be Now?,” “Down Under, “Overkill” and “It’s A Mistake.” The deadly combination of consummately crafted hook laden songs built for radio and their emergence as video stars on a new burgeoning network known as MTV set the stage for a remarkable run on the charts. Since Men At Work called it quits in 1986, the group’s chief songwriter, Colin Hay, has carved out a respectable career as solo artist, his considerable gifts as a songwriter undiminished.

A current member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band, in between regrouping with that outfit for tour dates later this year, in June and July, Colin is off on a European tour. He’ll be taking out his own band under the moniker of Men At Work to deliver a show comprised solely of hits and deep cuts by the Australian music icons.

Rock Cellar: I saw you perform last year in Ringo Starr‘s band and each time you performed a song by Men At Work the crowd went bonkers. Maybe I’m reading this the wrong way but my feeling is your work with that band is much more revered today than when the band was together in the 80s. 

Colin Hay: Well, it’s tricky. I think so but I’m not really sure because I don’t pay that much attention to it. I think the longer a song is around, if it’s still liked by people and played on the radio and people enjoy it, then I think there’s more love there.

In that particular band last year, I think everybody seemed to love playing all the songs. I know that all the guys in the band loved playing “Overkill” and “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” as with the other songs. But it was great for me to have a band that really got off on playing those songs. So I think that also came across the audience as well, so the audience responded in kind.

Rock Cellar: What was the impetus to do a Men At Work tour?

Colin Hay: Well, one of the biggest reasons is when I was in Europe, wherever we would go and I’d play these songs, the same thing would happen. People responded really well to the songs. So I mentioned to a couple of the guys that work with Ringo, “Do you think that there would be a tour for me to do in Europe next year?”  It’s always been very tricky to tour in Europe.

So they said. “Well, if you called it Men At Work you could.”

So I thought about it, and there was also something about some kind of reclamation of this thing that’s been floating around with nobody really driving it for the last 30 years, the Men At Work thing. Greg and I toured for many years, from 1996 to the early 2000s and then we stopped doing that and then he passed away. We always panned to do something but I don’t really know what that would have been. It wasn’t like a big momentous thing.

It was an experiment that I thought I would try and see how it felt. It’s the same [backing]band I have. It’s not the old Men At Work band that’s touring, obviously. It’s really for people that want to come along and hear those songs by a bunch of Cubans and Guatemalans and Peruvians (laughing) then come along, it’ll be an all Men At Work song show.

Rock Cellar: In a short period of time the band was racking up a batch of enormous hits. As the group songwriter, did you feel a sense of being on a creative role?

Colin Hay: Well, yes, for a while there, from about 1979 through ’83, I definitely it my stride in terms of writing songs and I also had the band, which was an incredible vehicle to play the songs. You’d have a song and go into a rehearsal on a Tuesday and you’d be playing it that night, it was very immediate. It was pretty exciting.

The relationship that I had with Ron (Strykert) creatively was really strong. With Greg (Ham), it wasn’t so much a songwriting relationship with him, but we were friends so we had this strong connection as friends ‘cause we’d known each other for years.

It was a strange dynamic for a band, all bands are. They’re different, but usually the same things are happening. It’s mostly men together with limited communication skills (laughs). We had a manger whose name was Russell and he was my friend. It became problematic relatively quickly in terms of the dynamics within the band.

We were trying to have a go at having a democratic band and sharing things and we were trying to figure out how to do that. To cut a long story short, a couple of the guys in the band didn’t like Russell, our manager, and didn’t think he was a manager, but yet we’d created all of this success. Rather than have a manager who was conciliatory and someone who could really arbitrate and keep things together, he was really just my guy.

He supported me and couldn’t really care about those other guys. (laughs)

Rock Cellar: That created a division.

Colin Hay: Yes, that created problems and in the end the rhythm section got sacked so that left four of us, Greg and I and Ron and Russell, the manager. Well, it was done by then but we didn’t realize it at the time but very quickly that particular five-person band that created the sound of Men At Work was done.

Rock Cellar: With the band experiencing a tsunami of success in the 80s, as most musicians dream of making it big, how did that level of success match your dreams or veer from it?

Colin Hay: Look, I really loved it, I ate it up. I thought it was an incredible thing to happen.

It sounds weird or perhaps arrogant in some way but we really wanted to have international success and in a sense we expected it would happen.

We didn’t really know what level of success we would achieve. But we were very ambitious and I was very ambitious and that was the path that I was on and nothing was gonna deter me. So it was a powerful thing and when it started to work then you just kind of follow it in a way. You’re not really in control of it anymore (laughs); you think you are but you’re really not.

As for our success, it was all very exciting but it all happened very fast. It was a double-edged sword. We were touring many parts of the world, Europe and the States.

When we finally toured America, that was a very, very exciting thing and out of control to a large degree but at the same time even then the band dynamic wasn’t good. We weren’t really getting along and we didn’t really spend that much time together. It wasn’t really a happy band.

While we should have been enjoying this massive success and the fruits of our labor, people were kind of arguing. It was a huge thing that was kept small in a way by a certain level of small-mindedness. But there were also lots of external things that came into play. There’s always lawyers and accountants and people who think they’ve got your best interests at heart and they really don’t. We didn’t really know anything so we were just kind of pretty confused by it all and that just made things worse as well.

But we had our moments where we did enjoy our success.

Rock Cellar: Men At Work exploded in the dawn of the video age. How did the power of video/MTV serve to fuel the group’s success?

Colin Hay: In Australia, bands were doing videos quite early on. I think we learned from the British who were doing videos before the Americans were. They were quite innovative in that regard. In Australia we used to take a lot of what the British were doing and put our stamp on it.

A lot of bands were using videos as a promotional tool before MTV started. We thought we’d do the same thing, and we had these videos that were shot on film but very inexpensively; I think they cost about five grand to do the whole thing but that coincided with MTV starting and America’s obsession with videos. And of course MTV was a national channel that started playing all of these videos so it was almost like the curtain had been pulled back and kids in bedrooms and households all across the States were able to see these bands that they’d never been able to see before because they didn’t have any visuals to do with the songs.

So it was a huge thing for us, especially in the States. We were really a radio band first. We were played on the radio. If you didn’t have a song on the radio, MTV wouldn’t play it. So you had to have songs that were happening on the radio so it was just really the icing on the cake.

Rock Cellar: What’s the best Men At Work video?

Colin Hay:I think the “Who Can It Be Now?” video has a certain charm to it because it was the first one we did. It’s got a kind of nice grainy, innocent quality to it that I like. There are a couple of videos that stand out to me. I think “It’s A Mistake” is a really great video and I like that song a lot. The subject matter was and still is relevant.

It coincided with a horrible tragedy that happened in Victoria (South Australia). There was a horrible fire called “Ash Wednesday,” which was a bush fire that devastated this whole area. But what it meant for us was we could jump in a car and drive down there a couple of days after when the smoke was still clearing and it really did look like a war zone so we used that to our advantage to film the video for  “It’s A Mistake.” It looked incredible so I think that was a good clip.

I think the little dance sequence in “Down Under” is quite memorable. That was a very simple thing. We didn’t have money to go to any other locations. We were out of money and the record company wouldn’t give us any more money to do anything else, so the guys who were directing the clip said to us, “Look, you know, we’ve got to do something in this little instrumental, section, what can you do?” So I said, “Okay, let’s just do something” and then my father kind of kicked in. My father used to be in vaudeville on stage in Scotland so I went, “Okay, you do this, you do that and you do this other thing,” and so we just built up this silly little dance sequence where we were all doing different things but it seemed to work quite well and it was quite memorable.

Rock Cellar: In the song “Down Under,” it references your homeland of Australia with mention of a vegemite sandwich. What’s the one thing you miss most about Australia? 

Colin Hay: What I miss most about Australia most are my friends. But I also miss the sounds, the sensory   aspect of Australia. I miss the smells, I miss the sounds, I miss the way it feels. It’s an extraordinary place but I get to go there quite often, so just when I start to miss it I get to go back there I’m not deprived in any way of those things. Sometimes I go back there and go on drives by myself and I satiate that desire.

Rock Cellar: You’re a current touring member of Ringo Starr and the All Starr Band. Speaking of the Beatles, I understand Paul McCartney was in the audience for one of your solo shows in Los Angeles?

Colin Hay: Yes, Paul and Heather Mills were at a solo show I did at Largo in Los Angeles. I walked out of the kitchen and Paul was just standing there. He said, (imitates Paul’s voice), “Oh there you are, great!” Then he said, “I thought you were going on earlier and we’re a bit jet lagged so don’t be offended if we have to leave.”

I said, “C’mon, stay for two songs.” And he said, “Okay, great.” But they wound up staying the whole night. This was when he was first dating Heather Mills, so this is going back a long way, early 2000s. Going onstage I felt “I’ve gotta be on my game tonight.”

Look, I was up for it. I was confident enough that I can entertain this man. They were in the back and Largo is pretty dark so I couldn’t see them when I was playing. Afterwards, Flanagan, who owns Largo, gave them a CD of mine. They told him they really loved the show. So they contacted me afterwards and they would fight over the CD so I had a little bit of an ongoing relationship with him for a few years. He came to a couple of shows but then they got divorced. The last time I saw Paul was at Ringo’s 70th birthday show at Radio City Music Hall.

Rock Cellar: As a songwriter, what’s the last song you heard that made you go, “I wish I wrote that?”

Colin Hay: Well actually, when I was playing with Ringo last year, we’d be sitting in the dressing room before the show and Graham Gouldman, who was in the band, would play a medley of his songs that he wrote before he was in 10cc. He’d play things like “Bus Stop,” No Milk Today,” ”Heart Full Of Soul”  and every song he played I was like, “Fuck, I wish I wrote that song!” (laughs)

Rock Cellar: Lastly, are there any plans for a new Colin Hay solo record?

Colin Hay: Nothing. Well, I say nothing but I’ve got songs and half-songs and ideas. I’m trying to figure out when to do that but it’s’ not gonna be until after August ‘cause I’m out on the road ‘til the end of August. I can fit in bits and pieces of recording here and there but I’m not gonna worry about it too much. I’m just gonna wait until I come back.

When I come back after August I’m not gonna go out on the road again until after the new year, so that should give me enough time to put something together.

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