Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Men at Work's "Business as Usual:" Under a Bigger World

I think it was 7th grade when she came to school wearing a Men at Work t-shirt. As was the tradition back then, her shirt commemorated their performance the night previous at the Frank Irwin Center. Many were envious, and she milked this attention for all it was worth by gushing about the performance. The band’s ubiquitous presence on MTV made her the star of the show for a day, but these days the public awareness of Men at Work is quite different. Although lead singer Colin Hay maintains a low-level (but artistically successful) solo career, history generally remembers Men at Work as the one-hit wonders that did "that song about the vegemite sandwich."

This song is from Men at Work’s debut Business as Usual, an album I revisit regularly - moreso than most of my 80s-era catalog.  Over the years, it has earned the designation "pop classic," which is relatively rare for an early 80s album.  In truth, it has transcended the date of its release.  I don't see it as necessarily "belonging" to that time, partially because I did not pick it up during the band’s heyday.  It found its way into my collection around the time that I began playing cat-and-mouse games with Columbia House's "ten CDs for one cent" deals.  Overall, a good buy - there is certainly no lack of hits on the album.

The association that these songs have with the early 80s is the result of MTV’s hype machine in action, steering cultural energy towards singles that would burn brightly for awhile and fade. To this end, there was a subtle suggestion back then that Men at Work were Australia's answer to The Police, and stylistically this is somewhat justifiable. Although Men at Work employed a similar New Wave reggae in their style, they had a distinctive ground-level earthiness that distanced them from the intellectualized approach of their British peers. More subtly, they used reggae's exotic associations to capitalize on the "down underness" of their Australian identity, which had quite a bit of value in the 80s when the world was still relatively big.

Touching The Untouchables (Album Version) by Men at Work on Grooveshark

From a certain perspective, this and some of the other non-radio tracks might be considered “filler," but most of them are actually quite good in their own right.  Due to its consistency and distinctive sound, Business as Usual has found its way into rotation again and again over the years.  I have often played with the idea of  getting the album’s follow-up, Cargo, to see if it stands up to its predecessor.  Not too seriously, though, because it has been on my Amazon list since 2003.  In all honesty, it wouldn't be the first time I owned the album.  Cargo was given to me on vinyl as a birthday present in my youth and was one of the few records I ever owned, but I've never gone back and added it to my CD collection.  I don't think I have heard it in its entirety since 1983.  Perhaps the time is coming soon for me to remedy that.

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