Primarily known, of course, for fronting the (mostly) Australian band Men At Work and topping the charts with the herculean ‘Down Under‘ in 1981 (or 1982, or 1983, depending which country you live in!), Colin Hay has many other strings to his bow, for the Saltcoats born singer has released more than a dozen albums under his own name, acted in several television shows, and is part of a certain former Beatle‘s all-star ensemble. I caught up with Colin to discuss the band’s forthcoming Manchester and London shows (20th and 21st June respectively), former bandmates and forty years of Men At Work.
God Is In The TV: You haven’t played as Men At Work for many years now. Looking forward to those UK dates after all this time?
Colin Hay: I’m looking forward to ALL the dates. I always want to make it clear to everyone that the band that I’m bringing is the band that I have, but it’s just that the setlist is gonna be all Men At Work, which is different from what I normally do. It was triggered by when I was playing with Ringo last year in Europe, and of course when you play in Ringo’s band, it’s ALL just old songs, you know, and so it’s really a covers band – you’re a sideman to everybody else and they’re a sideman for you as well. But the reaction was – well, it’s always extraordinary but I don’t know, for some reason last year it just seemed right to see how it felt to go out under the banner of Men At Work again, because now it’s become this ‘thing’ that’s just floating around with nobody at the steering wheel.
Absolutely. As a member of Ringo’s band, how hard was it getting used to NOT being the one who calls the shots? Or maybe you DO have an equal say, do you?
Oh no, no, no, he’s the boss! He’s the guv’nor, that’s for sure! Nah, it wasn’t hard to get used to – it’s great! It’s what you want. You know, to be working for Ringo is awesome, truly. Especially as we’re working with all these other musicians too and everyone’s playing each other’s songs. From what I’ve been told – I mean, I didn’t have this first hand, but when he first came up with the idea, the word is that his great friend – and now relative – Joe Walsh said “Oh come on now, you’ll never do that, because everyone’s egos will be too big” and Ringo said “No. I’ll be able to do it.” Joe said, “well why? Why will you be able to do it?” and he just turned around and said “Because I’m Ringo!” – and there you go, that’s the truth of it! You get a call from Ringo asking you to play, and really, why would you NOT do that?
Fair point. So, what kind of a show can we expect this time around?
Well, one of the things that I think will be interesting is that we’ll probably be playing a few songs that have never been played before. We did the third record and we never really toured that. I think we went to Japan for one tour and then that was it, you know? So I think we’ll be pulling a few songs off that record.
Do you know what? I’m really pleased about that, because you only released three albums as Men At Work – Business As Usual was rightly lauded as a genius pop album, Cargo was even better in my personal opinion, and I actually think that Two Hearts was really quite unfairly dismissed and misunderstood at the time. Its only crime really was that it followed two bona fide classics and I suspect if it had been your first album, it would have garnered a lot more praise then than it did. So what are your thoughts on that third record?
It’s an interesting thing, that. I mean, I think that, more than anything, when the third record came around, it was just not gonna happen – the band was done, you know, and sometimes you’re the last to realise that. The Men At Work of the first two albums was really the Men At Work ‘band’, with the original members. Then once the rhythm section got sacked, and Jerry and John got sacked, there was just the three of us left and then the manager, then really…it was done. But we didn’t really realise it at the time, so we made this third record which had some really interesting songs on it, but I think there’s nothing you can do sometimes, it’s just in the air, and the universe just says “Ok, this is done for you, for the moment. You need to go and do something else,” and you just go “Oh. Ok. This is finished.” And it was. It happens with a lot of records, and it’s beyond human understanding really. You don’t really know what went wrong. But it’s the same the other way round too – when you’re on the way up, in the ascension, it’s like a runaway train that you can’t control and you have this feeling that you’re being lifted up and up like you can’t put a foot wrong. And then the storm passes and you’re left to wonder what happened.
Astonishingly, ‘Down Under’ is getting on for 40 years old now. Did you ever anticipate that you might still be discussing it several generations and almost four decades later? I mean, did you know you had something special at the time?
Oh, we knew it was a special record, certainly. I think we’d been playing it for a couple of years at that point, and then we had an American producer (Peter Mclan) who came in and ‘poppified’ it if you like. It only took us ten days to make that whole album – that’s how it was back then, and we took it to L.A. and…it was just an extraordinary time for us. We really were a true phenomenon back home, and everywhere, even people who didn’t necessarily pay that much attention to music ordinarily, they sat up and took notice. In the US too, there were quite a few people who didn’t know their geography, so it was a real novelty for them like we were educating them and putting Australia on the map. All of these things conspired to be just another ingredient which kind of solidified its success…like MTV, which had just started, and they only showed about four videos on a loop, with our song just happening to be one of them!
Do you think growing up in Scotland until you were fourteen helped? Do you think that had much of a bearing on your career?
I wouldn’t necessarily say it helped, but we certainly took lots of hints from Britain about what kinds of things people were listening to, and equally, there were a lot of Aussie themes in there too. I’ve loved everywhere I’ve lived and some of that will reflect in the songs. It’s so random, where you’re born to, and it’s an amazing thing, to travel. There’s that saying – never take advice from people who’ve only ever lived in one place, and I agree with that. You meet so many amazing people when you move around.
Are you still in touch with any of the old members of Men At Work?
No. I haven’t been in touch with them for a long, long time now. Not for any great reason or anything, but these things tend to just run their course. I mean, do YOU still see people you hung round with thirty odd years ago?
Not really. Well, one of them, actually.
There you go then! I did see Greg (Ham) of course, around the court case…
I wasn’t going to mention the court case (NB In 2011, the band lost a lawsuit to Larrikin Music, rather unfairly in my opinion, which ruled that the copyright on the children’s song ‘Kookaburra’ had been infringed) or its effect on Greg (who died in 2012, possibly brought about by the stress). I was going to focus on the more positive things…
Oh, I don’t mind talking about Greg, because he was just the loveliest of men, and everyone who knew him really well would say the same thing. I’d see him back in Melbourne sometimes, when he was struggling with alcohol, trying to get off it, and you’d be thinking “this could go either way” but you realise after a while that there’s only so much you can do. He felt an incredible sense of guilt about the court case because it wasn’t him who was sued, it was ME who got sued, and that made him feel even worse about it.
It was a tragic thing, for sure. Now, if we can just talk about some of your solo work for a moment, ‘I’m Walking Here‘ (from Colin’s most recent album, Fierce Mercy), is one of my favourite tracks of the last few years. I mean, I wish it didn’t HAVE to exist, given its subject matter, but it’s a fantastic song. Was it hard to write?
I was touring a lot at that particular time, and it wasn’t really even a conscious thing when I wrote that. The hardest part was coming to terms with the deep sense of impotence about such senseless murder. When Trayvon (Martin) got killed, you know, it was on my mind all the time – this kid was just walking home, not bothering anyone, and some mad person who doesn’t like the look of him just shoots him. But that just sums up the whole gun phenomenon in America, where the police are still able to shoot people at will, and there’s really no need for it, you know? I mean, are we as a people really still that barbaric? So anyway, I took that great Dustin Hoffman line from Midnight Cowboy and used it in the song, and it worked. But having said all that, I’d also have to say there are still so many great things about living here (Los Angeles), or in Australia, or even the UK, despite the scary direction, all those countries have taken of late. I mean, when WE were growing up, we had great hopes of diversity and inclusivity, but all that seems like another world now, especially since the Brexit vote. When that happened, and then Trump ran for president, although everyone was thinking “no chance”, there was something in my head, this grotesque feeling that it was gonna happen.
(Cue lengthy conversation with Colin where we basically just agreed with each other that the two situations above were most definitely NOT on our list of great moments in history).
Other than reaching number one in the charts, what would you say has been a highlight of your career?
Doing the Sydney Olympics in 2000 was an extraordinary time. I loved being there. And when I watched Cathy Freeman winning the 400 metres, something happened inside me – it was just perfection. At that point, I hoped it might help to move us on from the horrors of what Australia was, and still is, to some degree, with regard to people’s attitudes to outsiders. Some people never move on though, you realise. It’s difficult.
Finally, what are your plans for the future?
Staying alive is good! Seriously though, just hanging out with my wife, doing some cooking, going downstairs to write songs, all that stuff. And of course touring – people seem to enjoy themselves at the gigs, and I can tell, which is nice!
Men At Work’s tour dates in full:
Thu 20th Jun UK, Manchester Academy 2
Fri 21st Jun UK, London Shepherds Bush Empire
Sun 23rd Jun The Netherlands, Amsterdam Q Factory
Mon 24th Jun Germany, Hamburg Grosse Freiheit
Tue 25th Jun Denmark, Arhus Train
Wed 26th Jun Norway, Oslo Rockefeller
Fri 28th Jun Sweden, Gothenburg Pustervik
Sat 29th Jun Sweden, Malmo KB
Sun 30th Jun Denmark, Copenhagen Amager Bio
Wed 3rd Jul Germany, Cologne E-Werk
Thu 4th Jul Germany, Berlin Huxleys
Sat 6th Jul Germany, Leipzig Parkbühne
Sun 7th Jul Germany, Hannover Capitol
Mon 8th Jul Germany, Munich Muffathale
Tue 9th Jul Germany, Stuttgart Wizemann
Wed 10th Jul Italy, Milan Teatro Dal Verme
Images by Jorge Sayegh.