It's unlikely that anybody planning a comeback for aging Australian popsters Men at Work would have advised the band to invade America the second time around via a live album recorded in Brazil. But the group, which arrived in America in the 1980s through a similarly haphazard route, swears it isn't just cashing in on a south-of-the-border fling.
"I can tell you from our point of view, this is not a money-making tour," says 45-year-old vocalist/rhythm guitarist Colin Hay, still remembered as the closely cropped, semi-spastic frontman who aped for the camera in the MTV videos that helped the group establish a foothold in the States. "It's a break-even tour. It's basically a tour to support the live record. It's also to test the waters and see if we like playing together and see whether we want to continue with this venture."
The only other original member alongside Hay in the reunited Men at Work is saxophonist/flutist/keyboardist Greg Ham. "I really wouldn't call it a reunion," acknowledges Hay from his Los Angeles home. "I guess Greg and I wanted to do something together because we've been friends for 25 years. There was always kind of an unfinished element about the band, unresolved feelings and so forth. We thought it would be nice to do a tour because there were lots of places we never played these songs.
"I remember calling Greg one night and saying, 'Maybe we should try to put a tour together,' and the next day this call came through from a Brazilian promoter who wanted to tour Men at Work down there," he adds. "This was in '96. It wasn't really any grand design so much as to just having a bit of a laugh, you know?"
The three other original members--lead guitarist Ron Strykert, bass guitarist John Rees, and drummer Jerry Speiser--weren't asked to take part. "Ron--who I loved working with, he's a very talented guy--lives in Montana," says Hay. "He's involved in life up there. I knew that he wasn't particularly interested in playing in Men at Work. In fact, he never really liked Men at Work in the first place. Ron and I played in an acoustic duo before the band formed. I think when the band formed, he didn't like the direction the music took. He stuck it out until about halfway through the Two Hearts album. He said one day, 'I'm going home.' He went home and he never came back, which was a very rotten thing to do really."
As for Rees and Speiser, Hays says, "Greg and I didn't really want to work with John and Jerry. I quite like Jerry, but didn't particularly like playing music with him all that much. I didn't really know John."
Men at Work formed in Melbourne in 1979 and soon became the hottest band on the Australian pub circuit. A CBS executive eventually convinced the company to sign them, but the debut album Business as Usual was nearly two years old when Men at Work stormed America with its videos and an opening slot on Fleetwood Mac's tour.
MTV was a new industry force at the time, and the Australians were one of the first acts the fledgling network helped break in America. Business as Usual spent fifteen weeks at the top of the American pop charts, selling 6 million copies and spawning two No. 1 singles, "Who Can It Be Now?" and "Down Under." The group also won the 1982 Grammy Award for Best New Artist.
The 1983 follow-up, Cargo, sold 3 million copies and included the hits "Overkill," "It's a Mistake," and "Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive." But by then, the band was beginning to splinter. Rees and Speiser were gone before Two Hearts was released in 1985. Although it went gold and included the modest hit "Everything I Need," it was considered a failure, and the band broke up.
Hay scoffs at any suggestion that success came too fast. "It didn't really seem that fast to us," he says. "It was gradual. It happened over a period of two or three years. Our success in America came like a year and a half after everyone else. People in America always think you come out of nowhere."
Hay says the band signed an "almost criminally bad record deal" for Business as Usual, but renegotiated its contract and made decent money in the end. "I had a lot of fun," he adds. "I met some great people and I had as much fun as I could possibly have. Unfortunately, most of the fun I had was not necessarily on stage, which was a bit of a shame."
The group's videos--primitive by today's standards but cutting-edge at the time--pushed Men at Work over the top. "They were very inexpensive to make," recalls Hay. "They only cost $5,000 or $6,000 because that's all you could get out of the record company at that time. You just had to find a good location and do something. The people we worked on them with were very talented."
So what about the music, which sometimes seemed almost secondary to the television exposure? "I was happy with the records," says Hay. "I think Peter McIan, our producer, did a great job with what he had, because what he had was a fairly raw, unsophisticated band with very little experience in the studio. If you listen to the records now, they still sound pretty good."
Hay continued to work as a solo artist after Men at Work disbanded, and plans to play some gigs to support his fifth solo album, Transcendental Highway, early next year. But for now he's focusing on Men at Work.
"It's a pretty conservative tour," he says of the band's latest trek. "Also, it gives people a chance to see us in a small club situation.
"I've got a lot of feeling for Men at Work," he continues, "so I'm not simply going to drag it out for the wrong reasons. Because, to be quite honest with you, I don't really need the money."
Men at Work. Thursday, November 12, the Odeon, 1295 Old River Rd., $20 day of show, Ticketmaster, 216-241-5555.