Men at Work were a straight-ahead bar band from Australia who modified their sound ever so slightly and caught the New Wave of music in the early 1980s. Led by Scottish-born singer-guitarist Colin Hay, the band also featured Greg Ham (sax, flute, keyboards, vocals), Ron Strykert (guitars), John Rees (bass), and Jerry Speiser (drums). The group’s quirky image and exotic (Australian) heritage made them very appealing to fans in 1982 who were caught waiting for the next Police record. Their breakthrough album Business As Usual was a massive hit and the group soon became superstars of their era for a period of about eighteen months. At various times, the group held both the number one album and number one single in both the U.S. and the U.K., a first for an Australian group.

“Down Under” was originally written in 1979 and appeared as the B-side to Men at Work’s debut indie single “Keypunch Operator”. The song was rewritten when the group was signed by Columbia and they recorded Business as Usual in 1981. Issued in Australia in late 1981, the album was not an immediate hit especially overseas. “Who Can it Be Now?” was the first single and was a number two hit in Australia in August 1981, but took some time to break in the U.K. and America. By summer 1982, the album and single were released and starting to build steam. “Who Can it Be Now?” hit number one in the U.S. in October and Business as Usual took the top spot in mid-November. Incredibly, the album stayed at number one for 15 consecutive weeks, eventually selling more than six million copies in the U.S.

Finally released as a proper single, “Down Under” was an even bigger hit for Men at Work. The song hit number one across the world, including Australia, U.S., U.K., and elsewhere. The song tells the tale of a proud Australian traveling the globe, and features numerous references to the country’s traditions. Hay said “The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It’s really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It’s really more than that.” ┬áThe very popular music video features Australian elements, such as the koala bear attached to Greg Ham, but the final scene with the group’s members dressed in white with their manservants dressed in black is certainly symbolic. “Down Under” of course incorporate reggae elements and Ham’s flute solo became quite popular as well.

“Down Under” has become an unofficial anthem for Australia. It was used as an anthem when Australia won The America’s Cup in 1983. Hay and Ham performed the song during the Sydney Olympics in 2000. In 2009, a judge ruled that some parts of the flute solo were copied from the Australian song “Kookaburra“, though the song itself did not infringe (as demonstrated by the 1979 version of the song). Men at Work had to pay 5% of the royalties of the song as a result.

By early 1983, Men at Work was massively popular. Other songs from Business as Usual also received heavy radio play, including “Be Good Johnny” (a top 10 Australian single), “Underground”, and “Helpless Automation” (with Ham on lead vocals). The chugging guitars and colorful singing by Hay made the album an early staple of modern rock radio. That spring, the group won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, beating out the likes of Asia, The Human League, and The Stray Cats. During the group’s acceptance speech, Hay declared “We are the men, and we will be back.”