Monday, September 5, 2011

Men at Work - Business as Usual

One of the best selling albums of 1982 was the debut album Business as Usual by the Australian band Men at Work. The record went multi-platinum in four countries (Australia, Canada, the UK and the US) and went to all the way to the top of the charts to number 1 in five countries (Australia for nine weeks, New Zealand, Norway, the UK for five weeks and the US for fifteen weeks). It also earned Men at Work the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1983 (beating out Asia, the Human League and the Stray Cats).

Side one opens with the musical question “Who Can It Be Now?”. The answer is a song that spent seventeen weeks on the US Billboard charts, including one week at number 1. It knocked out one couple (John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane”) only to be knocked out itself by another (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes’ “Up Where We Belong”). The song also went to number 2 in Australia and number 45 in the UK. The lyrics paint the tale of a man who lives by himself, fearful of even the slightest knocks on his door. I really love the saxophone opening by Greg Ham and knocking-drum beats by Jerry Speiser. In college, this is one of the songs I learned how to do completely in ASL (American Sign Language); I probably can still do some of it from pure memory. Using songs was a great way to remember the signs for words.

“I Can See It in Your Eyes” opens with some interesting keyboard tones, also by Ham. The guitar harmonies by Colin Hay, Johnathan Rees and Ron Strykert are very pleasant and mesh well.

“Down Under” was a number 1 hit in the UK, Canada and Australia. It also spent nineteen weeks on the US singles charts also went to number 1 (dethroning Hall & Oates “Maneater” and then getting bumped after four straight weeks by Toto’s “Africa”). The song tells of a native Australian who travels the world and is asked about his homeland; it also has socio-economic undertones as well. Now I am sure this track made many people curious as to what a Vegemite sandwich tastes like (I hear it is an acquired taste). It is definitely my favorite track from this one.

“Underground” went to number 20 on the US Mainstream Rock charts. I really like the composition here, with the simple strumming guitar verses and then the more elaborate chorus and bridge.

Ham takes over the lead vocals from Hay on “Helpless Automaton”. The song definitely has a bit more of a new-wave edge to it, relying heavily on synthesizer. It has a touch of Devo to it. It is a nice change up and closes out a solid first side very well.

Side two begins with “People Just Love to Play with Words”, a bit more a laid back ditty. The backing vocals on this one are very nice.

“Be Good Johnny”, whose title is an ode to the 1958 Chuck Berry hit “Johnny B. Goode”, went all the way to number 3 on the US Mainstream Rock charts. The lyrics tell the story of nine year old Johnny who is misunderstood by the adults in his world (parents, teachers, coaches). Along with the other hits, this one was a favorite at our high school dances. Any of the guys named John were the focus of attention when they played it, with everyone reciting Ham’s spoke dialogue midway through.

“Touching the Untouchables” is next. The longer instrumental opening is a refreshing change at this point of the record. In fact, the whole song is a nice showcase for the guys’ musical abilities. I bet this one was a nice improvisational jam in live concerts.

“Catch a Star” continues along the same vein with a song that remarks about the life on the road of a musician. It actually has a bit of a melancholy tone to it.

The record closes with the ballad “Down by the Sea”. This song, nearly seven minutes in length, is the longest on the album. That gives it time to ebb and flow across the listener’s conscious mind.

I purchased Business as Usual on vinyl back in 1982 while I was still in my junior year of high school. It quickly became a favorite, one I would play quite often over the next year as a senior and then well into my college years. The album was very popular and the tracks could often be heard at dances and parties.

As I listen to it again, now twenty nine years later, I find that it holds up very well. I would say this one definitely made me a fan of Men at Work even if their output as a group was limited to just three albums in the 80’s. Business as Usual definitely made a name for the band though and is a decent legacy to have.

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