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New Performance Evaluation for Men at Work

It doesn’t seem all that long ago that my uncle Tim was driving me off to a record store in the heart of downtown Providence to buy some records for my 5th birthday. At the time, Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now?” was tops on my list of wants that day. I was really, really hoping, if nothing else, to walk out the door with that specific 45 in my possession.

As luck would have it, the store was out of stock. I was not aware at the time, but that particular record had already run its course. However, Uncle Tim reached up for the consolation record: “Down Under.” He was about as old as I am now, maybe younger, and was quite aware of what was going on in the world of popular music – he gave me my first Clash record later that year. I liked this soon-to-be number one hit single, though it was not my first choice. I accepted the gift anyway, in addition to the Kenny Loggins (“Heart to Heart”) and ABC (“The Look of Love”) records I chose.

Fast forward 21 years later. Men at Work’s first two albums are re-released with obligatory new liner notes and bonus tracks, allowing those of us who haven’t played our previous copies in a decade or more to take another listen with a different set of ears. Much to this writer’s surprise, the content of the re-released albums, and even the bonus tracks, reveal complex sonic moods and textures that held my attention from beginning to end.

What my 26-year-old ears can hear in Men at Work is a new wave band with an energy and a sound similar to that of the Police. Both bands employed fast, simple rock rhythms to propel their tunes, and occasionally both bands dabbled in reggae. Unlike the Police, however, Men at Work made frequent use of the alto saxophone, much like their Aussie contemporaries INXS.

The Police comparison works at least as far as their first album “Business as Usual” (Columbia/Legacy) is concerned. On this record, the band sounds hungry and excited to be playing their music. It’s a fun listen, despite the paranoia of “Who Can It Be Now?” and the gloomily philosophical examination of the direction of modern society in “Helpless Automaton.” Slower songs like “Down by the Sea” add some needed balance. This tune in particular is much like the standard epic album side closer we all know and love, functioning like Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” or the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”

The bonus cuts in “Business As Usual” fall a little shorter than the original, though not by very much. Live versions of “Underground” and “Who Can It Be Now?” from 1996 find Colin Hay’s voice not quite as robust as it used to be. The b-side “Crazy” and the instrumental “F-19” fare much better.

Men at Work released their second album, “Cargo” (Columbia/Legacy), in 1983. Already at this point their sound was morphing. Only “Upstairs at My House,” “Restrictions” and “I Like To” resemble the new wave sound of their earlier efforts. The latter in fact surpasses the standard fare of “Business as Usual” with more intensity and brisk guitar breaks.

The songwriting became more polished, highlighted by Colin Hay’s brilliant “Overkill” (yet another 45 I acquired back in my youth), the mournful “No Sign of Yesterday” and the cautionary “It’s a Mistake.” The latter is just as relevant today as it was in 1983, as the world is once again turning its attention to nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.

A quick scan of David Wild’s liner notes to “Cargo” reveals what one might have expected – the band was falling apart. This story is bound to be expanded at length on an upcoming episode of VH-1’s “Behind the Music,” but let not the idea of a band’s internal strife distract one from the quality of the music. “Cargo” was the album where Men at Work streamlined their sound to accommodate the audience that craved the pleasant pop sounds of “Down Under” and “Who Can It Be Now?” without alienating those who enjoyed the new wave aspects of their sound. In that regard, they succeeded.

Cargo’s bonus tracks are significantly more enjoyable than those on “Business as Usual”. Coincidentally, all of Cargo’s bonus tracks are from the period of the album. “Till The Money Runs Out” sounds as if the lyrics may not have been finished, but its fast pace negates the need for too many words. The real treats, however, are the live recordings of the reggae jams “Fallin’ Down” and “The Longest Night.” Tracks like these make the effort to append bonus tracks to album reissues worth our while.

What’s even more worthwhile is that 20 years later, these albums are not merely fluffy trips down memory lane. Even for those who played out these entire albums in their day, the bonus tracks offer some sides of the band not often heard. They also provide a new context within which we can hear once-omnipresent hit singles.

Who can it be now that’s capturing my attention the most these days? Bob Dylan and Queens of the Stone Age tend to be doing it for me much more so than Men at Work and ABC, but it’s reassuring to know that the music which caught my attention as a 5-year-old still has plenty to offer me as a grown adult.

February 18, 2003
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