Men at Work
Business as Usual
Columbia

Some years ago I was sitting with my usual collection of aging hipsters – two growlers in and still going – and the topic came up (again) of the records that influenced us; specifically, what single record had the biggest impact on each of us, regardless of genre (don’t blame me, I was trying to discuss gin). I think I said the UK release of The Clash or some such similar ultra-safe punk cred album (Bollocks? The first Wire record? Damned, Damned, Damned?). Truth is I could have answered that a thousand ways for a thousand reasons. Somewhere in Time for making me into a teenage metalhead; Downward is Heavenward for being absolutely fucking perfect; Star for igniting my love of women in alt/indie/whateverthefuckwe’recallingitnow; Pretty Hate Machine for being, well, Pretty Hate Machine.

I’ve been tossing about that idea again (mostly because a pile of stuff I don’t write about has me looking at the past) and it occurred to me that maybe as we get older the measure of a record in your life isn’t about moments, revelations, specific times and places. Maybe – maybe – we should be looking at the ones that have been trusted friends, companions in need, just always there as part of the fabric of things. I’m talking raw number of spins, how much of your life you’ve devoted to a single slab of vinyl. For me, without question, by at least a thousand listens, that record is Business as Usual.

Yep. Men at Work. Like a lot of X-ers, I can still see the video for “Who Can It Be Now?” popping up on early MTV (unlike a lot of my generation, I can also recall watching a blistering performance of “Underground” on, of all things, Solid Gold). I can recall just how absurdly stupidly bi­g “Down Under” was as a single. I have a clear memory of my older brother coming back from K-mart with a yellow-covered cassette, dropping it into the shitty tape player we had in our room, and that unmistakable opening: pah… pah… pah-pah.

By the books, I should have let Men at Work fade off my list as I grew up, next new thing coming along and all that; a lot of new things came along – this was the 80s, and staying power was rare. But by 1984 I was learning saxophone, and Greg Hamm was nothing if not a superb sax player (For real. Check the absolute smoke show of a solo in “People Just Love to Play with Words”). In a couple years the vagaries of child custody moved me in with my father and his stellar record collection: Cheap Thrills; L.A. Woman; Revolver; British Steel; Agents of Fortune; Transformer. And in that archive I pillaged for the greats of the 60s and 70s was a familiar bright yellow cover. Yep. Just more Business as Usual.

From there it was habit. Recorded to cassette to go to college with me (backed with Cargo). Bought a CD when I got back. Ripped that to MP3 when it started to skip a bit 10 years later. Now I stream it; Colin Hay and Ron Strykert deserve the royalties I’m generating even if it is just pennies. Going to sleep? Business as Usual. Need to wake up? Business as Usual. On the bus? Business as Usual. Can’t decide what else to listen to? Business as Usual.

So that’s how a Men at Work record became the thing I listen to when I don’t want to listen to anything. But why? It took me a long time to figure that out as an adult. It’s a strange thing to say about an early 80s top 40 record, but Business as Usual is a masterful exploration of depression, isolation, desperation, and despair – and that’s a thing that resonates all too deeply for me.

Take the opening lines of the first side closer, “Helpless Automaton”:

“I stay in my room / all alone in the gloom / what need I of light?”

Musically, it’s upbeat, angular post-punk; superficially, it’s a gloss of the 80s sci-fi tech narrative. Dive a touch deeper and we have a “fractious child” who needs to “defer [his] plight” so as to “feel no pain” by pretending he’s a machine who has no emotions. This dysfunction, this inability to connect, is the engine that drives Business as a record; the fact that it’s hidden behind a pile of sensible radio singles is what makes it great.

One of the appeals to Business is its variety; each track has a distinct feel while retaining a coherent sound. Hay/Strykert/Hamm and producer Peter McIan deserve a lot of credit for that – it’s a difficult trick. As a record it never gets boring. There are no ruts, no soft spots that get sticky. Moving from sax’n’guitar rock through new wave, post-punk, and ska elements should produce a schizoid feeling record, but it’s as seamless as God Fodder.

I’ll pause here to say that there are two throw-away songs on Business; “People Just Love to Play With Words”, despite its killer sax work, is just a toss-off. It’s fun but not deep at all. The other is “Down Under”, that stupid earworm song with words like “chunder” and “vegemite”. It’s the worst song on the record by a large margin, and one I frequently skip. Even still, the first verse – tucked between the flute opening and the first chorus – is, musically, a taut and lean slice of thousand yard stare; when Colin Hay plays it acoustic these days it keeps that tension behind the silly lyrics, and it’s much improved for the treatment.

Tension is the key to the first side, internal and external. “Who Can It Be Now?”’s paranoid pushback, “Underground”’s sacrifice for the cause, “Automaton”’s iron distrust. But the highlight is “I Can See It in Your Eyes”; round synth opening, quietly slithering guitar line, the ennui of looking back at the better part of the relationship that suddenly, hugely bursts into the argument that finally ends it. On a different record it would be the standout; here it’s just track 2.

It’s the closing trio that really has the things I come back to, collectively Colin Hay’s best work for twenty years forward (yeah, better than “Overkill”, even though you’ve never heard these songs). The homeless narrator of “Touching the Untouchables” can’t care anymore, old, broken, sizing up the people he meets based on how he can use them. “Catch a Star” – despite its jaunty chorus and upbeat ska/reggae guitar – is just as empty a wasteland as its “rows and rows of cars”, lives in that space between wanting someone and being able to have them. And sprawling out to the horizon is the closer, “Down By the Sea”. It’s the loneliness of displacement, the loss of home, living in the port where no one lives – they just stay until their ship goes out. Together they’re a cascade from bitter to hollow to finally giving in and giving up.

So yeah. Business as Usual. I can’t say it’s been an influential record for a lot of musicians, especially the ones I listen to (at least, nobody name drops it). I can’t say it’s lauded by today’s critics, though it should be. I can’t even say that it’s beloved and listened to by lots of people – two songs go onto 80s comps, and that’s where most people stop. But I can say that even in the world of well-known but overlooked records it’s a brilliant gem – and it’s the most important record of my life.