The Original “Down Under” by Men At Work

We close 2019 with our good friend and music producer Brent Bodrug to talk all about Men At Work’s song, “Down Under” – and not the version that was the hit song of the 1980s.

Released in 1981 by Australian band, Men At Work, the song reached Platinum certification in the US and the UK, and Gold in Canada. It also peaked at position 219 on the Billboard Hot 100.

This whole episode was inspired by an article that was released on Boing Boing at the end of the November. The article brings to light the original, slower recording of the song. Check it out, it’s worth a listen. Some would say it may be better?

Nitty Gritty Facts

But why is this song so popular? Let’s take a look at a bit of the background:

  • Not too far a stretch, the song is about Australia, where the band is from. Singer, Colin 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.”
  • Originally, the idea came from a little bass riff that Ron Strykert, the guitar player for Men at Work, had recorded on a little home cassette demo. It was just a little bass riff with some percussion that he played on bottles which were filled with water to varying degrees to get different notes.
  • The verses were inspired by a character called Barry McKenzie, played by comedian Barry Humphries (also, Dame Edna and Bruce the Shark in Finding Ne­mo). The character was a beer-swilling Australian who traveled to England, a very larger-than-life character.
  • Some lyric translation:
    • Fried out Kombi​ – a broken-down van. The lyrics are often translated as “Combie­,” but the correct spelling is Kombi. It came from the VW Ko­mbivan which was very popular in the 60s and early 70s, especially with surfers and hippies.
    • Head full of Zombie​ – Zombie was a particularly strong batch of marijuana which was floating around Australia for a long time. People called it “Zombie Grass.”
    • Vegemite Sandwich​ – Vegemite is a ferme­nted yeast spread th­at is pretty much a national institution in Australia. Some people love it and can’t start the day without a piece of to­ast spread with Vege­mite, and some go so far as to carry a small jar of it with them when they travel overseas. Some are indifferent to it, and others can’t sta­nd it. It kind of re­sembles smooth black tar, and is similar in taste to the Eng­lish “Marmite,” but Aussies will always tell you that Vegemi­te is far superior.
    • Chunder – Regarding the lyrics, “Where beer does flow, and men chunder­…” Chunder is Auss­ie slang meaning to vomit.
  • In 2003, Colin Hay recorded two new versions for his album​ Man At Work. The first is an acoustic version he included so people could hear how the song sounded originally, before Men at Work did it. Colin’s wife, Cecilia, has a Latin Salsa band, and on the second version he recorded her horn section and flute parts, combining them with his tracks.
  • In 2009, the music publishing company that owns the rights to the Australian children’s song “Kook­aburra” sued the “Down Under” songwriters, claiming the flute riff copied the ch­ildren’s classic. On February 4, 2010, a judge ruled in favor of Larrikin Music, which owned the “Ko­okaburra” publishing rights – the song having been originally penned by music teacher Marion Sinclair in 1932. In his judgment, he said that Men At Work had infringed Larrikin’s copyright because “Down Under” reproduced “a substantial part of Kookaburra.”
  • The lawsuit asked for 60 percent of the publishing rights; the judgment was for 5 percent, retroactive to 2002, netting Larrikin about $100,­000. According to Co­lin Hay, legal fees in the case totaled about $4.5 million, as he fought it aggressively.Hay said after the judgment: “I’ll go to my grave knowing ‘D­own Under’ is an ori­ginal piece of work. In over 20 years no one noticed the ref­erence to ‘Kookaburr­a.’ Marion Sinclair never made any claim that we had appropriated any part of her song, and she was alive when “Down Under” was a hit. Apparently she didn’t notice either.”Greg Ham, who contributed the controversial flute part, told Melbourne’s​ The Age​ newspaper: “It will be the way the song is remembered, and I hate that. I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered – for copying something.”According to Colin Hay, it was the stress of the court case that led to the death of Ham at the age of 58 in 2012.
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