Colin Hay is still a man at work
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., September 13, 2002) – From August 1982 to July 1983, Colin Hay ruled the radio and MTV roost. As the lead singer and songwriter of Australian pop band Men at Work, his voice and image were ubiquitous for the better part of a year when four hits, including two number-one tunes, spent a cumulative total of 61 weeks on Billboard’s Top 40 singles chart.
The group won the Best New Artist Grammy Award in the winter of 1983, and its debut album, “Business as Usual” – which spawned the back-to-back number-one hits “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under” -- broke the Monkees’ record for the longest run at number one – 15 weeks -- on Billboard’s pop album charts. The follow-up album, “Cargo,” was equally successful, going double platinum and delivering two more top-10 hits – “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake.”
And then, nothing.
As quick as its rise to the top was, even quicker was the group’s disappearance.
In a recent phone interview from his current home in Los Angeles, Hay said that in retrospect he is amazed that the band lasted as long as it did.
“Success is what held us together,” said Hay. “It was a very difficult band. There was always bad chemistry.
“There were five of us, and then a manager who wasn’t really a manager -- he was my friend. We didn’t really know what we were doing. We had talent and drive and ambition and songs, and we just built up that momentum.
“But Jerry [Speiser], the drummer -- who was a fine musician -- we locked horns pretty early on, and I didn’t really like the way he dealt with people. And Ron [Strykert], the guitar player, didn’t really want to be in the band -- he didn’t really like Men at Work. [Bassist] John [Rees] was just there, and [saxophonist] Greg [Ham] was my friend and still is my friend.
“But by the time the big tour ended in ’83, it was all I could do to get on stage with these people. I wanted to leave the band.”
Instead of leaving, Hay was convinced to stay on and dump Speiser and Rees. Strykert stayed on for a few months, but during the recording of the group’s third album he quit, leaving just Hay and Ham to finish the album with a group of anonymous studio musicians.
Upon its release, the third album, “Two Hearts,” was greeted with a deafening silence, and shortly after the group disbanded. Hay didn’t leave music, however. He continued making albums as Colin Hay through the end of the decade, but by the ‘90s, he no longer had a major-label deal. These days he releases his own albums, hawking them at his solo shows and online at his website, www.colinhay.com.
“I have great respect for bands that can stay together, but we never had that sense of common purpose and vision,” said Hay. “Some bands, like The Who, the tension that exists within the band still seems to work, but in our band it never really worked.
“I really dreamt all my life of being in a really truly great rock and roll band, and I achieved that to a point. But strangely enough, I still have that ambition. I still believe my best days are in front of me.
“But especially when you’re in your twenties and surrounded by a bunch of men, your communication skills are not that great. A lot of problems could be worked out through impartial therapy and pop psychology.”
At 49 years old, Hay says he just takes things as they come. “I’ve been doing solo shows since I was fourteen years old, and since the band ended for the last seventeen years,” he said. “I’m quite used to whatever an audience comes at me with.
“Sometimes there are people there who just know Men at Work, and that’s what they’re there for. At the end of the day an audience is an audience. They hear some Men at Work songs, some solo stuff. I don’t separate them. They’re all my songs. I wrote them.
“Men at Work isn’t something from the past. At the end of the day what lasts is the songs, the music. The songs are still alive.”
In 1996, Hay teamed up with Ham and reformed Men at Work. They toured the world and released “Brazil,” an album of live hits recorded in South America. But in the end, that wasn’t fulfilling, either.
“At our last show in Brazil a year or two ago, there were 45,000 people. They went mad, and I came offstage, flew into L.A., and I had a dovetail tour, going from Men At Work to Germany for a solo tour.
“My first show there was in this little underground bar, like a dungeon,” he said. “There were about twenty-five people there. This was like two nights later.
“It’s a big world out there, and this path that I’m on is really tough. But it’s still more fulfilling than frustrating. I would still rather play for twenty-five people who are there to see me than go to a Men at Work show for people who are going to see something from the past.”
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 13, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]
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