Happy Australia Day to all our readers Down Under. The national holiday is, in fact, on Tuesday, but for all I know it's already Tuesday there, or possibly Wednesday, in which case Happy Australia Day for yesterday - or, as the depraved nutters at the nation's state broadcaster say, "Happy Invasion Day". Not being able to visit the Lucky Country is one of the things I've most missed in this last year of lockdown, but I hope to see it once more before I die, if the Vegemite Curtain is ever lifted.
As you know, we always like to have an Oz song for Australia Day. The story behind "Waltzing Matilda" is in my book A Song for the Season, and, what with one thing and another, "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" doesn't seem to get played as often as it used to. So in lieu of those, altogether now:
Do you come from a land Down Under
Where women glow and men plunder?
Good question. Men At Work came from a land Down Under and in January 1983 they were on top of the world: "Down Under" was Number One not only in Oz but also in the United Kingdom and in the United States, and to this day Men At Work are the only Australian band ever to have topped simultaneously both the UK and US singles and albums charts. A lot of the pop songs from that period you'll still hear on the Eighties oldies stations: in America, Men At Work were succeeded at the top of the Hot One Hundred by Toto and "Africa", which is pleasant enough in a bland sort of way; and in Britain they made way in the Number One slot for Kajagoogoo and "Too Shy", and gosh, it's years since my fingers have had cause to type the word "Kajagoogoo" and even then it was as a punchline for a cheap gag. But "Down Under" transcended the passing fancies of the hit parade and became an Australian anthem. There have been other international Oz hits, of course, although fewer than you might think - and, as we always have to point out whenever the subject arises, Charlie Drake's execrable "My Boomerang Won't Come Back" is a mere Cockney knock off.
But "Down Under" became a kind of musical shorthand for contemporary Australia:
It has since been used on the Kangaroo Jack soundtrack, the trailer for Finding Nemo, etc - in part because of its most famous couplet:
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich
- which is a truly atrocious rhyme but, at least for a while, did wonders for Vegemite sales in the northern hemisphere. I can't speak for Aussies but I think what the rest of the world likes about the song is that it captures Australians as most of us first encounter them - the backpacking globetrotter in a pub in Dublin, or Hong Kong, or Vancouver or Delhi or a thousand other spots. I did my share of traveling in my youth and, like a lot of folks, I was always glad to find myself on a barstool next to an Australian: wherever you're from, they never seem that foreign to you, if you know what I mean. And, if you don't, well, see for yourself. They're out there, all over the map:
Traveling in a fried-out combie
On a hippie trail, head full of zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
She took me in and gave me breakfast
And she said:
Do you come from a land Down Under?
Where women glow and men plunder?
Can't you hear, can't you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover...
The song was born in ten green bottles, more or less. Ron Strykert, the guitarist of Men At Work, was at home and at a loose end and decided, as one does, to fill various wine and beer bottles with different amounts of water and then give 'em a thwack and see what kind of tune emerges. That's the origin of the opening of "Down Under". Next up came the chorus. In 1978, two years before the first record of the song was released, Strykert's fellow band member Colin Hay was out in the car, when the muse descended. He was driving down Power Street in Hawthorn in the Melbourne suburbs, when "it just popped into my head". The verses popped up a day or so later, all in about half an hour.
Hay was the only band member not to come, originally, from a land down under. He was born in Scotland and his family emigrated to Australia when he was fourteen, so he brought to the song not just a genuine love for his new home but also an ability to see precisely what it was about "the lucky country" that so tickled the outside world. If the chorus is almost ingenious in its simplicity (how come no-one ever cottoned on to "Down Under" as a song title before?), the linking quatrains give the piece a structure and a story.
"The verses were more the Barry McKenzie aspect of the song," Hay recalled, referring to Barry Humphries' popular cartoon strip in Private Eye in the Sixties, "and that thing where it's almost a rite of passage for young Australians to travel through Asia and India, and go back to find out where their families come from in England or Ireland or Scotland":
Lying in a den in Bombay
With a slack jaw, and not much to say
I said to the man, "Are you trying to tempt me
Because I come from the land of plenty?"
And he said...
'Tempt me"/"plenty"? Nobody turns to rock for pure rhymes or for Cole Porter literacy, but Colin Hay has his moments. What does the title rhyme with? Well, "thunder" you'd expect, but I love this:
Do you come from a land Down Under
Where women glow and men plunder?
That's such a great word for a pop song, and it captures all the buccaneering swagger of Oz - although, of course, one could argue (as I'm sure some scholars have) that it supports the self-loathing ABC "Invasion Day" narrative. Either way, the guys manage to better it in the second chorus:
I come from a land Down Under
Where beer does flow and men chunder...
"Chunder"? That's Australian for what men do when the beer flows too readily: vomit.
There's all kinds of stories about the origin of the word: It's First World War rhyming slang based on a boot-polish advertising character called Chunder Loo of Akim Foo - ie, "chunder loo"="spew". Alternatively, it's what queasy emigrants to Oz in rough seas used to shout to the chaps on the deck below before they let fly: "Watch under", or "'chunder".
The latter sounds a bit too neat to me, though Barry Humphries, who helped popularize the expression, still subscribes to it. Still, how many Number One songs mention vomiting? And how many manage to rhyme the sentiment? It's that kind of attention to detail that gives "Down Under" its distinctive flavor, so to speak.
As for the Vegemite, that too is drawn from life. Colin Hay had a friend who'd walked into a bakery in Brussels and attempted to order in French. At which point the bloke behind the counter announced he was from Melbourne. Hence:
Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six foot four and full of muscles
I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich...
I have an American friend who has an entire thesis premised on the theory that the British Empire declined because, unlike American boys, it raised its youth on Vegemite and Marmite rather than peanut butter. This isn't the time or place for a scholarly refutation thereof, or for an exploration of the intra-Commonwealth disputes regarding the comparative merits of Marmite and Vegemite. Or even to discuss the attempted banning of Vegemite by US Customs in 2006. The point is Vegemite is as Australian as ...er, Vegemite - notwithstanding that it was latterly owned by Kraft, although now back under full Aussie ownership. It's part of the vernacular, for everything from a happy person (a "happy little Vegemite") to a gay person (a "visitor to Vegemite Valley"). That last one comes from another Barry Humphries character - Sir Les Patterson, cultural attaché to the Court of St James's - and it's unclear how many non-fictional Australians have actually used it. But even invented slang has to have a crude plausibility, and Mr Humphries certainly has an ear for it.
Men At Work had a strong local following through their resident gig at the Cricketer's Arms in Melbourne, and in 1980 Hay, Strykert and the rest of the band got together enough dough to finance a single - "Keypunch Operator" on the A-side, and an early version of "Down Under" on the B. It was a simpler arrangement back then - just flute and guitar. When they signed with Columbia, their producer Peter McIan felt it needed a bigger, more commercial sound. So he brought in more instruments and gave it that Eighties ska-revival semi-reggae feel. On the other hand, there's still plenty of authentic Australiana in there - such as Greg Ham's flute riff, which makes the record. On the other other hand, that's when things got a little bit too Australian, at least as far as m'learned friends were concerned.
On our 2018 Australia Day special, you can hear me talking to the late Greg Ham about "Down Under" and Men At Work, in happier days before the courts destroyed his most famous performance. As I said on the show:
What was it Greg Ham said about the song? 'I guess we'll have to play it forever...' Well, when you're a young rock'n'roll star forever stretches off into the shimmering haze, like the Australian bush. I was very shocked, just before my 2012 Oz tour, to hear that Greg Ham had been found dead at his home in Melbourne... As I said, this isn't a great interview – we had much livelier conversation in the pub afterwards – but it captures a phenomenally successful Aussie act at the height of their global celebrity. And listen to the clumsy way I ask him about the quote-unquote music business, and his carefree profession of zero interest in the business, and hold that thought...
I even used the word "actionable" to him. "Actionable!" I was surprised I knew what the word meant back then – I'd yet to be sued for anything. Happy the man who knows not the meaning of the word "actionable":
But Greg Ham knew – because, as he'd mentioned earlier, before he picked up his flatmate's flute, he had been a law student. And a quarter-century after 'Down Under' was Number One around the world he was to find out that his most famous musical contribution was itself actionable...
In 1932 Marion Sinclair, a teacher at Toorak College (which is about twenty-five miles south of Melbourne), had written a children's song for a Girl Guides' competition. It was called "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree":
As I say on the show:
That song was known to Girl Guides in Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth, but the teacher, Marion Sinclair, didn't enforce her copyright and those who knew the song assumed it was an old traditional folk tune. Miss Sinclair died in 1988 and a fellow called Norman Lurie of Larrikin Music acquired her copyright for around six thousand bucks, and in the early 21st century he filed suit for between forty and sixty per cent of the royalties of "Down Under".
The court gave him five per cent. I've advised on musical copyright suits hither and yon from time to time, and I think I could have won this one for Men At Work. But they lost on appeal and were turned down by the Australian High Court, which in any case has become a somewhat mercurial body. But I think it was a weak suit that would not have prevailed in London or New York.
In the summer of 2012, to coincide with the Olympic Games in Britain, the co-author of the song Colin Hay released a new version of 'Down Under' sans 'Kookaburra'... His bandmate Greg Ham isn't a credited co-writer of the song - because the flute solo isn't part of the song, it's part of the arrangement. And Colin Hay wanted to emphasize that, without Greg's riff, "Down Under" is a 100 per cent original song.
That was July of 2012. In April of that year Greg Ham had been found dead at his home in Carlton North. He was fifty-eight. I don't believe there's ever been an official cause of death, but it's generally believed to be depression and a fatal heart attack brought on by the stress of the case, and by the fact that as he put it 'that's how I'm going to be remembered – for copying something'. Very unfair. I think of him at that peak of worldwide rock'n'roll hitmaking stardom, and it upsets me to think of him dead in his front room for a couple of days before anybody found him.
In the interests of completeness, we've presented the hit version of the song up above, so here's how Men At Work first "Down Under":
"Down Under" went everywhere: Almost immediately, the song got taken up by Jewish wedding bands. "Apparently," said Colin Hay, "it has a very similar structure to a lot of Jewish folk songs." Eventually, Yossi and Avi Piamenta wound up setting traditional Hebrew wedding lyrics to the tune. In South Korea, the song became a favorite of parodists because, to the Korean ear, strange words like "Vegemite" and "chunder" sounded less like English than Korean.
In the end, though, it remains the one great international pop hit that, to the rest of the planet, encapsulates Australia. In true rock'n'roll fashion, no sooner had they had their great success than the band became riven by "musical differences", split rancorously, and have spent most of the last three decades insisting to rock journalists that they're not "bitter". Colin Hay started calling himself Colin James Hay and made an album called Man At Work. Not only wasn't he on speaking terms with much of the old band, he wasn't even on speaking-about-them terms. If any interviewer raised the subject of the good old days, Hay would refer to his old comrades Jerry Speiser and John Rees not by name but only as "the drummer" and "the bassist".
As for his songwriting partner, by the Nineties Ron Strykert had been jailed in Montana for owing child support and joined the Church Universal and Triumphant, a religious sect eagerly awaiting Armageddon from their compound near Yellowstone National Park. It seems safe to say he's doing less chundering than he used to, or, if he is, it's not because of the flowing beer.
But so what? Even though enough Men At Work put the rancor on hold to get enough of the men back to work for a magnificent performance of "Down Under" at the close of the Sydney Olympics, it's not about them anymore. The song's wiggled free and escaped into the great beyond. A few years ago, I suggested that Rolf Harris, the "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" guy, should do it, Rolf having recorded the all-time greatest version - on his
didgeridoo wobble board [a very careless error on my part: see Christopher Gelber in the comments] - of "Stairway To Heaven". But barely had the thought occurred than Harris was being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure as part of the BBC pantheon of paedo pervs. So I may have to do it myself, when I follow my cat album with a kookaburra album. Like the song says:
You better run, you better take cover.
Happy Australia Day!
~Mark's Australia Day special with Men At Work's Greg Ham can be heard here.
If you enjoy our Sunday Song of the Week, we have a mini-companion, a Song of the Week Extra, on our audio edition of The Mark Steyn Show - and sometimes with special guests from Mark's archive, including Eurovision's Dana, Ted Nugent, Peter Noone & Herman's Hermits, Patsy Gallant, Paul Simon, Geoff Love, Lulu, Tim Rice and Randy Bachman.
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