On a hippie trail, head full of zombie
I met a strange lady, she made me nervous
Colin Hay & Men at Work, once Australia’s most famous New Wave outfit, dusts off old material and hits the road
Interview by Andrew Steel
“As you can tell, this is the original band,” Men at Work vocalist Colin Hay quips, gesturing to the ensemble gathered around him on stage upstairs in the University of Manchester’s Academy 2 venue. His joke earns a round of good-natured chuckles but there’s no real sense of short-changed disappointment curdling underneath as there would be for any other one-man reunion show. The Australian new wave outfit’s most famous iteration lasted all of five years the first time around and subsequent reunions only ever really featured the Ayrshire-born singer and late flautist Greg Ham. Yet there’s little escaping that they were one of the biggest bands in the world for a brief moment in the early eighties – and that Hay’s decision to dust off the old material and bring his own solo band out under the moniker is a canny move.
The 65-year-old notes that its been “close to seventeen years or so” since he last used the name but to the discerning ear he sounds as if he has remarkably stepped out of the shadows from over three decades ago. Hair waved back and under a salt-and-pepper beard, Hay looks every inch the elder statesmen of rock – and sounds near-as-damnit like the old vinyls, albeit with a sandpaper finish. Across a 100-minute show, he rarely flags, playing with a low-key burbling energy that hangs in the air; with only three records to call upon, he offers up an eclectic mix of deeper cuts punctured by the occasional big single. Such an approach would kill lesser performers; in the hands of Hay and his band, mostly culled from Latin America, they pull threads of warm goodwill out from unexpected crevices. The brassy strut of opener Touching the Untouchables gives way to the delta harmonica vibes of Dr Heckyll and Mr Jive. The Longest Night, dedicated to Ham, melds moody synths into something anthemically subdued; the wonderful It’s a Mistake dials that up to eleven.
Not everything strictly works; dusting off the reggae rock shades of Blue for You sounds particularly dated and a melodic shift to similar genre shuffle on Down Under would have been better left alone. But when hitting their strident groove, whether it be on the proggy Down by the Sea or the sax-drenched punch of Who Can It Be Now?, there’s little resisting the charms Hay unspools. Here’s to hoping these men – and ladies – keep on working.
Enquiries: Colin Hay/ Tour