Twenty years later, the music's just as great as you remember, but if you still haven't had a vegemite sandwich yet, trust me, you're not missing anything.
Y’know, it may be time for PopMatters to go ahead and give me my own column. We’ll call it “Defending the ‘80s”. After all, that’s pretty much what I spend my time doing. If I’m not spreading the gospel of new albums by artists who experienced their commercial heyday during the years 1980-1989 (witness my review of a-ha’s Lifelines), then I’m taking a look at reissues of albums that originally came out during that same time span. Often, I may add, through the rose-colored glasses of someone who came of age in that era and possibly remembers it more fondly than those who didn’t actually live through it.
And, you know, what’s wrong with that, really? I mean, what, like I’m the only biased music journalist in the world? Hell, I’m not even the only one contributing to PopMatters! Everyone enjoys promoting their favorite artists, and, for better or worse, the majority of mine began their careers in the ‘80s.
So, anyway, with that admission out of the way, let us now examine Legacy’s re-issues of Business As Usual and Cargo, the first two albums by Men at Work. It’s hard to overemphasize just how popular Men at Work were in the early 1980s. They more or less came out of nowhere, seemingly with no more chance for worldwide success than any other Australian pub band, but, courtesy of 1981’s Business As Usual, they managed to break the Monkees’ stranglehold on the record for the longest stretch at #1 for a debut album: 15 weeks. They had two #1 singles, “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under”, with “Be Good Johnny” performing more than adequately as well; videos for all three songs were staples of early MTV.
Men at Work also scored the Best New Artist Grammy in 1982, which, as everyone knows, is the kiss of death, but, somehow, they managed a more than respectable follow-up album with 1983’s Cargo. It wasn’t as successful as Business As Usual, however, and, despite having just as many hit singles and videos (“Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive”, “Overkill”, and “It’s a Mistake”), the band’s career momentum was clearly on the wane. The band managed a third album in 1985 (Two Hearts), but by then two of the band’s original five members had bailed out; the group disbanded not long after the record’s release.
Business As Usual is, arguably, one of the strongest pop albums released during the early years of MTV. (You know when I’m talking about: back when they actually played videos.) In addition to the hit singles, “I Can See It in Your Eyes” serves as the perfect breezy pop bridge between “Who Can It Be Now” and “Down Under”. Both the saxophone-driven “Underground” and the syncopated “Helpless Automaton” (the only track on the album written solely by Greg Ham) keep things moving just as smoothly. The semi-reggae sounds of “Touching the Untouchables” and “Catch a Star” are wisely placed back to back, and the original album closes with the epic “Down by the Sea”.
To clarify the use of the phrase “the original album”, Legacy has added four bonus tracks: two B-sides (“Crazy” and “F-19”), as well as two live versions (“Underground” and “Who Can It Be Now”). Bizarrely, though, the live versions aren’t taken from the era of the album’s original release; they’re just borrowed from the band’s 1998 live album, Brazil. It would’ve been much more appropriate to, say, include the other existing B-sides from the era, “Anyone for Tennis” and “Keypunch Operator”.
Cargo‘s greatest sin, some might say, is simply that it isn’t Business As Usual, and there’s certainly some truth to that, given the hard-to-reproduce phenomenon of the latter. Then again, when you consider that Business As Usual was still nestled in the top 5 when Cargo was released, it’s not like the record-buying public had been given a chance to look forward to a new album. They were clearly still busy buying the old one. Ultimately, though, it might just be because Cargo simply isn’t as . . . fun.
This is very likely because, despite their success, the band wasn’t having nearly as good a time as it looked like they were in their videos. According to comments from Hay in the disc’s liner notes, Men At Work fell victim to a more insidious curse than that of winning Best New Artist: personality conflicts within their ranks.
Hay was clearly maturing as a songwriter; witness the anti-nuclear “It’s a Mistake”, the affecting “No Sign of Yesterday”, and, most notably, “Overkill”, his most realized Men At Work song. Meanwhile, Ron Strykert was composing lines like “settle down and eat your peas and gravy, my boy” (“Settle Down”) and “I like to eat a sandwich with the lot / Yum, yum / Putting on everything that I’ve got” (“I Like To”). Certainly, if you judge “fun” by upbeat, silly lyrics, then Strykert contributed those to Cargo, but that just wasn’t the direction the overall album was steered, making them feel very out of place and even less substantial than they already were. Not a real shock, then, that Strykert was nowhere to be seen when the band released their next album.
To sum up the rest of Cargo, Hay’s “High Wire” (a single, though not a tremendously successful one) and “Blue for You” (revisiting the faux reggae found on Business As Usual) are strong songs. But, as a closer, “No Restrictions” just ain’t no “Down by the Sea”.
As far as bonus tracks, there are four B-sides (“Shintaro”, “Till the Money Runs Out”, and live versions of “Upstairs at My House” as well as “Fallin’ Down”, which doesn’t appear to exist anywhere in studio form). The highlight, though, is a live version of “The Longest Night”, taken from the group’s concert video, Live in San Francisco . . . Or Was It Berkeley?. A studio version of the song was tacked onto the aforementioned live album, Brazil, and it’s easily strong enough to sit comfortably beside “Overkill” on Cargo. Since this live version shows that it’s been existence for quite some time, it seems inexplicable that it didn’t make the cut as an album track.
And, now, we close the proceedings with a bit of bitching and moaning that, though it’s related to Men at Work, should in no way be taken as any indication that there’s anything wrong with these two re-issues, which, with the exception of those two missing B-sides from the Business As Usual era, are as good as fans could’ve hoped for.
But . . .
After taking the time to re-release Business As Usual and Cargo, you’d think that Legacy could’ve gone the extra mile and done the same for Two Hearts. After all, the casual fans aren’t going to go out of their way to pick up these re-issues just because they’ve got bonus tracks. It’s the diehards who’ll be doing that, which means that they’d most likely buy the band’s only other studio album just as quickly if it’d received similar treatment. No, it wasn’t as popular as its predecessors (though it did go gold), and, no, the album’s singles didn’t offer much in the way of B-sides for bonus tracks. But, geez, considering that there’s a brand-new compilation called The Essential Men at Work sitting on the shelves of a record store near you (it came out on April 1st . . . no fooling!) that features a couple of tracks from Two Hearts, it clearly hasn’t been forgotten, either.
C’mon, Legacy, cut the fans a break and give Two Hearts the proper re-issue/re-mastering treatment it deserves! End rant. Fade to black.