Yes, we’re digging back into the deposits of ancient music again, because it’s a blog (see title.) The choice this time around is Colin Hay, formerly the lead singer and guitarist of the Australian group Men At Work, then going solo in the late 80s, then headlining the Colin Hay Band (curious coincidence, that) in the early 90s before going solo again. He’s still producing albums and is currently touring, but right now we’re going to look back at the older stuff.
Pretty much everyone knows “Overkill,” from Men At Work’s second album Cargo, released in 1983 and in my opinion the most compelling track from two very strong albums; the other, their first, was Business As Usual from 1981. Far too many people nowadays know the song from the TV show Scrubs, which is fine, but it probably means they’re ignoring the superb collection of other tracks from both albums. If you haven’t heard it in a while, or haven’t bothered to listen to it closely, it’s worth another shot. In particular, pay attention to how everything has its place, none of the instruments crashing into white noise or feedback, instead providing a very pleasant and subtle blend that was typical of music from the 80s. There’s a background ‘breeze’ that comes and goes, at times clearly vocals but at others (such as during the instrumental bridge) the tones are indistinct and may or may not still be vocal samples. Regardless, it manifests a pleasant and slightly ethereal choir underneath the more obvious instruments. Special credit goes to those responsible for the mix, which brings in gentle surges of the keyboards or bass just to counterpoint the lyrics.
Overkill – Men At Work
I always interpreted the song as being about the cold war, which was seeing a resurgence in the eighties before it finally collapsed in the early nineties, but according to Hay, the meaning is more generic, the anxiety of sudden success and the changes it brings.
“It’s a Mistake” runs a close second behind this one, even more recognizable and featuring an arguably better vocal performance from Hay (listen for the subtle tremolos that come in, most often at the ends of bars.) The guitar work is unsurpassable as well, but the song lacks the mellow vibe of “Overkill,” so I’m sticking to my guns for this personal preference.
Some of the bandmembers split after Cargo, leaving three to produce Two Hearts before Men At Work dissolved for good. A few years later in 1987, Colin Hay released the solo album Looking For Jack, with the assistance of a laundry list of studio musicians. Though there are a few exceptions among the tracks, the album showed a distinctive progression from the pop sound of Men At Work to a softer rock feel, as well as betraying Hay’s interests in world travel. The cover art makes it clear that the ‘Jack’ that is sought is Nicholson, though why this should be is unclear, and not corrected terribly well by the lyrics of the title track. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant little song, with a piano and guitar playing a duet as the main instruments in a sprightly composition:
Looking For Jack – Colin Hay
In 1990, Hay teamed with three new musicians to form the Colin Hay Band, and released Wayfaring Sons, featuring musical styles that, I feel, were the strongest throughout his long career. With this album comes the first indications of the acoustic influence that would later dominate Hay’s work and define his later albums, yet at this point it was only one aspect of a widely varied instrument lineup. The album itself has more of a ‘soundtrack’ vibe to me, milder and able to work strongly as background music, which is not to minimize the performances at all – it’s just a different feel. There’s more use of studio vocalists for backing, and a generally breezier tone.
Among the majority of very strong tracks comes the playfully naughty “Dream On (In The Night)” – hardly risqué by any standards today, but seeming slightly out of line with the mellow musical style and thus highlighted by that. We’re not talking “sex” here, but “foolin’ around,” and the difference is evident enough when you listen to it. But also pay attention to the bass wandering around in the background and offering mildly sardonic commentary.
Dream On (In The Night) – Colin Hay
Other great works from the album are the title track “Wayfaring Sons,” “Not So Lonely,” and the pleasant prerequiem “Ya (Rest In Peace),” but virtually all of the album is solid – the only one I’m likely to skip the MP3 player over is “Help Me,” but that’s due to its sharper tones that don’t blend as well with the rest of the lineup. If you liked the track I’ve included, definitely check out the rest of the album.
From that point on, Hay stayed almost strictly acoustic, and most of his songs display only his own instrumental work mixed with one another. For his 2003 album Man @ Work, several of the old classics had been re-recorded as acoustic versions. I have to admit I’m not a big fan of acoustic guitar, at least not as the primary or sole instrument – it receives far more attention than is warranted, especially with the ‘American’ style that is seen so often (as opposed to, say, flamenco-style, which is entirely different and far more dynamic.) The Girlfriend and I had the opportunity to see Hay in concert locally, in 2009 I believe, at a small venue that made the most of acoustic music – there were perhaps 200 people in attendance. Knowing that the audience was probably more familiar with the older stuff than the newer, Hay’s set featured only the most popular of his later work and a good mix of the earlier stuff, often showcasing a clever little digital addition to his acoustic guitar that could simultaneously play a pre-recorded loop from the same guitar, so he was in fact doing a duet with himself, live. With the small stage, Hay was able to relate a lot of anecdotes from his years in the various bands and touring with others, including playing with Ringo Starr and a somewhat surreal story about lamingtons. It was Men At Work that brought vegemite to the consciousness of the greater world, to almost no one’s delight, but lamingtons sound a lot more palatable.
Anyway, in comparison, we return to the first song featured, this time acoustically – you can decide for yourself which one works better.
Overkill (acoustic) – Colin Hay
I can say, however, that the effect is entirely different with everyone in a small auditorium singing along – unbeatable, actually. Maybe we can talk him into releasing that version.