The early 1980s, musically, tried to differentiate itself from the lushness of 1970s recordings with a more spartan sound. Whereas the 1970s tried to fill the listener's ear with a rich mixture of strings and orchestrations and pack sound into the song, the 1980s were about the space between the notes, as Thelonious Monk famously said.
Drums were recorded with slight delay, or eventually in rooms with stone walls so that they would echo more in space. The invention of the digital delay meant that guitars could be recorded with a clean sounding echo, leading to a more minimalist style of playing - "clean" guitars, in other words not "fattened" up with overdrive or distortion - usually enriched a bit with a chorus pedal with thin chords played staccato or with simple guitar lines. Think of the memorable sharp attack of the two chords of A Flock Of Seagulls' memorable hit "I ran", or in an uncharacteristic move, the room-filling echo of the initial chords of "How Soon is Now" by The Smiths.
Into this mix comes Australian band Men At Work, with their smash hit initial record, "Business As Usual". Memorable for the strong tunes "Who Can It Be Now?" and "Down Under" - they wove storytelling and really took advantage of the sparseness and space of the 80s aesthetic to weave in saxophone and flute lines - and as a result of them and the Mad Max series 'Straya went from a place people joked about to being seen as a cultural exporter.
And of course, with the success came the expectation of a better album or at least another smash hit, and Men At Work got to work, writing their second album, Cargo.
When you discover the 1980s through the "Best Of" radio stations of the various decades on Sirius XM you'll hear this track quite a few times. It's Colin Hay and company singing a ditty about a kid, I think. They touch on how the kid iikes dreaming but people keep yelling at him, and he promises to obey every "golden rule", but it isn't as captivating as the bigger picture captured in quick, short storytelling strokes like "Travelling in a fried out combi/On the hippie trail, head full of zombie/I met a strange lady, she made me nervous/She took me in, and gave me breakfast."
In the song, which shifts from an energetic riff with Hay trying to hit the high notes he most assuredly regretted writing when it came time to sing this night after night on tour, to a meandering, dreamlike dual vocals in fifths singing about only liking to dream. It was like they took two song ideas and jammed them together, with the overall idea of trying to capture a day in the life of expectations on a growing boy.
As a result, even though in theory the sophomore album was a stronger overall songwriting effort, the "hits" seemed forced and you could tell that they were trying to somehow better their initial output, the product of years of songwriting in the trenches, with another bunch of songs which they'd come up with during touring and other obligations. That's what's wrong with sophomore efforts, and with this song in particular. It seems like it was written to be "a hit", as opposed to a good song someone just thought of. It seems as forced and awkward as the "Be good be good be good be good be good be good be good be good" line that Hay sings, constantly struggling to hit the higher and higher notes ever so slightly out of his readh.
This album was the last by the original lineup. The band continued for a few years, but not many people remember what came after "Doctor Heckyll and Mr. Jive", even though they DO remember the initial album.
Colin Hay is doing an acoustic guitar set this week in the area. He's part of that nostaglia boom that's also bringing Duran Duran and Blondie to the area. An intriguing end to the saga that began with the haunting flute riff of Down Under.