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Out from a land down under

Wednesday 22nd April 2015

Imagine a young man in Sydney, a quarter of a century ago, writing the words Do you come from a land down under/where women glow and men plunder?

Down Under’s a song that tells a bittersweet story of Australian identity, with words that will resonate through the decades, sung unironically in backpacker bars full of brash Aussies all over the world.

The same man, much later and much older, picking gently at a guitar in Topanga Canyon, writes And if I live to be a hundred and two/I just don’t think I’ll ever get over you.

That song makes it onto the soundtrack for cult indie film Garden State, made by aging hipster darling Zach Braff, and young men give it to their girlfriends on mix CDs, quoting the film’s famous line, “you gotta listen to this one song; it’ll change your life, I swear.”

And back a lot earlier than that, there’s a wee eight year-old Scottish lad sitting in his parents’ record shop, listening to The Beatles, not knowing that he’d go on to be leader of the rock band Men at Work, and to have Paul McCartney to dinner in his kitchen.

The musician Colin Hay, when you speak to him just as himself, is at once all of those people and none of them. Now aged 62, he’s a kind, friendly raconteur, who remembers to pass on greetings to my dad before we hang up our phones at the end of the interview (he doesn’t know my dad; I just mentioned him earlier in the conversation and Colin’s nice enough to remember).

He refers to Chandelier singer Sia (no blood relation), proudly, as “my niece Sia,” when recounting something she told him. Even though you know to expect it, the strength of his Scottish accent is surprising. This is the man who, after all, wrote the line, Then she smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich. He should sound like a Queensland sheep farmer.

This is the man who, after all, wrote the line, Then she smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich. He should sound like a Queensland sheep farmer.

The sum of these contradictions seem to sit fairly easily with him. But audiences didn't always feel comfortable about it.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, after the break-up of his chart-topping band Men at Work (with whom he performed such songs as Down Under, Who Can it Be Now, and Overkill), Colin probably could have put his feet up and dined out for the rest of his life on being “the guy who wrote that song.” Talk to him for five minutes, and you realise that was never going to happen.

“I started to go out on the road solo and play songs,” he says of the time immediately after Men at Work ended, “But the thing was, there was hardly anyone there when I first started to do it, because my old band had broken up, and there wasn’t really very much overlap between Men at Work and the solo thing.

“It was almost like, when I played to people, when I arrived in a room, it was almost like they were slightly embarrassed because there was hardly anyone there. 40, 50 people or something.”

He started to talk to the audiences about what had happened to him; the stories of his career and life. It was intended as self-preservation – to wave away pity – but people loved it.

“I started to make people laugh, and when people laugh that only encourages you.”

That combination of funny stories and heartbreaking songs forms the basis for a show Colin’s been working on ever since, and which he’s performing at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

“The show really for me was about the fact that nothing was going to happen to me unless I made it happen.”

He denies any of this was a brave thing to do, as I suggested it might have been to strike out on his own after spending the 1980s playing to tens of thousands of people a night, and being whisked into helicopters and limousines and having Paul McCartney come round to his for dinner and do the dishes (not very well, Colin points out, but he did them without being asked).

“I’ve had a pretty charmed life, really,” he says. “I've never really wanted for anything.”

While he says he doesn’t like to live in the past, or dwell on what he might have done differently, the nature of his back catalogue means he’ll always carry it with him. Colin says Australia, the country to which he moved from Scotland aged 14, will always be deeply important to him, as will the old Men at Work classics, which he still plays acoustic.

“Men at Work is a very emotional subject for me, because I was very proud of what we did, and very happy about what happened to us, you know. But it was one of those bands that was tinged with sadness as well, because we really didn't last that long, and there were lots of things that weren't communicated at the time, that could've been handled better.”

Colin Hay plays one of his Men at Work classics acoustic.

He can't think about the band, the music, without thinking about his friend Greg Ham, who played the famous flute line on the song Down Under, and with whom Colin collaborated on the occasional Men at Work reunion tour.

Greg died in 2012, following a bitter lawsuit from the music publisher that owned the rights to the 1934 Australian nursery rhyme Kookaburra; they claimed Greg had taken the flute line from that tune, an accusation that devastated him.

Colin has said that he believes his friend never recovered from the stress of the case.

“That was such a kind of devastating thing to happen, because he was such a lovely man and there was no need for that,” he says.

It gave people a musical identity, if you like, and made them feel something about where they were from, which I think is a powerful thing, you know?

“But I love Down Under. I love that it means a lot of different things to a lot of different people; it's not a song that is really about one thing. I think ultimately if you have to put it really into one word, it is about celebration; perhaps celebrating something that is not what a lot of other people relate to.”

People talk to him all the time about that song. Someone will tell him they were on a Greek Island and it came on and they were moved to tears; that it creates an “instant umbilical cord back to Australia” when they hear it.

“It gave people a musical identity, if you like, and made them feel something about where they were from, which I think is a powerful thing, you know?”

When he talks about why the song has resonated with Australians for quarter of a century now, Colin talks a lot about the confusion Aussies feel about their own sense of place, the fact that indigenous Australians have been in the country for so long and that European Australians have been there for “about a minute.”

There's a draw, then, in a song that on its surface satirises the character of the stereotypical Australian travelling overseas, but has some more complicated undercurrents if you listen closely.

Colin's been in big crowds of young Aussies, many times, when the song's come on and people haven't known the guy who wrote it is right there among them. Then he gets a sense of his work as other people hear it.

“There was the Sydney Olympics, which was incredible, and then I played in Munich when Australia was in the World Cup. And then I was in a crowd of 80,000 Australians singing along to the song. It was an extraordinary experience.”

He seems to hold no bitterness – at least not openly – about the fact that his whole career hasn't been like that, that after reaching the dizzy heights of global music stardom he had to start over again, slogging it out on the road to the tune of 12 solo albums, just a man and his guitar.

“My career, if you want to call it that, over the past couple of decades has been very fulfilling and very frustrating at the same time,” he says, “Because you always want to get to more people, you always want to make things better and there are always... hurdles to that, to get over. Things don't happen as quickly as you want them to happen.”

At 62, he claims he doesn't have another 20 years of that hard slog left in him, though I wouldn't rule out another reinvention. He couldn't stay on the couch if he tried.

“If you look at the long game, if I think about the fact that the first record I ever made sold millions of records and I toured the world, and for a few minutes there we were kings of the world. Only a handful of people ever get to experience that.

“So I got to experience that and then... the dust settled. It was like this storm that just passed, and you're left with – OK, what do I do now?

“So I set off on my way a couple of decades ago, to do that, and that's what I've been doing ever since.”

Colin Hay is performing at the New Zealand International Comedy Festival in May.

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