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Page last updated at 07:11 GMT, Saturday, 1 August 2009 08:11 UK

Down Under-covered

Classic pop, reappraised by the Magazine

Vegemite sandwiches, chunder and a "head full of zombie". What's going on in Down Under?

Men At Work's biggest hit is in the news following a court battle over its flute riff. But the rest of the song also tells an interesting and seemingly druggy tale.

Even if you weren't around in 1983 when it topped the UK charts, you've probably heard a mass singalong of Down Under if you've ever walked past an expat-friendly bar anywhere from London's Earls Court to Goa.

But is the perky reggae tune as patriotic as it seems during Aussie sporting victories?

The answer is yes and no - and the verses tell a different story to the chorus. Allow Smashed Hits to investigate.

Belgian baker

The opening couplet borders, on first listen, on the incomprehensible - but it sets the tone if you decode the language.

"Travelling in a fried-out Kombi," it begins, "on a hippy trail, head full of zombie." Huh?

Men at Work
Men at Work including song writer Colin Hay, left

"Kombi" might be an unfamiliar word, but the Kombinationskraftwagen - aka the trusty old VW camper van - is a familiar symbol of easy-going hippiedom. The "hippy trail" is the path trod by many a dropout in the 1960s and 70s, taking free-wheeling Aussies and others on variants of the route between Istanbul and Kathmandu.

And "zombie"? David Dale at the Sydney Morning Herald says this is a "drug reference" - zombie apparently being a potent strain of marijuana (on occasion laced with angel dust).

So two lines in, and we're on a trip, other stops including Brussels and some kind of "den in Bombay" where, for whatever reason, the narrator is left "with a slack jaw and not much to say".

The Dame Edna connection

The treat that most listeners remember, though, is the Vegemite sandwich - this is a gift from a threatening-looking Belgian baker who turns out to be a fellow friendly Aussie far from home. (It's a true story - the sandwich-gifter was from Brunswick, Melbourne, according to the song's writer and lead vocalist, Colin Hay.)

Dame Edna
Dame Edna's nephew provided inspiration

And this, rather than the zombie, is what the verses are really all about - being abroad, disoriented, and then getting a warm greeting as an Australian. Hay likened the Aussie's instinct for exploring the world to "a strange breed of bird that travels north".

The inspiration for this tale of good cheer turns out to be Barry Humphries, the man who dresses up as Dame Edna Everage. Hay was a big fan and described, to the Queensland Sunday Mail, the narrator of the song as "an Aussie Barry McKenzie-type character", Barry being Dame Edna's beer-swilling back-packing nephew.

...and men chunder

So far, so merry. Why then, does the chorus foretell thunder - "You'd better run, you'd better take cover"?

Hay intended a warning to his countrymen that they might lose their identity.

"I wrote it at a time when there was a lot of overdevelopment in this country," he told the told the Herald Sun paper, "and we were in danger of becoming Americanised."

If this message is a little obscure, the video tried to underline it by having the band trek across a desert with a coffin.

Of the two choruses (one rhymes "under" with "plunder"; the other with "chunder"), it's the one about sweat ("where women glow"), beer and vomiting that sticks in the mind. ("Chunder", meaning "vomit", was a piece of surfer slang also popularised by Humphries, who believes it started as a nautical warning - "watch under" - from those on the upper decks to their shipmates below.)

Accidental patriotism

Barring the odd reunion, Men At Work are no more - it was legal unpleasantness that troubled them back in 1984, too. Hay now performs Down Under solo, in a "darker" unplugged version, but it's the 1981 Police-like reggae recording that endures.

Crocodile Dundee In LA (salsa)
Ringo Starr's All-Star Band (rock)
Pennywise (US punk)
Red Army Choir (Russian folk)
JD's fantasy in Scrubs (acoustic)

As with Bruce Springsteen's Born In The USA, it seems destined to be an accidental patriotic tune, despite its creator's intentions. The Age calls it an "unofficial national anthem"; it was the soundtrack to Australia's 1983 Americas Cup victory as well as the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics and currently features in a Qantas ad and soundtracks many a movie's Antipodean location.

Hay (who was born in Ayrshire and describes himself as "both Australian and Scottish") is sanguine.

"It's that song that has allowed me to make my new album," he said in one interview; in another: "I am fortunate because I did make enough shekels that I can continue to do this and not be a waiter or have to empty people's septic tanks."

Smashed Hits is compiled by Alan Connor.

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Dame Edna: Why the fuss?
18 Feb 09 |  Magazine
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