Crikey! Crack open a Fosters mate… things were going well for Men At Work on this day in 1982. The Aussie band had made it to #1 in the U.S. with their first international single, “Who Can It Be Now?”. And for icing on the cake, to the north in Canada, their second international single, “Down Under” had taken the top spot. Doubtless being the guests on Saturday Night Live the week before helped raise their profile a little more and get them to the top of the charts.
It had been a fairly quick rise to superstardom for the band, although it surely didn’t seem as quick to them when they were living it. Singer/writer Colin Hay and his friend Ron Strykert had begun as a folk duo playing clubs in their homeland about four years prior. Soon they added the others, including well-regarded saxophonist and sometimes keyboardist and writer Greg Ham, and become one of the most popular club bands in southeastern Australia. They put out their first single, “Keypunch Operator” on their own before the ’70s were done.
Although the single didn’t sell that well, it – and the B-side, which happened to be an early rendition of “Down Under” – got them noticed by CBS Records which signed them. But only for Oceania. Their debut, Business As Usual was an instant hit in Australia and New Zealand, getting to #1 in both markets during the summer of ’81, with this single being among the top 10 of the year in their home country. Nonetheless, the CBS head office weren’t sold on it, and took months before agreeing to release it outside of “down under.” Once they decided to do so, they put them onto the ticket opening for Fleetwood Mac in 1982. That led to “Who Can It Be Now?” becoming a hit on Canadian radio, which spurred interest from the American bosses to really get behind the album. That paid off rather handsomely. The album went 6X platinum in the U.S. and won the Grammy for best New Artist the following year. And as for “Who Can It Be Now?”, as popular as it is and still remains, surprisingly the States was the only country where it went to #1.
The song itself was written by Hay. He came up with the music early on, in his duo days, but took over a year to come up with lyrics for. That happened when he was living in an apartment near Melbourne inhabited by rather sketchy neighbors, like “drug sellers” and prostitutes. Random types knocked on his door, day and night. “I was trying to get out of the situtation,” he remembers, but money was too scarce to move to a better building. “Everyone who knocked on my door wanted something,” he says, generally money but sometimes just all his spare time. When he wrote the lyrics, his girlfriend said “that will be your first hit… and she was right!” The song which allmusic describe as an “excellent single that merged straight-ahead pop/rock hooks with a quirky new wave production and offbeat sense of humor” put Men At Work on the musical map, and demonstrated the old adage about when life gives you lemons….