Forgive me, Men at Work fans, because your beloved band didn’t grab me in its heyday. It was the early 1980s, and my mind was fixated on Captain Beefheart on David Letterman’s show and the emergence of many new, innovative artists, including Talking Heads, the Ramones, Dire Straits, and Devo.
For unknown reasons, Men at Work’s pop-new wave debut album, Business as Usual, never got on my radar, and, though I often heard Colin Hay, the group’s lead singer, singing the hit song, “Who Can It Be Now?”, on the radio, the tune never truly registered. So let’s fast forward to several months ago at the Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, Connecticut, when I saw Hay perform a solo show to a jam-packed theater full of adoring fans who seemed to know every word of each Men at Work song.
Hay, who was born in Scotland and moved to Australia as a teenager, delivered an exciting night of entertainment, full of well-written solo and Men at Work tunes, powerful vocals, and expert acoustic guitar playing. His wit, humor, perception, and storytelling were also engaging, reminding me of Richard Thompson’s often brilliant between-song patter with his audiences.
Hay is known for his "confessional" live shows, his publicists say, so I ask him about that.
“Well, I don't particularly think they are confessional,” he responds. “I simply try to make them as interesting as I can.”
I ask Hay what’s the best way to describe the styles of music he created for Men at Work and on his solo albums. Men at Work headlined with the Stray Cats and the Clash on “New Wave Day” at the US Festival in California on Memorial Day weekend 1983.
“I don't know what you would call the style of music Men at Work played,” he answers. “I always thought of it as pop music. I tend to leave categories or styles of music to people who like that sort of thing.”
Though “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under,” another song from Business as Usual, hit No. 1 on the charts, Hays points to the ballad “Overkill” from Men at Work’s second album, Cargo, as one of the best he has written. “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake” from that album, which landed at No. 3 on the U.S. charts, were Top Ten singles.
“‘Overkill’ springs to mind as one of the best songs I wrote with Men at Work,” he says. “It has an interesting, slightly haunting feeling to the melody that I've always enjoyed. From the Fierce Mercy album, I like the whole thing really, but ‘Frozen Fields Of Snow’ and ‘The Last To Know’ stand out to me.”
The Beatles were his musical heroes during his youth. “Need I say why?” Hay asks.
“I moved to Australia when I was 14 and started playing music around then,” he says.
“Everything influences everything. My natural ability to sing came from my father. When I was growing up, there was a vast amount of amazing music being created, coming from everywhere. All you had to do was listen.”
Hay points to numerous concerts as the best ones he attended as a spectator, including those performed by José Feliciano, Tom Waits, Randy Newman, Elton John, Little Feat, Frank Zappa, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Cold Chisel, and Sia.
He says watching Feliciano influenced him as a musician more than any other live performance, because Feliciano “entertained a huge crowd with simply his voice and guitar.”
That sounds like a solo show by Colin Hay, who released his 13th solo album, Fierce Mercy, on Compass Records last year. The album, mostly recorded in Topanga in western Los Angeles County and completed in Nashville, delves into, among other things, love, loss, and a UFO sighting.
“With Fierce Mercy, we wanted to create an audio experience that was immersive, both musically and lyrically, and I think we achieved that,” Hay tells me.
Ten of the album’s 13 songs were collaborations with Michael Georgiades, who contributed to Hay’s Gathering Mercury album in 2011 and 2009’s American Sunshine.
“Michael and I work well together, because we open creative doors in each other in a songwriting sense,” Hay says. “We sit in a room together and decide which musical and lyrical ideas are worth crafting into a song. Then we bicker and wrestle the song to the ground.”
The front-cover artwork on Fierce Mercy is quite unique and thought-provoking. It was designed by Robert Hakalski, a Philadelphia-based photographer, graphic designer, musician and filmmaker, with creative input, Hay says, from himself and others.
The cover depicts Hay, in a gray suit and bowler hat, standing beneath a tree that’s dripping fruit and offering up a long-stemmed rose. The planet Earth is in a distant nighttime sky above a spaceship on the ground and a kangaroo poking its head in a tall, golden field.
“The cover art came from a dream,” Hay says. “The overall feeling I'd like to convey is that love and beauty are to be cherished.”