Men at Work’s ominous “It’s A Mistake” warned of an accidental nuclear war in 1983

By on April 26, 2017

In this episode of Night Flight’s “Take Off to Politics” — which originally aired on September 9, 1983 — viewers were taken on a tour of rock music’s political points-of-view, beginning with the 1960s and then fast-forwarding to the present-day ’80s.

One of the featured videos was Men at Work’s ominous “It’s a Mistake,” which spells out what might happen if the 80s nuclear arms buildup had led to an accidental nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Watch it now on Night Flight Plus.

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Australia‘s Men at Work were one of the more surprising success stories of the 1980s, selling more than fifteen million records worldwide, and for a relatively short period of time — from the summer of 1982, through the summer of ’83 — they scored five Top 40 singles on the U.S. record charts, two of them vaulting to the #1 spot.

Their debut album, Business as Usual, topped the Billboard 200 for fifteen weeks and sold more than six million units stateside, making them one of the most successful bands of the 80s, although the original lineup of the band would break up by mid-decade.

Colin Hay, the band’s lead vocalist, was the only member of the band who was not actually Australian by birth: he was born in Kilwinning, Scotland, growing up in Saltcoasts, a town on the west coast where his father owned a music store.

Hay never joined any bands as a young teen, but had easy access to musical instruments, and began playing guitar at age twelve in 1965, telling Rolling Stone in 1983: “I learned a little piano, tried the recorder — until the teacher caught me looking down at her breasts, and I was too embarrassed to go back. Eventually, I found the guitar.”

Two years later, at age fourteen, Hay and his family moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he soon found a place in the city’s supportive musical community.

Melbourne — home to highly regarded rock acts like AC/DC, INXS and Split Enz, and lesser known bands (to U.S. fans, anyway) like Spectrum, Skyhooks and the Sports — was considered a more “progressive” city, especially when compared to Sydney, home to a lot of flashy, trendy pop acts, and most Australian rock bands found themselves drawn to Melbourne if they wanted to rock (be sure to check out Night Flight contributor Bart Bealmear’s post on Melbourne glam rockers Supernaut).

Hay — who enrolled in classes at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, in the Melbourne suburb of Bundoora — wasn’t really a rocker, but found some success in the city’s pub circuit as a singer-songwriter.

He met future bandmate Ron Strykert, an acoustic guitarist and fellow student during an audition for a musical called Heroes in Sydney, Australia, discovering that they both loved acoustic 12-string guitars.

Hay, who would join the chorus of a staged production of Ned Kelly for a bit, eventually formed a duo with Strykert, a kid from the countryside outside of Melbourne who was the more soft-spoken of the two.

After enjoying some success on the local pub circuit paired up with Strykert, they decided that the new songs they’d been writing together would best be served by forming a group, since they required more instrumentation than two guitars.

Soon the duo were adding two La Trobe student friend’s of Strykert’s — law major Greg Ham (keyboards, woodwinds) and science major Jerry Speiser (drums) — who were both playing in other local bands (the Numbers and Sneak Attack), as well as John Rees, a classically trained violinist who was added on bass.

The group chose the name Men at Work and began playing regular gigs at Melbourne’s Cricketer’s Arms pub, where they were discovered by a CBS Records executive.

The band — who were already being touted as the country’s highest-paid unsigned band in 1980 before finally landing a recording contract with the Australian division of Columbia Records in ’81 — soon they found themselves in a recording studio with Los Angeles-based producer Peter McIan (who had come to Australia to produce recordings by New Zealand pop singer Sharon O’Neill).

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Their debut album, Business as Usual, was released on November 9, 1981, and it was an immediate success, charting at #1 on Australia’s album charts for ten weeks.

The label’s parent company, however, declined releasing the album simultaneously in the States, forcing their first wave of American fans to have to purchase an expensive Australian import LP until Business as Usual was finally released domestically, in June ’82

By then, the band’s first hit, “Who Can it Be Now?” — which had originally been issued in Australia in June ’81, months prior to the release of the album — was becoming a daily staple on FM radio and MTV hand a big hand in its success, and the band’s momentum, airing the promo video, directed by Tony Stevens, in heavy rotation.

At the time, getting your video played on MTV was one of the best ways record labels could expose the band to potential customers, and airply on progressive-leaning FM rock stations — like KROQ in Los Angeles — were the main ways to get a band noticed, although most U.S. FM radio stations were still a bit reluctant to embrace the more mainstream rock artists who were being marketed to American audiences as “New Wave” acts, including the Police.

Men at Work were initially compared to that band, but not exactly favorably, considering that critics began to call them a poor man’s or working man’s Police, which is basically like saying they were a bar-band version of a much better band, although the “bar band” part of that comparison was accurate, to a fault, since they were really more of a pub rock band.

In fact, Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke, in his July 1982 album review (which was kind of a compare & contrast with New Zealand/Australian band Split Enz), noted that Men at Work had the “rhythmic spunk of reggae and the punchy yet articulate brevity of post-punk pop (the Police, Elvis Costello),” saying that they played “with the earthy conviction of a rousing pub-rock band like the Rumour.”

Fricke also praised (we think) “Who Can it Be Now?,” which he said was powered by Ham’s “blowsy sax,” saying that its “rousing chorus of voices raised in alcoholic harmony” sparked the hit’s “rugged boogie.”

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Like the Police and dozens of other rock acts at the time, Men at Work weren’t exactly new waveers (and they certainly were not punk rock, either), but nevertheless that’s how they seemed to be marketed to their potential audience.

Lead vocalist Colin Hay did sometimes reach the soaring vocal heights of Police frontman Sting — Fricke said that Hay struck “a bold, daunting stance somewhere between the high tenor wail of Sting and the smoky gruffness of Burning Spear’s Winston Rodney” — and Hay’s charming, somewhat engaging vocals and clever wordplay — not to mention the band’s bouncy, mid-tempo rhythmic rock — were somewhat similar to the Police’s rock vibe, but the comparison always felt more like a marketing ploy or sales strategy than anything resembling the truth.

As we’ve said, MTV — and other video format TV shows, including the USA network’s “Night Flight” — regularly aired the band’s video, which detailed, in a very low-budget fashion (it cost just $5,000), the story embedded in the lyrics, about a man wishing for a little peace and quiet.

Hay had actually been inspired to write the tune, it turned out, based on the fact that his apartment in the St. Kilda neighborhood of Melbourne was often mistaken for that of his next door neighbor’s, who happened to be a drug dealer, and the “who can it be now?” was his grumpy response to always having to send those who came knocking on his door at all hours to the man selling drugs next door.

While their song “Who Can It Be Now?” was sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100, Columbia Records got them an opening support slot on a Fleetwood Mac national tour.

By January of 1983, Men at Work had both the #1 album and #1 single in both the US and the UK, previously never achieved by an Australian act.

On Saturday, May 28th, Men at Work appeared at the 1983 US Festival, during was called “New Wave Day,” on a bill that also featured: Divinyls; INXS; Wall of Voodoo; Oingo Boingo; the English Beat; A Flock of Seagulls; Stray Cats; and the Clash.

Columbia’s second single from the album, “Down Under,” with Greg Ham switching from sax to flute, gave Men at Work another huge chart hit while “Who Can it Be Now?” was still in the Top Ten.

After entering the U.S. charts at #79, “Down Under” climbed to #1, some ten weeks later.

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The song would confuse a lot of Americans since the lyrics were ostensibly about Australians who go overseas only to find that they’re homesick for the things they can only get back home, like fried-out Kombis and Vegemite sandwiches, something that the members of Men at Work were likely feeling now that they were in the U.S. more regularly than back home “down under.”

There was also some confusion over who may have actually written at least one part the song, years later, when in June 2009 — some twenty-eight years after its release — the two songwriters of “Down Under,” Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, were sued for copyright infringement by Larrikin Music.

Larrikin (some sources list Larkin) owned rights to the children’s rhyme, “The Kookaburra Song” (also known as “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree”), written by a Melbourne schoolteacher named Marion Sinclair in 1932 for the Australian Girl Guides, becoming a widely known “campfire song” (although it’s just four bars long) in the process.

Larrikin alleged that part of Ham’s flute riff was lifted wholesale from “Kookaburra,” and a court agreed, awarding five percent of the song’s publishing royalties since 2002, and going forward, to Larrikin.

We’re sure that both Hay and Strykert probably weren’t too happy that they were the ones who were sued, even though it was Ham who had played the flute-y riff.

At the 25th Annual Grammy Awards — held on February 23, 1983, at L.A.’s Shrine Auditorium — Men at Work edged out other deserving artists — Stray Cats, Asia, the Human League and Jennifer Holliday — for the Best New Artist Grammy award (they’re still the only Australian act to win the category).

Columbia Records knew that they had a huge global hit-making band on their hands, and rushed the band into the studio to record their follow-up, although to the band, who’d been playing songs from the debut for more than two years at that point (and for Hay, he would continue to do so, for much of his career, solo and otherwise), it likely felt like the right time to put out more material.

The thing is, Business as Usual was still charting and considered by many to still be a new release when the their sophomore album, Cargo, was released in April 1983, the same month that their second single from the album, “Overkill,” had been released (the first, “Dr. Heckyll & Mr. Jive,” had arrived in October 1982, months prior to the U.S. release of Cargo).

The third single from the album, “It’s a Mistake,” was released in June of ’83, and at first blush appears to have been the band’s most political statement, which is why it appeared in our “Take Off to Politics” later that same year.

The video — again, directed by Tony Stevens, who directed a total of five promo videos for Men at Work — seems to contain two parallel narrative thoughts, the first one being centered on the band’s appearance as armed, uniform-wearing soldiers (although, strangely, they also appear in civilian dress).

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A second storyline appears to focus on the then-recent actions of two high-ranking commanders in the military for both the United States and USSR, who were both enmeshed in a Cold War standoff which, again, at the time, seemed like it was either going to end in conventional battle or an exchange of nuclear warhead-tipped missiles.

Hay sings in the persona of a mid-level officer wishing to learn from his superiors if his men are going to war or not, and given its title, of course, he seems to be worrying if they’ve made a catastrophic mistake of launching a nuke, accidentally hitting the button instead of stubbing out his cigar in the nearby ashtray, which is likely the biggest mistake that any member of the human race could make, at this point, effectively ending life as we know it for generations to come.

The latter of the video is mostly set in an underground bunker or “War Room” similar to the NORAD facility of Cheyenne Mountain.

The video is clearly a depiction of a kind of bipolar tug of war between the Western and Eastern bloc nations, one that continues to be a frightening possibility, more than thirty years later, as we’re sure you already know if you’ve been watching the TV news or reading it online.

The “No Nukes“-ish message was pretty clear: politicians are simply helpless puppets exploited by war-hungry generals and the danger of aggressive military-based decisions is the true enemy of world peace.

That last image, of two opposing generals shaking hands while having their fingers, behind their backs, placed squarely on the launch buttons, feels as real today as it was during the Reagan/Gorbachev era (the line, “They’ve gone and grabbed old Ronnie” is obviously a reference to the then-current president at the time).

Cargo peaked at #1 for two weeks on the Australian charts, made it to #2 in New Zealand, and debuted at #3 on Billboard‘s 200 album chart in the U.S. (#8 in the UK), eventually going triple platinum in sales.

While Men at Work toured the world extensively in 1983, “It’s a Mistake” entered the charts at #42 on July 2, 1983 and spent four weeks in the Top Ten, peaking at #6 on August 20, 1983.

It was the last of the short-lived band’s four big Top Ten hits (charting at #34 in Australia).

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The band would perform “It’s a Mistake” live on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” a month after our “Take Off on Politics” episode aired, on October 22, 1983.

In 1984, the members of Men at Work came back to Australia after an exhausting tour — including some dates with the Clash and Stray Cats — to work on songs for their next album, but during that time, two members (bassist John Rees and drummer Jerry Speiser) left over creative differences.

Their third album, 1985’s Two Hearts, was a rather bland, synthesizer-heavy affair, which may be one reason it stalled at #50 in the U.S.

In October of 1985, in the “Australia Newsline” news section of Billboard, it was announced that both Ron Strykert and Greg Ham had suddenly departed the group (Ham was going to work on film scores), leaving Colin Hay as the only surviving original member.

Hay continued the business of Men at Work with new members Chad Wackerman, Jeremy Allsop and Colin Bailey — and added a keyboardist, James Black — in order fulfill the band’s commitments to their “Back to Business” tour, with dates planned for China, Japan and the U.S.

Men at Work would call it day soon thereafter.

Colin Hay — who release at least a couple of solo albums, including 1987’s Looking for Jack and 1990’s Wayfaring Sons — and Greg Ham reunited in 1996, the same year that their Contraband: The Best of Men at Work was released by Columbia/Legacy.

The new Men at Work toured extensively — even playing “Down Under” during the Closing Ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia — and a live hits collection featuring the late 90s lineup, called Brazil, was released in 1998.

These days, Hay fronts one version of a Men at Work revival group that tours around the world performing the band’s memorable ’80s hit songs (he also did a tour with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band in 2003).

Five years ago, in 2012, Greg Ham was found dead by suicide at his home in Melbourne, Australia. He was 58.

The Sydney Morning Herald quoted a close friend of Ham’s saying that he’d been using heroin and drinking heavily in the wake of the “Down Under” lawsuit. “The whole case had undone him,” the paper quoted the friend as saying.

Ham himself, when the judgment had been handed down, said “I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered, for copying something.”

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Check out Night Flight’s “Take Off to Politics” — which also features videos and appearances by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, the Plastic Ono Band (“Give Peace A Chance”), Garland Jeffreys, Donald Fagen, and a little-known promotional clip for the 1982 film WarGames by Crosby, Stills & Nash — over on Night Flight Plus.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.