Last week I joined an online community I’ve been following from the sidelines for a while: Freaky Trigger’s Popular, where Tom Ewing has been reviewing every UK number one in chronological order. I remember seeing it back when it was new, thinking “hmm, that could be interesting if he keeps it up”, but not really following along because the ’50s hits meant little to me; and then being seriously impressed when I checked back at around the 1973 mark. It’s one of the highlights of the personal-blog-community-web-o-sphere, though I should have expected no less from someone who wrote one of my favourite things ever about same.

Along the way, I was wondering when would be the right moment to join in. I decided it had to be a song that I bought myself when it was a hit, which ruled out the Arrival tape my parents bought me and the countless songs I overheard through my early teens, when I was spending all my pocket money on comics and Rubik’s Cubes. The obvious candidate emerged last week. It was a song I bought as part of an album rather than as a single, but 1983 was my First True Year of Pop, and this was near enough to where it started, so in I went.

As part of my fixation on Bringing It All Back Home, I’m going to repost my Popular comments here after the dust has settled on each thread, editing them into something a bit more coherent where there were several. Once again, this is mainly for my benefit, to keep track of my own musical nostalgia; if I were you, I’d just click through to Tom’s reviews and all the attached comments, which are much greater than my small new part of them.

Men at Work, “Down Under”, 29 January 1983

I was fifteen when Men at Work’s popularity was at its peak at the beginning of 1983, although “Down Under” actually topped the Australian charts well before then; the Kent Music Report says that it peaked at no. 1 in Australia for six weeks at the end of 1981 and beginning of 1982. (That twelve month sea-voyage to Blighty is a shocker.) 1983 was when their much-anticipated second album came out locally (mid-year, Wikipedia reminds me, which sounds right, because I was one of the ones doing the anticipating). “Down Under” was also played to death during the America’s Cup campaign, but that didn’t happen until September that year. Billboard says that it topped the US charts simultaneously with the UK charts, and claims it was because “their funny, irreverent videos became MTV favorites” (”Who Can It Be Now?” had already been a US number one for the band, and Business as Usual topped the US charts in November 1982). Australia’s equivalent of Top of the Pops, Countdown, was obsessed with the band for months, not least because of their international success.

As a portrait of Aussies this was obviously a cartoon, even to 15-year-olds, but in that time and place the mere presence of lyrics about chundering in number one songs was intriguingly transgressive—a seven-inch dose of theory just as we were starting to do the practical. (The stereotypes predate this; Barry Humphries was the one who popularised the word “chunder” through his Barry Mackenzie strip in Private Eye, which spawned two Australian films in the early 1970s; Humphries was also the one who suggested the name “Bruce” to Cleese and co. for the Monty Python “philosophers” sketch.)

We 15-year-olds hadn’t yet been there and done that when it came to the travelling, but that only added to the aspirational appeal. One striking feature in hindsight of “Down Under” is its reference to destinations that seemed tantalizingly obscure to young Aussies, in the form of Brussels and Bombay. Men at Work were of the generation that recalled the hippy trail, but the ones buying most of their records weren’t. The band were in their late twenties when they had their hits, but early ’80s school-age record buyers like me knew nothing of hippy trails, and our older siblings who were off travelling in their early twenties were going to Bali and London, not Bombay and Brussels; the 1984 Redgum song “I’ve Been to Bali Too” spoke more to their experience. Perhaps that difference in perspective was because singer Colin Hay was a Scot who had moved to Australia at fourteen; come to that, perhaps even the title was (we weren’t in the habit of thinking of ourselves as “down under”, although the phrase gained more currency in Australia after this song charted).

Again in hindsight, it’s no surprise that the band were bigger in the US than anywhere else. Not only did they have the “band from far away” novelty they would have had here in the UK, the themes of their biggest hit would have spoken to young Americans just as much as to young Australians, Brussels being as exotic to them as to us, and a similar “ugly American” stereotype hanging over them as well. (I don’t want to suggest that Americans in general were bigger international travellers than Australians, because I know that differences in annual leave and the range of potential domestic options create different travel situations for us; just that a city like Brussels would seem more exotic to us than to UK people who heard its name on the news every other week thanks to the EU connection.)

The music on “Down Under” sounds less dated than on some of their other songs, thanks to the flute being more difficult to place in time than the saxophones on most of Business as Usual—although there are at least four tracks on the album that I prefer to it, including all the other singles. The “taut and well-practised new wave group” [Tom’s words] is really elsewhere, on “Helpless Automaton”, and could have done interesting things if they’d let it. But they were part of an Australian pub rock tradition that produced some weird hybrids during these few years, few of which made it out of the country, and the musical tension shows. You had to be there, I suppose. Because I was, and as a nod to my 15-year-old self at the start of his new obsession with popular music, I’m tempted to give this a higher rating, but it’s also a song that any Australian my age is thoroughly sick of by now, so five sounds about right.

It’s a shame the band fizzled out, really, as there were such high expectations for them. It’s kinda sad to read the discography on Wikipedia with three times as many live and compilation albums as studio releases. Cargo was a more-than-respectable follow-up, with lots of good stuff on it, but they took a break after a couple of years of touring frenzy and that was pretty much the end of them; the third album Two Hearts had a few decent songs (”Hard Luck Story” was my favourite), but they’d dropped some members and their music already sounded like yesterday’s news. I wonder if the main problem was their age when they hit it big; Colin Hay and Greg Ham both turned 30 in 1983. If they’d all been 20, would they have been taking a break just as the game got started? Maybe they knew they’d never top it.

Kajagoogoo, “Too Shy”, 19 February 1983

Another reason I held off from joining the comments at Popular is that the overlap between the UK charts and the Australian charts wasn’t nearly as complete as it came to be this year. Back in the 1970s, the string of big Australian hits for ABBA looked different from the UK list. We made number ones of “Le Freak” and “Pop Musik”. Even in 1982, the UK had plenty of number ones we’d barely heard of; we knew Captain Sensible for “Wot” and Eddy Grant for “Electric Avenue” (and were better off for both, I think). But it all seemed to come together in 1983, for a while at least. Our charts always had a lot fewer numbers ones per year than the UK’s, but when we saw theirs mentioned in the international round-up segment in Countdown we either recognised them or knew we would soon. The rise of the video played a big part, I’m sure. TV producers’ eagerness for new clips to play would have put extra pressure on the local offshoots of multinational record companies to get the singles out while they were hot.

So we knew Kajagoogoo, oh yes. And that intro still sounds pretty damn funky. Unfortunately, the lyrics are far too mockable and Limahl’s haircut was far too cluckable to consider them much more than a period piece today. (I always thought the name “Limahl” was Lebanese or something, but huh, turns out it’s an anagram. Guess he didn’t want to be confused with Mark.)

And of course who could forget Australia’s Kajagoogoo counterparts, Pseudo Echo, whose biggest hit was a cover of “Funky Town” in 1987. Not clones, exactly, because they formed before we’d heard “Too Shy”, but clearly there was something in the air. CFCs, probably, from all the hairspray.

A four from me, for the first thirty or forty seconds.

21 May 2009 · Music