Since the 1980s, that’s what I have thought the opening line of Men at Work’s Down Under is: “travelling in a fighter convoy…” and not “travelling in a fried-out combie.”
Now, in my defence, I haven’t actually thought about the song in decades. And back when I did give it a bit of a ponder, I was more gingerly curious about what a vegemite sandwich might be.
Writer and lead singer Colin Hay now performs the song acoustically and you know how this goes, the song is revealed to be somewhat deeper than that original appeared. I do think that’s a measure of some superb writing, when radically changing the delivery of a piece works, when the material can be delivered in gigantically different ways.
But we’ve seen that.
Most recently there was Aha’s reworking of Take On Me which, slowed down, also clarified some previously mysterious lyrics. What was originally energetic and catchy proves to be arresting and even mesmerising in its new form.
Most famously, it’s the same with Mad World, originally a Tears for Fears track sung at lighspeed but then redone by Gary Jules.
Only, there’s something different about Down Under. I saw a live acoustic video of it a week or so ago and it’s stayed with me. More, yesterday Apple Music happened to throw the original at me while I was working.
And here’s the thing. That original has changed.
That didn’t happen with Take On Me, although I do now hear the lyric I kept missing in the original. I know to listen out for it but that’s not the same as changing that original, altering the sound of it.
Nor does Mad World’s slow remake alter how the Tears for Fears one sounds, except I do more appreciate the writing in it.
No, Men at Work’s Down Under was this jaunty 80s track with the daft video and now the same piece in the same way is somehow more serious. I can’t help it: I listen to that original and it’s like I finally get it.
Without distorting the original or loading it down with a weight it can’t bear, the acoustic one is just a plain rendition that reveals it was always serious and I can’t help but hear that now.
I should say I recently caught a snippet of an interview with someone, I imagine Hay but I wasn’t watching, where it was mentioned that no one notices the coffin being carried in that video. I think they said it was symbolising the death of Australian culture and I want to say I thought that was interesting but really I didn’t think at all.
Then I don’t want to say that Down Under was actually a Dylaneseque howling protest song yet I am sobered by it. Specifically by how I only saw the surface jauntiness and that this is like what happened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. That’s another 1980s song and to this day there are people who think it’s pro-American.
It’s really a miserable track and the lyrics are as clear about that as can be. I’ve secretly liked how I got it and people including President Ronald Reagan didn’t. He used it as a campaign song, can you imagine that? Walking out to make a speech as a song about rancid poverty in America and the toll of the Vietnam conflict booms out of speakers.
Imagine a US President being dumb.
Down Under is not so stridently anti-American or rather anti-Australian but still I missed what strength it has. Again, don’t let me overplay this, I’m not dumping huge political import onto the shoulders of a pop song.
But have a listen. It’s a good song but it’s richer now.