Men at Work: R.I.P. Greg Ham

Gregory Norman "Greg" Ham (27 September 1953 – approx. 19 April 2012)

Greg Ham was found dead in his home on April 19, 2012. The 58 year old musician lived alone, and friends who had not heard from him went to his home to check on his welfare, and found him deceased. The cause remains unknown. Although authorities initially spoke of “unexplained circumstances” more recently they have been saying that the postmortem turned up nothing suspicious.

There has still been no straight answer as to how he died, though. Drug abuse is suspected in some quarters. The Sydney Morning Herald cited an anonymous “close friend” who said he had been using heroin.

Men at Work

Ham will be fondly remembered as a member of the ‘80s group Men at Work, which gave us the album Business as Usual, released in November 1981, with singles “Who Can It Be Now?” and “A Land Down Under.”

In 1978, Aussie Colin Hay (1953- ) formed the band with his buddy Ron Strykert. Though they began as a guitarist duo, over the next couple of years they brought in Jerry Speiser (a drummer), John Rees (bassist) and Greg Ham (who could play any of a number of instruments, as a particular song demanded.) The photo above shows Colin Hay and Ham together: Ham is the fellow with the sax.

In 1981, the resulting group, Men at Work, signed a contract with Mercury Records, which was headed at that time by Peter Karpin. Their first album: “Business as Usual.” This was released in November of that year in Australia. It came to the US in April 1982.

Ham plays his sax to good effect in “Who Can It Be Now.” Listen for a brief solo at around the 1:20 mark of this YouTube video. The song would not have been the hit it was without that wailing sax at that moment. As Karpin said, Ham gave the band color, “both in the recording and [in his] stage presence.”

But “A Land Down Under” has left an even bigger mark. The lyrics of this song are not just, as might seem the case at first hearing, a few Aussie-themed stereotypes humorously contorted. Rather, there is a plot. The song tells the story of a young Australian touring the world, and discovering, perhaps at least somewhat to his surprise, that his homeland has made its mark amongst the different people he encounters, the “strange lady” who thinks of Australia as the land where women glow and men plunder, the man from Brussels who (naturally!) serves his Aussie guest a Vegemite sandwich, etc.

Marcus Breen, the author of Rock Dogs (2006),a history of the Australian music industry, said that the song represented the consolidation of that industry, and its “new state of global engagement.”

Breen quotes Ham on this point, telling us that Ham congratulated earlier Aussie groups for “establishing themselves” in Europe and the US, “It was like a groundswell that served us well.” (He surely had in mind the Little River Band, as well as AC/DC. Even, perhaps, a successful global solo artist, Olivia Newton-John.)

Aussie musicians might have been aided, too, by the global recognition of all those philosophers named “Bruce.” Those comedians from pommeyland, also known as Britain’s Monty Python troupe, contributed to a sort of Aussie chic in the 1970s.

The Implications

In 1983 the band came out with its second album, Cargo. According to Rolling Stone’s reviewer, Christopher Connelly, this album lacked any single song with the “body-slamming intensity” of either of the two great hits from its predecessor. But, he also said, it is still a “stronger overall effort,” extending “the darker side” of their skills.

The darker side is perhaps best exemplified by “Overkill.” Vocalist Colin Hay starts by telling us that he can’t “get to sleep” because he thinks about the implications.

The implications of … what? He doesn’t know, but he does know something is very wrong: “Diving in too deep, and possibly the complications….”

As Connelly also wrote, the first album already had a sense of mild paranoia, but it was the second one extended that sentiment into thoroughgoing solipsism.

If you follow the above link to the YouTube video, you’ll find that there’s a guitar solo around 2:00 with a terrific build-up, until Ham jumps in with his sax at 2:26.

Going Through Changes

Speiser and Rees appear to have been kicked out of the band in 1984.

The three remaining members recorded another album that year, Two Hearts. Strykert left the band even while work on that album was underway, leaving a two-man operation, Hay and Ham. The album’s reception showed the effects of the band’s disarray. Hay and Ham went their separate ways not long thereafter.

In 1996, Hay and Ham re-united for a tour, and gathered around them four musicians new to the “Men and Work” brand: Tony Floyd and John Watson (drums), Stephen Hadley (bass), and Simon Hosford (guitar). Out of this tour came a live album, Brazil.

A critic listening to Brazil tended to become both enthusiastic and nostalgic. “[W]ith a stellar star list composed almost entirely of classic material, it’s nearly impossible to hear the difference between the Men at Work lineups of 1996 and 1983. Positively electric versions of all their hits are here,” one wrote.

In the autumn of 2005, this song “Overkill” was featured in the US television show “Scrubs,” a sitcom with a medical theme.

Final Thoughts

I would like to say again, “Rest in Peace, Greg Ham” and leave it here, leaving the issue of the cause of death to the authorities and questions of the full merits of the group’s music to posterity. I can’t do that, quite. One cannot write in May 2012 about this group or that man without noting the litigation brought against them, and in particular against him, by Larrikin Music, claiming that the song Land Down Under – particularly, that haunting riff from Ham’s flute – was plagiarized from a nursery rhyme.

In 2009, Norman Lurie, then the head of Larrikin Music, decided that Ham’s riff sounded too much like a bit of the song “Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree,” to which Larrikin owned the rights. Listen for yourself.

Side by Side.

Here is some footage of an actual Kookaburra sitting in an actual gum tree.

I hope to post my thoughts about musical plagiarism, the realities and the accusations, in a few days. In the meantime I’ll only say: Wherever Mr. Ham is now, he is Beyond all that. Rest in peace, sir.

Let us conclude by listening to what Monty Python was telling us about the Land Down Under:

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