He turned his Australian group Men at Work into a Grammy-winning global sensation.
Colin Hay performs at The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia, on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I always do Men at Work stuff; I’m not crazy,” Hay told WTOP. “I still do some of those songs because they’re big songs and a certain number of the audience likes to hear those. I’m obviously doing songs from this new covers record and also some new material that will be out on a new record next year. … The Birchmere has always been good to me.”
His latest album “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” (2021) features cover songs.
“I’ve never done that before,” Hay told WTOP. “It wasn’t really a planned record. I was just sitting around as many people were with time on my hands, so I started recording these covers and the record company really liked it. … I’m covering The Beatles, The Kings, Dusty Springfield, Glen Campbell, Blind Faith and lots of great songs that had some kind of impact on me growing up.”
Born in Scotland in 1953, Hay’s parents ran a record store named after his dad, James Hay.
“My mom and dad owned a record shop,” Hay said. “My father and I would sit in the store after it closed and he would play me records. It was a great moment. I remember that very vividly. He used to listen to songs because he used to want to know what he was selling.”
They moved to Melbourne, Australia when in his early teenage years.
“We emigrated to Australia because my father wanted to create a better life for his family,” Hay said. “We had what they called an assisted passage there. It only cost 10 pounds to go to Australia at that time, so off we went. It was a great thing to do.”
It was there that he met his future Men at Work co-founder Ron Strykert.
“We met in someone’s backyard in West Melbourne around 1977,” Hay said. “He was playing an acoustic 12-string and he was playing beautiful guitar, so a light went off in my head and I just knew I wanted to work with that guy.”
Together, they formed Men at Work in 1978, naming the band after a construction sign.
“I thought of the name because I was driving around and I would see ‘Men at Work’ signs everywhere, so I thought that’s already in people’s eyes, so people may well remember that name if they see it,” Hay said.
The band’s debut album, “Business as Usual” (1981), caught fire around the world thanks to hit songs like “Who Could It Be Now?” with its signature saxophone intro.
“I wrote that song in the middle of the bush,” Hay said. “My girlfriend and I used to have some land in southern South Wales. I wrote that with just her and the frogs listening. It took about 40 minutes and she said, ‘That’ll be your first hit,’ and I believed her. … The producer was very important. He moved that saxophone hook up to the front. It used to come in later, which was pretty silly.”
The same album also featured the hit song “Down Under.”
“Ron used to give me little tapes of stuff and there was a little percussive groove that he had that I loved,” Hay said. “I had this phrase in my head, ‘Living in the land down under,’ so I was just messing around with the idea. One day, the whole song just popped out and there it was. A lot of it came from Ron’s little tape that he gave me, which was quite trance-like. It was really hypnotic.”
The album went triple platinum in Australia, five times in Canada and six times in the U.S.
“It was very obvious,” Hay said. “It started in Australia and it started little spot fires around the world. The United States was the last country to pick up on the band. It was very clear that the train had left the station and it was already becoming a bit of a runaway train at that point. We knew that it was all happening. It was a very, very exciting kind of phenomenal time.”
As a result, Men at Work won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1983.
“The most exciting thing for me was my dressing room was next to Miles Davis, which was next to Lena Horne, which was next to Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and Little Richard. All those people were there, so that was the most exciting thing for me, just being in that company!”