Colin Hay stands to lose a lot of money. Maybe millions.

An Australian judge recently ruled that the quirky songwriter’s ’80s Aussie anthem, “Down Under,” plagiarizes parts of an old children’s tune. But Hay doesn’t use the stage as a soapbox — he’s here instead to share a much more intimate loss with his audience.

“I lost my daddy in November,” the singer tells those gathered at the theater. “I don’t know how much tragedy you guys have had in your life. I’ve had none up until this point. And it really, really sucks.”

The crowd, so used to Hay’s self-deprecating and dry delivery, can’t decide whether to choke up or chuckle. It’s the most poignant moment of tonight’s performance, given Hay would have never learned guitar had his father not tuned pianos for a living. A customer’s teenage daughter in Hay’s native Scotland taught the boy, then 12, to play “House of the Rising Sun.”

his mid-20s, Hay had formed the foundation of Men at Work with guitarist Ron Strykert in Melbourne, Australia. In 1981, the rock band’s sound caught the ear of an American record producer who happened to be in the area recording a New Zealand artist.

“I then spent the next several months there doing whatever work I could to stay in the country in order to produce the album,” remembers Peter McIan, who went on to make Men at Work’s most successful records, “Business as Usual” and “Cargo.”

McIan knew “Who Can It Be Now?” would be a hit, but it took almost a year for the song’s wailing saxophone hook to break out of Australia and into Canadian radio.

While music promoters in the states strongly resisted Men at Work at first, America was finally listening by November 1982. It took three months for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” to claim Billboard’s No. 1 spot from “Business as Usual.” Extensive MTV airplay and a Grammy win followed.

“Very few Australian bands had that opportunity,” says Nathan Brenner, the band’s former manager, on the phone from Melbourne. “And they worked their bloody asses off.”

In doing so, Men at Work burned out by 1985. The band’s whirlwind success faded following two relentless years of recording and touring the world.

“I’ve been on the road for a while. I want to do more recording and writing,” says Hay, 56, on a break from his “American Sunshine” tour, which comes to The Landing at Pine Point in Scarborough on Sunday. “I think that as I get older, I’m trying to get a bit more disciplined, because there’s not as much time,” he chuckles.

Across 10 solo albums, Hay’s rich, instantly recognizable voice tells stories of the road and of heartbreak, past and present. His latest story involves his best-known song, “Down Under,” and Hay’s appeal of a federal court decision that finds the song’s flute riff bears an “unmistakable” resemblance to the melody of “Kookaburra,” an Australian children’s song written in the ’30s.

Larrikin Music Publishing defeated Hay and Strykert over a part neither songwriter penned nor played (band member Greg Ham’s flute arrangement was not part of the original composition, Hay argues). 

“I’m being sued at the moment,” Hay tells his audience as he strums his acoustic. Then he stops. “I won a Grammy 28 years ago. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

This crowd, relieved to be laughing again, can’t wait either. 

Patrick Flanary is a freelance writer.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: