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50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #25: Men At Work

Tom Snowdon reflects on the world-beating music from the highly-influential Men At Work.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time - Men At Work

Spotify; Supplied

In December of 2020, Rolling Stone Australia released a special edition issue which looks at the 50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time, paying tribute to the best and most impactful artists in Australian music history. While it would have been easy for the editors and writers of the publication to profess their love of the listed artists, the decision was instead made for those who found themselves inspired by these world-renowned names to share their own testimonials of why these artists deserve to make the list.

In celebration of the issue’s release in December, we’re counting down the full 50 artists and their accompanying testimonials in this ongoing online feature. If you want to get your hands on an physical copy of the magazine, be sure to subscribe now to experience the double-length edition featuring some of Australia’s best and brightest discussing the finest names in local music.

50 Greatest Australian Artists of All Time – #25: Men At Work (by Tom Snowdon)

Men At Work was a defining band of my childhood. They were before my time but I became a fan through my parents’ great love for their music. Their songs were a feature of our family road trips and their sound and its energy has had a big impact on me.

I grew up in Mparntwe/Alice Springs in Central Australia and our family holidays meant driving for days to reach the beach. Men At Work’s music was a feature of these trips and I’d sit gazing out the window and watching the landscape change slowly from red to green, daydreaming to the great imagery in their songs and to Colin Hay’s effortless and special voice. Their song “Who Can It Be Now?” was particularly special on these trips. I’d picture vividly a lonely man in his house pushing people away; sad but content. Only much later I started wondering about the deeper messages of fear, isolation and anxiety in the words of that song. 

I think the feeling I get when I listen to “Who Can It Be Now?” is what’s so special about Men At Work. In that song, and in their music more generally, they explored a unique space somewhere between playful and melancholy. At once both a sing-along and a journey of introspection. The longer I’ve made songs the more I think about how rare that is – the ability to take people to that special place, both happy and sad, and to hold them there. It’s why I love their work so much and why it still inspires me now. 

“Their music fills me with memories from my childhood.”

I recently recorded a cover of “Who Can It Be Now?” and it was so important to me that I capture that feeling. To reach back to my childhood and to interpret my relationship to that great song and to reflect that in my own version of it. I think so much of that feeling is in Colin Hay’s voice, which to me is haunting and effortless. I recorded my voice in my own version aiming to recreate Hay’s performance – relaxed, enticing and unique but never overdone. It’s such a rare combination and Hay’s voice and Men At Work’s music is brilliant for it. 

I’ve never seen them live, and their rise was well before my time but through my parents I fell in love with their work and I still draw inspiration from it. Their music fills me with memories from my childhood and pulls me to thoughts of driving across our vast country and beneath its big sky (elements I hear reflected in their spacious guitars and big drums). It’s a feeling both light and dark, like leaving home for the open road in search of adventure or as an escape from tragedy. Either way, it’s unique and it’s a special part of our country’s musical story.