The Anti-War Sentiments of Men at Work’s “It’s a Mistake”

Men at Work quickly became a global phenomenon in 1982 with their debut album Business as Usual, thanks to its combination of catchy tunes and whimsical music videos. Yet other songs showed a more serious side, as would be more evident with their second album Cargo. While they first marketed their sophomore album with the comical song and video “Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive,” the next two singles, “Overkill” and “It’s a Mistake,” were more sober in nature. 

Videos by American Songwriter

While the moody “Overkill” focused on a man whose insomnia is being fueled by a lot of personal anxiety (in this case, Hay coming to terms with their newfound fame), the somber “It’s a Mistake,” a Colin Hay-penned tune with reggae-ish undercurrents, addressed the fears that people had at the time not just of war but nuclear war. While the lyrics do not blatantly state that latter aspect, people at the time understood the concept and context. Further, there was a mention of old Ronnie, which was a reference to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Tell us commander, what do you think?
Cause we know that you love all that power
Is it on then, are we on the brink?
We wish you’d all throw in the towel

We’ll not fade out too soon
Not in this finest hour
Whistle your favorite tune
We’ll send a card and flower

It’s a mistake, it’s a mistake

Nuclear Nightmare

The video for the song featured animated toy soldiers and the different members of the band in everyday work mode—from ditch digging to nursing—who suddenly are transported to a battlefield in military uniform. They then had to deal with the realities of war. While there were many somber moments in the clip—even a shot of guitarist Ron Strykert soloing atop a hill framed by sparks and smoke—here were certainly tongue-in-cheek aspects as well, like top brass partying inside of a tent and old ladies hitting the soldiers with their umbrellas. In the final scene, a military commander played by Hay accidentally puts out his cigar on “the button,” thus launching a nuclear war. The song’s emotional poignancy stemmed from tapping into the nervous zeitgeist of the time. Nuclear war was indeed a very serious possibility back in the Cold War era.

In an interview for Classic, Hay was asked if he felt like “It’s a Mistake” was a big leap for the band considering it was sending a political message. “I never considered it to be,” Hay countered. “We actually released “Who Can It Be Now?’ and then I think we released ‘Down Under,’ and then ‘Overkill’ and then ‘It’s a Mistake.’ But to me, they weren’t that different at all, really. People’s perceptions of other people’s songs are very different. To me, all music is political in one way or another, either obviously or not so obviously. But ‘It’s a Mistake’ was a very Dr. Strangelove-kind of thing. Men at Work were sugarcoated in lots of ways. In another light we were more subversive than a lot of people gave us credit for.”

Indeed, Hay has spoken about how “Down Under,” both the song and video, addressed the issue of how Australia was being exploited by people, particularly by those beyond its borders. But not everyone got that at the time. The message behind “It’s a Mistake” was a lot more clear.

Serious Subject, Serious Sales

One might have thought this more serious direction would have hampered Men at Work’s commercial success. While Cargo would sell half as much as their debut, it still sold 3 million albums in America, which is still impressive. “Overkill” hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, and “It’s a Mistake” went to No. 6. Unfortunately, this would also be the last album featuring the original lineup of the band, but that’s a story for another time.

Both “It’s a Mistake” and “Overkill” showed that frontman/main songwriter Colin Hay had a lot on his mind. They also proved that the group could handle funny and serious subject matter equally well, and so could their fans.

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Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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