The Meaning Behind “Overkill” by Men at Work and How Worries About the Band’s Success Inspired It

The British New Wave hit the American charts hard in the first half of the ’80s. But it’s likely that many of the Brits held a little bit of envy in their hearts for the Australian invaders Men at Work. They were a short-lived outfit, lasting just three albums. But in that time, the band churned out four U.S. Top 10 singles, including the brooding “Overkill.”

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What is “Overkill” about? And how did it reflect the personal journey of Men at Work lead singer and chief songwriter Colin Hay? Let’s find out about one of the most memorable tracks of the decade.

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Men at Work seemingly came out of nowhere to take the pop world by storm in 1981. The first two singles from their debut album Business as Usual became worldwide smash hits. And nowhere did these songs (“Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under”) do any better than in the U.S., as both went to No. 1 (as did Business as Usual as an album). This was unprecedented success for Australian artists.

One interesting thing about their success is that Men at Work came off as a good-timey type of band, in large part because of the lighthearted tone of the videos for those two big hit singles, as well as their upbeat music. A closer inspection of the lyrics revealed those songs were actually dealing with serious topics, but most people missed all that.

When it came time for the first single from the band’s sophomore album Cargo in 1983, Men at Work delivered a song that matched the intensity of the lyrics with music that, while still invigorating, evoked the darker themes. As far as the inspiration for “Overkill,” it arose from Hay’s own worries about how he would handle the band’s success, as he explained to this author in the book Playing Back the ’80s: A Decade of Unstoppable Hits:

“‘Overkill’ was more introspective in the sense that it was kind of realizing how much things were changing really quickly,” Hay said. “And I was dealing with realizing that I had addictive problems and that I was going to be diving in the deep end, with me having a lot of success and all the things that brings. I was kind of realizing in a sense the possible pitfalls of that. You’ve gotta be up for it.

“It was realizing, walking around the same neighborhoods, that everything that you had done previous to that, everything was going to change, everything was going to be different. No anonymity anymore,” he continued. “It’s like that situation of standing up on the high board and thinking, ‘OK, am I going to take the plunge?’ And you know you are, but you just gotta pick your moment.”

The Meaning Behind “Overkill”

Before we get to the lyrics for “Overkill,” it’s important to consider the thrilling musical attack the song delivers. The verses glide along on a propulsive rhythm, pulling the harried narrator along on the wave, whether he wants to go or not. Hay’s guitar solo erupts with precision and ferocity, while Greg Ham’s saxophone adds bluesy atmosphere. Things really kick into gear when Hay raises his voice an octave to sing the final verse.

The narrator of “Overkill” seems at war with himself about whether to believe the portents of danger he sees around him. (Perhaps it’s just imagination, he muses.) But he can’t sleep, and his insomnia forces him out onto the streets, where he can find communion with other similarly restless souls. At least there’s pretty lights, he says, trying to find some consolation.

In the chorus, he lays it on the line about what’s haunting him: Ghosts appear and fade away. Come back another day, he sneers at them, but you get the feeling that they’re not listening. Men at Work got to lean into the dark side with “Overkill,” and they proved utterly compelling in that vein.

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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