The Misunderstood Kid Behind “Be Good Johnny” by Men at Work

When Men at Work released “Be Good Johnny,” the third single from their debut album Business As Usual, they had already become a hot item beyond their native Australia. Their stature was growing in America, and this tune, its title seemingly a play on the famous Chuck Berry song “Johnny B. Goode,” was playful in nature with appeal to a younger audience. The video featured a young boy trying to follow his parents’ rules but occasionally getting into mischief. “Be Good Johnny” became a radio hit that added to the group’s swelling popularity.

Videos by American Songwriter

This was one of the most energetic tracks on Men at Work’s first album that arrived in late 1981. “Who Can It Be Now?” was actually a moody lead single (it was inspired by a time when frontman Colin Hay lived next door to drug dealers), while the perky “Down Under” had a mid-tempo, reggae-ish feel to it. So “Be Good Johnny,” released to radio and video outlets but not for sale, offered a peppy boost during the promotional cycle of the album, featuring a flittering guitar line in its chorus and a soaring vocal line from Hay.

“What Kind of a Boy Are You, John?”

Co-written by Hay and sax/keyboard player Greg Ham, “Be Good Johnny” takes the perspective of a young boy who daydreams in class, shirks sports, and has yet to figure out what he wants from life. Meanwhile, parents and teachers admonish him “to be good,” which could be intepreted as following the pack rather than his heart. At one point, there is a dialogue “scene” between Johnny and his dad, who is confused by his son with his head in the clouds.

“Are you going to play football this year, John?”
“Oh, well you must be going to play cricket this year then
Are you Johnny?”
“Nah! nah! nah!”
“Boy, you sure are a funny kid, Johnny, but I like you! So tell me
What kind of a boy are you, John?”

I only like dreaming
All the day long
Where no one is screaming:

“Be good, be good
Be good, be good, be good
Be good, be good, be good (Johnny)”

“It was a song written from the standpoint of a 9-year-old boy whose parents are constantly telling him to be good and he’s feeling like he can really understand certain things, but is completely misunderstood by the adult world, which I think a lot of people feel,” Hay told Songfacts in 2003. “I think everyone can relate to that, you know?”

When asked about any personal meaning to the song, Hay replied, “I think it’s always a combination of things. Songs for me are always, you could say, fictitious. But there’s always a certain amount of autobiography in there, as well. I think by the nature of the fact that you’re writing things, there’s always a certain amount of sentiment involved. Often, songs start off as being one idea that you’ve had, or something that’s happened to you, and they often morph into something else.”

Musical Elements Were Incrementally Added

This song was unusual in that its distinctive guitar line, Hay’s singing, and the vibrant vocal harmonies dominated each chorus. Musical elements were incrementally added to each of the four choruses. Initially there was the song’s vocal-free guitar intro, then the second chorus with mostly voice and guitar. But the third chorus added in a steady bass guitar and kick-drum pulse, while the last featured the full band. It was a simple but smart trick to give the song extra propulsion as it progressed.

Although “Be Good Johnny” did not chart on the Hot 100 like the previous two No. 1 singles, it reached No. 3 on the Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio chart and kept the momentum going for their debut album. The group closed out their 1983 US Festival set with the song, which got a roar of approval from the audience. They immediately knew which song it was without needing to be told the title.

Business as Usual became Men at Work’s biggest release, eventually selling 6 million copies in America alone. They also fared well with the Triple Platinum follow-up Cargo in 1983, but by the time the third album Two Hearts came out in 1985, band animosity, member departures, and declining sales led to the group’s dissolution in 1986. Hay then embarked on a solo career which continues to this day, and during the last six years he has also been playing with Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band. He revived Men at Work with all-new members in 2019.

Back in the early 1980s, when Australia was known mainly for pop artists like the Bee Gees and Olivia Newton-John, having successful rock groups like Men at Work and the heavier AC/DC make big waves helped showcase the diversity of sounds coming from Down Under. They would certainly open the doors for other acts later that decade, including INXS, Icehouse, and Midnight Oil. “Be Good Johnny” was part of that important continuum.

When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Vince Gill Once Opened for KISS. It Went About As Well as You Think.

Vince Gill, the “Nicest Guy in Nashville,” Once Taunted a Crowd of Raging KISS Fans

New John Lennon & Yoko One Documentary, ‘One to One,’ to Feature Footage from Historic 1972 Concerts at Madison Square Garden

New John Lennon & Yoko One Documentary ‘One to One’ to Feature Footage from Historic 1972 Concerts at Madison Square Garden