The Serious Undercurrents of “Down Under” by Men at Work and Why It’s Not an Overt Display of National Pride

The rock quintet Men at Work and their cheeky video for “Down Under” were the MTV generation’s first exposure to anything Australian. While American audiences had been exposed to music from the Bee Gees, Olivia Newton-John, and Little River Band, and AC/DC had broken big with their Back in Black album in 1980, Men at Work were the first musicians who were more overt in their cultural identity. “Down Under” references a van called a Kombi, potent weed called Zombie (we’ll get to that), a Vegemite sandwich, and the term “chunder,” while the video featured the Cronulla sand dunes in Sydney and a stuffed koala bear being dragged around by band member Greg Ham.

Videos by American Songwriter

An MTV Staple

Men at Work’s debut album Business as Usual was released in November 1981, and their videos became a staple of MTV throughout 1982 and 1983. The three videos from the group’s debut—“Down Under,” “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Be Good Johnny”—received a lot of exposure; the first two went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The album sold 6 million copies domestically and went quintuple-Platinum in Canada and quadruple-Platinum in Australia. “Down Under” sold a million copies. In 1983, Men At Work won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, and their follow-up album Cargo produced the No. 3 hit “Overkill” and No. 6 “It’s a Mistake,” while the album went triple-Platinum.

An ode to Australian life and one that is considered by many to be the unofficial Australian national anthem, “Down Under” featured a reggae-ish guitar style and a memorable flute melody, making the tune stand out from other rock and pop fare of the time.

Buying bread from a man in Brussels
He was six-foot-four and full of muscle
I said, “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

And he said

“I come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder
Can’t you hear, can’t you hear the thunder?
You better run, you better take cover, yeah”

Each verse of the song found the protagonist going to other parts of the world, including Brussels and Bombay, and connecting with fellow Aussies in various ports of call. Yet despite the upbeat tone of the song, it was not meant as an overt display of national pride.

It Started with a Cassette Tape

Frontman Colin Hay talked to Songfacts about the track’s origins. It developed from a bass riff by guitarist Ron Strykert to which a percussive melody on glass bottles, filled with water at different levels, was added. “It was a very intriguing little groove and I really loved it,” Hay said. “It had a real trance-like quality to it. I used to listen to it all the time, and then I was driving along one day in Melbourne and the chord popped out. And then a couple of days later I wrote the verses and some music to the verses. So it all originated from that little home cassette tape that Ron had done.”

Fun trivia: There is an earlier, more languid, and obviously reggae-inspired version of the song that was released as the B-side to the indie single “Keypunch Operator” in 1980. The famous, faster version was recorded for Business as Usual.

What will surprise many fans is how the song, much like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.,” was misinterpreted. “The lyrics are really about my belief about what Australia was becoming,” Hay told Songfacts. “Really, the selling of Australia in many ways, none of them particularly pleasant, with the overdevelopment of the country. It was what I was feeling at that particular time. It was really a song about the loss of spirit of that country, because it’s truly an awesome place. It’s difficult to explain and it’s very hard for me to put into a sentence. It’s been a while since I’ve thought about this, but it’s just really about the plundering of the country by greedy people.” (Note the coffin being carried across the desert at the end of the video.)

Obviously, a more light-hearted approach was taken when making the video to promote the song. When it came to the quirky promo clip for “Down Under,” Hay and Ham were inspired by the late Australian comedian Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna). “We were massive fans of Humphries,” Hay told Billboard in 2023. “A lot of that video was inspired by him and certainly the use of the word ‘chunder,’ because that he had a great fascination it.” (Chunder is the Aussie word for puke.)

Despite young fans really digging the video, they might have missed the drug references in the clip. “Zombie” is a reference to cannabis, and the band members that appear in the van at the start, while not smoking anything, look stoned. And when band members are lethargically lying in a den in Bombay / with a slack jaw and not much to say, any adult could glean an opium-den reference, though no drugs are seen. The drug references are unintentionally ironic as there is a dark side to the tale of “Down Under.”

Flute Suit

According to a 2011 report in Billboard, Men at Work were sued over the flute melody in the song. Publishing company Larrakin Music held the copyright to the children’s campfire song “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” and charged the band copied their flute melody from that decades-old song, which was written by the late Marion Sinclair. In the end, the band could not prove this was an unintentional mistake, and the High Court of Australia ruled Men at Work’s recording company, EMI Songs Australia, and co-songwriters Hay and Strykert had to pony up 5 percent of royalties earned from the song since 2002 and in the future. Hay vigorously fought the case, even noting how Sinclair, while alive, never made any legal claim against them.

Sax and flute player and keyboardist Greg Ham, who had improvised the flute melody for the song, felt despondent about the decision and how it reflected badly on the band. He allegedly began abusing drugs and alcohol after the decision came down, and was found dead in his home in 2012. He was only 58 years old.

“He was the funniest person I knew,” Hay told The Age upon learning of Ham’s death. “We shared countless, unbelievably memorable times together, from stumbling through Richmond after playing the Cricketers Arms, to helicoptering into New York City to appear on Saturday Night Live, or flying through dust storms in Arizona, above the Grand Canyon. We played in a band and conquered the world together. I love him very much. The saxophone solo on ‘Who Can It Be Now?’ was the rehearsal take. He’s here forever.”


Men at Work reunited for the closing ceremony of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney to perform “Down Under.” Fellow Aussie icons Kylie Minogue and Paul Hogan were seen on stage dancing and clapping along, and famed Aussie singer Jimmy Barnes seemed to have joined in on one of the final choruses. Given the stadium audience and people watching around the globe, this was the largest audience that “Down Under” and Men at Work ever had.

Even though the song was not intended as patriotic, many Australians and outsiders have interpreted it as such. But as Hay told Songfacts, “It is ultimately a song about celebration, but it’s a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place or whatever. People haven’t been in Australia for all that long, and it’s truly, truly an awesome place. But one of the most interesting and exciting things about the country is what was there before. The true heritage of the country often gets lost in the name of progress and development.”

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

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

What Were the Top Songs from the Year ’American Idol’ Star Emmy Russell Born?

What Were the Top Songs from the Year ‘American Idol’ Star Emmy Russell Was Born?