RIP Greg Ham, Men at Work

Men at Work multi-instrumentalist Greg Ham died this week, aged 58, under circumstances still under investigation. At least in the United States, Men at Work is mostly remembered for the 1982-83 hit “Down Under,” on which Mr. Ham played the flute.

The song was the focus of a copyright battle a couple of years ago, which weighed on Mr. Ham.
“It has destroyed so much of my song,” Ham told reporters at the time. “It will be the way the song is remembered and I hate that. I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered – for copying something.”

I’m terribly disappointed that Mr. Ham thought that was how he was going to be remembered. People close to him reported he’d been depressed in recent years, and they blame that.

Musicians copy each other all the time, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Bruce Springsteen admitted last month at SXSW that pretty much every song he ever wrote was derived one way or another from “We Gotta Get Outta This Place” by The Animals. The Rolling Stones admitted to borrowing heavily from Chuck Berry. The very words “I can’t get no satisfaction” sound much more natural coming from Chuck Berry’s lips than from Mick Jagger’s. Think about it.

I don’t know if he copied it or not. I have a friend who once wrote an entire paragraph that turned out to be identical, word-for-word, to one written by a stranger he never met, so these things happen. By the band’s account, he improvised the riff during a jam session in 1980, and they incorporated it into the song.

But so what if he did copy it? I’ve never heard of the traditional Australian children’s song the court ruled he copied, but good luck finding an English speaker between the ages of 30 and 45 who hasn’t heard “Down Under.” Mr. Ham is the one who made that riff famous on three continents.

And besides, that court case was only two years ago. I don’t remember it, if I ever even heard about it. And I probably won’t remember it six months from now. But I’ll never forget Mr. Ham’s flute and sax. They’re as much a part of the early 1980s as Sting’s bass riffs for the Police.

The liner notes from Message in a Box, the Police CD box set, go so far as to call Men at Work a Police derivative band. Men at Work certainly did blend reggae rhythms with rock the same way the Polce did. It was Mr. Ham’s ability to play keyboards, flute and saxophone that set Men at Work apart from the Police. The Police were reacting to punk rock, which went out of its way to celebrate being three chords and three instruments, and Men at Work took that reaction a step further. With all due respect to Stewart Copeland, the Police just couldn’t ask him to do what Mr. Ham could do.

Here in the United States, “Down Under” is a retro mainstay, and “Who Can it Be Now?” (featuring a memorable Greg Ham saxophone riff) is what keeps the band from being remembered as a one-hit wonder. Two more hits, “It’s a Mistake” and “Overkill,” get a miniscule amount of airtime still. That makes me sad, because the latter is my favorite song of the four. Most Statesiders would have a hard time naming all four songs, though they’d probably recognize all of them if they heard them.

Over here, they’re a band that had a good run in the first half of the 1980s–not a one-hit wonder, and not Hall of Fame material either. Without Greg Ham, I don’t think his band would have even made one-hit-wonder status over here, and I’m sorry that he didn’t see it that way. It sounds as if, like many creative people, he underestimated himself.

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