The Tale Of Men At Work's #1 Hit "Down Under"

Men At Work collecting their Grammy for Award for Best New Artist in 1983. Getty

The Australian band, Men At Work, made waves in 1982 with their international sensation, “Down Under.” Written by lead singer Colin Hay, the rollicking hit ranked #1 for two weeks in both the United States and the UK while dominating the top spot in “a land down under” for well over a month. The very chant-able melody also became the nation’s anthem during that year’s America’s cup when Australia beat America for the first time dating back to 1851.

The song’s roots owe thanks to half-filled bottles and Bruce the Shark from Finding Nemo. Unfortunately, the massive sensation also drew the band into controversy, thanks to a 2009 lawsuit stemming from allegations of copyright infringement. Here’s the history of Men At Work’s “Down Under”

The bottles that helped inspire a sensation. knowyourmeme

Deep Meaning

Despite the references to strong weed, polarizing foodstuffs, and drinking so much you vomit, “Down Under” came from a heartfelt place. As Hay told Songfacts:

“The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the overdevelopment of the country. It was a song about the loss of spirit in that country. It's really about the plundering of the country by greedy people. It is ultimately about celebrating the country, but not in a nationalistic way and not in a flag-waving sense. It's really more than that.”

Bottles And Bruce

Incredibly, Hay’s sincere intentions were built on a little riff. “Originally, the idea came from a little bass riff that Ron Strykert, the guitar player for Men at Work, had recorded on a little home cassette demo. It was just a little bass riff with some percussion that he played on bottles that were filled with water to varying degrees to get different notes. It was a very intriguing little groove.”

Bruce the Shark, on the other hand, hails from Australian entertainer Barry Humphries who greatly influenced Hay. "He's a master of comedy and he had a lot of expressions that we grew up listening to and emulating. The verses were very much inspired by a character he had called Barry McKenzie, who was a beer-swilling Australian who traveled to England, a very larger-than-life character.

A handful of hit, three albums and gone. The Men At Work. discogs

Australia’s Born In The USA, Sort Of

Hay, who was born in Scotland and came to Australia at the age of 14, felt very strongly about the destruction of his adopted homeland. As the lead singer put it,

“It's ultimately a song about celebration, but it's a matter of what you choose to celebrate about a country or a place. White people haven't been in Australia all that long, and it's 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 a country often gets lost in the name of progress and development.”

That dichotomy of celebration and pride also led Hay to compare “Down Unda” to an American anthem “Born In The USA. “If you listen to 'Born In The USA,' it's a similar song in that there's a lot of nuance missed because people like drinking beer and throwing their arms up in the air and feeling nationalistic.”

An International Celebration

Certainly in 1982 when Australia won America’s Cup for the first time in the country’s history, they used “Down Under” to party. After the historic victory, the Prime Minister declared it a national holiday and announced that anyone who fired their employees over his impromptu holiday was “a bum!" “Where beer does flow and men chunder (puke)” indeed.

MTV also got in on the action, playing “Down Under” constantly to the delight of those with “heads full of zombie (good weed)” everywhere. Eventually, the good times caught up with the band.


Over 20 years after the song’s heyday, a lawsuit came forward that Men At Work copied substantial portions of an Australian children's song called "Kookaburra." After much litigation and even more money, Men Down Under were forced to pay just 5% of publishing profits dating back to 2002.

The stress weighed especially heavily on Greg Ham who contributed the especially contentious flute section, "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." Hay for his part held his ground, "I'll go to my grave knowing 'Down Under' is an original piece of work. For over 20 years no one noticed the reference to 'Kookaburra.' Marion Sinclair never made any claim that we had appropriated any part of her song, and she was alive when 'Down Under' was a hit. Apparently, she didn't notice either."