Singer Colin Hay could have written Men at Work’s first major hit “Who Can It Be Now?” anywhere.
But there was something about conceiving it in a “comfortable tree hut, amidst the spotted gum” just outside Cobargo, a small village 435 miles northeast of Melbourne, Australia, over a couple of weeks, that certainly helped the song along.
Maybe it was because there was nothing else to do on the 55-acre block of bushland that Hay’s then-girlfriend Linda had purchased in the late 1970s, that forced the singer to fill the time with songwriting and guitar playing, or perhaps it was Linda’s encouragement. But staying there was always a creatively fertile time for Hay.
“The song was written there, so I always connected it with that place,” Hay told 48 Hills. “Also because Linda recognized that it was a cool-sounding idea and said, ‘That song is going to be the first hit that you have.’ And it was.”
That’s why the Men at Work frontman — who went on to achieve multiple early ‘80s hits with “Down Under,” “Overkill,” and “It’s a Mistake,” before launching a solo career and becoming a member of Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band — never forgot his beloved Cobargo.
So when the Scottish-Australian musician, who’s called America home for the last three decades learned of the devastation of the small village as a result of the Australia bushfires, he felt compelled to help.
He’s doing this by asking fans to purchase “Meet & Greets” on his upcoming US solo tour, which hits San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts Wednesday, with every dollar raised going to the rebuilding of Cobargo.
I spoke to Hay about the impact of the devastating wildfires, his “What’s My Name?” track for Ringo Starr’s 20th studio album, and his new record, due out this summer.
48 HILLS The Australia Wildfires are no longer top of mind for most Americans, but Australians still need our help. Can you speak to the importance of supporting fire relief Down Under?
COLIN HAY Everybody needs money to fight the fires and everything else going on as well, whether it’s floods or droughts or whatever radical occurrences are happening. But in the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at Cobargo, where I have a history and which is gone pretty much.
The whole town was just burned two weeks ago. I’ve been talking to those people and they’re going to try to rebuild the town, so the money I make in Meet & Greets is going to go to try and help in the recovery of Cobargo.
It’s an ongoing, long-lasting thing. Rebuilding a town is a 10- or 20- year project. So that’s where I thought the money would be best suited because it’s a direct thing and I know where it’s going or what it’s used for, whether it’s buying a generator or a water tank or helping to rebuild a hall where they have music functions.
48 HILLS How have the fires impacted you, personally?
COLIN HAY I only have a sister in Australia now. That’s the only family that I have there and she lives in Melbourne. I have a few people that I know that live on “the land,” so I’m connected with them and indeed had a long conversation with a friend of mine about where the fires were, whether they were affected, and they’re very savvy about whether to get out or stay.
Indeed, my ex-wife was from a farm, so she was the first one who made me aware of the dangers of bushfires because she grew up with the threat of fires in the back of her mind. Since the late ‘70s, I’ve always had this respect and fear of what fires could do.
48 HILLS Did you ever imagine that Australia would suffer such devastating wildfires?
COLIN HAY Well, I was driving from Sydney to Melbourne a couple of years ago at Christmastime and I got to where I used to hang out and spend a lot of time and it was so ridiculously dry. I thought, “This is going to go. This is going to burn.” A month or two later, the whole town burned.
So it’s an ongoing deep frustration since that time because there has been idiotic denial by those in power and it continues to this day. We’re still setting up coal mines and being one of the biggest exporters of coal to the world, so it’s incredibly backward thinking from those in power about a situation, which is incredibly intensely real and felt by everyone in the country and everywhere in the world. There’s no denying it. The world is run by either very straight people or very mad people.
48 HILLS What can we do now, in addition to writing a check, to help Australia?
COLIN HAY I think there has to be long-term policy change and commitment to not only vastly reducing CO2 emissions but also how to contain it. It’s still going to have a lasting effect throughout this century, but there has to be visionary policy change and we have to realize that it’s something that’s just not going to go away, that has to be dealt with in a very intelligent and forward-thinking fashion.
People have to vote people out of office and vote people into office who are going to effect real and lasting change. I don’t know how likely that is, but it really has to happen to help us avoid an inevitable result of humanity becoming a footnote at some point.
48 HILLS In your documentary, Waiting For My Real Life, you talk about how you almost became a footnote when Men at Work broke up in 1986. But 24 years later, you’re still performing as a solo artist. How did you overcome this incredible challenge?
COLIN HAY I just realized that there wasn’t really an end in sight. It was just that I had to make peace with the fact that this is what it is.
That’s the problem with having a big commercial success. You think that you always have to repeat that. You think, “I have to sell a million records or I’m irrelevant,” and so you just have to think like an alcoholic.
I used to have a lot of problems with alcohol and one of the biggest lessons you learn from stopping that and going to meetings is to bring everything down to just being more immediate and dealing with what’s going on today and with this audience. That’s all you can do, rather than wanting to get to this point or that point.
48 HILLS In “What’s My Name?” which you wrote for Ringo Starr, one of my favorite lines goes: “Nothing stays the same, but I’m still in the game / What’s my name? Ringo!” I have to imagine that, to some degree, you were writing about your own journey.
COLIN HAY Yeah, I think so. I think it’s about a whole lot of things. That line, in particular — I think that when you’re younger or in the throes of addiction to alcohol, drugs, or to being number one, what happens is you let a lot of that stuff in, so you react to it. And there is a reaction that’s often not particularly healthy, so when you say something like, “I was climbing the walls; now it doesn’t matter; nothing stays the same,” what’s important is to remember that you have your health and ability to perform.
I consider there is a lot of me in that line, in saying, “I have the ability to still be useful in some way, to be who I am,” and a lot of that stuff that used to bother me, it comes in and goes out. It’s just not important anymore. That’s an important place to get to.
48 HILLS What can you tell me about your new album?
COLIN HAY Oh, it’s fabulous. The songs are written and most are recorded, and so I’m very excited about the way it sounds. You try to make each record better than the last one and I think we’ve done that. I was hoping to have it ready before this tour, but it’s not. That’s one of the things about making plans. Sometimes they go to plan and sometimes the timing doesn’t work. But I think it’ll be out this summer hopefully because I’m going out with a band in August.
48 HILLS There is so much anxiety in Men at Work’s music, from “Who Can It Be Now” to “Down Under” and “Overkill.” A lot of New Wave bands seemed to have a similar agitation in their music. Was that all the threat of the Cold War or was it something else?
COLIN HAY Yes, I remember thinking when Ronald Reagan got elected that the world was going to end. And I think a lot of people, particularly Americans, don’t realize how powerful America is and how much fear it can instill in different parts of the world.
So yeah, I think there was quite a lot of anxiety in people’s music. You could say that about ‘60s and ‘70s music, but the ‘80s was different because there was that threat of nuclear war — especially early in the decade.
But now, as you well know, we have bigger fish to fry and bigger problems. I don’t mean bigger than the threat of nuclear war, which is the biggest threat of all. But we’re threatened by the world run by dictators, whether it’s Russia, China, or here — and global warming.
AN EVENING WITH COLIN HAY
Wed/4, 8pm, $50-$75
Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, SF.
More info here.