David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 91: Men At Work (Overkill)

July 26, 2020

It's Sunday night. Are you turning over and over in your bed, agonizing over the work to be done this coming week, ruminating about the crap left undone, unresolved, unsettled from the previous work week?

If so, I urge you to embrace Men At Work's "Overkill," It's much better than openly singing The Boomtown Rats' "I Don't Like Mondays" when you wake up the next day with maybe 2 hours of total sleep.

Men At Work's singer, main songwriter, Colin Hay, probably wasn't focused just on Sunday nights when he sang, "I can't get to sleep/thinking about the implications/of diving in too deep/and possibly the complications." He was in a successful rock band, so how could he even write such lyrics? I suppose it isn't just Morrissey who lamented that everyday is like Sunday in the world of pop musicians.

Nevertheless, fans of Men At Work must have been caught completely off guard when the Australian band released this song in 1983. Nothing in the band's first four single releases prepared its public for the tenor of this song. Riding the wave of MTV with quirky videos, Men At Work first parodied paranoia with "Who Can It Be Now?" Then, they introduced the rest of the world to Vegemite sandwiches with the goofy "Down Under," setting themselves up to be New Wave's Kooky musical comedy act.  They didn't exactly back away from that with the lesser-selling, but equally silly, "Be Good Johnny" (about a daydreaming young lad) and "Dr. Heckyll and Mr. Jive," putting Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel into reverse: mad scientist turning himself into handsome devil.

Yeah, nothing in that string of singles would alert a random listener to the heart-felt anxiety captured on "Overkill:" "Night after night/my heartbeat shows the fear." We all can identify how being "alone between the sheets/only brings exasperation," even when there is a sleeping, loving body next to us. Hay's vocals for "Overkill" are his finest, especially as he tries to damp down his unease. "At least there's pretty lights," he exalts, "and though there's little variation/it ifies the night from overkill." Hay is engaging in magical thinking at its best, but the music betrays that magic, haunting as it is. Greg Ham's saxophone engulfs his dread like the street musician Hay might pass on his midnight walk. Ron Stryker's lead guitar accentuates each painful fear, setting up Hay's ramping up of his anxieties, as he repeats the first verse in a higher, more agitated octave.

When the song winds down with the repeated "ghosts appear and fade away," no false bravado enticing them "to come back another day," as occurred earlier in the song, the synthesizer line and saxophone fade with the ghosts, perhaps sending them away for another day. Or another week.

Men At Work never regained the goofiness of their first four singles after "Overkill." Their next single, the equally poignant "It's A Mistake" was a Top 10 Hit in the U.S. and then after that, there was a dramatic fall off.  Lyrically, the songs stayed somber: "oh, won't someone let me in/I'm stinking and full of gin," sings Hay on "High Wire," their follow-up to "It's A Mistake." When Men At Work released their third and final album, Two Hearts, they were a shell of the band they had been, basically down to Hay and Ham. That album's kick-off single, "Everything I Need" suggested hope but again revealed false bravado: "When I'm falling down/deeper than the underground/my thoughts race back to you/again and again."

I am sure Men At Work, as well as fans of the band, could nitpick a lot of what happened in 1984 and 1985 before Two Hearts ushered the end of their era.  Being victims of their success broke up many a band. To think anymore about it would truly be overkill and a mistake.

"Overkill." Men At Work. Cargo. Columbia. 1983. Link here.

Day 90: Nada Surf "Popular."

Day 92: Andrew Gold "Lonely Boy."

See complete list here.