You Better Take Cover: Men at Work Down Under

You Better Take CoverThere was once a time when many Australians believed that the 1981 song Down Under by Men at Work should be the national anthem. Come to think of it, they probably still do. Which is why I’m quite sure that You Better Take Cover, Harry Hayes’ new documentary account of the song’s history, is likely to find a significant audience when it screens next month at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Starting with the background of the song’s creation, the majority of the film is focused on the controversy that ensued in 2009 when Men at Work were accused of plagiarising a portion of the Australian nursery rhyme, Kookaburra.

It seems that for 26 years, few people had ever noticed any similarity between the flute section of Down Under and the tune of Kookaburra. And anybody who did notice the connection would have been far more likely to see it as an homage to a song deeply engrained in Australian culture than as theft. Indeed, the very idea that one could get sued for using Kookaburra seemed about as likely as getting sued for referencing Humpty Dumpty. Unfortunately, as Hayes’ reveals in the course of this film, the reality turned out to be more complicated.

It all started with a benign trivia question on the much loved Aussie music-themed quiz show, Spicks and Specks, in 2007. Adam Hills asked the panel to identify what Australian nursery rhyme had influenced the flute section of Down Under. It soon became apparent that the writer of Kookaburra, Marion Sinclair, had only passed away in 1988, meaning that the song was still under copyright by Australian law. Since 2002, the song has been owned by Larrikin Records. Once the comparison had been pointed out to them, Larrikin Records promptly sued Men at Work. The stress of this period was seen by many as a contributing factor in the death of band member Greg Ham, who suffered a fatal heart-attack in 2012 at the age of 58.

Hayes takes a straightforward approach to his subject matter throughout You Better Take Cover, interviewing band members, legal professionals involved in the case, and other significant Aussie musical artists like Paul Kelly to outline the way in which the case played out, and its effects on the people involved. Martin Armiger, a renowned musicologist, is particularly striking as he talks with regret about the way in which his testimony was used in court.

Ultimately, the point Hayes is making with his film is clear: this is probably an instance in which the letter of the law was applied but not the spirit. Either way, there are very few Australians whose love for Down Under has been affected by the Larrikin Records case.  Now… I think I’m going to go and make myself a vegemite sandwich.

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James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

5 thoughts on “You Better Take Cover: Men at Work Down Under

  1. This is a really interesting and insightful article, James. I find this subject fascinating because of how composers have “borrowed” from various sources–including each other–since time immemorial. For example: Billy Joel channeled Beethoven in “This Night”; Sting used Prokofiev in “Russians.” And then there’s the great Leonard Bernstein, who applied a little Beethoven in “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.” The topper: Mozart crafted some variations on “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” … and vastly improved on it! So this is an issue that definitely has a precedent. I liked the band Men at Work–they were quite popular over here in the U.S. of A. in the 1980s when I was growing up, so this film sounds very interesting.

  2. I had no idea about this case, James. Litigation in modern society seems to have a hit and miss logic. Led Zepp get away with an obvious rip-off in the USA, and an homage to an old nursery rhyme destroys careers and lives in Australia.
    Asked to name two Australian songs, I would come up with ‘Waltzing Matilda’, and ‘Down Under.’ Sad to see how it turned out, for Men At Work.
    Best wishes, Pete.

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