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Background and writing[edit][]

Colin Hay told Songfacts: "The chorus is really about the selling of Australia in many ways, the over-development 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."[6]

Colin Hay has also said that the lyrics for "Down Under" were inspired by the Barry McKenzie character.[6]

Content[edit][]

The lyrics are about an Australian traveller circling the globe, proud of his nationality, and about his interactions with people he meets on his travels who are interested in his home country.

One of the verses refers to Vegemite sandwiches, among other things; the particular lyric "He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich" has become a well-known phrase.[7]

Slang and drug terms are used in the lyrics:

Travelling in a fried-out Kombi, on a hippie trail, head full of zombie.

In Australian slang "fried-out" means overheated,[8] Kombi refers to the Volkswagen Type 2 combination van,[7][8] and having "a head full of zombie" refers to the use of a type of marijuana.[7][8] Cultural slang is also used: after the second verse the refrain is "where the beer does flow and men chunder"; "chunder" means vomit.[7]

Cultural significance[edit][]

The flute part in the song was based around the tune of "Kookaburra", a well-known Australian children's rhyme.[9] (see Copyright lawsuit below for more details.)

The exterior shots for the music video were filmed at the Cronulla sand dunes outside of Sydney.[10]

The song is a perennial favourite on Australian radio and television, and topped the charts in the US and UK simultaneously in early 1983.[11] It was later used as a theme song by the crew of Australia II in their successful bid to win the America's Cup in 1983,[12] and a remixed version appears during the closing credits of Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. Men at Work played this song in the closing ceremonyof the 2000 Sydney Olympics, alongside other Australian artists.[9] The song also became the unofficial theme of the Australian team at the Sydney Olympics, with the usually pro-Australian crowd singing along if an Aussie had won a gold medal.

In May 2001, Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA) celebrated its 75th anniversary by naming the Best Australian Songs between 1926 and 2001, as decided by a 100 strong industry panel, "Down Under" was ranked as the fourth song on the list.[13]

The song was ranked number 96 on VH1's 100 Greatest Songs of the 1980s in October 2006.[14]

Simon Whitlock, an Australian professional darts player who plays in Professional Darts Corporation, uses the song as his walk-on music.[15]

Cover versions[edit][]

  • During the 1980s, Yossi and Avi Piamenta recorded traditional Jewish wedding lyrics to the tune of the song. The name of this song is Asher Bara Sasson ve'Simcha. It is often played at Orthodox Jewish weddings and celebrations. Whilst the composition remains unaffected none of the lyrics relate to the original song.[16]
  • In 1983, Hong Kong pop singer Alan Tam made a cover of the song, which was included in his album "Late-coming Spring". The Cantonese version is called "一於少理" ("Just Don't Care" in English).[17]
  • In 1985, Lithuanian rock band Antis made a cover of the song, which became one of their most well known hits. It was called "Zombiai" (Lithuanian for zombies). Antis' version has original lyrics which represented ironic attitude towards Soviet regime (Lithuania was part of Soviet Union at the time), however some parts remain very similar. The chorus from Antis' lyrics "Gyvenk kaip galima švariau, Pikti kenkėjai budi tundroj. Paklausyk, paklausyk ar girdi – Zombiai atrieda, atidunda." which means "Live as clean as possible, Angry pests are on the watch in tundra, Listen, listen, do you hear – Zombies roll in and thunder".[18]
  • Finnish cover version titled "Tervetuloa Länteen, Andrej" (Welcome to west, Andrej) of the song was released by Vilperin Perikunta in 1992. The original story of the song was changed to tell a tale of Andrej, a Russian proletarian who travels to Finland to search for a job and better life in a welfare state. In the chorus Finland is described as "road to the top of heaven" and "road to freedom" for a Russian. In this cover version the flute parts were played with violin and a banjo lick was added to the background.[19]

In 2001, a performance of the song by the Red Army Choir was released on the CD Andrew Denton's Musical Challenge. The song was performed in the manner of a Russian folk song and featured clapping, and accordion.[20]

Copyright lawsuit[edit][]

In 2008, on the ABC-TV quiz show Spicks and Specks the question was posed "What children's song is contained in the song Down Under?" resulting in phone calls and emails to Larrikin Music the next day.[21] Larrikin Music subsequently decided to take legal action against the song's writers Colin Hay and Ron Strykert.

Sections of the flute part of the recording of the song were found to be based on the children's song "Kookaburra", written in 1932 by Marion Sinclair. Sinclair died in 1988[5] and the rights to the Kookaburra song were deemed to have been transferred to publisher Larrikin Music on 21 March 1990.[22] In the United States, the rights are administered by Music Sales Corporation in New York City.

In June 2009, 28 years after the release of the recording, Larrikin Music sued Men At Work for copyright infringement, alleging that part of the flute riff of "Down Under" was copied from "Kookaburra". The counsel for the band's record label and publishing company (Sony BMG Music Entertainment and EMI Songs Australia) claimed that, based on the agreement under which the song was written, the copyright was actually held by the Girl Guides Association.[23] On 30 July, Justice Peter Jacobson of the Federal Court of Australia made a preliminary ruling that Larrikin did own copyright on the song, but the issue of whether or not Hay and Strykert had plagiarised the riff was set aside to be determined at a later date.[24]

On 4 February 2010, Justice Jacobson ruled that Larrikin's copyright had been infringed because "Down Under" reproduced "a substantial part of Kookaburra".[25]

When asked how much Larrikin would be seeking in damages, Larrikin's lawyer Adam Simpson replied: "anything from what we've claimed, which is between 40 and 60 per cent, and what they suggest, which is considerably less."[26] In court, Larrikin's principal Norman Lurie gave the opinion that, had the parties negotiated a licence at the outset as willing parties, the royalties would have been between 25 and 50 per cent.[27] On 6 July 2010, Justice Jacobson handed down a decision that Larrikin receive 5% of royalties from 2002.[27][28] In October 2011, the band lost its final court bid when the High Court of Australia refused to hear an appeal.[29]

Until this high-profile case, "Kookaburra"'s standing as a traditional song combined with the lack of visible policing of the song's rights by its composer had led to the general public perception that the song was within the public domain.[30][31]

The revelation of "Kookaburra"'s copyright status, and more-so the pursuit of royalties from it, has generated a negative response among sections of the Australian public.[32] In response to unsourced speculation of a Welsh connection, Dr Rhidian Griffiths pointed out that the Welsh words to the tune were published in 1989 and musicologist Phyllis Kinney stated neither the song's metre nor its lines were typical Welsh.[31]

Since the verdict, Colin Hay has continued to insist that any plagiarism was wholly unintentional. He says that when the song was originally written in 1978, it did not have the musical passage in question, and that it was not until two years later, during a jam rehearsal session, that flautist Greg Ham improvised the riff, perhaps subconsciously recalling "Kookaburra". Hay has also added that Ham and the other members of the band were under the influence of marijuana during that particular rehearsal. Greg Ham was found dead in Melbourne on 19 April 2012. In the months before his death, Ham had been despondent over the verdict, and convinced that "the only thing people will remember me for" would be the plagiarism conviction.

2012 re-release[edit][]

A new version of the song was produced by Colin Hay, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the original's release.[33] Requested by Telstra for use in an Australian advertising campaign during the 2012 Summer Olympics period, the song was available through iTunes on 31 July.[34]

In the new version, Hay intentionally changed the flute part that caused the copyright lawsuit.[35]

Tracklisting[edit][]

7": CBS / BA 222891 Australia[edit][]

  1. "Down Under" — 3:44
  2. "Crazy" — 2:34

7": CBS / A 2066 Europe[edit][]

  1. "Down Under" — 3:44
  2. "Helpless Automaton" — 3:23

12": CBS / BA 12229 Australia / promo-release 1986[edit][]

  1. "Down Under (Extended mix)" — 5:30
  2. "Sail to you (Extended mix)" — 5:48

Charts and certifications[edit][]