Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’ and Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’.

In our latest One On One we explore these Australian 80’s pop hits and ask what they say about the country to us Pommies and other non-Aussies.

I’ve never been to Australia but it has always seemed like a country I know quite well. The relationship between us Brits and our former colonisers and convicts exists in sporting battles on cricket fields and rugby pitches, soap operas from Prisoner: Cell Block H to Home and Away and Neighbours, the latter giving us stars like Jason Donovan, Guy Pearce, and of course Kylie Minogue, and in cliches regarding barbecues and beer and liberal use of the exclamation ‘strewth’ and every man being called Bruce (this Monty Python sketch being at least partly responsible). And then there’s music, and in the 80’s two songs in particular each took a very different representation of Australia in to pop charts all over the world…

‘Down Under’ by Men At Work

On the surface this is an unequivocal celebration of all things Australian, so much so that it has kind of been adopted as a national anthem even being used as part of the celebrations for the Sydney Olympics in 2000. And yet whilst the perception of this song amongst many non-Aussies is of a song happy to poke cheeky fun at various stereotypes surrounding Antipodean men, lead singer and co-songwriter Colin Hay has a different take on it saying “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.” He cites the comedy character Barry McKenzie, a boorish, loud, lewd and straight-talking Aussie created by Barry Humphries (best known as Dame Edna Everage) as an inspiration for the song.

In other words, this is a song about the very stereotypes it seems to revel in, how  and how they give a reductive and simplified view of Australian culture. Not so much a song about the country but rather a song about how others see it, in 1981 it became a massive number 1 and top ten hit in the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Ireland, New Zealand, and of course Australia itself and in doing so became and indelible part of it’s homeland culture all around the world, and was used with pride as part of the Sydney Olympics celebrations in 2000. It also probably did wonders for global sales of Vegemite too.

‘Beds Are Burning’ by Midnight  Oil

Six years later along came the next big global hit by an Australian band, and again with a song that is all about their home country. Yet this time the whole tone of the song was decidedly more serious. Having spent some time touring with labelmates the Warumpi Band around Aboriginal settlements and villages in 1986 the band felt moved to record the album Diesel and Dust, a concept record about the plight of Australia’s indigenous population. It was a contentious issue at the time and as guitarist Jim Moginie would later note “There was a sense of hopelessness about the issue at the time. It felt like screaming into a fog of indifference. When the album was ready to be released, we were prepared to be shouted down by every closet racist in the country.”

Whereas Down Under had a deeper point to make, it did it in a way that was light-hearted and irreverant. With Beds Are Burning no such levity is allowed. This is a song with gravity, dealing with deeply entrenched racial issues in a post-colonial land. The line “it belongs to them. so lets give it back” is an explicit plea for settlement land to be handed over to the Aborigines, specifically the Pintupi, desert people who had been forcibly moved more than once in the earlier part of the 20th century by white settlers and who had come to represent the broader plight of the Aboriginal people. A huge hit all over the world in 1987 it helped bring this issue to a global audience and was also used as part of the Sydney Olympics celebrations, a mark of how this powerful song had become a cherished part of Australian identity.

Australia is a remote country. I mean, most people in the world feel a very long way from this massive and remote island nation. As such any homegrown culture that makes it’s presence felt globally can’t help but become a huge part of the way people’s impressions of the country are coloured. Australians themselves may argue that either or both of these songs make no real representation of the country at all, or they might not. What is for certain is that both of these songs will forever be associated with the country that spawned them.


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2 thoughts on “Men At Work’s ‘Down Under’ and Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds Are Burning’.

  1. A very interesting post on two hit Australian songs, and how they impacted (some?) people’s views of what it means to be Australian. As a child of the 90’s in Australia, personally I don’t really relate to either song. In my view they are part of our cultural heritage in an abstract way, like Australia’s convict past. It’s interesting that the only people who I know who ever seem to bring that up are the English (not a bad thing, just an observation that it’s not really part of Australian identity day-to-day).

    1. Hey Glen, thanks for the comment! It’s great to get the opinion of an Aussie, and interesting to find you see them like that. Yes, I guess it’s strange how both of those songs have stuck around in British culture as signifiers of all things Australian (although maybe less for the under 30’s), especially Down Under, and I guess that’s why it gets mentioned. 🙂

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