In We’re No. 1, The A.V. Club examines an album that went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts to get to the heart of what it means to be popular in pop music, and how that concept has changed over the years. In this installment, we cover Men At Work’s “Who Can It Be Now,” which went to No. 1 on the Hot 100 on October 30, 1982.
From a cynic’s perspective, American history is the story of people who just want to be left the hell alone. That’s partially what brought colonists here in the first place, and to some extent, it’s what drove their descendants to the frontier, then to the Pacific, then to the suburbs and ultimately the moon. “Don’t tread on me” begat “Westward ho” begat “Stay off my lawn.”
Or, as Men At Work put it on the band’s 1982 debut single, “Who can it be knocking at my door? Go away. Don’t come ’round here no more.”
The band wasn’t American, but its home country of Australia has its own reputation for attracting adventuresome lone-wolf types, and that might explain why “Who Can It Be Now?” caught fire in both nations. A modest hit throughout Europe, it reached No. 2 down under and topped the Billboard Hot 100 in the States, helping to propel the album Business As Usual to No. 1 and earn the quirky new-wave band a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Colin Hay, the now-defunct group’s singer and primary songwriter, isn’t immune to cynicism. Don’t get him started on the Republican victories in the last midterm elections. But speaking to The A.V. Club by phone from his home in Los Angeles, he says whatever morally dubious frontier spirit America and Australia share had nothing to do with the lyrics.
Rather, “Who Can It Be Now?” is about a man wishing for a little peace and quiet, and when Hay penned the tune in 1981, before Men At Work were famous, that’s what he was.
“I was living in a place called St. Kilda, which is a great part of Melbourne,” Hay says. “It’s as close to a red-light district as you could get in Melbourne at that time. There was a great rock ’n’ roll community, and the nightlife was quite alive. There was a big Jewish population as well. I was in an apartment, and there were lot of police sirens and drug dealers. It was a fantastic place to live.”
It wasn’t, however, a great place for chilling out in your living room.
“There were some people living next door who were moving a bit of product,” Hay says. “Mistakes were made, and people would knock on our door looking for some kind of stimulant, and we didn’t have it. You were always hearing people banging on other people’s doors. We had one of those little spy holes, and I was always creeping toward the door when someone was knocking, to see who it was. I was never sure I wanted to open the door.”
That’s all very reasonable—when there are drug dealers next door, the peephole’s your friend—but it still doesn’t account for what makes “Who Can It Be Now?” such a strangely affecting song. If it doesn’t appeal to Horatio Algers, Crocodile Dundees, and Ron Swanson-types lurking within Yanks and Aussies, why does the tune continue to resonate?
Maybe it’s creep appeal. There’s something unsettling about Hay’s narrator, especially in the second verse, when he sings, “I like it here with my childhood friend / Here they come, those feelings again.” He’s seems paranoid, if not straight-up delusional, and the saxophone line that provides the song’s hook has sleazy, late-night urgency that befits a guy who’s chain-smoking and chugging black coffee, wondering whether those footsteps in the hall are “the men come to take me away.”
So, this narrator: raving loon or regular guy? Hay thoughtfully deflects the question.
“I don’t really know what a regular guy is,” he says. “I think people are all mad in their own way. There are just different levels of madness, and levels of madness that are seemingly acceptable to society. And if you cross the line, they’re going to put you away somewhere and keep you away from other people.”
At the time, Hay admits, he was feeling “a lot of fear and trepidation,” as his music career had yet to take off.
“I was trying to get out of the situation I was in, which is that I didn’t really have any money,” he says. “I was trying to get by. It seemed at that particular time everyone who knocked on my door wanted something from me that I either didn’t have or didn’t want to give them. That could be money, or it could simply be time that I didn’t want to give them.”
In other words, “Who Can It Be Now?” isn’t meant as a commentary on the American or Australian national character, and it’s not explicitly about mental illness. It’s a song for anyone who likes a little privacy, and actually, that makes sense. Libertarians, backwater militiamen, survivalists, Soldier Of Fortune subscribers, and other fringe-dwelling members of society wouldn’t have been enough to push the song to the top of the charts. Those people use their money for ammo and canned goods, not records.
If, in the early ’80s, the wackadoos of the world weren’t buying Men At Work albums, they were probably the only ones. The group scored three more Top 40 hits with its 1983 sophomore effort, Cargo, and by the time Men At Work split up during the making of the modestly success of Two Hearts, the group had transcended one-, two- and even three-hit-wonder status.
In the nearly three decades since, Hay has forged a successful solo career, releasing 11 albums and building a loyal group of fans that includes Zach Braff, who featured Hay’s music on his 2004 Garden State soundtrack and in several episodes of Scrubs. Hay tours the country regularly, and from his vantage point, there is a pervasive go-it-alone attitude in America, but it’s not the admirable pioneer variety.
“You have a country that’s an incredible place to live, and yet so many people just take it for granted and don’t take responsibility for themselves or the people they live with by going out and voting,” he says. “I don’t really subscribe to the fact there’s a great sense of community. I don’t really witness that in my travels. I think people are pretty self-motivated, for the most part. I see a lot of apathy here; I see a lot of apathy in Australia as well.”
Hay isn’t some hopeless curmudgeon. He’s an affable chatter and a big fan of President Obama, who he feels has done a great job, given the circumstances. But hearing him talk politics in the wake of the Republican takeover is enough to make you curl up in a ball and retreat from humanity.
Of course, doing so might turn you into someone like the guy Hay wrote about in “Me And My Imaginary Friend,” a funny little gem from his 2007 album Are You Lookin’ At Me? “We know what is real, and what is pretend,” Hay sings on that one. “Together until the bitter end, me and my imaginary friend.”
It’s not exactly a sequel to “Who Can It Be Now?” but as Hay says, there’s an autobiographical element to all of his songs. On some level, the characters may be connected.
“I like that guy in [“Imaginary Friend”], because in a sense, he’s figured out how to deal with the fact he’s alone,” Hay says. “I remember sitting in a movie theater. The movie was about to start. A guy walked up to where I was sitting, and he said, ‘Excuse me—are those two seats taken?’ I said no. He said, ‘Thank you. One for me, and one for my imaginary friend.’ And he sat the whole night just by himself. I thought that was quite funny.”