Australian history

Greg Ham joined a band and conquered the world

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Greg Ham, that iconic flautist from Men at Work’s greatest song, Down Under, has died. Music correspondent Jenny LeComte remembers the man and his remarkable work.

Greg Ham, playing saxaphone, with Men at Work lead singer Colin Hay

"We played in a band and conquered the world together".

This was how former Men at Work front man Colin James Hay responded to the sudden death of his former band mate and close friend Greg Ham.

Ham, a multi-talented instrumentalist who helped propel the Melbourne pub band to international fame in the early 1980s, with hits like Down Under and Who Can It Be Now, was found dead in his North Carlton home yesterday (April 19).

Hay, who went on to have a successful solo career following Men at Work's heyday, was reportedly devastated by the death of Ham — a close friend for more than 40 years.

He explains:
"I love him very much. He's a beautiful man. I met Greg Ham 40 years ago at [comedian] Kim Gyngell's house in 1972. Last year of high school. He had blond hair, rosy cheeks, ridiculous bright eyes."

Hay explained in a written statement that Ham lived in a communal house in St Kilda.

He says:
"It was the best of times. The best parties ever. Greg took up the saxophone and flute during this time. He was always practising. He got really good.''

Hay continues:
"We shared countless times together, from stumbling through Richmond after playing the Cricketers Arms, to helicoptering into New York City, to appear on Saturday Night Live, or flying through dust storms in Arizona, above the Grand Canyon, or getting lost, driving aimlessly through the Gippsland countryside."

Hay said Ham's legacy lives in the music they made.

Born on 27 September 1953, Ham was an Australian songwriter, actor and musician known for playing multiple instruments on Melbourne pub band Men at Work's phenomenally successful pop and reggae-influenced albums Business As Usual and Cargo in the 1980s.

Men at Work are the only Australian artists to have had a simultaneous number one album and number one single in both the United States and the United Kingdom (Business as Usual and Down Under respectively).

They have sold over 30 million albums worldwide, and Ham's skill as a saxophone player was crucial to this success. In addition, he played the flute, organ, piano and synthesiser on Men at Work's bestselling albums.

Although Columbia Records signed Men at Work in 1981 and the band achieved number one singles in Australia and New Zealand with Who Can It Be Now and Down Under that same year, Columbia's parent company in the United States initially rejected the band's debut album Business As Usual.

Thanks to the persistence of the band's management – including an American producer, Peter McIan – the album was eventually released in the US and the UK six months after its Australian release. Men at Work toured Canada and the US to promote the album, supporting Fleetwood Mac, and hit the top 10 in Winnipeg, Canada, in 1982 with Who Can It Be Now?

The band started receiving top 40 US airplay in August 1982 and hit number one two months later. In November 1982, Business as Usual began a 15-week run at number one on the US album chart. While, Who Can It Be Now? was still in the top 10, the second single Down Under entered the charts at number 70. In just 10 weeks, it – too – was number one.

By January 1983, Men at Work had the top album and single in both the US and the UK – a feat never achieved previously by an Australian act. A third single – Be Good Johnny – also received moderate airplay in the US.

In 1983, Men at Work became the first Australian recording act to win a Grammy Award for Best New Artist.

Their second album, Cargo, was released in 1983 and went to number one on the international market, where Business As Usual was still riding high at number three on the Billboard 200 album chart.

Cargo produced three chart singles in the US — Overkill (number three), It's a Mistake (number six) and Dr Heckyll and Mr Jive (number 28).

The band toured the world extensively in 1983, then took a break in 1984 to recover from the two years of constant touring they'd done in support of both albums.

Men At Work also split up around about this time. In 1998, Ham and Hay reunited in 1996 under the Men at Work moniker to tour South America.

This tour culminated in the Brazilian release of a live CD Brazil '96 in 1997. The album was subsequently released worldwide in 1998 as Brazil, after which Men at Work faded from the headlines as Ham and Hay pursued their own interests.

In later life, Ham took up acting and was a regular cast member on While You're Down There. He also taught guitar at Carlton North Primary School in Melbourne.

In February 2010, Men at Work attracted negative publicity when Larrikin Music Publishing won a copyright case against the group.

This arose from the flute line in the song Down Under, which was found to have been appropriated – uncredited – from a 1934 song called Kookaburra by Marion Sinclair.

The copyright case is believed to have been sparked by the Australian music-themed TV quiz show Spicks and Specks, which had suggested that the flute riff in Down Under contained parts of Kookaburra.

In July 2010, a judge ruled that Larrikin should be paid 5 per cent of profits from 2002 onwards — a result that did not sit well with Ham or Hay.

Ham's neighbour Linda Phypers explains:
"He talked about that riff and he was still pretty upset about that."

Phyphers was interviewed shortly after Ham's body was found yesterday at his home in Canning Street, North Carlton.

Police attended the scene after being alerted by a friend of Ham's, who went to the house to check on his welfare.

They are currently investigating the death of the 58-year-old, who was believed to be living in the house alone at the time of his death.

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