Just like there'll never be another group like the Beatles, there'll never be another Liverpool, though Australia is making a good case for itself as the Liverpool of the '80s.
Well, think about this: the biggest hard-rock band in the world -- AC/DC -- is from Australia; so are the two biggest soft-rock bands -- Air Supply and the Little River Band. And add to the list the most popular male and female pop singers -- Rick Springfield and Olivia Newton-John. Only two artists in the world have had top ten hits each of the last five years -- Little River Band and Olivia Newton-John.
Admittedly, none of these particular bands is on the cutting edge of contemporary music, but there is a spirit and fervor under their surface success that sets Australia apart and gives much of its music a unique sound and feel. Among the bands that have recently released good (or promising) albums: Split Enz, Icehouse, Australian Crawl, Moving Pictures, Cold Chisel, Flash and the Pan. Two of the best down-under bands, Men at Work and Mental As Anything, come to Washington Tuesday for a show at the Wax Museum.
Men at Work is the better-known right now, what with its number one single "Who Can It Be Now?" and a Top Five album, "Business As Usual" (Columbia ARC37978). The band's success isn't hard to understand -- its music has a fresh, vital pulse to it; it's melodically contagious and thoroughly accessible without seeming formulaic. The punchy hit single is a good example. As an unparanoid portrait of paranoia, it has a quirky, tensile energy made earthy by Colin Hay's distinctive vocals and Greg Ham's echoing sax phrases. The terse verses unwind with calypsonian ease, enveloped by a hypnotically compelling chorus.
This buoyant pop shares certain central textures with the Police, though none of the Men is as instrumentally virtuosic as that trio. What the bands have in common is a tight percussive orientation anchored in a loose rhythmic field-of-vision that seems drawn equally from England's classic pub-rock scene, Australian folk buskers, Jamaican reggae and old-fashioned skiffle bands. The overwhelming impression is of lilting, good-time music with a gritty edge to it, reinforced by a wealth of catchy melodies and hooks, and graced by convincing ensemble playing.
"I Can See It In Your Eyes" has the direct emotional thrust of a Police ballad, while "Down Under" has a bit of Dire Straits' pop-shuffle, without Mark Knopfler's overpercolating guitar lines. The folk-blues tilt of "Underground" evokes images of Donovan fronting Status Quo, or Merseybeat a la Gerry and the Pacemakers; "Helpless Automaton," with its staccato riffs and crisp rhythm figures, suggests a Split Enz quirkiness. Some songs do ramble on, particularly on the second side. Yet, whatever echoes one hears in Men at Work's music, it's worth noting that it is a young, relatively inexperienced band that has managed to come up with a crisp, original sound mixing the more attractive elements of commercial and progressive rock. And Hay, who writes most of the band's sprightly songs, has just the right edge in his voice to elevate even the occasionally mundane lyric; he's always on top of the instruments, reaching as easily for a note as the listener's ears reach for Men at Work's tuneful offerings.
Mental As Anything, which will open for Men at Work, works from a similarly strong rhythmic base in its new album, "If You Leave Me Can I Come With You" (A&M SP4921), but Reg Mombassa's molasses-thick guitar textures often create a fuller dynamic. Ingredients here range from lyrics reminiscent of the Beatles (the lush "Walking on Rails" and the hilarious "Let's Cook," consisting of the following lyrics: "Let's cook, let's eat, let's growl, let's work") to Santo and Johnny (the guitar bottom on "Ready For You Now") to Carl Perkins rockabilly ("I Didn't Mean To Be Mean," produced by Elvis Costello), from a ghostly early Stones evocation ("Egypt") to later-day Squeeze ("The Nips Are Getting Bigger"). Like such groups as XTC, the Records and Squeeze, Mental As Anything creates fluid lyric popscapes and enhances them with memorable melodies. "Sad Poetry" and "Walking on Rails," for example, despite their occasionally obtuse lyrics, are little gems.
As with Men at Work, the influences, while heartfelt, never dominate or obscure the band's original approach. A case in point: "Too Many Times," the album's most compelling cut and a tune that should be revived every summer. Its somewhat somber lyrics are totally obliterated by happy feet that seem to be madly dancing along the melody line. One hears traces of Mungo Jerry and the Lovin' Spoonful and Lonnie Donegan, with good-time drumming that could just as well have come from an old-fashioned washboard. It's a delightful, up-at-the-heels song from yet another promising band from Oz.