Men at Work's Colin Hay on His New Cover Album of the Songs That Shaped Him

Colin Hay performs at the Arvada Center on Wednesday, September 1.
Colin Hay performs at the Arvada Center on Wednesday, September 1. Paul Mobley
In early March 2020, Men at Work frontman Colin Hay was a few dates into his extensive solo tour before pandemic lockdowns forced him to call it off. He went back home to Los Angeles. It was, as he puts it, “better than death.”

Prior to that tour, Hay had been working on a new batch of original songs for his forthcoming album, Now and the Evermore, which he’ll release early next year, in time for that rescheduled tour. Hay largely finished that album earlier this year. At home in quarantine, he started strumming the Gerry & the Pacemakers hit “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” not long after the Merseybeat band’s frontman Gerry Marsden died. Hay recorded the song and sent it to his frequent collaborator and producer Chad Fischer, who liked it and asked Hay to send him another one and another one until they’d done ten songs, some of which have lush string arrangements.

They dubbed the album I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, a nod to the Dusty Springfield track Hay covered, and released it last month via Compass Records. Hay stops at the Arvada Center on Wednesday, September 1; he'll play cuts from the covers album, a few from Now and the Evermore, Men at Work hits and songs from other solo discs.

Most of the ten covers on I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself were songs that Hay grew up on while working in his parents’ record store in the ’60s, including the Beatles' “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”

“For me, there was the Beatles and then there was everybody else,” Hay says. “The sound that they had was just otherworldly. I don't know how they did that — still don't. But they did it, and I’m glad they did."
Hay also recorded the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset,” which was playing on the Southampton docks in June 1967 when, at fourteen, Hay and his family were about to board a boat to move to Australia.

Once in Australia, Hay would hear most of the other songs on I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself, including “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb and made famous by Glen Campbell, which Hay hails as one of the greatest songs ever written, using it as a benchmark when writing his own material.

“You have that as an inspiration and try and come up with something that's close,” Hay says.

Hay also covered the Beatles' “Across the Universe,” Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home" — something that he could relate to while dealing with alcoholism in the ’80s — and Jimmy Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross,” which explores struggle.

“Everyone struggles in their own way, and obviously some more than others,” Hay says. “I haven't had much of a struggle. I was very lucky growing up with the parents and family I had. But the struggle I had and will always have...once you’re an alcoholic you’re always an alcoholic. You're either in recovery or you’re not. But that was a struggle that I had, which doesn't really care if you're rich or poor or who you are. It's just addiction. You deal with it. It levels the playing field.”

Cliff’s “Many Rivers to Cross” also appears on the soundtrack to The Harder They Come, a 1972 film that Cliff stars in and Hay says resonated with many in Australia.

“Reggae music [delves into] that particular experience, the hardship, the poverty and obviously the racism and overcoming...just trying to get noticed, trying to sing or play your way out of where you are...just trying to break free, which is still happening in so many parts of the world," he says. There are people who are not free. It was an example of someone's immense talent just put up there on the screen, and we ate it up because we wanted to hear and see what that part of the world was like and what was going on with that.”

About five years after The Harder They Come was released, Hay formed the rock band Men at Work, which would go on to achieve worldwide success with hits like “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Down Under.” Hay says other U.K. citizens who immigrated to Australia also formed bands, like the Bee Gees and AC/DC.

“They were formed in hostels,” Hay says. “And it was a great breeding ground for bands in Australia.”

While I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself is mainly made up of songs released in the ’60s, Hay recorded the Scottish band Del Amitri’s 1995 hit “Driving With the Brakes On,” which he considers another of the best songs ever written.

Hay says when the tour in support of I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself was being planned, the numbers of COVID cases were dropping and the Delta variant hadn’t really been talked about much in the United States.

“It wasn't really sweeping across the U.S. like it is now,” Hay says. “It felt safer. We said, ‘Okay, we're going to go out on tour.’ Then numbers started to go up again with the variant, but it was too late to stop, so we just kept going, and we're just being as careful as we can.”

Colin Hay plays with Althea Grace, at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, September 1, at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada. Tickets are $40-$65 and available at the Arvada Center website.
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Jon Solomon writes about music and nightlife for Westword, where he's been the Clubs Editor since 2006.
Contact: Jon Solomon