Greg Ham: Flautist remembered for his 'Down Under' riff

 

The woodwind and keyboard player Greg Ham was responsible for several of the distinctive features that made the Australian group Men At Work such an early Eighties pop sensation.

 He came up with the infectious saxophone riffs that recur throughout "Who Can It Be Now?", the band's first US chart-topper in 1982, and "Overkill", their second biggest UK hit, in 1983, and the harmonica on "Dr Heckyll And Mr Jive". But he will best be remembered for the infuriatingly catchy flute motif he contributed to "Down Under", the worldwide smash hit written by the band's frontman Colin Hay and its lead guitarist Ron Strykert.

Three years ago, the authorship of said flute riff became the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit; the music publisher Larrikin successfully argued that it was based on "Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree", an Australian nursery rhyme composed by a music teacher, Marion Sinclair, and first performed at a Girls Guide event in 1934. Though Sinclair died in 1988, the "Kookaburra" copyright had not expired, and despite several appeals, Larrikin were eventually awarded 5 per cent of the "Down Under" royalties backdated to 2002.

Ham was not credited as one of the writers but still took the final verdict hard. "That's the way I'm going to be remembered: for copying something," he told The Age newspaper in 2010.

Born in Melbourne in 1953, he attended Camberwell Grammar School there. He was a popular boy and enjoyed acting in school plays, a harbinger of the goofy Men At Work videos that would become MTV staple in the 1980s. He met Hay and Strykert at La Trobe University in 1972 and subsequently quit Sneak Attack, his first band, to join them, drummer Jerry Speiser and bassist John Rees in the formation of Men At Work.

By 1979 they had honed their craft in the pubs of Melbourne. The following year they signed to the Australian arm of CBS and recorded their debut album, Business As Usual. Despite its success in their home market they struggled to secure an international release. In 1982, CBS finally made them a priority act and they opened for Fleetwood Mac in the US, where their easy-on-the-ear, new-wave-with-a-dash-of-reggae sound earned comparisons with The Police.

In Britain, "Who Can It Be Now?" stalled at No. 45 but "Down Under" contained enough Antipodean clichés – "Vegemite sandwich" and "fried-out Kombi", to mention just two – towin the Poms over, though the Australia-shaped blue vinyl 12in single might also have helped its chart rise. "We're proud to be Australian and we keep pushing that angle. 'Down Under' isn't an Australian anthem," Ham said. "It tells a story about Australians who have been abroad and come back home. The absurd Australian abroad. Fortunately for us, the song is all things to all people."

Indeed, over the last three decades "Down Under" has become a blessing and a curse, convenient shorthand for all things Antipodean at sports events, on radio and television and in films like Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles.

Men At Work went on to win the Best New Artist Grammy award, edging out Asia, Jennifer Holliday, The Human League and the Stray Cats. They also paved the way for the international breakthrough of Australian groups such as Icehouse, INXS and Midnight Oil.

Ham co-wrote two tracks on the 15-million selling Business As Usual – "Down By The Sea" and "Be Good Johnny" – and sang lead on his own composition "Helpless Automaton", as well as on Strykert's "I Like To" on Cargo, the follow-up album, issued in 1983. "Overkill", "It's A Mistake" and "Dr Heckyll And Mr Jive" all made the Top 40, but by the time of the release of Two Hearts in 1985, Men At Work were down to a nucleus of Hay and a more prolific Ham, who penned half the album and sang three tracks. In 1996 the two performed "Down Under" at the Olympic Games in Sydney.

Ham also acted, appearing inhalf a dozen episodes of the 1980s, Melbourne-set sitcom While You're Down There, and later ran Secret Garden Studios. He also worked as a music teacher and examiner.

Greg Norman Ham, woodwind and keyboard player, singer and songwriter: born Melbourne 27 September 1953; married Linda Wostry (one son, one daughter); died Carlton North, Victoria, Australia 19 April 2012.

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