Interview with Men At Work’s live sound engineer Mark Woods

(conducted by Helmut Janisch via email, October 2020)

When we take a look at album credits on a record sleeve or CD booklet (the very old fans may know what I am talking about) there aren’t just the musicians listed – our heroes Colin, Ron, Greg, John and Jerry – but also many people who also had an influence on how the band sounded, either in the studio or live on tour. We tend to forget those names quickly, as they rarely stand in the spotlight. But sometimes we get reminded about them by chance. This happened when a few months ago, in August 2020, a live recording of a rare 1982 Men At Work show was released (digitally) by Australian Road Crew Association with the help of sound engineer Mark Woods, an early friend of the band and their sound engineer on tour from 1982 to 1983. Mark kindly agreed to answer a few questions about Men At Work for colinhay.com.br

We know that you worked for Men At Work as sound engineer on tour. When and how did this come about and when did your job for Men At Work end?

I started doing sound for MAW in Jan 1982. Who Can It Be Now and then Down Under were big radio hits and the band had just started drawing a mainstream audience. I knew the band and they knew I could mix. I’d shared a house with John Rees in the late 1970s and we had a little 4-track studio set up there. We did some recording with Colin in 1978. The first Men At Work shows I did were summer beach shows in Australia and that was when they changed from being a popular inner-city Melbourne band to being a big national, and then international, act. I did front-of-house sound for all shows and tours during 1982 – 1983, Australia and international and my time ended with them when they broke up at the end of 1983.

You said that you and John Rees recorded demos with Colin in 1978. Do you recall what these songs were – perhaps something that later went on a Men At Work or Colin Hay album?

I haven’t got the recordings (we used to give the tapes to the artist when they paid) but Colin had a few that he always played and we recorded those – Mandango, Highwire, Down Under – the latter two became MAW songs.

After Business As Usual was released Men At Work very quickly had huge international success and that obviously had an impact on the band and its members. Can you tell a bit about how the band was at the time when you started working for them and what perhaps changed in the following two years?

They were always serious about the band but they were more happy-go-lucky guys in the beginning. It was a sudden rise to fame for a bunch of suburban boys but they were smart people and quickly adapted to playing the big stages. The record company took care of business. The first US tour was opening for Fleetwood Mac and that gave us valuable experience in the ways of the music business, large-scale production technology and some serious American culture. The two years I was with them wore the band down, the fame was head-spinning and they weren’t natural road animals.

Obviously the band developed from the initial duo that Colin and Ron were. Did the two still kind of were the band leaders when they became a full band? By watching a concert video of them today, one gets the impression that rather Greg and Colin were the main band members. So, who of the five had which role in the band (apart from singing and playing an instrument of course)?

Musically they were very much a sum of their parts, equally proficient players with strong voices that blended to give the band a lot of their distinctive sound. Colin was the boss in a front-man way, Ron was more in the background with John. Jerry wanted answers, Greg was affable and amusing. The crew were brave and fearless and quickly adapted to the new venues and big-show production.

What exactly does „Jerry wanted answers“ mean?

Some musicians just turn up and play. Jerry, more than the others, wanted to know the how and why of things. Mainly technical questions, why certain drum mics were chosen and placed for instance, or questions about how the drums were treated out the front. He was probably the same with band’s general business affairs. 

Men At Work did an incredible amount of live shows in 1982 and 1983 in many countries. What were the most remarkable shows you remember and why?

The first US tour had cool smaller shows like the Peppermint Lounge in New York and the Park West in Chicago. Famous name shows have a certain vibe to them, the Hammersmith Odeon in London was big and we got great reviews from New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

The US Festival in California 1983 was the biggest we did, supposedly more than 200,000 people over the weekend. MAW played on the “New Wave” Friday night. To get from backstage to the front-of-house there was a tunnel made from concrete pipes under the crowd with a ladder to get up the mixing position. They had two mixing desks so I could get my settings ready while the previous band was playing then they swapped in between bands. There was a lot of audience in front of the mixing tower, tens of thousands, but looking back behind the mixing tower was a vast sea of people all the way back up hill, with several sets of speakers on delay to get the sound back there.

Gothenburg, Sweden was another big one with 60,000 in a football stadium. MAW were opening for David Bowie as part of his Serious Moonlighting tour. There was a big scaffold tower in the middle of the arena with the mixing desks and the MAW show was good. We watched a bit of Bowie from backstage then had to go and get food and check into our accommodation. The town had way more people than it could handle, I recall flashing our tour jackets and pushing ahead of lines of people to get food. We had some of the only rooms in town and had big party with local guests who stayed all night. I arrived back at the stadium the next day with a smile on my face and a hangover you could photograph. To my surprise two Showco engineers had flown from the States overnight in response to problems with David Bowie’s sound. The raised, central mixing tower in the middle of the arena had been replaced with a ground-level booth off to the side, in front of the Right-hand speaker stack. I couldn’t believe it as it had seemed fine to me the night before but wasn’t really fussed…until Men At Work started and the two Showco engineers stared grabbing faders trying to use MAW as their sound check. I had to yell to get them stop, they did and I mixed the show.

The show on October 7, 1983 in Berkeley CA at the Greek Theater was recorded for the official concert video that was released in 1984. Was it any different to previous shows because of the recording? Did the show went as always or did the band i.e. play songs twice to get a better version recorded?

That show was recorded separately from the front-of-house sound and mixed/mastered later. The show was continuous with no re-takes.

What about the 1982 show that was released recently by ARCA?

The ARCA release from New Zealand 1982 is a simple cassette recording I made from the mixing desk, so there was not only no second takes but also no possibility to mix the tracks afterwards, the recorded sound mix is exactly what was sent to the main speakers. These desk tapes were made for the band and crew to check things and have as a record of the show, they weren’t expected to ever be released, partly due to their technical and mix limitations. Now we’re in the digital age I can use modern software to sweeten and remaster them and they can be quite good.

Looking at the Men At Work tour dates, there are quite a few that are a bit confusing. Perhaps you can help to clear up some of them …

September 8, 1982, Huntington Beach CA, Golden Bear, USA:

You sent a scan of the setlist for that show but it is not listed in the tour data base. Are you sure about the date?

The date is written on the bottom of the setlist and I know the Golden Bear was the first show they ever played in the US. I think it was a warmup show before the official tour. I’ve included a scan of my show pass.

December 2, 1982, Hamburg, Markthalle, Germany (recorded for German TV show „Rockpalast“):
At this show Colin told the audience that they „have been all around Europe, almost” and this was the last gig in 1982. But the live concert data base has a gap with not dates between November 25, 1982 (London) and Hamburg. Do you remember if there were other European shows in November/December 1982?

Quite possibly, I’ve got nothing on paper but I recall the crew caught a ferry from UK heading North…maybe to Amsterdam, then we would have worked our way towards Germany.

May 6, 1983, Bari, Teatro Petruzzelli, Italy (recorded for Italian TV show „Azzurro 1983“):

The data base says that the band was on a Japanese tour from April 29 to May 8, and on May 6 there is a show listed in Sapporo, Japan. Obviously it is impossible that both took place on the same day. Do you remember about either the Sapporo show or the one in Italy?

We were in Japan on May 6, 1983.

August 14, 1983, South Yarmouth MA, Cape Cod Coliseum, USA:

The setlist of this show is listed on setlist.fm and it is very unusual, as 5 of the 10 tracks played are titles that are not related to Men At Work. These are: Carducci the Brave, Aky’s Python, Kangaroo Tender, Barriere’s Lament/Faces of Death and The Black Table. Do you remember this show or any of this titles? Or do you have an explanation for the weird setlist?

That was during my time with them and I don’t think any of those were MAW songs

October 22 and 23, 1983, Hawaii, USA:

Did the band really play there? The data base says that they were also in New York on October 22 at „Saturday Night Live“. So, something must be wrong here. Do you remember either the Hawaii shows or the apperance at NBC television?

I don’t remember shows in Hawaii but I remember Saturday Night Live. The NBC studio was a slice of real New York culture, boxes of doughnuts and coffee for the crew, the famous green room for the band and rock star treatment. The production was all union with strict demarcation of responsibilities. I instinctively moved a tom mic walking around the drum kit and bought the whole rehearsal to a stop…we had a long talk about it, not my job to move the mics. I wanted to put a particular delay on the sax in “Who Can it be Now” but wasn’t allowed to touch their equipment so I got a delay unit from our live gear in truck, the engineer connected it and sat it on my knees to operate.

You also sent a scan of a printed list of „MAW songs played US tour 1983“ that includes a few unfamiliar song titles: Weasel Pops, Stimulation, Discovery. Were these working titles for later album songs or something else?

I don’t know those songs at all. That list looks like it was used for royalty collection purposes and maybe they were new and on the list in case they played them. I’m sure they were real songs and I don’t think any had working titles that changed so I assume they learnt or played them sometime then dropped them. Looking back through the setlists I did see a few songs I’d forgotten despite hearing them multiple times. It was a long time ago is my only excuse…

The earliest setlist you sent is from a show on January 24, 1981 in Melbourne. That one is extremely interesting for fans, because there are many song titles on it that we haven’t heard about before: Don’t Understand, George St., Midday Movie, I’m A Criminal, Moon Is Sick, Daggin’, Show Go, Turn The Tide, Situations, Coin In The Tide, Can’t Work It Out, Olympics, Buy Things, Lounge Suite Do you have any idea if these were other names (working titles) for songs that appeared on album later on or if these were never used songs, or perhaps not Men At Work songs anyway?

During my time with them they were promoting the albums so the focus was on those songs and the setlist was much the same each show, changing a little from tour to tour. The songs you listed were from 1981 but didn’t make it to 1982/83. The Moon is Sick is a John Rees song that we he and I used to play before MAW, I guess he showed it to the band and they played it for a while, it was a weird little song and not really suitable for MAW.

When you didn’t work for Men At Work anymore, did you still follow what they were doing and what did you think of the rather sudden end of the band in 1985?

The sudden end was at the end of 1983 and it was a shock. The production company we used in Australia bought me a ticket to LA in Feb 1984. I shared a small apartment under the Hollywood 101 Freeway and got work at Studio Instrument Rentals doing sound for showcases. I met The Call and did a few shows with them. I met a booking agent at one the showcases and he connected me with Tina Turner’s manager, a fellow Australian Roger Davies. Like MAW, Tina had a hit album in “Private Dancer” that was racing up the charts. The contrast to Men At Work was that Tina had been doing it for 30 years before she had her big pop hit and had her act down. It started slow, the first shows I did with Tina had her performing at the end of a series of McDonalds regional store manager’s conventions. They quickly gave way to the cool clubs then straight to stadiums. I did front-of-house sound for Tina for three years until she “retired”, returning to Australia in 1987.

Did you keep in touch with either band or crew members? Did you work for Colin or any other band member again afterwards?

I was close to Greg Ham during the 1990’s, we were both founding board members for The PUSH, a government funded music initiative that is still going. Very sad demise. I’ve kept in touch with John Rees and Jerry Speiser has recently moved to live near me so we’ve caught up. I see some of the crew, I’ve been the house sound mixer at the Theatre Royal Castlemaine in regional Victoria for near 20 year and a couple of the sound crew have been there with bands. Ian “Iggy” Gilmore, MAW’s lighting operator lives nearby and I see him every 2 years at the Castlemaine State Festival. Daryl “Tracker” Petske sometimes comes to a Bluegrass festival I do up the mountains every year. Ted Gardner (Production manager/Psychic Bodyguard) stayed in the US after MAW and owned the Lollapalooza Tours as well as managing several big bands. He lives in Melbourne and we’ve had meetings about a festival near Castlemaine, he still manages The Brian Jonestown Massacre and I did sound for them on a couple of shows last year, crazy but a great band. I’ve mixed Colin Hay solo twice at the Theatre Royal, a couple of years ago was the last time.

Thank you very much for the interview, Mark! It’s very much appreciated that you took a lot of time to answer questions about something that is so long ago and to dig out some old photos, setlists etc. for the Men At Work fans.

Mark Woods continues to work as a sound engineer and if you want to find out what else he has been doing since 1983 and what he’s offering these days, please visit his website: https://www.markwoodsaudio.com.au

You may also like to see him on youtube in a four-part series of videos by Audio Technology Magazine about drum miking techniques. Here’s part 1: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZPoFnIxVmbI