Today, April 19th, 2014 marks the second anniversary of the death of one of Australasia’s greatest musicians, Greg Ham. A virtuoso multi-instrumentalist, he played saxophone, flute, keyboards, percussion, harmonica and guitar as well as vocals. As an actor he was a regular cast member on the popular Australian television program “While You’re Down There” and was a featured performer in the jazz-flavored
band “Relax With Max.”
But today, he is best remembered as a founding member-and arguably a key ingredient-of one of the greatest bands to emerge from Australasia: Men at Work. From 1979 to 1985, Greg Ham and lead singer (and principle songwriter) Colin Hay formed the core of the band, which had also included original members Ron Strykert on lead guitar, John Rees on bass and Jerry Speiser on drums.
Ham returned to the band in 1996 when they reformed to tour America, once again captivating standing room only audiences with his electrifying sax work on such MAW classics as “Overkill” and “Who Can it Be Now” as well as lesser-known (but no less brilliant) MAW songs such as “Down By The Sea.” His return to the band proved to its American fans that time had not diminished Greg Ham’s astounding talents: as dazzling as his boyish smile.
In regard to the band’s seminal role in helping to create international interest in and
support of Australia and its music, famed Australian musicologist Ian McFarlane noted that Men at Work’s “phenomenal success inextricably created worldwide interest in Australia and Australian music…opening the floodgates with little more than a clutch of great songs.” Until the end of the 1980s, the band remained the most famous and popular Australian band on both its home turf as well as abroad.
Yet in spite of the band’s lasting legacy…a legacy that Ham had been an essential part in the creation of…he died fearing that instead of being remembered as an exciting and original artist, he would instead go down in history as merely a plagiarist. And all because of his creation of a bright and cheery flute riff solo unexpectedly running head on with a silly, television trivia game show…and a children’s song.
“I’m terribly disappointed that that’s the way I’m going to be remembered: for copying something.”-Greg Ham
As an American music journalist with strong connections to the Australian music scene, I get asked a lot what actually happened, since many in America didn't get all the facts straight about this perplexing lawsuit and its bitter aftermath. Here is what actually happened:
One night, on a 2007 episode of the popular ABC music quiz program "Spicks & Specks" a joke of a question was presented by the show's host Adam Hills: “Name the nursery rhyme this riff has been based on, as well as the man playing it. He didn’t get the answer he was looking for until the contestants were given a much-needed second chance to give him the answer he was looking for, provided by the former “Play School” presenter Jay Laga’aia. “Is it ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree?’” he blurted out. “That’s right!” cried Hills, at which point everyone suddenly shook their heads in agreement, laughed, and promptly forgot all about it. And that should have been the end of that stuff and nonsense…but sadly that was not the case.
Unfortunately, that program was seen by an executive at Larrikin Publishing; the owners of "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gumtree." The next day, Larrikin's CEO Norman Lurie’s phone was ablaze from a literal explosion of calls coming in.
Recalled Lurie: “A number of people contacted me, including some of our songwriters. I was shocked. It absolutely hadn't occurred to me. It was just one of those mysteries ... like walking down the same street every day over a crack and not seeing it."
Lurie now claims that Larrikin-going all the way back to 1990-had been busy pursuing "various international publishers" for the unauthorized use of the Kookaburra song, He states that this violating of his former company’s copyright was due to the mistaken belief that the Kookaburra song had gone into public domain. Noted Lurie, “This is what publishers do on a daily basis.”
Am I the only person here who would love to see an actual list of those international publishers who-prior to the high profile lawsuit against “Down Under”-were in violation of the Kookaburra song?
On a more intriguing note, when I traveled to Scotland in 2001, I happened upon an entrancing little ditty I heard performed in one of the pubs there; a song which to my ear sounds a helluva lot like “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gumtree.” When I asked the young woman about it, she informed me that it was called “Wele ti'n eustedd aderyn du?” (“See You There, That Blackbird Sitting?”)
After I returned to America, I looked up the song and found that it’s a well known Welsh folk song. Am I the only person here who would love to see if that song, like Kookaburra, has a current and active copyright on it? If it does, then clearly someone needs to invite Larrikin back to court…immediately.
Sadly, no one at Sony BMG Music, Hay nor Strykert thought to actually bring the sheet music to the songs in question into court to help argue their case that the two songs don't sound alike. If you look at the scores to both songs, comparing them on paper (as I have done) you can plainly see that the songs are different. Instead, the (obviously tone deaf) judge decided that the riff to "Down Under" did indeed resemble the tune of "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gumtree."
Larrikin, which had sought a whooping 40-60 percent royalties from both past and future sales of "Down Under" were eventually awarded a mere 5% royalties on both its future profits as well as royalties backdated to 2002, although false rumors were later spread in some parts of the media, alleging that Larrikin had won their original court demands.
Another rumor was that the lawsuit had a direct result in Greg Ham's loss of fortune, resulting in him eventually losing his posh, former home. In reality, only Sony BMG Music, EMI Songs Australia, Hay and Strykert were sued by Larrikin. Furthermore, since Hay had essentially bartered away the rights to the entire Men at Work song catalogue to CBS Records years earlier in the 1980s (the details of which I have discussed many times previously) this lawsuit hurt the band's REPUTATION far more than its finances. Although Ham had been receiving a tiny amount of royalties from "Down Under" the lawsuit had little effect on his finances other than to essentially dry up that trickle of royalties that amounted to a drop in a bucket for him.
By the time of the Australian court's decision, Greg Ham told the Australian press, ''It could have been worse" but added (only half joking) ''At the end of the day, I'll end up selling my house''. To add to Ham’s woes, at approximately the same time as the court was handing down its verdict, Ham took a serious fall at his two-story studio home (The Cotton Mill), cracking his teeth. Too broke to fix them, too embarrassed to be seen that way in public, coupled with emotional wounds from the recent allegations of plagiarism and the loss of his father and sister, his abuse of alcohol spiraled out of control and Ham’s health took a sharp decline. He became increasingly reclusive and depressed.
From what I have been able to piece together about Greg Ham's later years (both professionally and personally) it's difficult to say exactly what went wrong. At no point was Ham ever without work. Ham was prominently featured in the popular band "Relax With Max", performed with Hay in the successful Men at Work tour reunion and did studio work with other musicians. Furthermore, Ham was a popular teacher in the Melbourne school system, where he taught guitar at a local primary school.
By some accounts, Ham's personal demons of drug and alcohol dependency began as far back as Men at Work's glory year: 1983. It was in that pivotal year that the band was touring nonstop as well as worldwide. The stress by all accounts was horrific, and fights between band mates were all too commonplace.
In regard to the band’s in-fighting, Hay told me in 1997, "The band broke into two sectors: me and Greg on one end and (John) Rees and (Jerry) Speiser on the other, with Ronny (Strykert) struggling to stay in a neutral corner." One can only imagine what the lack of sleep, breakneck tour schedule and in-fighting must have done to a delicate, sensitive man like Greg Ham.
With his posh, two-story former home studio sold to help ease his financial woes, Ham purchased a rather dismal, smallish home (complete with a multitude of telephone poles and wires encircling it) just a few miles away from his former home. There he sat, in the heart of the business section of downtown Carlton North, Victoria, Australia, alone. Greg Ham found himself-despite his fame and high esteem among Australia's music community-on very shaky ground.
On April 19, 2012, Greg Ham's friends became alarmed when Ham's telephone answering machine went unheeded for days on end. A subsequent inquiry among Ham's neighbors revealed that no one had seen him for days. Ham's long-time friend and pharmacist David Nolte went to the house in the afternoon, where he discovered Ham's body in the front room of Ham's home. An autopsy revealed that Ham had been dead for days.
Mr. Nolte, who runs a Rathdowne Street pharmacy, had known Ham for 30 years. He told the Australian press that he went to check on Ham after a friend was unable to contact him for some days. By the time that Nolte arrived at Ham’s home, it was already too late; Greg Ham was dead. His lifeless body was found in a sitting position against the wall in the home’s front room. He had suffered a fatal heart attack.
Said Nolte, ''Greg’s friend told me they tried to ring him over a number of days and … it kept going to voicemail and the cats obviously hadn't been fed.''
In the aftermath of Ham's sudden demise, an unnamed friend of Ham's stepped forward with the alarming claim that Ham's abuse issues were far more serious than what had been previously reported. This "mystery man" alleged that Ham had been heavily using heroin, and that Ham's abuse of alcohol had intensified after the Kookaburra case. Observed the friend, sadly shaking his head, ''The whole case had undone him."
Immediately following the death of Greg Ham, furious fans began a barrage of hate mail and threatening phone calls to Larrikin Music Publishing Company and Norman Lurie retired not long after.
Greg Ham's family and friends held a private funeral for Ham at the Fitzroy Town Hall in Melbourne, on May 2, 2012. Gregory Norman Ham was finally laid to rest at The Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton, Victoria, Australia: Roman Catholic area of plots, Compartment O, Section 3, Row 1 Grave 55.
Said Colin Hay, fondly recalling his band mate (and beloved friend of 40 years) "He was the funniest person I knew. We shared countless, unbelievably memorable 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. We played in a band and conquered the world together. I love him very much. He's here forever. He was a beautiful man!''
I heartily agree, Colin.
Special thanks to the Carlton, Victoria, Australian police department for their kind assistance/cooperation with both the local and international press in the investigation of the death of musician Greg Ham. Your department demonstrated the utmost professionalism, courtesy and cooperation with members of the press/media in our investigation and reporting of the demise of musician Gregory Ham, for which we the press and the countless fans of the late Greg Ham owe you a debt of gratitude. THANK YOU!
Special thanks to The Age for their invaluable reference material/quotes
from Mr. Colin Hay and the late, great Greg Ham. You guys ROCK!
Special thanks to The Melbourne General Cemetery for their kind assistance in locating
the exact interment location of Gregory Norman Ham, for the benefit of this writer, Examiner and
its readers. We owe you a debt of gratitude. THANK YOU!