Musician 'haunted' by court decision
Men at Work's Greg Ham
Greg Ham on July 6, 2010. Photo by Wayne Taylor
''I'm terribly disappointed that that's the way I'm going to be remembered - for copying something.''
It was an upbeat, sunny riff, but the legacy of the flute solo in Men At Work's mega-hit single Down Under had long soured for Greg Ham.
After Down Under was found by a court to have reproduced ''a substantial part'' of folk song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree in 2010, the flautist told Fairfax he felt the song - and his reputation - had been tarnished. ''It will be the way the song is remembered and I hate that,'' he said.
Greg Ham in 2010. Photo: Wayne Taylor
Two years on and it seems the musician was still haunted by the court decision which is believed to have impacted significantly on his financial situation.
The 58-year-old's body was discovered by friends at his North Carlton home yesterday, in a modest house he recently moved into after being forced to sell a grand property nearby bought during the Men At Work days and later turned into a studio where Archie Roach's Charcoal Lane was recorded.
Detective Senior Sergeant Shane O'Connell said there were several unexplained circumstances surrounding the death but would not go into detail.
The cause of death remains unknown, but a close friend of Ham's told Fairfax last night that he believed Ham had begun using heroin ''heavily'' and also abusing alcohol after the Kookaburra trial.
''The whole case had undone him,'' the friend, who asked not to be named, said.
Ham had recently split from his wife, Linda Wostry. The couple have two children, aged 17 and 20.
Ham's long-time friend and chemist found Ham's body in the front room of his home just after midday.
David Nolte runs a Rathdowne Street pharmacy and knew Ham for 30 years. Mr Nolte told Fairfax he went to check on Ham after a friend was unable to contact him for some time.
''A concerned resident contacted me and said … that they tried to ring him over a number of days and … it kept going to voicemail and the cats obviously hadn't been fed,'' Mr Nolte said.
He said Mr Ham was ''very highly respected''.
''I found him always a very polite gentleman, he was a very humble man, he used to teach high school kids … it was a really big shock and I'm sorry that he's passed away.''
A close neighbour said although Ham was a bit of a recluse he had attended a barbecue recently.
''He looked like he'd done it hard,'' Linda Phypers said.
She said Ham had been renovating the house and was pleasant to everyone in the street, although he had obvious health issues.
''He talked about that riff and he was still pretty upset about that,'' she said. ''But he was a good guy. He used to walk the streets a bit and looked a bit daggy.''
Men At Work frontman Colin Hay last night described Ham as ''a beautiful man''.
Hay has insisted since the 2010 court verdict that any plagiarism was unintentional and that the contentious flute solo wasn't added until two years after the song was written, during a jam session in which Ham improvised the riff.
The song, from Men At Work's 1982 debut album Business As Usual, became a worldwide hit in 1982, reaching No. 1 on the American, British, Canadian and Australian charts, and became an unofficial Australian anthem.
Similarities between Down Under and Kookaburra, a song penned in 1934 by Toorak school teacher Marion Sinclair for a Girl Guides competition, were the subject of a throwaway joke on a 2007 episode of the ABC music quiz program Spicks and Specks.
Shortly afterwards, Larrikin Music Publishing, which owns the copyright for Kookaburra, sued songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert and EMI music publishing, seeking back-dated royalties and a share of future profits.
Larrikin Music sought a 50 per cent royalty cut, but a federal court ordered that Hay, Strykert and EMI pay Larrikin 5 per cent of Down Under's future profits, as well as royalties dating back to 2002.
Ham, who received a small percentage of the song's royalties, told Fairfax at the time while the decision ''could have been worse'', he was worried that ''at the end of the day, I'll end up selling my house''.
Norman Lurie, who headed Larrikin Music at the time they won the court case, has since retired.
Ham's friends and colleagues were yesterday shocked at news of the musician's death.
From his home in the United States, Colin Hay issued a statement recalling his friend of 40 years; they met in 1972 when they were in the last year of high school.
''He was the funniest person I knew,'' he said. ''We shared countless, unbelievably memorable times together, from stumbling through Richmond after playing the Cricketers Arms, to helicoptering into New York City, to appearing on Saturday Night Live, or flying through dust storms in Arizona, above the Grand Canyon … The saxophone solo on Who Can It Be Now, was the rehearsal take. He's here forever.''
Hay said he was thinking about Ham's family. ''I'm hoping they are receiving the love and support they need and deserve.''
Former Men At Work manager and Ham's close friend Linda Carroll was devastated by the news, saying she ''had no idea what could have happened''.
She described her friend as unassuming and very special.
''What people need to know about Greg is that he had a heart of gold, he was creative and a true friend.''
As well as the legacy of his world famous work with Men At Work, Ham had been chairman of the under-age music festival Push and had been teaching music at North Carlton Primary School.
''Not many people know that Greg used to assess all the VCE music students,'' Ms Carroll said.
''He lived a very quiet life in many respects, for the past few years, but he's left a good little legacy.''
Ian ''Molly'' Meldrum, long-time host of music TV show Countdown, said he had not seen Ham for many years but remembered him as ''a really lovely guy''.
Men at Work had left a significant mark on Australian music history, Meldrum said.
''To me, Down Under is on a level with Waltzing Matilda.'' with Paul Millar, Jane Lee, Henrietta Cook
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