Mental As Anything

 Mental As Anything

 Martin Plaza – circa 1987

 “Started out just drinking beer / Didn’t know how or why or what I was doing there” – ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ (Martin Plaza)

“We didn’t really have any aspirations of being musicians at all.  We were art students,” explains Martin Plaza.  Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, passes away on 16 August 1977.  By that time, Martin and some friends have been pottering about for around a year with their own brand of rock.  To commemorate the passing of ‘The King’, they use their artistic skills to paint portraits and banners as the backdrop for their show.  It is at this performance in August 1977 that the band’s longest-lasting line-up makes their debut.  Stepping onstage at the Cellblock Theatre are: Martin Plaza (vocals, guitar), Greedy Smith (vocals, keyboards, harmonica), Reg Mombassa (vocals, lead guitar), Peter O’Doherty (bass) and Wayne De Lisle (drums).  It is a friend of theirs, artist Paul Worstead, who gives them a name for the band: ‘Mental As Anything’, an Australian expression for ‘crazy’ or ‘addled’.  It’s not exactly politically correct and is only meant to be a one-time joke…but it sticks.

Although they are all art students, the members of the Australian rock band Mental As Anything come from diverse backgrounds.

Martin Plaza is born Martin Edward Murphy on 1 January 1956 on the north shore of Sydney, New South Wales.  “I had an operation when I was a little kid to fix scoliosis [curvature of the spine] and I was in hospital for about three weeks [with] pins in my back,” recalls Martin.  During the enforced confinement, Martin’s interest in both art and music grows.  This continues when he returns home.  “I used to take the trannie [i.e. the portable transistor radio] into the shower and sing along with The Beatles or Roy Orbison.”  Eventually, Martin becomes an art student at East Sydney Technical College.

Greedy Smith is born Andrew McArthur Smith on 16 January 1956 in Sydney, New South Wales.  Like Martin, Greedy also remembers the formative influence of commercial radio programming.  “After dinner, my brother – who was three years older than me – did the washing up and I did the drying up and we’d listen to the radio…The Small Faces…The Monkees…”

Reg Mombassa is born Christopher O’Doherty on 14 August 1951 in Auckland, New Zealand.  Reg claims ‘his unique style was formulated against an aural backdrop of conversation, train whistles, humming, lawn mowers, the grunts of football players and the crunch of hiking boots on dead leaves in the magnificent forests of his beautiful homeland.’  Peter O’Doherty, born 23 March 1958, is the younger brother of Reg (or Christopher) and is also born In Auckland.

Wayne De Lisle is born 21 April 1954 in Cooma, New South Wales.  Nicknamed ‘Bird’, he ‘likes eating, fishing and The Black And White Minstrels.’

Like Martin Murphy, all the lads have some artistic ability and attend East Sydney Technical College.  “Reg and I started jamming in our crappy little flats around the Cross [i.e. Sydney’s notorious red light district, King’s Cross],” says Martin.  “Something started happening there.”  An early press release has a more fanciful account from Martin: “One day I came across an ad that read: ‘Famous Art-Rock Band seeks charismatic front man.’  Greedy got that part but they let me join because I had a tattoo of Rolf Harris [an Australian painter / singer / entertainer].”  That information should be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s a good example of the band’s sense of humour.  In reality, Greedy says, “I was working in a bottle shop [i.e. a drive-through alcohol emporium].  I’d just finished art school.”

The members of Mental As Anything begin working together in 1976.  There are a few missteps and membership shuffles before the act crystallises in August 1977.  Martin seems to see the crucial step as “We got a bass player.”  They didn’t have to look very far since their bassist, Peter O’Doherty, is the younger brother of guitarist Reg Mombassa.

The stage names adopted by most of the band have two purposes.  Firstly, it emphasises that it’s all a bit of a lark, nothing too serious.  “We were quite against the pompousness of a lot of progressive rock, art rock,” Greedy explains.  “We wanted to play fairly simple stuff to keep other art students happy.”  On another occasion he declares, “When you’re in art school in Australia, there’s not a lot to do, other than be in a band or get drunk.”  This sort of attitude is reminiscent of that being espoused by punk / new wave acts in England around 1976-1977.  These acts include characters like Johnny Rotten of The Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer of The Clash, people who are using clearly artificial names to maintain a sort of ironic distance from the music business.  In a similar spirit, Martin Murphy becomes Martin Plaza – which is the name of a Sydney pedestrian mall.  Christopher O’Doherty’s alias of Reg Mombassa misspells Mombasa, the name of a city in Kenya, Africa.  Andrew Smith’s sobriquet of ‘Greedy’ derives from an episode with some fried chicken.

The same night that Mental As Anything’s steady line-up debuts at the Cellblock Theatre in August 1977, two other well-known Australian bands also make their debuts: Midnight Oil and INXS (the latter under the name of The Farriss Brothers).

Martin Plaza and friends start playing at the Tin Sheds on City Road, part of the Sydney University Architecture Facility.  Here they play ‘1960s and 1970s favourites for charities and parties, honing their strange behaviour and obscure persona basically to amuse themselves.’  “Then we started playing gigs at ‘The Unicorn’ in Paddington [in New South Wales],” Martin recounts, “and people started flocking to see us.”  The ‘pool table serves as a makeshift stage’ in the back bar.  “It was eighty cents to get in – if you could squeeze through the crowds.”  From here, the band graduates to a Thursday night gig at the Civic Hotel in Chinatown.

The people ‘flocking to see’ Mental As Anything include a pair of film-makers, Martin Fabinyi and Cameron Allan.  The duo are looking to branch into the music industry, primarily because they want to sign Mental As Anything to a recording contract.  Accordingly, they create their own independent label, Regular Records, for this purpose.  Martin Fabinyi’s brother, Jeremy Fabinyi, becomes the manager of Mental As Anything.

Initially, Mental As Anything could be described as a new wave band.  Punk rock stripped away much of the artifice and pretension of early 1970s art rock, but punk’s brand of nihilism proved to be a bit of a dead end.  New wave retains the basic thrust of punk but polishes it up a bit and adds some quirkiness.  The Mentals have quirkiness to spare.  Gradually, as the years pass, some of the new wave elements in their music are deemphasised so that their basic loyalty to pure pop music is exposed.  They remain either unwilling or incapable of totally ditching their oddball traits, so their own particular brand of pop music remains endearingly cock-eyed.

Martin Plaza is probably the best singer in the group.  His early interest in Roy Orbison shines through.  Although his voice is not as operatic as Orbison’s, it still has a considerable range and enticingly warm tone.  Although he is often the frontman for the band, Martin can still be a bit shy.  He is the most serious of the group, the one who chafes most at the Mentals self-imposed buffoonish image.  His rhythm guitar work is steady if unspectacular.  “I’m pretty much self-taught,” Martin offers.

Greedy Smith is almost the Mr Hyde to Martin Plaza’s Dr Jekyll.  Greedy is every inch the showman, cajoling crowds and the band itself.  Sometimes, in the early days, he even conducts chook raffles from the stage, presenting frozen poultry to the ‘lucky’ winner.  Despite his broad and garish persona, Greedy is also affable and amiable, qualities that prevent him being perceived as an oaf.  His vocals are less nuanced than Martin’s but maintain a blustery charm.  Greedy’s keyboards-work is sometimes underrated, partly because he does little to push his own musical credentials.  Yet is playing is often at the centre of a song or at least providing a neat counterpoint.  His occasional harmonica trills are another underappreciated contribution to the act.

Reg Mombassa is the band’s resident enigma.  A spindly, shabby character, he often seems like a cartoon of a decadent rock star rather than the real deal.  His high, piping voice is distinctive, if something of an acquired taste.  Reg’s greatest strength is his lead guitar playing.  Sometimes he uses a slide guitar steel tube about his finger to fret the notes and produce a longer, keening sound.  Mainly, it is his use of the tremolo bar – a ‘handle’ on the scratchboard – that produces his distinctive pitch.  He uses the tremolo mercilessly to enhance the guitar’s shaky vibrato.  The overall effect is like watching someone inflate a brightly coloured helium balloon that drifts to the ceiling.  Reg’s guitar notes similarly waft upwards into the ether – seemingly as much to his astonishment as that of his audience.

Peter O’Doherty’s bouncing bass playing provides the group with a lot of its momentum.  Peter is continually pushing a simpler, basic pop agenda.  Yet he also has his share of logic-defying moments.

Wayne De Lisle holds the whole thing together at the drumkit.  He is equally adept at a basic shuffling beat and an overextended breakneck pace.

The whole band contributes to the songwriting, though Wayne De Lisle’s efforts are limited to a few co-writes.  Usually, whoever writes the song sings it.  Peter O’Doherty is perhaps a bit overlooked.  Although he sings a little, Martin Plaza usually ends up singing Peter’s compositions.  Although they don’t labour it due to their ‘good time’ image, Mental As Anything do make a number of salient observations in their lyrics about life in suburban Australia.  Reg Mombassa: “Imagine how silly it would be if we suddenly tried to be serious, writing some kind of street level or profound stuff about real life.  I personally think we are doing that.  I think it’s just as real as [U.S. blue-collar rocker] Bruce Springsteen, but it’s not dressed up like that.”  Note how Reg goes from saying it’s all slapstick to admitting that there is some genuine ambition to sketch out the society in which they live.

The first release by Mental As Anything is the three-song EP ‘Mental As Anything Play At Your Party’ in September 1978.  ‘The band manages to sell eleven hundred copies of the EP from the boot of their car.”  The disc is given airplay on Sydney’s alternative radio station 2JJ (later, Triple Jay).  The most popular song is ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’.

Festival Records takes over distribution for Regular and a re-mixed version of ‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ (AUS no. 16) becomes their first hit single.  Written and sung by Martin Plaza, this song manages to both celebrate Australia’s drinking culture and warn of its inherent dangers: “Sometimes I wonder what all of these chemicals are doing to my brain / Doesn’t worry me enough to stop me from doing it again.”  Its guitars nag like wagging fingers, but Peter O’Doherty’s bass is as woozy as a drunken sailor.  “The next thing we knew it was on ‘Countdown’,” Martin says, referring to the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s early evening television program for pop music.  As they come offstage, “somebody mumbled, ‘Don’t give up your day jobs’,” Martin reveals.  Oddly enough, that’s Greedy’s quandary at the time.  He is still working in the bottle shop.  “’Nips’ became a hit and we were being called upon to tour and I had to make a decision then.”  And so the die is cast.  “We were very unambitious,” Martin notes, but Mental As Anything is now a full-time proposition.

‘The Nips Are Getting Bigger’ is included on the debut album by Mental As Anything, ‘Get Wet’ (1979) (AUS no. 19) in November.  In typical fashion, the group publicises the launch by challenging music journalists to ‘get wet’ in a swimming race with the musicians.  The eye-gougingly bright colours of the heavily-processed cover photo of the group are the work of their artistic friend, Paul Worstead.  Martin Plaza’s songwriting contributions to the album include ‘Possible Theme For A Future TV Drama Series’ (AUS no. 57), a humorous commentary on it being more profitable to write advertising jingles (or TV themes) than rock songs.  Reg Mombassa’s ‘Egypt’ is pyramid pop, a love song for a country.  The best of Greedy Smith’s songs here is probably ‘Insurance Man’, a plea for financial security in an uncertain world.  ‘Get Wet’ is the best Mental As Anything album because its free-wheeling silliness is matched with a relentless driving undercurrent.  This is the new wave influence on the band at its strongest.  It comes through in tracks like Reg’s ‘Can I Come Home?’, Martin’s ‘Fringe Benefits’ and Peter O’Doherty’s ‘Love Is Not A Gift’.  The cause is greatly assisted by an excellent production job from Cameron Allan that creates a thick bottom end to serve as a sturdy foundation.

‘Espresso Bongo’ (1980) (AUS no. 37) in July is the follow-up.  Again, Cameron Allan serves as producer.  This album’s highlight is Martin Plaza’s ‘Come Around’ (AUS no. 18).  The song boasts a boot-stomping beat and Martin’s voice quavers nearly as much as Greedy Smith’s organ-notes as he pleads, “You know where I can be found / I don’t see why you don’t…come around.”  “‘Come Around’ is kinda like a dada thing,” Martin claims, making reference to the dada art movement that was deliberately childlike and not inclined towards logic.  “The chords were pulled out one by one.  The chorus is more conventional.”

‘(Just Like) Romeo And Juliet’ (AUS no. 27) is a one-off 1980 single as the Mentals cover an obscure 1964 hit by a U.S. band called The Reflections.  Martin Plaza handles the lead vocals.

Mental As Anything part ways with Cameron Allan, turning to the production team of Bruce Brown and Russell Dunlop who ‘realise the Mentals’ pop potential’ on the next release, September’s ‘Cats And Dogs’ (1981) (AUS no. 3).  First out the gate is the band’s all-time best song, ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’ (AUS no. 4)  Martin Plaza composes this ‘definitive comically tragic’ piece.  After “Words were exchanged last night / You could call it a fight,” a couple split up, only for the still-smitten male half to want to tag along with his departing partner.  Apart from the conundrum of the title, this track is notable for sounding almost like country music, but with a jerky acoustic rhythm and Reg Mombassa’s guitar notes that waft overhead like bright orange clouds.  Greedy Smith reaches new heights as a songwriter with ‘Too Many Times’ (AUS no. 6).  At first, this seems just a breezy song about a hangover, with some neat harmonica parts.  However, there is some sharp existential observation too: “What is there left to do / But drink and watch the view? / I think that it might rain this afternoon.”  Peter O’Doherty’s ‘Berserk Warriors’ (AUS no. 30) recasts the break-up between Bjorn and Anna of Swedish group Abba as a “Viking love show”.  Martin Plaza sings this acoustic plaint set to a martial rhythm.  ‘Let’s Cook’ also hails from this disc.

In 1982 the members of Mental As Anything hold an art exhibition of their works.  Amongst the fans and celebrities who make purchases is U.K. pop star Elton John.

New wave doyen Elvis Costello is also a fan.  He produces the one-off 1982 single ‘I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean’ (AUS no. 25).  It’s obviously in the mould of ‘If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?’, but author Martin Plaza puts in some nice touches like, “Now I wouldn’t say I was no saint / But there are worse things that I ain’t.”  In Costello’s rather eccentric production job, the guitars behave like racing cars and the drums boom explosively at unexpected moments.

Also in 1982, Mental As Anything tours the United States for the first time, as a support act for fellow Aussie band, Men At Work.

‘Close Again’ (AUS no. 55) closes out the year and this ode to love in hot weather appears on the band’s next album, ‘Creatures Of Leisure’ (1983) (AUS no. 8) in March.  This album is home to Peter O’Doherty’s disorienting ‘Brain Brain’ (AUS no. 82).  Over bruised acoustic guitars, Martin Plaza sings this lament: “The flyscreen is broken / More wrong words are spoken,” in this portrait of suburban sadness.  ‘Spirit Got Lost’ (AUS no. 20), a collaboration between Greedy Smith and Reg Mombassa which is sung by Greedy, is a post-mortem out of body experience with bony keyboards and Halloween harmonies.  This album is again produced by Brown & Dunlop, but Greedy admits, “I think maybe on ‘Creatures Of Leisure’ we were becoming a bit weird.”

Mental As Anything go on to release a pair of stand-alone singles.  Martin Plaza gets to emulate his early influence, Roy Orbison, with a cover version of the U.S. singer’s 1962 hit ‘Working For The Man’ (AUS no. 20).  This 1983 single is produced by Mark Moffat & Ricky Fataar.  Mark Opitz does the honours for the 1984 single ‘Apocalypso’ (AUS no. 37).  This is an original tune co-written by Martin Plaza and Reg Mombassa with Martin on vocals.  It also ranks as one of the strangest seasonal tunes of all time with its image of “Santa Claus is drinking beer / Trying not to worry” about impending nuclear disaster.

American producer Richard Gottehrer imposes some discipline on Mental As Anything for their next release.  The appropriately titled ‘Fundamental’ (1985) (AUS no. 3) in September becomes ‘their biggest hit to date.’  Gottehrer urges the band to keep it simple.  Greedy Smith, in his own way, concurs: “Our main criterion for songwriting now is that we should be able to play songs when we’re really drunk.  That’s important to us, because we like to have a drink and it’s all part of the show.”  Greedy is the main beneficiary of the band’s new focus with his song ‘Live It Up’ (AUS no. 2, UK no. 3): “Hey yeah you with the sad face / Come up to my place and live it up.”  This is a bouncy ode to being rid of bad love and moving on to better things.  ‘You’re So Strong’ (AUS no. 11, UK no. 82) has Greedy yelping “easy darling!” and “try not to break me” while floating through a sea of synthesisers.  ‘A Date With Destiny’ (AUS no. 25) is another worthy single from this highly successful album.

The fortunes of Mental As Anything are boosted overseas by the inclusion of ‘Live It Up’ in the internationally successful Australian film ‘Crocodile Dundee’ (1986).  “Paul Hogan [the star of the film] wanted to put a bit of it in the background of one of the scenes,” says Greedy Smith, recalling how ‘Live It Up’ was selected.

In 1986 Reg Mombassa’s artwork begins appearing on t-shirts and the like from surfwear designer, Mambo.

Mental As Anything move to CBS Records for their next release, ‘Mouth To Mouth’ (1987) (AUS no. 14).  This album, released in July, seems intent on emulating ‘Fundamental’.  Again, the emphasis is on Greedy Smith’s songs like ‘Let’s Go To Paradise’ (AUS no. 15) and ‘He’s Just No Good For You’ (AUS no. 15, UK no. 88).  This album is described as ‘their most sophisticated recording.’

The 1987 single ‘Love Me Tender’ (AUS no. 34) is a cover version of Elvis Presley’s 1956 hit.  The Mentals stick to the ‘50s with another cover version, Chuck Berry’s ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Music’ (AUS no. 5) from 1957.  This track is recorded for the Yahoo Serious film, ‘Young Einstein’ (1988), and is released in late 1988.

‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Music’ is included on ‘Cyclone Raymond’ (1989) (AUS no. 34).  This set also encompasses ‘World Seems Difficult’ (AUS no. 19) and ‘Baby You’re Wild’ (AUS no. 79).

The group’s career momentum is stalled due to an accident.  ‘Greedy is thrown from his horse and badly injures his arm and back resulting in weeks of extreme pain and necessitating months of convalescence.’  During this enforced time out, Martin Plaza and his wife have a daughter named Rosemary (born 1990).  He also works with James Freud of Australian band The Models in a part-time side project called Beatfish.

Reg Mombassa and Peter O’Doherty also have a side project, Reg & Pete’s Dog Trumpet.

Wayne De Lisle finally finishes his art course during this downtime.  It also seems to be around this period that he marries his wife, Sue, and changes his name to David Twohill.

In 1995 Mental As Anything return.  First, there is the independent EP ‘Bicycle’ in January 1995.  This is followed by the single ‘Mr Natural’ (AUS no. 27) (an original song, not a cover version of The Bee Gees’ track of the same name).  Then comes the album ‘Liar Liar Pants On Fire’ (1995) (AUS no. 32) on BMG Records.  Another independent EP, ‘Minus Bonus’, is issued in December 1997.  ‘Garage’ (1998) (AUS no. 75) appears on Festival Records.  This is the last Mental As Anything album to feature the classic line-up.  Reg Mombassa and Peter O’Doherty both leave the group in 2000.  They are replaced by Murray Cook (guitar) and David Barraclough (bass) for ‘Beetroot Stains’ (2000).  This disc is issued by CME/Universal.  The same company puts out the EP ‘Borscht’ in October 2001.  In November of the next year, ‘Road Café’ (2002) comes out on Barking Mad Records.  David Twohill (the former Wayne De Lisle) is gone by 2004 with Robbie Souter (drums) becoming his replacement.  The Mentals wander from company to company with ‘Plucked’ (2005), an acoustic version of their hits, coming from Liberation and ‘Tents Up’ (2009) from Warners.  When Robbie Soutar departs in 2011, the band gets a new rhythm section: Zoltan Budai (bass) and Jacob Cook (drums).

Mental As Anything’s best work came from the period 1978 to 1998.  These were the years of the classic incarnation of Martin Plaza, Greedy Smith, Reg Mombassa, Peter O’Doherty and Wayne De Lisle.  It’s possible that even from 1989 this version of the band was in decline.  Martin Plaza and Greedy Smith kept the flame alive through a shifting cast of other musicians and almost a new record label for each release.  “We were going to be painters,” Greedy reminded us.  Their detour into rock music only came about through boredom.  “We just did it for something to do,” he claimed.  It was perhaps this offhanded spontaneity that made Mental As Anything so appealing.  It was just some friends having a good time.  Yet, along the way, they also crafted some pop music gems and quietly used their lyrics to draw an image of suburban Australia in the late twentieth century.  ‘Australia’s prankish Mental As Anything…forged a career spanning…several decades, their tongues remaining firmly in cheek throughout the duration of their existence.’  ‘Loved by the kids for their bubbling pop hooks and abundant good humour [they were also] loved by the pub audiences for their bouncing, tipsy rhythms and [were] admired by the most avant-garde for their ability to be lyrically and musically offbeat within the confines of a three-minute tune…’

Sources:

  1. 4BC Brisbane (Australian radio station) – Martin Plaza and Greedy Smith interview conducted by Joel Helmes (15 April 2011)
  2. ‘Friday On My Mind’ by Ed Nimmervoll (Five Mile Press, 2004) p. 114, 121, 122, 130
  3. 5 FM – Brisbane (Australian radio station) – Greedy Smith interview conducted by Donna Lovegrove (25 August 2011)
  4. ‘History – The World’s Greatest Garage Band’ by Toby Creswell (reproduced on mentals.com.au as at 15 October 2001)
  5. wikipedia.org as at 22 July 2013
  6. ‘Reader’s Digest Australian Family Medical Adviser’ – Various contributors (Reader’s Digest Pty Ltd, 1984) p. 460
  7. ‘Artist Magazine – San Francisco’ – Greedy Smith interview conducted by Joy Williams (1983) (reproduced on artistwd.com)
  8. allmusic.com, ‘Mental As Anything’ by Jason Ankeny as at 30 August 2001
  9. ‘The Big Australian Rock Book’, ‘Mental As Anything’ by Ed St John (Megabooks, 1985) p 64, 65
  10. ‘Get Wet’ – Anonymous sleeve notes (Regular Records Australia, 1979) p. 2
  11. ‘Billboard’ magazine – for the years in which the hits by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Roy Orbison were originally released. Quoted in ‘The Rolling Stone Illustrated History Of Rock ‘N’ Roll’, ‘Elvis Presley’, ‘Chuck Berry’, and ‘Roy Orbison’ (Plexus Publishing, 1992), p. 35, 66, 157
  12. ‘DVD & Video Guide 2007’ by Mick Martin, Marsha Porter (Ballantine Books, 2006) p. 244

Song lyrics copyright Syray Pty Ltd

Last revised 19 November 2013

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