Despite a somewhat dodgy reputation, the 80s pop scene did throw up some enduring acts, and iconic Aussies Mental As Anything merit comparison with the very best emerging from that era. Some of their deceptively bubbly tunes carry much more serious themes than most, yet as the legend goes, they began with no pretensions of being musicians at all, forming a covers act in order to score free beer. I spent a very enjoyable half an hour talking to the very gregarious and articulate Greedy Smith about their upcoming back-to-back dates playing Vertigo.
Given that the Cairns shows run over two successive nights, I assumed a fair content overlap, but asked whether were there any plans for doing anything different from night to night? “I guess we might put a country and western song in! We’ve got a couple of new songs we will probably put through the set, we’ll have a look at that. Writing new music is interesting, well it’s problematic for everybody, from the Rolling Stones to U2, isn’t it? But it’s good, it keeps you honest. We mainly concentrate on the songs that people know off the radio: “If You Leave Me,” “Too Many TImes, ” “Live It Up,” “Romeo And Juliet,” “Rock And Roll Music.” At the moment, Martin and I have acquired a new guitarist. He’s really sharp, he’s a really good acquisition – we’ve got a really hot band at the moment.”
Really sharp is quite an understatement: best known for his time with The Atlantics, Martin Cilia is touted as Australia’s finest surf rock guitarist. The rhythm section touring with originals Greedy and Martin Plaza is also appropriately gifted, and I enquired how the new band members were settled into the Mentals sound, whether they brought anything different? “They bring an incredibly professional attitude! Our bass player played with Richard Clapton a fair bit, he’s a real pro. The drummer, Jacob Cook, was one year old when we had our first hit record and he’s expecting the birth of his fifth child, so it shows how time slips away. Actually we’re saying 60 is the new 30!”
Time does slip away. Last time the Mentals made a public appearance in Cairns was right after Cyclone Yasi smashed the coast in 2011. The gig was on Fitzroy Island and had to be postponed. “Wow, has it been that long? Yeah, I reckon that would be about right – that was a lot of fun, that Fitzroy Island one. Yeah, the show had to be postponed – we got to talk to a lot of the people around there, who copped it on the mainland to the south.”
Everybody loves the Mentals story of starting out as effectively a party covers band and then accidentally evolving into an industry stalwart. I mentioned that we kind of still see that a little bit in Cairns, with the underground scene here. When asked whether he thought that’s still possible in a capital city, with so much opportunity for broad exposure for bands now, Greedy drew an interesting comparison. “That’s an interesting question. The only places you really get to play in capital cities are restaurants, or if you want to make a bit of a racket, it’s the odd pub, and they don’t have much money to pay the band. Or you’re getting run out of town into the big beer barns… But, the only way you can think about it, is not really as an industry. I hear that a lot, “it’s the industry,” but it’s not really an industry at all, it’s opportunism.”
“If you can find somewhere that wants your band to play, if they want to pay you (as a band) then that’s pretty good, but that’s why there are lots of people in duos and playing with .mp3 players, because that fits into the economics of what venues are doing, where people gather. So that’s a hard part of the thing. But if you look at the blues scene in Chicago, a lot of that revolved around the street parties, or there were the clubs. Small clubs, and they weren’t being paid much but there were enough gigs for bands to rotate around. So I think the Australian music scene is now a bit like the Chicago blues scene in the olden days, and from that I think things will flower again. In centres like Cairns it’s probably a pretty accurate reflection of what’s going on everywhere.”
The overriding theme of a Mental As Anything show back in the eighties, and indeed the vibe that the band still brings today, was fun. To me it seems today’s bands seem to be overly serious sometimes – I asked Greedy for his opinion. “Well, there are that bunch who want to have fun in a very seriously professional manner! We got this when we went to America in 82, meeting with record companies. We were talking to other bands, and they were all asking questions like, “do you have a stylist? What’s your career path?” and they sounded like a lot of bands talk today. They have to plot a career path, and they are worrying about their image. I thought at the time, once you start thinking like that you’re dead! But in saying that, after we realised what they were saying, we realised that’s how they HAD to do it… it’s so competitive over there.”
“We were just very lucky, it’s a bit cheeky of me to criticise people having that attitude because we didn’t have any ambition at all! It was someone else’s idea to record us, they started an independent record company and they needed someone to record and they picked us, and it was just luck and everyone liking “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” that started it all off. So we said, “this is easy! We weren’t even trying!” So I can’t really speak from any position of, “this is a plan and we did it!” But it was a hell of a lot easier back then, being in the kind of band we are. Can you imagine us getting on any of the TV talent shows? Or could you see them doing Cold Chisel on those shows (not that they’d play shows like that) Or Midnight Oil?”
Lucky the five-piece may have been, but infectious hooks, high-energy shows, and even a name that would roughly translate into today’s idiom as “Sick as Fuck!” (sorry Greedy and any kids reading!) show a lot of thought and behind-the-scenes work have always gone into success. I said that I think it’s a great reflection of Australian music that having that attitude, that lack of pretense, genuinely doing it for the love of what you are doing, did flower for so many bands. “See, publicans would give you the work, that’s the thing: there was the work, and now there isn’t it makes people a bit more reflective… “Oh, there must be something we’re doing wrong.” And they’re probably not doing anything wrong, probably doing everything right and having fun, but it’s nice to be recognised for it.”
With the light pop treatment given to all their songs, I told Greedy I always liked they way they dealt with potentially dark themes… and how alcoholism seemed to be a recurring theme… “Well it brushes past our band quite closely… haha! I drink a lot of tea on stage these days, a lot cheaper and less damaging than the whisky, which is a habit you pick up in America because the beer doesn’t work!”
“Well we had to pull our heads in a bit, Martin and I, just to keep doing it; I think when Reg and Pete left around the turn of the century one of the reasons was they couldn’t keep living like that. So they turned straight back to art. Also, you get a lot more reflective about what you do, and when someone new joins the band, you get a chance to return to the original material, the original recordings. We’re a bit more thoughtful on trying to reproduce that, because a lot of the people who come to see us, they’re another generation on, they don’t know us how we played like maniacs in the ’80s, they’re reference is the recordings, so you want to reflect that a bit. For many years we did well over 200 shows a year and things just change, and you have to be vigilant to reference the originals, and when when you bring new people in it’s a great way to do it. We don’t play everything exactly as the record, but it’s a lot closer, and in general it’s worked for us.”
Turning to the modern day Greedy, I asked what he listens to in the car. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to hear names like Nicky Minaj from the pop icon, but again there’s a lot of depth behind the scenes: “I’ve been listening to “The History Of Atlantic Records,” and it’s really interesting to listen to ’47-’52 and ’52-’54. It’s all by black artists, but then everything became hits in rock ‘n’ roll once Elvis came along. It just shows you the origins of a lot of that kind of music, and the different feels, and the way things are. But I listen to all the Burt Bacharach stuff as well, Born Free by Matt Monroe, bloody Roger Whittaker, all that horrifying stuff. Relistening to the Rolling Stones again – I’m a pre-Exile On Main Street guy, and pre-Live At Leeds by The Who!”
Finally, I sought any tips he may be able to offer emergent bands.
“Don’t sign anything! These days there is no need to sign anything!”
“Write your own songs… well, if you enjoy writing your own songs, write your own songs and play them. But play other people’s songs as well too, because if you play other people’s songs that you like and then you introduce your songs into that, then people get a context. It’s a good psychological way to get people on side for the songs you’ve written, if you can couch it with similar songs. So many musicians now are too specialised and all their songs sound the same. We used to do from Perry Como to full on, almost punk stuff, to really old Country and Western, and I think variety is really good because you get you chops up. Plus if you’re playing to people who don’t really care who you are, they’re not interested in the band initially, they’ll be interested in your repertoire, because everybody has got their bloody ipod mentality and they go from one song to another. And if you can play shows like that, well you might get them!”
I reckon he’s dead right. And I’ll be searching the cupboard for a shirt with big lapels ahead of the Vertigo 31st October/1st November shows, to see why basically having fun on stage for over three decades with your mates is rightfully recognised as legendary. Sick as, oops I mean Mental As Anything, play Vertigo Fri 31st and Sat 1st. Shows are absolutely free!