In 2019 Mental As Anything founding member Andrew “Greedy” Smith, who wrote some of the Australian new wave band’s best-known songs, including Live It Up, died aged 63. For many music fans in this country it was like a close relative had just died. As tributes poured in thick and fast, many of us took the time to reflect on Mental As Anything’s impact on Australia’s music landscape and the impact it had on our hearts.
Mental As Anything formed at an art school in Sydney in 1976. Their first gigs were primarily small parties. Band member Martin Plaza once said, “We just started for a laugh. To meet girls and get free drinks.” Interestingly, at the time they were still strangely without a band name. They asked promotor Paul Worstead to choose one from a list of possible names which suited their larrikin character. Worstead chose the phrase “mental as anything” which was late 70s Australian slang for being crazy, offbeat or “going off”.
Their first official gig together in their most recognised line-up (which lasted from 1977 to 1999) with Martin Plaza on vocals and guitar, Reg Mombassa on lead guitar and vocals, Peter O’Doherty on bass and vocals, Wayne de Lisle on drums and Andrew ‘Greedy’ Smith on vocals, keyboards and harmonica, took place in the east of Sydney on the night Elvis Presley died (August 16, 1977). It was fitting during that solemn night that they chose to play many of Elvis’ popular songs, together with their love of different genres like Blues, Rockabilly and Country music. Subsequently, it wasn’t long before they were playing to a loyal crowd every week. When two indie record label record producers spotted their act in mid 1979, Mental As Anything were rewarded with a contract to record their debut single, The Nips Are Getting Bigger, a larrikin drinking song written by Martin Plaza. Later that same year the band (somewhat hastily) released their debut album Get Wet. Interestingly, songwriting duties across all fourteen songs (on Get Wet) were shared by Mombassa, O’Doherty, Plaza and Smith, either individually or together. This eclectic venture as bandmates and songwriters would see them produce multiple hit singles and albums throughout the height of their popularity in the 1980s.
International success for Mental As Anything came in waves, especially in the UK and Germany. (Mental As Anything apparently sold more records in Germany than in Australia!) The reason why their fresh fun approach to pop-rock was so well received was primarily due to the fact that their ironic, satirical and self-deprecating sense of humour was something audiences could relate to. A real bonus to their success was their ability to produce some of the most funniest and quirkiest music video of the 80s. (The original video clip for their single Let’s Cook from their 1981 album Cats & Dogs was apparently exhibited (screened) in the New York Museum of Modern Art in the early 80s. Though I can’t find the citation to substantiate that claim.)
Mental As Anything’s good-time image is often what most music enthusiasts and fans remember about them. This is no more evident than their happy-go-lucky Live It Up written by Greedy Smith. It was as close as they came to a major international hit, #3 in the UK, #4 in Norway and #6 in Germany. In Australia, it reached #2 for several weeks in 1985, thwarted by Madonna’s Angel/Into The Groove from attaining top spot. Live It Up would go on to become the fourth biggest-selling single of 1985. It spent twelve weeks in the Australian Top 10 and in the years to come it would deeply embedded itself into Australian suburban life. It’s still to this day affectionately played in pubs, clubs, backyard parties and on the radio.
Lyrically, Live It Up conveys a straightforward message about resilience and hope. “How can you see looking through those tears?/ Don’t you know you’re worth your weight in gold?/ I can’t believe that you’re alone in here/ Let me warm your hands against the cold.”
And as the song builds, it tries to offer a remedy to the difficulties we face, especially the chorus which is presumably (in this case) encouraging a young woman to forget about the loser who has broken her heart and come join a party and have some fun. “Hey, yeah you, with the sad face/ Come up to my place and live it up/ You, beside the dance floor/ What do you cry for, let’s live it up.”
For those who grew up in the 1980s we will always remember how popular Mental As Anything were on the radio. At one point they held the record for most Top 40 hits in Australia by Australians. All in all they made us laugh with their unique Australian larrikin spirit. This was reflected through an array of loveable songs like Too Many Times and If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too? Though it’s fair to say Live It Up is probably their signature song everyone remembers the most.
The Mentals (as they are often affectionately known) would release in total thirteen studio albums. Their last album Tents Up in 2009 would coincide with their induction into the ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Hall of Fame. Greedy Smith once said, ”Lightweight pop music is supposed to be here today and gone tomorrow, so it’s nice that we have been remembered.”
Interesting. I was living and growing up in Germany when Mental As Anything apparently enjoyed some success there. Their name doesn’t ring a bell at all and I also don’t remember “Let’s Cook” – sounds quirky! That said, “Live It Up” does sounds familiar.
I never heard of them, nor any of the songs you shared, as they didn’t seem to catch on in the U.S. It’s a shame, really, cuz they had a great pop sound. Nice article Robert!