But it was their songs that kept them there, cemented in place; that place being the Top 40 (and 10 and 20 and 100). Rock scribe Clinton Walker thought they were “blessed with four songwriters producing unashamedly commercial, classic pop that’s utterly engaging, warm, witty and charming”.
Elvis Costello sensed that immediately when he took the band into the studio during a tour to produce their hit single I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean.
In 1986-87 the band took to the road with the Australian Made national concert tour, on a bill with rock heavyweights INXS, Jimmy Barnes, Divinyls, Models and Saints. They were first up to the crease, sent out under glaring sunlight to strike a tone and set a mood.
Throughout the month-long jaunt, the Mentals warmed hearts as the joke that never grows stale, and as an irresistible, irrepressible yet reliable ensemble of decent sorts of blokes who have transcended fads, trends and normal popularity lifespans while managing to appeal to all the people all the time.
As the book of the tour put it: “These five bright, charming, artistic and witty lads who know all about a good time and how to have it gave Australian Made much of its character. Andrew Loog Oldham said it first about the Rolling Stones, Mental As Anything are more than a band, they’re a way of life!” They perpetually entertained richly with their irreverent approach and their ironic, satirical and self-deprecating sense of humour.
Throughout the ’80s their intricate yet instantly accessible pop gems, and their dishevelled non-image image (when not bedecked in Mambo outfits, designed by Mombassa), provided a sort of antidote to rotating crops of pompous, trend-tagged formula bands. By never taking themselves too seriously they stumbled upon a tonic for timelessness. Of course, having parallel careers as some of the country’s leading visual artists assisted longevity considerably.
Greedy – whose nickname name came from an incident on the road with a bucket of KFC – came from the same East Sydney art college as his band-mates (he having attended North Sydney Boys High) but was the least inclined to involve himself with what comrade Plaza has described as “the bitchy art scene”. He just couldn’t muster the necessary detachment and artifice. Those who described him since his passing along the lines of a “brightly lit, oversized teddy bear with the heart of a passionate artist” spoke for everyone who knew him or met him. He could hold court effortlessly, be it on Countdown or Hey Hey It’s Saturday in dressing rooms, on stages or at industry functions.
In the formative years they weren’t really anything much. “We were pretty naive musicians to begin with,” offered Plaza, while Smith has insisted, “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we just did it. We were very unfocused but so many things came together at the same time. I remember Martin saying that I couldn’t keep blowing a harmonica, I had to do something with myself on stage so he saw an ad in the Herald for a wedding reception organ going cheap and went and bought it. I played it on stage that night and I’ve been playing it ever since.
“There was a lot of kismet about it. It’s maybe not possible today, it might not work like that anymore. We were in Los Angeles once, in a car park, and this new band came up and told us how much they liked us but what they really wanted to know was, who designed our look? We just laughed but it made us realise how easy we’d had it, in a way. These bands were all trying to get a record company to notice them and it was very hard for them.”
It wasn’t hard for the Mentals in Australia because they held a mirror up to us and we liked what we saw. That larrikin irreverence blended with a touch of artsy fancy pants clicked so perfectly. Over the years the live line-up changed so that only Smith from the original formation was on stage (Plaza had withdrawn due to ill-health) but as long as he was there, with his earnest harmonica and high, melodic and sometimes a cappella voice everybody went home supremely happy.
The creative core, both for composition and lead vocals, was Plaza and Smith, and what was essential to the remarkable longevity and hit flow (25 in 15 years, placing them in an echelon with Sherbet, J. O’K, Col Joye, Jimmy Barnes, John Farnham, INXS) was their camaraderie and their aligned taste in punchy pop. (A band serving up covers of Roy Orbison, the Monkees, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and even Slim Dusty chestnuts within their canon can really only do such with a mutual assent.) “Greedy and I are very close,” Martin told me a decade ago. “I was relieved when he started writing songs because there was less pressure … and they were really good.”
So good that the song he penned for the Crocodile Dundee film, the international hit Live It Up was a rallying cry for those who shared their world view. “Hey there you with a sad face, come up to my place and live it up.” It even turns up in the recent film Blinded By The Light – inspired by the music of Bruce Springsteen. Songs like Too Many Times and Date With Destiny saw him inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame less than a month before he succumbed to a heart attack while driving. (The band had previously been inducted into the ARIA Hall Of Fame.)
“We’re quite fussy about how we perform now,” said Greedy in recent times, “We take it quite seriously.” Then perhaps they always did, while perfecting a means of making it look almost accidental. There’s been an enduring excellence, let there be no doubt about that. And a ceaseless quirkiness. Bruce Brown, one of the two producers of their Cats & Dogs album and the Too Many Times Top 10 hit, spoke recently about his experience in the studio: “He was one of the most lovable characters one would ever wish to meet. Always a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.”
As the ’90s dawned the Mentals – who had been relentless for well over a decade, touring north America with Men At Work and providing songs for the Yahoo Serious films Young Einstein and Reckless Kelly – took a sabbatical. Smith performed with his band, Greedy’s on the Loose, during 1992 and in 1996 released his solo album, Love Harmonica, touring as Greedy’s People.
By 1995 with the last substantial Mentals hit Mr Natural, there was still a songwriting wealth, with Plaza and Smith coming to the same point from entirely different directions. Their 2001 Beetroot Stains album was hailed for being: “Chock full of imagination, musical flair and a stated aim to improve the quality of music that strippers dance to.”
There was so much that we loved about an irreplaceable band that perpetually brought a smile to our collective face, who painted a Melbourne tram, enshrined the Victa lawnmower in the national consciousness well before a postage stamp got around to it, and created a virtual cinematic sub-genre with some of the cleverest and entertaining film and video clips ever made in this country.
Smith is survived by his fiancee Fiona Docker and his son Harvey.
Glenn A Baker
Andrew “Greedy” Smith: January 16, 1956 – December 2, 2019.