For many years, Mental as Anything was the ultimate party band. The multifarious Mentals played a brand of rock'n'roll that mixed summery pop, gritty R&B and psychedelic ballads with an irrepressible sense of humour and bright instrumentation. It made for perfect entertainment in sweaty pubs across the land. The Mentals were also one of the most consistent and prolific hit singles bands Australia has ever produced. By the end of 1996, Mental as Anything had scored 22 national Top 40 hit singles.
Martin Murphy, Andrew Smith, David Twohill and New Zealand-born Chris O'Doherty met at art college where they formed the band during 1976. For its first gig, the band was without a name and the promoter suggested Mental as Anything. In August 1977, O'Doherty's brother Peter took over on bass and the line-up was finalised. The new line-up made its debut on 17 August 1977 (the day after Elvis Presley died) with a gig at the Cell Block Theatre. The Mentals' residency at the tiny inner-Sydney pub the Unicorn Hotel (where they played on a stage perched on top of a pool table) became so popular they had to look farther afield. Next stop was an 18-month residency at the Civic Hotel, during which time the Mentals drew consistent crowds. In September 1978, two Mentals fans, Martin Fabinyi and Cameron Allen, formed Regular Records in order to issue the band's records.
Regular issued the Mentals debut EP Mental as Anything Plays at Your Party which became an instant cult classic. The band managed to sell 1100 copies at gigs and from the boot of their car. In January 1979, Festival Records took over distribution of Regular. The band remixed a track from the EP, `The Nips are Getting Bigger' (a sly, skiffle-like ode to drinking), for release as a single backed with `Instrumental as Anything' (July 1979). It became the band's first national hit when it reached #16 in August. The Mentals were aiming for a national market with the release of their Cameron Allan -produced debut album Get Wet (September 1979). It was brim-full of simple, bouncy, melodic and well-crafted tunes which accurately summarised the band's good-natured wit and pop rock earthiness. With the aid of a support slot to UK visitors Dave Edmunds and Rockpile, the album reached the national Top 20 (#19 in November 1979). Virgin issued the album in the UK where `The Nips are Getting Bigger' reached #1 on the alternative charts.
For their second Australian single, the Mentals pitched a cheesy instrumental bit with twangin' guitar and Sam the Sham organ as a `Possible Theme for a Future TV Drama Series'/`Typical Romance' (#57 in November 1979). The band's third single was a love song to a foreign country based on travel brochures `Egypt'/`Pork is Not a Gift' (January 1980). The singles were not hits, but with four songwriters in the band (Plaza, Smith, Mombassa, O'Doherty), the Mentals were never short of good material. The band's second album Espresso Bongo (#37 in July 1980) was not as instantly appealing as the debut, but it was still full of quality, entertaining tunes. Standouts included `Harmonic Visions', `Missing Plane', `Troop Movements in the Ukraine', `Insect Liberation' and the fourth single, `Come Around'/`DC 10' (#18 in September 1980).
The album's title was taken from a 1960 Cliff Richard movie, and the band's photo on the front cover was pure kitsch. The album failed to chart in the Top 40, but the Mentals maintained a strong rapport with audiences and their standing as the #1 good-time outfit was confirmed with sell-out pub tours. The band's fifth (non-album) single, a cover of Michael and the Messengers' `(Just Like) Romeo and Juliet'/`Go Down', was a minor hit (#36 in January 1981).
The band's biggest success to that time came with the Cats and Dogs album which reached #3 in October 1981. The album's three singles, `If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?'/`Assault and Flattery' (#4 in June), `Too Many Times'/`Holiday in Auckland' (#6 in October) and `Berserk Warriors'/ `L'Amore No More' (#30 in January 1982) were hits. In June 1982, the Mentals persuaded Elvis Costello (who was on tour) to produce their next single, `I Didn't Mean to Be Mean'/`Yoga Dog Sunset', which reached #25 in September. That same month, A&M issued a compilation album, If You Leave Me, in the USA and Canada. The band toured the USA as support to Men at Work, as well as playing headlining gigs in Canada where `Too Many Times' had made the Top 20.
The band's fourth album, Creatures of Leisure (#8 in April 1983) produced the hit single `Spirit Got Lost'/`Not Enough' (#20 the same month). The album also yielded the minor hit singles `Close Again'/`Homing Pigeon' (#55 in November 1982) and `Brain Brain'/`Drinking of Her Lips' (#82 in June 1983). The Mentals returned to the USA and Canada for a second, gruelling tour during which they made an appearance on popular television pop show Solid Gold performing `Brain Brain'. The band rounded out a busy 1983 with a new single Roy Orbison's `Workin' for the Man'/`Seems Alright to Me' (#20 in November). 1984 was a quiet year, with the release of only one single `Apocalypso (Wiping the Smile off Santa's Face)'/`Wouldn't Try to Explain' (#37 in December).
The Mentals leapt back into action in April 1985 with the release of the best-selling Fundamental as Anything album (#3 in July). Produced by American Richard Gottehrer (Blondie), the album featured a slicker, more high-tech sound than previous albums. It yielded the hit singles `You're So Strong'/`Three Steps to Your Place' (#10 in March), `Live It Up'/`Good Friday' (#1 in June) and `Date with Destiny'/`Surf & Mull & Sex & Fun' (#13 in September). Fundamental as Anything attained double platinum status and was the highest selling Australian album for the year. The album saw the emergence of Greedy Smith as the band's most prominent hit songwriter; all three single A-sides were his compositions. Paul Hogan and John Cornell included the imminently hummable `Live It Up' on the soundtrack to their enormously successful film Crocodile Dundee. Sony/Epic issued `Live It Up' in Europe, where it reached #3 in the UK and #1 in Scandinavia during February 1987. It eventually sold 500000 copies worldwide. `You're So Strong' also reached #10 in the USA.
Meanwhile, back in November 1985, Regular/ WEA, issued Greatest Hits which reached #2 in April 1986. The initial pressing came with a bonus, limited edition single, `Big Wheel'/`Apocalypso', tucked inside the sleeve. `Big Wheel' was issued as a single in its own right and reached #75 in December. The band issued a one-off single in June 1986, `Sloppy Croc'/`Sloppier Croc', which was also taken from the Crocodile Dundee soundtrack. At the start of 1987, the Mentals took part in the ambitious Australian Made national tour. Billed as `Special Guest Stars', the Mentals played the opening slot and paved the way for The Triffids, I'm Talking, The Saints, Divinyls, Models, Jimmy Barnes and INXS. The band hit the stage each show wearing a dazzling array of customised suits designed by the Mambo clothing company.
Mike Gubb (ex-Dynamic Hepnotics) had joined the band on keyboards to allow Greedy Smith freedom of movement across the stage. The shine was taken off the festivities somewhat when trombonist Peter Trotter, a member of the Mentals' brass section The Semi-Erect Horns, suffered a heart attack on stage during the Sydney concert. He died a few days later in Sutherland Hospital. The band's seventh album (and first for CBS), Mouth to Mouth (August 1987), produced the singles `Let's Go to Paradise'/`My Hands are Tied' (#15 in December 1986), `He's Just No Good for You'/`Ruby Baby' (#15 in June 1987), `Don't Tell Me Now'/`I'm Glad' (#36 in September) and Elvis Presley's `Love Me Tender'/`Wandering Through Heaven' (#34 in November).
Yahoo Serious included the Mentals' next single, a cover of Chuck Berry's `Rock and Roll Music'/`Apocalypso' (live), on the soundtrack to his film Young Einstein. The single became a #6 national hit in February 1989. Serious later included the Mentals' track `Ride' on the soundtrack to his 1993 film Reckless Kelly. `Rock and Roll Music' also appeared on the Mentals' next album, Cyclone Raymond. It was a fine album of accessible, well-crafted pop songs including the singles `The World Seems Difficult'/`Get You Back' (#19 in September 1989), `Baby You're Wild'/`Wish I Could Believe' (#75 in November) and `Overwhelmed'/`Walls of the World' (April 1990). Other highlights included Mombassa's `Big Things in Life' and one of Plaza's best-ever songs, `Some Feelings'.
In spite of its collection of strong tunes, the album failed to impress the record-buying public and only managed #38 on the charts. The Mentals themselves had become jaded with the whole band concept, and it came as no surprise when the band decided to come off the road. The individual members pursued their own careers: Reg and Peter O'Doherty launched their band Dog Trumpet; Smith played with his sideline project Greedy's on the Loose; Delisle returned to art college to finish his degree; and Plaza linked up with James Freud as one-half of dance-pop outfit, Beatfish.
Plaza also issued a solo single `Labour of Love' (August 1990), which in fact was his fourth solo single. His March 1986 album on CBS, Plaza Suite, had produced three singles: a cover of Unit 4 + 2's `Concrete and Clay'/`New Suit' (#2 in March), `Best Foot Forward'/`Rollerina' (April) and `Use Me All Over'/`Ruby Baby' (July). In May 1994, Plaza issued his acclaimed second solo album, Andy's Chest, a collection of Lou Reed covers (mostly from his Transformer/Berlin period, plus The Velvet Underground's `I'm Waiting for the Man'). The album contained a sole Plaza original, `My Salvation'. `Satellite of Love'/`My Salvation' was issued as a CD single (also in May). Plaza's next CD single, `Women', came out in August 1994.
The only Mental as Anything album to appear during the early 1990s was the odds'n'sods collection Chemical Travel (November 1993), which drew together overlooked B-sides and album tracks. The collection was heavily slated towards the band's early career, with only three of the album's 23 tracks coming from Fundamental as Anything, Mouth to Mouth or Cyclone Raymond.
Mental as Anything as a whole re-emerged at the end of 1994 with the CD EP Bicycle which the band members financed themselves and gave away to punters on their summer tour. The band signed a new deal with BMG and issued the glorious T. Rex pastiche `Mr Natural' (originally on Bicycle) as a CD single. It restored the band to the national Top 30 (#27 in April). The CD singles `Nigel' (June) and Wreckless Eric's `Whole Wide World' (October), plus the album Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire (August) followed. The album was classic Mentals, full of wry, catchy and razor-sharp pop songs. `Marianne' came out as a CD single in March 1996. Later in the year, Greedy Smith issued his debut solo album, Love Harmonica, a collection of his own easy-listening love songs that featured latin, pop and jazz rhythms with lush harmonica as the lead instrument.
As well as their music, the members of Mental as Anything were renowned for their artwork. The Mentals held the first painting and art exhibition of their own work in May 1982. It attracted a lot of interest, with buyers including Elton John, Mary Travers and Australian novelist Patrick White. In 1990, the Mentals staged the Mental as Anything Touring Art Exhibition with works by all five members. Reg Mombassa in particular has risen to fame as a painter of great distinction. His colourful, idiosyncratic designs have graced clothing (for the Mambo agency), calendars, posters and record covers (for the likes of the Mentals themselves, Dog Trumpet, Crowded House, Mondo Rock and PiL).
Over the course of 20 years, Mental as Anything has crafted a rollcall of deceptively simple yet classic pop songs. The band's characteristic approach to music-making appealed to an astonishingly broad cross-section of music lovers. Yet the band made its greatest mark by elevating the ordinary in life to the extraordinary in art. As writer Clinton Walker put it, any band that deified such everyday phenomena as dogs and Valiant Hemi Pacers must have something going for it!
In July 1998, Mental As Anything issued a new CD single, ‘Just My Luck’. It was the band’s 33rd single in a career spanning 21 years. The new album, Garàge, followed in September. To celebrate their 21st birthday, the Mentals also issued Garàge in a Limited Edition run with a bonus, 6-track Greatest Hits CD (featuring ‘The Nips are Getting Bigger’, ‘Come Around’, ‘Berserk Warriors’, ‘Spirit Got Lost’, ‘He’s Just No Good for You’ and ‘The World Seems Difficult’). Festival Records also reissued on CD, seven of the band’s back catalogue albums.
The second CD single lifted from Garàge was ‘Calling Colin’ (November 1998). A year later, the band issued the compilation CD, Best Of Mental As Anything. It featured essentially the same track listing as the 1985 Greatest Hits set, plus eight tracks from the subsequent decade (from ‘The Nips are Getting Bigger’ to ‘Dorothy Parker’s Hair’ off Garàge). It was the perfect primer / snapshot of Australia’s ultimate party band.