The late 1970’s and early 1980’s was a great time in music, with punk, post-punk, electronica and new wave all throwing up great bands in Europe and America. It was during this period that Australian music really came of age. In this period Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, The Saints, The Go-Betweens, The Triffids, The Models and The Church all emerged and either went on to bigger things or became influential cult bands.
Mental as Anything were a band that didn’t quite fit into an easy category. They weren’t a cool hipster band like The Bad Seeds or The Church, nor were they punk and even when they became a commercial proposition in the early 1980’s they weren’t anything like INXS or the other big Australian bands of the time. What they were was an eccentric bunch of art students who didn’t take themselves too seriously and had more in common with the great Flying Nun bands of New Zealand, even though they effortlessly celebrated the essence of Australian culture at the time.
The band also sported four singers and songwriters – Reg Mombassa, Greedy Smith, Martin Plaza and Peter O’Doherty. At this stage Martin Plaza dominated in terms of songwriting and singing. His rich voice meant that he was the most natural front-man of the bunch and he came up with one of their greatest songs in the classic opener The Nips are Getting Bigger. This song is the best summation of what they were about with a classic bass line, subtle 60’s fuzzy guitars and the lamentations and joy of post breakup drunkenness.
Most of side one scores, with Mombassa’s Business and Pleasure and Plaza’s Possible Theme for a Future TV Drama Series being flippant highlights. The former song is one of the best tunes about band life and being hassled by the manager. The latter has great throwaway lyrics – “All you TV producers looking for a catchy theme, here’s one that’s gonna make you cream.” It’s as catchy as all fuck. Talk to Baby Jesus is the music Elvis would have made if he had of grown up in Sydney and became wacky rather than cool. Egypt finishes side one and achieves beautiful escapism with a guitar chug that could have been played on a front porch in the height of summer.
|Detail of water wasting rear sleeve|
Side two isn’t as strong but it’s still a lot of fun. Can I Come Home is all 50’s stylings with a great shaggy guitar solo. Fringe Benefits claims that they are ”So broke, it’s no joke, can’t even afford a beer.” Love is not a Gift laments lost friendship between two Aussie blokes with a tasty riff. The other tracks are slight but get away with it due to their charm, innocence and a few meaty guitar riffs.
The thing about Mental As Anything is that they perfectly encapsulate the Australia of hot summers, beer gardens, BBQs, beer swilling, sunburn and girls in bikinis. The back cover is a classic pop art image of a sprinkler wasting tons of water on Australia’s most useless crop – grass (no, not that kind, they were hand watered…). This is suburban Australia, not the louche inner city Australia of The Bad Seeds. Mental As Anything should be taught in anthropology at university as exemplars of Australian suburban mysticism. I’ve had this album for literally decades and have hardly ever listened to it. I didn’t buy any of their other albums in the 1980’s and 1990’s – they were too uncool for me, but now I realize that the joke was on me.
|Mental as Anything - this is how they travelled from gig to gig|