After 32 years in the business, Aussie music icons, Mental As Anything, finally have the recognition from their peers that they so richly deserve with their recent induction into The Aria Hall of Fame. We spoke with frontman, Greedy Smith, about the band’s reaction to the announcement and got a history lesson in the birth of the Australian Pub Rock Scene.
“It was a bit of a shock because we haven’t had one before” Greedy was, of course, talking about the band’s induction into The Aria Hall of Fame. “And when you get asked, it’s a big deal. There was a lot of organisation involved in the weeks leading up to it. It’s a fairly frantic month. I think, by the end of it, we realised that it’s a time for reflection, looking back, and it was a time when we gathered up a couple of our old players: Reg and Pete. (Reg Mombassa and Peter O’Doherty). It’s the first time we’d played with them together since Ho Chi Minh City on Australia Day in 2000.”
Clearly, it was a very special moment for everyone and Greedy smiles as he recalls the night. “My 10 year old son was there, and my wife, and it had a lot of resonance in that way, and in terms of what we’ve done for the last 35 years. It was good because, often, with our work, we tend to play in clubs. We’re not like these other bands; we don’t do all the huge festivals where there’s lots of bands together. We tend to play at a club or a pub or a restaurant or whatever. And so we don’t get to see any of the other bands and singers so it was good to catch up with a few of them.”
Reflecting on the many changes he has seen in the Australian music industry over the years, the singer remarks: “I think one of the reasons why we’re here, why we’re still playing is because, at the time that we started, the music would be on Top 40 radio and there’d be a few TV shows like Countdown, Sounds… the TV shows would give you the gossip about what bands would do and would feature a lot of overseas but also a lot of Australian music. But also it was a simpler time. Because there wasn’t so much music everywhere else, people really treated their music quite seriously and they were wanting to see bands live. That was the thing to do. So you get to this thing where all these bands were playing and they’d just ask the publican ‘Can we play in your pub?’ and they had all these big rooms left over that were designed for the old ‘6 o’clock swill’.” (Note: Forthose of you who aren’t painfully aware of this sad part of Australian history, that is when all pubs would shut at 6 o’clock at night. Hard to believe, but true! ) so they had to sell as much beer as they could in the hour between 5 and 6 so they’ve got these rooms with a big bar down one side – they were big rooms – and then they changed the licensing laws and the place would be basically empty and then bands like us came along and said ‘Can we play here?’ and I think that’s how a lot of the Australian music evolved.” Aahh yes… the birth of the Aussie Pub Rock Scene.
Greedy nods. “They (bands) would be playing six or seven nights a week in all these places all around Australia. They were such a great grounding. Everybody needed to play and to put out records. There was a lot of Australian music being played on the radio and record companies were really supporting Australian bands because it was working. I think that things were simpler. I think that we were much more fortunate than bands that sold a lot more records than us in the 90’s… all the music around then was music in shampoo commercials and films started taking off … we had songs in films but not where films were sold on the songs. That was a new thing. Because of that, when radio stations go around doing surveys and they play the songs that they like to hear, they instantly recognise ours on there and they say ‘Oh yeah’. It reminds them of the time when there wasn’t so much music around. Because there wasn’t so much music around, songs that they did hear then are more special to them.”
So what is happening with Mental As Anything these days? “The line-up we have now has been fairly solid for about the last 5 years now. It’s exciting looking back but then we’ve got to look forward because we’ve just put out two albums and we’re concentrating really on playing our songs… trying to play as well as we can. For this century, that’s been our guiding light, to play the songs as well as we can. Martin and I particularly feel very grateful for the fact that we can go to lots of places around Australia and people will know our songs. They mightn’t know that we’ve recorded them or whatever, but then they recognise it, and they go ‘Oh, that one!’ They have a recognition for it. And it makes it very easy for a band to do that because we have been playing in the band for all these years and we know what it means for people to identify with music. We don’t want to let that go. We think it would be silly to let that go. We’re very fortunate in having that. What it means is that people know our music. That’s why we want to keep playing it because people seem to find it ‘special’ and it’s very flattering!”
Aria awards aside, Greedy counts the time he first heard ‘Nips Are Getting Bigger’ on the radio as one of the highlights of his career. “That was a major thing. That was huge. That was a pretty good feeling.” But there was a downside to fame. “Because we had success on the radio with that song, we couldn’t get any work anymore because people thought we’d be too expensive because we were on the radio, so we had to go from the advantage of being an Arts School band and having this ready made crowd to go back into the pubs and play to people we didn’t even know. So that was an important time that I remember.”
He ponders for a moment before adding “And I remember when ‘Live It Up’ went to No. 3 in the U.K… that was a special moment. It had been a hit in Australia but nobody was interested over there and in Europe. Then, when Crocodile Dundee came out, our record company over there said ‘Let’s put the poster on the single pack. After that, it was a huge hit. So we were very grateful to have a bit of a go around there. And ‘Too Many Times’ was a hit in Canada back in 1982. It was an unexpected hit. It was popular with the college kids and after that, because of that, we tried to get on a tour over there and Men At Work kindly put us on their tour and we toured Canada and America in 82 and again in 83. We’ve done a lot of that sort of touring.”
While touring North America gave them some great exposure, Greedy has some reservations about the band’s acceptance in the U.S.A. “America’s too big to swallow. I think our sense of humour’s not quite understood in America.” He believes, though, that the Canadians are on the same wavelength as us. “It’s the Commonwealth sense of humour .. they just know .. they just know it… but then I think that we did learn that, sometimes, it’s good not to be hugely successful because all of the rock and roll excesses that seem to go on and these really long American tours, playing 6 or 7 nights a week and driving long (distances). You can kill yourself! So we’ve never spent more than two and a half months overseas. And we’ve only done that three times that I can remember. The rest of the time we’ve come home to our families and the way the music industry is, it’s just mainly weekend stuff. You might get some work during the week but it’s mainly weekend stuff. It means you can have a bit of a family life and then you pack the bag and get in the car or on the plane on the weekend and I find it’s quite a sustainable lifestyle.”
This year has also seen the release of two new albums for Mental As Anything. “Essential As Anything” is a greatest hits collection and includes a DVD featuring 37 clips of the band. Greedy explains that they had to redo the sound on many of these clips as the quality had deteriorated over the years. “The strange thing about that, I was looking at You Tube because they’ve got the Hall Of Fame stuff on You Tube somewhere and I was looking at our clips and they had one that had ‘Enhanced Sound’ and I thought ‘They’ve already put it on You Tube to replace the other bootleg they’ve got on there.’” He shrugs his shoulders in feign defeat. “But, what can you do?”
The band’s first studio album for several years, ‘Tents Up’, was also released in June. Why did this album take so long?
“Because we still do about a hundred and thirty shows a year so we’d do it in between until it was right and then one record company we were on was swallowed up by another record company and that’s been happening for years.” Greedy explains, “But also we wanted to make sure it was right because we’re getting a bit older now, getting a bit fussier about promoting songs because people expect to hear the songs that are played on the radio and we’re quite happy to give it to them but it’s good to do some new songs. But what we feel is that, if we feel confident with them that people are going to accept them in some way. That’s a challenge though.”
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © 2009 Sharyn Hamey. All Rights Reserved