While iconic Australian rock band Mental As Anything always presented as not taking themselves too seriously, the exact opposite can be said about their approach to music-making. As Stuart Lloyd chronicles in his engaging new book, Started Out Just Drinking Beer: The Mental As Anything Story, from 1976 to 2019 the band recorded a staggering 154 tracks for 15 different albums, selling more than a million albums around the world.
What really set them apart from other outfits was there were four songwriters in the band, with drummer Wayne DeLisle also chipping in with the odd track. They featured many musical strains, including rockabilly, country and western, and rock’n’roll, and released their own versions of classics by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry.
The band members were all committed visual artists as well, with guitarist Reg Mombassa later finding major success designing clothes for the unique clothing label Mambo. The band often staged collective art exhibitions. They also designed their own album covers, gig posters and music videos, and came up with great stage names such as the previously mentioned Reg Mombassa, Greedy Smith, Martin Plaza and Peter “Yoga Dog” O’Doherty.
The book is a captivating read, from the band’s debut, playing on top of an old pool table at a Sydney pub, to their evolution into a rock’n’roll touring beast that racked up a mind-boggling 6450 shows.
Interestingly, Lloyd writes that one of their biggest hits, “Live It Up” – included in the soundtrack to movie smash Crocodile Dundee – stalled their career, as record companies and radio stations wanted the band to stick to the formula and reproduce the tune over and over.
The years of hard slog, long drives, bad hotel rooms and excessive drinking eventually took their toll, with brothers Reg and Peter leaving in April 2000. Original drummer DeLisle was sacked for playing – as band members later claimed in court – “like a chimpanzee on speed”, while sultry-voiced Plaza battled kidney cancer and retired in 2016. The ever-engaging Greedy Smith kept touring with a new line-up but died of a heart attack in December 2019.
In 2020 “Live It Up” became an unofficial anthem of Scottish soccer team Rangers, whose supporters made it the No. 1 song on the UK charts in the lead-up to Christmas.
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 2, 2023 as "Started Out Just Drinking Beer: The Mental As Anything Story".
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