Words of wisdom and wit from the Mentals
One year ago Andrew “Greedy” Smith of Australian band Mental As Anything died suddenly. While we lose our music icons more and more as we all get older, this one was even more horribly upsetting because Greedy hadn’t been ill, he was way too young, and he was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. To pay tribute to him on this first anniversary, I’m sharing the entire chapter from my book Songwriters Speak on the Mentals’ two key songwriters, Greedy Smith and Martin Plaza, Hope you enjoy.
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There’s something quite sane about a rock group that stays contentedly together for three decades, its members spreading their talents across music and visual art. Characterised by their easygoing natures, self-deprecating humorous outlook and notable lack of internal conflict, Mental as Anything is one of Australian music’s unassuming success stories, with a catalogue of songs that have indelibly marked the nation’s cultural consciousness and the pop charts. Hits poured from the pens of the band’s writers like beer on tap.
Drinking was a main focus of Mentals’ songs, along with partying, cars and girls. But despite taking their rightful place in the pub rock movement of the late 1970s and 1980s, despite having played their first official gig on the same day that both INXS (then known as the Farriss Brothers) and The Boys Next Door debuted in August 1977, the Mentals were boys you could take home to meet your mother. They were lovable drunks rather than riotous louts; they made it cool to be daggy. At all times intelligence pervaded their creativity, but these art school graduates from Sydney wanted to be smart, not pretentious. They wanted to be mental as anything.
Names were telling. All of the band’s members changed or embellished their names. Chris O’Doherty became Reg Mombassa. His brother Peter added “Yoga Dog” to his moniker. David Twohill became Wayne “Bird” Delisle. They all wrote songs, but the two members who composed the bulk of the Mentals’ chart hits, such as “The Nips Are Getting Bigger”, “If You Leave Me Can I Come Too” and “Live It Up”, were Martin Plaza and Greedy Smith.
Plaza took his name from the Sydney pedestrian precinct also known as Martin Place, but was born Martin Murphy on 23 December 1955 in Sydney. His parents were decidedly unmusical and what he knew of music was gleaned from listening to the radio while in the shower. He picked up the guitar at twelve wanting to play Monkees’ songs, and having mastered that, he began sketching out song ideas in his late teens. He was also sketching ideas for paintings, and his love of art led him to Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, where he met his future bandmates. “I’d seen Martin around, I thought he looked a bit stuck up,” Greedy Smith remembered. “But then I heard him play with this band, The Capsicums.” It was surely a date with destiny.
Andrew “Greedy” Smith was born on 16 January 1956, also in Sydney. His early listening was folk and country music—Patsy Cline made him cry as a child—and his first instrument was the harmonica, which then guided him to blues music. Early songwriting ventures as a teenager were with his friend Keith Welsh (later to form Flowers with Iva Davies), with whom he played in two different bands. He joined the Mentals progressively, first playing a few harmonica licks, and then, after accidentally breaking Plaza’s amplifier, he was recruited on a more regular basis to pay off the debt. When the songs started taking shape and it was clear an organ was needed to fill out the sound, Smith was assigned keyboard duties. Having never had piano lessons, it was on-the-job training. ”One finger, really simple stuff,” he said, recalling the early performances. “I’ve been learning on the job ever since.”
The hits came in quick succession. As the four chief writers usually preferred to write individually rather than together, it made for an abundance of material. And while there was never a conscious decision to adhere to a particular style, musically or thematically, the songs always reflected the band’s collectively quirky personality.
The Mentals toured overseas several times and had international chart success, particularly with Smith’s “Live It Up”, which was used in the original Crocodile Dundee movie. But the quintessentially Australian group was happy to live it up at home, where their humour was easily understood, where they could focus on family life and continue to paint and exhibit their art.
When Mombassa and Doherty left the band in the late 1990s to pursue art full-time, it was the first line-up change in over twenty years. Plaza and Smith were happy to keep working on art and music simultaneously. When I met them, individually and then together, at Plaza’s home by the sea in Sydney’s east, each was talking about paintings and exhibitions in the same breath as a new CD they were working on, an album of covers called Songs the Lord Tortoise.
They each revealed different methods of writing but their songs seamlessly sit side by side on albums and in concert. The force of Mental as Anything is more potent than any individual element, as both found when they embarked on outside projects, solo or with other musicians. They always came back. “The whole solo experience is a nightmare because you’re not with the band, you’ve got nobody to blame but yourself,” Smith said. “To get songs to their full fruition is a lot scarier.”
“Mentals are more fun, really,” Plaza said, which said it all.
PART I: Martin Plaza
Do you remember the first complete song you wrote?
I think it might have even been “Nips Are Getting Bigger”. I had a couple of other ones that weren’t really complete; that was the first one that was really in some sort of form with a chorus and structure.
There hadn’t been the impetus to write seriously before the Mentals?
No, because I thought I was good at it, but I’d never really had any real encouragement apart from a couple of times at parties, people would give me a few drinks and say, “Come on Marty, play us a song.” I could tell there was something there, but it wasn’t till I started getting up on stage and people started to come and see the band that I realised I had something that was working for me.
How do you think your music and art have influenced each other from those very earliest days through to now?
I see them as fairly separate things. I show pictures still, and if I’m working on an exhibition—I’m working on an exhibition at the minute—if I get stuck on a painting and I’m not making any progress, I might go and do some work on a song. But I can’t articulate any real connection, apart from its composition in a way. You work a painting till it looks right and you work a song till it sounds right.
So if you take a break from working on a painting to go and work on a song, it doesn’t necessarily fire up something in you to go back to the painting with?
No, no, no.
When the band started looking at doing original material, did you all consciously sit down and discuss what kinds of subjects you’d write about and want to play in the band? Like, “Let’s write about romance, surfing, drinking, and keep it quirky too!”
No. They just all seemed to be about drinking for the first few years, all of our songs. Although Reg had some pretty strange songs. He wrote a song called “Talk to Baby Jesus” about growing up in Papakura, which is just outside Auckland. Baby Jesus was a Maori guy who was a real local sort of pop star. “He’s got his own Falcon and he drives it like a tank.” So a lot of Reg’s stuff was more anecdotal, about growing up, some of it to this day
I’m still not sure what it was about. He’s got a very interesting lyrical approach, and he reads a lot of occult and stuff. A lot of it’s quite spiritually based, although he’s not really religious. My songs tend to be more about traditional boy–girl or partying or drinking. And things like “If You Leave Me Can I Come Too”, I like to avoid lyrical clichés, I guess that’s one of my motivations, too, if I want to do a song, like a romantic song, I want it to have a fresh lyrical approach that hasn’t been addressed before.
When Reg and I first got together it was just the two of us, and my background was just sixties pop music. He’s a bit older than me and he’d already been living out the bohemian Kings Cross Darlinghurst lifestyle. And got influenced by all these great musicians, like Peter Doyle, slide player, and they introduced him to a lot of—which I listen to a lot too now—vintage Hawaiian music and hillbilly music from the Appalachians. Reg was playing all this weird slide stuff that I’d never heard, with different open tunings. So that plus my pop music might have something to do with the way our sound developed.
Were you writing because of a compulsion or because everyone else was?
I must have been doing it compulsively but I wasn’t that prolific. I started writing more later on, but that was because I thought I probably should, because I’d accepted that this was my job now and that I should be a bit more professional about it. Still, the songs that popped into my head almost complete were always the best ones. Whenever I tried to sit down and be professional—you read Elvis Costello writes a song a day and think, well, I should try and do that—but I can’t work like that. I work in spurts. I might do a batch of two or three songs over a few weeks, then I don’t do anything for a while.
Is the desire to receive those spurts of inspiration still there now?
Yeah. In fact it’s more fun because of the technology that’s available; you can realise your ideas immediately now. I’ve got a little digital workstation up in the studio out the back that’s almost the equivalent to a studio twenty years ago. It’s amazing. So I might get an idea at night, I can just go down there and slam it down and have a listen in the morning. And if it’s good I’ll work on it and if it’s not I’ll forget it. When we started, if I had an idea I could put it into a dictaphone or something, and at least you’d have the melody there, but the technology that’s available makes songwriting more fun than it ever was.
So are you writing on a keyboard now rather than a guitar?
No. But I use keyboards to dress things up. I write on guitar most of the time. Sometimes I just write in my head, I’ll have a melody, I might just be in bed, and if I think it’s good enough to do something with it I’ll pop up and figure out the chords and put a little drum pattern together, and just put it down, maybe a little bit of bass, and then go back to bed and have a listen in the morning and see if it’s working or not. In that sense I don’t actually write on guitar, but that’s the way I put the chords together. Because when you hear a melody you don’t actually hear the chords, you just hear the notes and it’s not till you pick the guitar up that you figure out what the chords are.
When “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” came out I was in my final year of high school, and not that my friends weren’t party people who liked a beer, but we also saw a double meaning in the title referring to Japanese immigrants at a time when Asian immigration was becoming more noticeable. Was that at all intentional?
I was being a devil’s advocate in a way, because it’s basically about pouring bigger nips. But I had a feeling it would be misconstrued. A lot of people thought it was about nipples, too. So it’s been misconstrued many ways. Which I thought was great. I wasn’t talking about Japanese people, but I had a feeling that might come out. Although, “nips” was at that point more in the American vernacular than Australian vernacular. If you saw McHale’s Navy and shows like that, they talked about nips. Australians called them Japs more than nips.
The melody popped into my head when I was driving across the Harbour Bridge one day in my ’63 V-Dub. I kept singing it all the way, I was living at Chippendale at the time and I got on my guitar, I put the chords around it, and I just threw the words together really quickly. I was actually having a drink while I was doing it.
So the title didn’t come to you first?
No, it was the melody of the chorus that came first. In a sense the words are just a vehicle for the melody that I put together very spontaneously. I just wanted a vehicle for the melody ’cause I thought it was good and strong. It’s such a simple song.
Where did the idea come from for “Possible Theme for a Future TV Drama Series”?
I guess you could say surf music was another one of our influences, The Shadows and that sort of stuff. We’d already done “Instrumental as Anything”, which has got that surfy twang, and we were constantly coming up with riffy little things. That one was almost another instrumental, but I thought, no, it would have been probably a bit too close on the heels of “Instrumental as Anything”, so I made the riff like the chorus but I put some words and a couple of verses as well. I mention a few options of what it could be used for, in the song. “Use it in your new cop show, commercial or even the news/ Or how about Bill Collins’ movie reviews.”
How do you view that first collection of your songs on Get Wet now?
It’s kind of very naive and unprofessional, but that’s part of its charm. I went through a phase when I couldn’t even listen to “Nips”; I’d be in a supermarket or something and it would come on, and I’d think it sounds so dinky. But I’m coming back to liking it again, now. It’s really in your face, it’s very brittle-sounding.
“Come Around” is driving and pacey, a very catchy pop song. Do you remember writing that?
That was a bit of a “Dada” exercise. I’d had the chorus in my head, and I wrote a few chords out on little bits of paper and chucked them in a box or a hat, and just picked them out at random. I said, “Okay, that’s going to be the verse, no matter how it turns out.” So that’s why the verse is a bit weird.
It turned out quite well, considering.
Yeah. It was difficult putting a melody around those chords, it took a while. And it still sounds a little bit sort of pitchy to me when I listen to it. That’s one song that we actually play really well now. But when we recorded it, it was still really fresh and I hadn’t really got my head around the melody properly. When I hear it I cringe badly.
What about the lyric? Did you write that after you had the melody completely written?
Yeah. That was just another case of a silly romantic idea to use as a vehicle for the melody. I normally have the melody first and the words have to be put together to fit the melody.
“Cannibal” is beautifully warped. Was being slightly twisted something that came naturally?
The lyrical hook in that song actually came from my wife, Kate. ’Cause we’d just started dating, and she quipped at one point, “If I were a cannibal you’d be first to go.” I thought that was pretty funny and put the rest of the music and lyrics around that line. So she should have got a credit on that.
“If You Leave Me Can I Come Too?” is possibly my all-time favourite song title.
That little gag had been flying around for a while, and I just thought it had to be committed to a pop song.
It’s amazing it wasn’t a country song already.
I think Barbra Streisand and Richard Marx wrote a song with a very similar title a few years afterwards, a really schlocky one. But yeah, it was one of those things that just had to be done, really. And musically it was inspired by John Lennon’s song “Oh Yoko”. Although it didn’t end up sounding like that. That happens to me a bit, too. I’ll think, “Gee, I love that song, I’ll try and write something like that.” And it often finishes up sounding nothing like what inspired the idea but it turns out okay anyway. Which is good. Because you don’t want to plagiarise other people’s work.
“I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean” was another nifty title. My dad used to say that. I’d say, “You’re mean!” And he’d say, “I didn’t mean to be mean.”
Before the song came out?
Oh yeah. When I was a kid.
Well, I’m sure it’s been said a million times. It’s a bit of a cheap trick, but as I said, I liked to avoid clichés and if it’s there and you can put a good three-minute pop song around it, go for it. That was produced by Elvis Costello. So that was a lot of fun working with him. He’s a great guy, really good guy. Got to know him and The Attractions quite well when they came.
“Bus Ride” is one of the finest examples of making something magical out of the mundane.
I like public transport to this day. It’s a circus. It’s always a circus to hop on a bus. When I wrote that song I wasn’t doing a lot of bus travel but it’s a true story. Our office at the time was up at Bondi Junction, and I lived around the corner and I had an old Renault at that point and it wouldn’t start. So I hopped on a bus and I hadn’t been on one for quite a while. And I just enjoyed the ride up to the Junction. Because it was like a freak show, really. Very interesting.
Each time you had a major commercial hit, did you feel pressured to come up with another one, or were you happy for one of the other members to have the next chart success?
I felt under pressure, yeah. In fact I prefer the way things are now, ’cause it was a bit too much pressure, really. I didn’t really like it. In a way I was relieved when Greedy started writing. I guess you’re asking was I put out, but I was relieved that someone else could take the ball. I was a bit concerned that maybe I wouldn’t do it again, but “Mr Natural” went quite well and a couple of the other songs I wrote later on.
You’ve usually written Mentals’ songs alone, but occasionally in the past you’d write with Reg or even more occasionally with all the members. What would be the impetus for collaborating on a song?
There’s not too many. There was “Apocalypso”. Reg had that song for quite a long time; it was more like a Jimmy Reed sort of thing. [Strums blues chords on guitar.] A real rootsy R&B thing. And I’d just heard ZZ Top’s 12-inch of “Legs”. So I changed the key of it by myself, played around with it for a while and I took it to Reg, and I said, “I reckon this would sound really cool to do it like this.” And Reg, he’s just such a sweetheart, he probably just didn’t want to hurt my feelings, but he said, “Oh, cool.” So I turned it arse-about so it was very different. I reinterpreted it rather than sitting down together and collaborating.
And there are a few songs where all the band members have a credit. Was that just because something got worked on in the rehearsal situation?
Yeah. Usually the bones would come in and then everybody would put their two bob’s worth in, and depending on how, what proportion of stuff finished up being contributed by various members, then we figured out whether we should say it was a collaboration or not. But it was never really us all sitting around.
Do new melodies still come quite easily to you?
Yeah. I’m working on this song at the moment that I did yesterday. Very simple but it’s coming together very nicely.
When an idea comes to you, do you think of that as a magical mysterious thing, or is it quite pragmatic for you?
No, it’s a really nice thing to happen. And it can be a situation where like what happened to people like George Harrison and “My Sweet Lord”, and the remarkable thing about that episode is that it got recorded and it went to number one, and it’s still regarded as his song, even though he got sued and he happily paid. But nobody twigged that it’s identical to “He’s So Fine”, the Shirelles. Even the bridge, it’s exactly the same, almost the whole arrangement. Inadvertent plagiarism.
So when a melody comes, you have to be a bit mistrustful?
Sometimes I twig, oh no, that’s something else. And if I like it enough I’ll continue and then I’ll run it by a few other people and say, “Does that remind you of anything?” If they say straightaway, if they nominate the song that I think it might be a knock-off of, then I’ll have second thoughts, but if nobody picks it up then I’ll continue.
Have you had that happen where you’ve unconsciously taken a melody from somewhere else?
Yeah. The song that I’m working on at the minute actually, it’s a little bit like that great Stones song “Paint It Black”. Which I didn’t realise until this morning when I listened to it again. I was thinking, oh shit it’s exactly the same, but then I figured out the melody, I played them both back to back, and it’s actually quite different. It’s not litigious. Sometimes it’s just the mood of the melody. I just think it’s mathematically incredible that people still come up with original melodies, when you’ve only got mathematically a certain combination.
So where do you think they come from?
There must be something spiritual about it. I don’t know. It’s a good thing that it still happens, but that’s another mystery to me that it can still be happening. Although, you do hear some very close knock-offs. Some of them are just shameless regurgitations, like a lot of the hip hop stuff. That’s like doing a sculpture out of found objects. That’s always been a part of music, too, you know. The Beatles borrowed a lot of riffs and bits and pieces, and so did the people before them.
What are a few of your favourite songs written by other members of the band?
One of my favourite songs of Greedy’s is “The World Seems Difficult”, that’s a really pretty song. All of Reg’s songs were great, for different reasons. I think one of my favourites is a song called “Psychedelic Peace Lamp”. And Pete’s “Beserk Warriors”, we still play that quite a lot, that’s a great song. “Brain Brain” is a lovely one of Pete’s, too. And “Live It Up” is just a classic, undeniably great pop song.
PART II: Greedy Smith
What does harmonica playing teach you about melody and chords?
It teaches you a lot. I used to play the little harmonicas you can only really play in one or two keys, and I would learn by playing along to the radio, lots of pet food commercials and things like that. It taught me to realise when things didn’t work and when they did, and when they did they really must have struck. The thing was, it was mainly faking and cheating the whole time. And that’s how I got into songwriting, too. Because we were playing to art students and they were really critical, so that’s why we clowned around. We wanted to be self-effacing at best. Just so that people wouldn’t think, “Oh, they’re really stuck up.” That’s why we thought it was a really good idea if you wrote the songs, nobody could tell you how to play them, because you wrote them, didn’t you. Martin and Reg were writing a few songs, I thought, I used to write songs, I’ll do this. So I started writing songs, too.
Do you remember the first complete song you wrote?
I think it was called “I’m Coming Back”. I wrote that with Keith, though. The first song that I wrote completely by myself was called “Another Man Sitting in My Kitchen”, that’s on the first album. And there was another song called “I Can Hardly Believe It’s a Radio”. Which is really silly. “Another Man Sitting in My Kitchen” was just a jealousy song. I went through a period of that. It was a big issue for me for a while. It’s a really good thing to write about, at that time particularly, in terms of tone. Because you can have the romantic angle but you can also be a bit annoyed.
You follow the same theme in “Insurance Man”—a droll look at jealousy in love. Were these hypothetical or real scenarios?
Probably were real at the time. I was very old-fashioned. I’m a Capricorn, so very loyal, and I think I did have my first experiences of jealousy at the time, and I didn’t realise what a powerful feeling it was. You had to be cool, though. In our circle you didn’t fall to bits and pieces. There was another one along those lines, too, from a different point of view. “Fiona” is like a confession of unfaithfulness. And I wasn’t. It went:
Fiona if you plan an inquisition
we’d better get over with right now
I’d better tell you about my new position
You’re gonna find out about it anyhow
I’m not a heretic as far as true love goes
But I’ve changed denomination
and I guess it shows
INXS played their first gig on the day Elvis died, as did The Boys Next Door, and I understand you guys did, too. Do you think timing is crucial in creative endeavours or is everything arbitrary?
I think if you look at it statistically in terms of songs that came out, you have to have an idea, you have to have music, but also you have to have an audience, and you have to have a receptive audience that’s receptive to an idea. At the time everybody was very excited because they’d had years and years of music getting, we thought, very turgid and planned. The rise of progressive rock, where it was getting very musically tricky, almost little bits of jazz mixed up and calling it pop music. Emerson Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, it seemed to lack spontaneity. That’s why the punk movement started. And the thing is that the people liked the idea of seeing their peers playing songs, so they were receptive. I think the time was right. I look back now and I think, what a bloody cheek you’d have to have to write a song when nobody knows you. You write a song and you expect people to actually listen to it? I watch those shows on TV and they’re singing other people’s songs and I have a great deal of trouble listening to them. I know they’re trying very hard and it’s well meaning, all that sort of television eisteddfod. And they’ve got a reason to be there! We had no reason to be there, we were at art school, but we had the gall to do it.
Talking about art school, do you think music and visual art infuse each other?
No. I think they’re both leisure activities to a certain extent. I love art and I love music but I’m not sure that I like music more than art. I think that the idea of art rock and stuff like that is like the anathema to where we came from as a band and as songwriters. We wanted to avoid that at all costs, because it wasn’t right for us and it wasn’t right for the people that we would have wanted to impress or not be pilloried by.
When I think about art rock I think of Split Enz or Queen. I was thinking more about as a painter, somebody who loves working in the visual art side of things, when you’re then writing a song are there influences that go across both art forms?
I think there is a bit of the can-do that you need. You need the flash of inspiration followed by a lot of patience to realise it. That’s what it’s all about. And the optimism to think you can give it a go. To create something from scratch. And as in painting, with songwriting the first thing that you find out is that you feel that you’re copying everything. You really think once you write a song, you’re copying everything. You’re not really. You’re flattering yourself if you think you can copy a proper song when you’re writing a song. But it takes a certain amount of nerve, and I think it’s the nerve of creativity coupled with the patience to see it through. Here we are at Martin’s place, he’s got paintings everywhere, he’s irrepressible. Art school really is just a halfway house for teenagers avoiding having proper jobs, that’s all it is. That’s why so many bands start there.
Did you feel you had to write within the confines of a set style for the band, or was it just that you were all like-minded musically?
As far as writing songs that have a certain vein, I think musically I can always stand up and say, “Well, I actually learned to play music on the job while I was in the band.” My music writing has come out of being in Mental as Anything. Before that it was very limited. So that’s probably why it’s very hard to get out of it.
But thematically you were all writing quirky songs.
I’ve never understood the “quirky”. “Spirit Got Lost” was a song that was quirked up by Reg. It was a song that I wrote and the lyrics were a bit too straightforward romantic, so Reg brought in the cargo cult thing. “Your letter got lost? How about your spirit got lost?” Then we were able to go into the New Guinean rituals, and that’s about that.
That’s got the great line, “All the people round here are too bony for kissing”. One of those classic Mentals’ lines, ingeniously simple and clever and evoking a funny image. Which of you came up with that?
I think it was Reg in the toilet writing his bit; he was sitting on the throne in the recording studio. We never used to write in the studio, so that was probably one of the few that was ever done that way. I wrote the music and I’m not sure who wrote, “The spirit got lost now something is missing”. I could claim credit on finishing off the line but it’s one of those things that’s lost. That was very collaborative.
Was there a competitive edge in the band?
Yeah, always has been. Everybody would put forward songs and everybody wanted the best for their songs. If you’re a songwriter you have to think your songs are best, otherwise you wouldn’t bother, it’s part of the thing. And after a while, usually over the course of an album, things sort themselves out, some songs work in that environment and others don’t. And you just have to live with it. There was a tendency to try and balance it up, but it didn’t always work out that way. I quite often didn’t have as many songs on there. I’m not as prolific as the other guys. I could never keep up with any of them. I never submitted more than one other song per album that didn’t make it on.
So you don’t have drawers full of rejected songs.
No, not many. Martin and Reg write like they paint. They paint and they write songs all the time, and I can’t do that. They’re actually a lot better musicians than me for a start. And I see songwriting like doing cryptic crosswords, in terms of the actual getting it to work in the end. I spend a lot of time, I waste great chunks of my life, trying to write songs, always have. [Laughs] And not getting anywhere and being really anal and perverse. I might like part of an idea of a song and despite nothing else working, I’ll persevere with it for years. [Laughs]
Do you ever give up on a song?
I really hate it when I have to give up but I’ve had to give up a bit more lately and I want to force myself to write a lot of songs, but I often find I can only write if I’ve got the inspiration. If I’m writing to be like a songwriter it just comes out very stiff and unbearably mediocre.
So can writing be compelling for you?
If I have an idea I feel that compulsion, but I don’t have that many ideas, to be honest. [Laughs] “Live It Up” is a case in point where I wrote all of the words and the melody in my head on a bus in Canada. Then it took two years and I’d nearly given up on it and then I bought a drum machine off Vanda and Young, through Bruce Brown. It was the first LinnDrum Machine that was ever in Australia.
Are you sure Iva Davies didn’t have the first LinnDrum Machine?
That’s what Bruce reckoned it was. But probably Iva had it first. I went to Iva’s house and he had TVs in every room! That was back when he lived in Lindfield. I was working at the Charles Hotel in Chatswood, and Martin used to work at the KFC in Artarmon. Iva used to clean the Kings Cinema and I remember going to his house and there were TVs in every room, I guess he was in a Roxy Music kind of mode at the time.
But the song was originally a swing song and then I was able to turn that round. I wrote all of “You’re So Strong” and fixed up “Live It Up” in one night, the first night with a LinnDrum.
But “Live It Up” started its life on a bus.
Yeah, I had all of the music in my head, and then we’d do it with the band, we’d done all of these versions of it and it wasn’t really working at all. It was like a rejected song, we weren’t even considering it for the album. And I thought, gee, I hate to give up on this song, and I worked it out. I wrote “You’re So Strong” first and I thought, this is great, this drum machine, it’s so liberating. And then I thought, gee, maybe that similar idea could do it with “Live It Up”. And it all fell into place.
What was the original inspiration for it?
As far as the lyrics go, I really identified with it. We’d spent a lot of time in nightclubs and I just hated them. ’Cause you can’t talk to anybody. It’s always about talking to girls and I’ve always felt awkward about that. So I wrote about a girl who felt like that in a nightclub instead of being me. It’s a wallflower song. But also great because it makes me, the singer, sound really good, because it’s me actually talking to them and taking them out and giving them a good time. So in a way it’s probably the most presumptuous song I’ve ever written. I’m made out to be the hero.
The chorus in “You’re So Strong” is in fact really strong. Did you write to the title?
No, it happened at exactly the same time. The idea of that is a bit of a feminist fellow-traveller idea. “You mightn’t think so but I know, you’re so strong.” It’s like supporting a woman. Sometimes, particularly when they’re hanging around the blokes, they quite often seemed to be voices lowered, there’s not the same sort of braggadocio that you get with blokes. Maybe it was just me, but I used to end up with really strong women. In fact I’ve gone from strength to strength as far as women go now. Now I’m just scared of my wife.
Does she know this?
Oh yes. I think it’s how she runs me. But I’ve always been attracted to strong women.
Where did the idea for the intro to the song come from?
The DX7. You get inspired by the instrument you’re playing and Elton John’s keyboard roadie had said, “You should branch out, get a DX7. I live with the guy who invented them!” And we went up to his room at the Sebel and he showed me how they go, and so I started with that. So the two pieces of equipment. There’s no talent, it was just getting the right boxes. [Laughs]
So sometimes the equipment guides the writing.
Oh, it does! Going back to “Spirit Got Lost”, I wrote that all on the Casio, and I sequenced it within the Casio. Of course we didn’t do it like that when we took it to Dunlop and Brown, who were producing; they had a Fairlight in the studio and they really wanted to learn it. And I said, “Go to town with it. I’ve sequenced it, you’ll be able to do it better.” So they sequenced the whole thing, playing bones and things like that on the Fairlight.
Occasionally I write songs on guitar, not very often, but one that I did was “He’s Just No Good For You”, I worked out the lines for it and everything. I’m a hopeless guitarist. I’ve been playing guitar now for thirty-five years and I’m just shocking! I’m a left-hander but that’s still no excuse. But I still occasionally write songs on it, and that’s a totally different thing. I think the difference between keyboard-based writers and guitar-based is the sound of the way the music goes together. A lot of the original ideas I have are usually in buses, cars or planes.
How do you capture them?
You’ve just got to remember them.
Do you use a notebook or tape recorder?
No, I used to try that but they’d all break on me. I had a dictaphone that broke, I bought one in Singapore and it broke as soon as I got on the plane and I just thought it’s not meant to be. You have the 4-track at home, you do that. But the actual inspiration and main ideas of songs usually never come up when you’re in front of anything you can actually record it on. No, that’d be too easy! [Laughs]
But also, I had two theories of songwriting at the time. The first was that if you couldn’t remember it then the song isn’t any good, it’s not very catchy. I see myself as mainly trying to write popular songs, and I think of them as being catchy. And so that would be the test, if you didn’t remember it. And now I’m getting closer to fifty and my short-term memory is shot, it’s getting harder to write songs. [Laughs]
My other rule is the real test is writing with a hangover, which we used to do a lot. The first example of that was “Too Many Times”, a song I wrote after a night drinking whisky with John Swan in Macy’s in South Yarra. A lot of bands used to stay at Macy’s in Toorak Road, it’s a pub. We had a big night of it, met up after a gig and drank. Or maybe we even played together that night. And I had a shocking hangover the next day. “Too many times I’ve seen the sun come up through bloodshot eyes this week.” It was like confessional and it stuck to me. And the words are really quite tricky in terms of construction, to get the right emphasis and make them sound normal but make it work. And I did that through the most shocking hangover. I had the wrong rhythm and it was terrible, and it was Peter, our bass player, who gave it the swing feel and made it work.
It’s quite leading in the lyric, because when it starts off, “Too many times, too many times” it could be about anything. Too many times I’ve had my heart broken, too many times I’ve taken a wrong turn. But it’s too many times I’ve woken up with bloodshot eyes. It’s something quite mundane and droll in the end.
It’s actually a very depressing song, it’s incredibly depressing. “What is there left to do, but to drink and watch the view/ I think that it might rain this afternoon.”
“Date with Destiny” has a great relentless minor chord progression all the way through it. “My Door Is Always Open” and “Mouth to Mouth” also have that spooky feel that “Spirit Got Lost” had. Do you have a preference for the black over the white keys?
Ahh! Well it’s funny, they were all white key songs, no black keys. But I remember the first music I wrote at home when I was about ten or eleven and that was all black keys. And I do love it. And I like fifths. Now I try and steer away a bit from the minor stuff ’cause it’s just so sad.
But what was the appeal of that minor shuffle spooky kind of sound?
I like Eastern European music, and I always loved “Those Were the Days”, that Mary Hopkin one produced by Paul McCartney. And I’m addicted to Fiddler on the Roof. It’s like Russian Jewish gypsy music. I’m not Jewish but I love all that stuff. People used to say we had sad lyrics with happy music or happy lyrics with sad music. And that’s probably about as arty as we ever really get in music, getting that juxtaposition of things.
“The World Seems Difficult” signified a change in tone for you. A little more gentle and wistful even, both lyrically and musically. What was going on around that time?
Martin and I were mixing or remixing the Mouth to Mouth album in England, and that’s when “Live It Up” went up the charts there, was going really well, and we had to come back for three weeks tour and then go back to England, which is ridiculous. And on the first night of the tour I was really jetlagged and I wrote it in the motel room in Gulgong, the town on the ten dollar note. I wrote it on the Casio and had it all programmed up and then took it away. Unfortunately, it bears a resemblance to another song; I didn’t realise until an interviewer told me that it’s very much like the bridge to “The Logical Song” by Supertramp, and once you hear that you can’t get it out of your head.
How did you feel when that was pointed out to you?
Horrified. Devastated. It never occurred to me.
What made you write a more gentle song, though?
I think it was the Casio. It was the instrument again. It was just whingeing. I’m embarrassed about it now, I don’t like whingeing songs. I call it “complaint music”.
What are a few of your favourite songs written by other members of the band?
I like “Catalina’s Reward” from Martin, I think that’s such a great idea and so beautiful. I’ve always loved “Berserk Warriors” because it’s so crazy, that allegory of Bjorn and Anna’s break-up. Reg has got quite a few, I really like “L’Amour No More”. That’s got a sort of Marlene Dietrich thing. “Apocalypso”, of course, ’cause that’s got a great idea of Santa being upset about things. “Brain Brain” is quite good, too, because it paints a picture.
Do you agree with Ian McFarlane’s summation that Mental as Anything “made its greatest mark by elevating the ordinary in life to the extraordinary in life”?
Very nice of him to say that. We did write about ordinary things. We did want to write about stuff that we knew about because we used to make fun of bands who took themselves at all seriously. How we fitted into the world was that we were the ones who didn’t.
© Debbie Kruger. No use of any portion of this interview is permitted without written permission.
Photos by Keith Saunders