Ever since the release of their first EP Mental as Anything Play At Your Party in 1978, the good times haven’t stopped for these Sydney art school boys. Fondly adored throughout the 1980s with a string of hits that cemented their standing in the Australian music hall of fame they took their ’60’s pop music influences and used it to fill the void between the posing new wave and the sweaty pub rock of the ’80s.
The release of this long-awaited (at least by this reviewer) compilation finally brings together every single released by the band throughout their 30 year career. From their initial eulogy to a drunken night “The Nips Are Getting Bigger” to the latter-day “Mr. Natural” , the Mentals carved a unique musical path for themselves to become one of Australia’s true heritage bands. They had (and still have) the rare ability to craft the perfect ‘radio song’ — that three minute jingle with the indelible chorus that refuses to budge. Even on paper, Essential as Anything is an embarrassment of riches.
From the roadside twang of the Elvis Costello produced “I Didn’t Mean to be Mean”, the cry-in-your-beer ballad turned pop smash “If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?”, and the chart-conquering “Live It Up”, you know all of these songs. All that you need is someone to walk up and say “Hey there you with the sad face…” and the rest of the lyrics will pour right out of you like a busted tap. The ’90s were less than kind to the Mentals than the heyday of the ’80s but their determination to keep making music and as a steadfast live act became its own reward and thankfully they’ve never stopped.
The bonus DVD which collects both parts of the Monumental video compilations is the real jewel here and shows what cinematic auteurs the boys in the band were. Given an excuse to make a video they remained true to their name and made it anything other than ordinary, using it as a chance to be as inventive and irreverent as possible. Even when the spotlight of success shined and playing the fool was toned down, you just have to take one look at the hairstyles of brothers in guitar (and in real life) Reg Mombassa and Peter O’Doherty to realise image and presentation was not an essential to the Mentals order of business. Perhaps therein lies the success of Mental as Anything. They did it their way.
The compilation is timely accompanied by the Mentals first new album in several years. Tents Up is a humorous, harmonious ride, from the rib-tickle title right through to songs like Greedy Smith’s disco inflected “Alien Abduction” and Martin Plaza’s discrete rocker “Bucking Hard” (“Loving you is like a rodeo/Bucking hard all the time”). For the man who once penned the classic track “If You Leave Me, Can I Come To?” his way with words now seems a little too tongue in cheek, but the glory of Mental as Anything was their comedic genius and sharp wit which came down to having four songwriters who seemed to make it all bucking easy.
For a band who haven’t released a proper studio album since 2002, (not including 2005’s acoustic album Plucked), Tents Up is a welcome surprise. The jokes may have worn a little thin over the years but the craftsmen haven’t forgotten how it’s done or which bus to catch to take them home (the 370 to Coogee, as per album closer “Mr Munroe”). It’s the honky tonk reverie of “Nirvana on Guitar” that leaves the lasting impression though with Greedy Smith setting the record straight, “I don’t wear no groovy clothes/My foolish haircut, heaven knows/I don’t drive no fancy car/I won’t play Nirvana on guitar”. For these guys, there’s only one way to play it – mental as anything.