Book Review: Started Out Just Drinking Beer: The Mental as Anything Story by Stuart Lloyd

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dave Bradley, gives us the low down on the biography by Stuart Lloyd, Started Out Just Drinking Beer: The Mental as Anything Story.

Author/journo/fan Lloyd’s study of the ‘Mentals’ is one of the first books about this much-loved and often underrated Aussie band, with oodles of info gleaned from hours (and hours!) of interviews with the original members. And so, so many others.

Naturally meeting at Sydney art schools (where else?) back in those optimistic 1970s, the key five members of Mental as Anything (a name that might seem a little un-PC these days) flourished in this mythological pub-rock era, with their first proper shows coinciding with Elvis’ death in 1977. And they were: Martin Plaza (a.k.a. Martin Murphy) on guitar and vocals; Reg Mombassa (a.k.a. Christopher O’Doherty) on lead (and often slide) guitar and vocals; his brother Pete O’Doherty (sometimes a.k.a. ‘Yoga Dog’) on bass and vocals; drummer David Twohill (a.k.a. ‘Wayne de Lisle’ and ‘Bird’); and late recruit Andrew ‘Greedy’ Smith on vocals, keyboard, and always awesome harmonica.

While Martin had the breakthrough hit with his almost-off-key drinking song The Nips Are Getting Bigger (from which the title of Lloyd’s book is taken), this was unusually an outfit where all the members wrote songs and contributed to each other’s compositions. And the hits kept on coming, including: Too Many Times; Come Around; If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?; Let’s Cook; I Didn’t Mean To Be Mean (produced in the studio by Elvis Costello); Berserk Warriors; Spirit Got Lost; You’re So Strong; Date With Destiny; and Live It Up, their biggest success overseas, particularly after it was featured in (what else?) Crocodile Dundee.

Touring relentlessly for decades, the Mentals also benefitted greatly from appearing just as Countdown and the age of the music video kicked in, meaning that wonderfully low-budget and lo-fi clips were created on the hop. Most are on YouTube too, so you can easily see the guys in all their aluminum-undies glory.

When the hits mostly dried up into the later ‘80s and early ‘90s (although The World Seems Difficult and Mr. Natural were still popular), the band kept right on touring, even as the line-up changed and the members had families, addiction issues, and fights among themselves, which was hardly surprising given their years and years on the road. And then Lloyd details their late-on awards, their renaissance(s), their collaboration with The Wiggles, Martin’s retirement due to serious illness, and Greedy’s death at only 63 in 2019, with Live It Up, of course, being played loudly at his funeral.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, of course, but this exhaustively detailed tome doesn’t just make you long for the ‘Good Old Days’: it takes you right back to a time when there was a bona fide, true-blue Australian music scene, and so many other bands are interviewed here, all of whom crossed paths with Greedy, Martin and the boys. There was INXS (and Jenny Morris), Midnight Oil, Men At Work, the Divinyls, the Eurogliders, Icehouse, Cold Chisel, Do-Ré-Mi – and the list goes on, and on, and on. And on.

And that whole ‘Golden Age’ is now gone forever. It’s… well, it’s Mental.

Puncher & Wattmann, Paperback RRP $36.95

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