Life & Arts

Mental as Anything frontman Greedy Smith remembered

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In his final days, "Greedy" was a much-loved character (screenshot via YouTube).

Loveable larrikin Greedy Smith, the frontman of Australian new wave band Mental as Anything, has died of a heart attack while driving his car in Sydney.

He was 63 years of age.

He was born Andrew McArthur Smith on 16 January 1956 in Sydney and attended North Sydney Boys’ High, where he developed an interest in art.

While attending East Sydney Technical College, now known as the National Art School, he met fellow art students Chris O’Doherty (a.k.a – Reg Mombassa), Martin Murphy (a.k.a – Martin Plaza), David Twohill (a.k.a – Wayne De Lisle) and Steve Coburn (whose father, John, was a well-known artist). Their band, Mental as Anything, had been performing at dances and school parties since 1976.

Smith initially played the harmonica but eventually learned how to play keyboards on a clapped-out wedding reception organ, giving "the Mentals" a fuller sound. After Coburn left the band in 1977, Mombassa’s younger brother Peter “Yoga Dog” O’Doherty took over on bass guitar, completing the classic line-up.

The band took their name from a 1970s slang term which meant being outlandish, crazy, high energy and always up for a party. Their madcap nicknames were all part of the fun and Smith obtained the moniker “Greedy” because of his voracious appetite. As a party trick, he once gorged himself on 15 pieces of chicken onstage.

The Mentals debuted their classic line-up at Sydney’s Cell Block Theatre on 17 August 1977, the day news broke in Australia of Elvis Presley’s death. As a tribute, the Mentals performed various Elvis covers and a solid set of blues, rockabilly, country and 60s hits from the Monkees and Roy Orbison.

While performing on top of a pool table at the Unicorn Hotel in Paddington to free up space for dancing, the Mentals were spotted by film-makers Martin Fabinyi and Cameron Allen, who signed the band to their independent label Regular Records. The label was eventually taken over by Festival Records, which released the Plaza-penned drinking song “The Nips are Getting Bigger” as a single in 1979. It hit the top 20 in Australia and topped the UK alternative music charts.

The band continued to release more original songs that were poppy, accessible and self-deprecating, accompanied by imaginative – and often hilarious – music videos, where band members used their visual art skills to become pioneers of what was then a new medium.

One of the Mentals’ richest phases occurred between 1980 and 1984, which included the to 20 single “Come Around” and Plaza’s ironic hit “If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?”

Smith responded with the brilliant “Too Many Times”, which hit the charts in Canada and scored the Mentals a North American tour where they supported Melbourne hitmakers Men at Work.

In 1983, the Mentals appeared on the Australian music show Countdown to promote the Smith and Mombassa collaboration “Spirit Got Lost”, which famously featured an unnamed band member lying in a coffin filled with dry ice.

In 1985, Smith began to lead the singing on many of the Mentals’ songs. His high-pitched falsetto was the perfect foil for Plaza’s deep, smoky and sensuous voice. This was evident in the Smith-penned “You’re So Strong”, which peaked at number three in Australia and was a top 30 hit in the United States.

This was followed by the Mentals’ biggest hit, another Smith-penned number called “Live It Up”. It was included on the soundtrack to the 1986 blockbuster “Crocodile Dundee” and was enormous in the UK and Europe, as well as peaking at number two in Australia.

As the most gregarious member of the Mentals, Smith was often relied on to give media interviews and make television appearances to promote the band. He hosted Countdown on several occasions and was often a judge on the “Red Faces” segment of Hey, Hey, It’s Saturday. More recently, he has appeared on the music quiz show Spicks and Specks.

He also kept up a heavy touring schedule with the Mentals up until his death, which came as a surprise to both bandmates and fans as his onstage antics up until that point showed Smith to be both physically fit and energetic.

Tributes flooding in for the Mentals’ frontman have expressed both shock at his demise and affection for the loveable larrikin Smith was throughout his career.

Band manager Grant Bartlett described Smith as “a lovely bloke, one of the best you could find. He will be extremely missed.”

Bandmate Reg Mombassa said: 

“Some of the other bands [of the time] were heavier or more serious or cool or credible but Greedy didn’t care about that. He was a cheerful, outgoing guy and that reflected in his songs.”

In an interview recorded on 30 October 2019, a mere five weeks before his death, Smith commented on the induction of himself and Plaza into the Australian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

He said, poignantly:

“To have lived this long is a great thing."

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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