The last time I saw Greedy Smith was at an exhibition opening for the rock photographer, Wendy McDougall earlier this year. Full of beans, he was working a star-filled music industry room as if he was its beloved prime minister, shaking hands, greeting all and sundry by name and being much heralded in return.
Among the best images were a set of hand-coloured photographs dating back to the early days of his group, Mental as Anything. These photos echoed the band’s art school origins in Darlinghurst, the suburban zest and pop art style that characterised their songs, and an energy you only recognise later as lightning in a bottle.
Mental As Anything, from left: Peter O’Doherty, Andy “Greedy” Smith, Reg Mombassa, Wayne De Lisle and Martin Plaza in 1979.Credit:Festival Records
It was hard to equate my vision of this big, happy man and his beloved band with the news yesterday that Greedy Smith had died of a heart attack in his car at the age of 63. Greedy had recently taken an interest in the poetry I’d been writing and publishing on Facebook, and was keenly encouraging me to do more on the night we bumped into one another.
Amanda Brown, ex of The Go-Betweens, joined our conversation. Greedy quickly switched to congratulating her on the soundtrack she’d done for The Cult of the Family, work with which he was clearly familiar with in great musical detail. Others joined the circle as Greedy moved through the crowd like a brightly lit, oversized, rock ‘n’ roll teddy bear. I tell this anecdote not to pretend we were especially close friends – we were not – but to paint a picture of someone engaged with the world around him, plugging into people with enthusiasm and knowledge. I’d lapsed into stereotyping him as a musical comedian; I was reminded he was a serious and passionate artist.
Greedy had a story he sometimes told of when he began performing. It was the night after Elvis Presley had died. In one of those quirks of history, the same Sydney night that saw INXS and Midnight Oil play for the first time under those names, was also the night the Mentals (after a year of fooling round) confirmed their classic line-up with Greedy Smith joining them on keyboards and harmonica.
Greedy Smith from Mental As Anything in 2017.Credit:Janie Barrett
Together with Martin Murphy (Martin Plaza), Chris O’Doherty (Reg Mombassa), his brother Peter O’Doherty (Yoga Dog) and David Twohill (Wayne De Lisle/Bird), Greedy and company signalled an original slant on Australian music with songs like The Nips Are Getting Bigger, If You Leave Me (Can I Come Too), and Berzerk Warriors. Greedy himself penned Too Many Times and Live it Up, and co-wrote with Mombassa what is arguably the Mentals’ greatest song, Spirit Got Lost (Now Something is Missing). Clownish and friendly, the Mentals absurdity lightly masked a romantic and lonesome
emotional quality that for me was most strongly evoked by Greedy. Something about the man and the music exuded kindness in a dimension that felt like it almost hurt.
Internationally, I could only equate this mastery of everyday humour and aches with an English group like Madness. Looking back, you can see how the Mentals’ idiosyncratic personality (deeply influenced by the New Zealand kilter of the O’Doherty brothers) was part of newly forming vernacular cultural voice. Along with the earlier Skyhooks and Richard Clapton, Mental as Anything freed up an expressive space for an Australian identity that paved the way for everyone from Hunters and Collectors to Paul Kelly and, for that matter, The Wiggles (who started life as The Cockroaches, a band who supported and took their cues from the Mentals).
Greedy’s Live it Up would become Mentals as Anything’s biggest hit, both here and in Britain. It’s not so much a party anthem as an appeal to a woman to not let someone put them down, to take heart in who they are and the friendship on offer around them. It could, of course, be just as easily sung to a man. Reading though the press clippings today, I was struck by an interview where Greedy likewise reflected on his sometimes difficult, but enduring friendship with bandmate Martin Plaza: “Music is a kind of social glue,” Greedy said, “and it’s not a bad glue to get stuck on yourself.”
His words made me think of all the surprising and original songs Mental as Anything had given us, of Andrew "Greedy" Smith’s part in them, and how his presence had come into our culture. With all that came the strange, yearning feeling one is left with when someone dies and you realise some part of them will always stick with you.
Mark Mordue is a writer, journalist and editor.
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