Sometimes you forget.
Sometimes age and time and circumstances make you forget.
Sometimes you need a reminder about just how great was.
Sometimes you need a reminder about how much something impacted on your life.
Sometimes you need a reminder about how grateful you are for that impact.
It wasn’t that I had actually forgotten just what a fantastic band Melbourne Ska legend’s, Strange Tenants were / are. I have had some of those records for over thirty years and my memories of going to see them at The Tivoli, Bridgeway, Adelaide and Flinders Uni are intense and clear as day. I remember the gigs being fantastic, joyous and kinda scary. With hordes of skinheads in Doc Martin boots skanking around the dance floor looking menacing. It was those gigs that made me understand that not all skinheads were violent racist arseholes. I met some great people back then. People who would give you the Fred Perry shirt off their back.
Strange Tenants were never a massive on-Countdown-every-week band. They were an independent Australian band making 2-Tone style Ska music. In some ways they have been sidelined in Australian music history, but for a while there they were not only one of the best live bands in the country, but one of the biggest pulling bands in the land. I mention 2-Tone not to imply they were copyists, because they were anything but, more to sign post their position in the great ‘second wave’ of Ska in the 1980’s. The first wave was in the 60’s in Jamaica with acts like The Skatalites, Prince Buster and Desmond Decker. With Jamaican immigrants bring that music to the UK and the multicultural mix of music and styles (notably ska and reggae) absorbed by the UK public by the late 70’s via the punk scene, the UK was producing amazing bands like The Specials, The Beat, Madness, Belle Stars, The Selecter and Bad Manners. It was a movement that had it’s own fashion, dance moves and a political message of unity at a time in the UK when racial tensions in Thatchers Britain were running hot.
In the late 80’s and 90’s there was a third wave of Ska but it was faster and harder and had more to do with punk than traditional ska tempos. Rancid, Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Sublime and the Gwen Stefani fronted No Doubt were all part of that third wave.
The Second Wave 2-Tone bands fused traditional ska rhythms and sounds with weapons grade pop songwriting. Meaning the charts were suddenly full of great pop music with a ska beat. Likewise in Australia, perhaps because we have a lot of ex-pat poms here, 2-Tone Ska was hugely popular and bands started popping up across the country, with Adelaide’s own The Jumpers the first cab out of the rank. Bands like The Allniters and No Nonsense built solid fan bases and had some chart success, but it was Strange Tenants that were the undisputed Kings of Australian Ska. And like many youth sub-cultures (especially back then) a whole thing developed around the bands. The gigs were not just gigs. It was more like a club, it was tribal, it was inclusive but exclusive – if that makes any sense at all.
Tonight to an enthusiastic crowd they prove why people wanted to be part of The Strange Tenants Club, beyond any shadow of a doubt. Great live band and those songs!
They kick off with Soldier Boy from their debut EP in 1982 and BAM! I am back in the Adelaide Uni Cloisters three decades ago. From the machine gun snare intro to the catchy chorus and the killer sax solo, it is magnificent. The entire room is dancing and declaring our communal objection to military service.
Hard Times is next and a terrific single from 1983. Like The Specials Ghost Town, Hard Times manages to tell a bleak tale of living on the fringes, with a beat you can dance to. I’m just going to say this before we go any further, these guys…this band from Melbourne are easily as good as any of the 2-Tone bands. Their songs are just as good, just as memorable and and the love their audience has for them is just as enduring.
Brothers Ian and Bruce Hearn are out front and the geezers in charge of the Ska gaff. They flanked by fellow original members John Holmes (guitar) and Chris Rogers (bass). Dave Lennon on drums taking the place of the dearly departed Jeff Denny, does a killer job and the line up in filled out with Bruce’s son Alex on percussion and Johns lad Daniel on guitar. Two Steps Back and Ground Point Zero are ace. Like many second wave Ska bands, the Tenants were no strangers to making first wave ska songs their own with updated revamps. Their version of The Upsetters, Return of Django is huge.
The set so far has mostly been vintage tracks but songs like House of Horrors from 2007 and a bunch of songs off their excellent new album Militant Style released this year are top notch. Love Is Blind, Governments Around The World and I Don’t Wanna Fight In Your War all make an appearance tonight. Mr & Mrs is a big favourite of mine and it’s a nice treat that the get Raph Segal from Fistful of Trojans up to guest lead vocals. Raph has quite the lineage in Aussie Ska bands himself, from Mad Not Madness, to The Seen and currently The Trojans, who did a terrific job of warming everybody up earlier.. He has been mates with Strange Tenants for thirty plus years and you can tell as they are all having a ball up there together. One Thirty was the b-side of Hard Times, but everybody knows it and is skanking up a storm. Possibly my two favourite songs come next. Something Like That the frantic uptempo anthem, (with a key change that always me smile) shifts the dance floor into overdrive. It’s followed by Grey Skies (Over Collingwood) which I is always the song I sing in my head when I’m in Victoria and go anywhere near Collingwood.
Or when I’m near the ABC building in Collingswood.
Or it’s an overcast day. Brilliant song.
We Are The Firm from the new album is awesome and they round out the set with their rude boy anthem Calling All Rude Boys and their look back at the glory days of Aussie Ska, When Ska Was King.
Here they are doing Something Like That and Calling All Rude Boys on Shirl’s Neighbourhood in 1982.
They return for Killer Zombies and two classic Ska covers Night Train and Skinhead Moonstomp. During Moonstomp they are joined by The Trojans on backing vocals and a bunch of people from the crowd up to dance.
Opening band The Mode, are a young Mod outfit who I literally saw play their last chord as I walked in the door, but I hope to catch them at another gig soon. As mention Fistful of Trojans were marvellous and their version of the original Zutons version of the Amy Winehouse sung Mark Ronson version of Valerie was a big hit! You might have to read that a couple of times, but you’ll work it out.
Sometimes you don’t remember.
But Strange Tenants on Friday, were a giant reminder that they always were and still remain, unforgettable.
Live Review by Ian Bell
Strange Tenants Set List
Soldier Boy (Strange Tenants EP 1982)
Hard Times (single 1983)
2 Steps Back (Take One Step EP 1983)
Ground Point Zero (Strange Tenants EP 1982)
Return of Django (Upsetters cover)
House of Horrors (Rude Celebration 2007)
Love Is Blind (Militant Style 2018)
Don’t Give Up (Ain’t That Enough 1996)
Mr & Mrs (with Raph Segal) (Take One Step EP 1983)
1:30 (b-Side of Hard Times single 1983)
Something Like That (Strange Tenants EP 1982)
Governments Around The World (Militant Style 2018)
Grey Skies (Take One Step EP 1983)
The Future Is Yours (Militant Style 2018)
I Don’t Want To Fight Your War (Militant Style 2018)
We Are The Firm (Militant Style 2018)
Calling All Rude Boys (Blue Beat Party 1984)
When Ska Was King (Rude Celebration 2007)
Killer Zombies (Take One Step EP 1983)
Night Train (Danny Davis & Byron Lee cover)
Skinhead Moonstomp (Symarip cover)