Over 20 years on, as their legendary status has grown, most people are aware that Strange Tenants were the pre-eminent Australian SKA band of the 1980s. What is often overlooked today, however, is that at their peak, they were one of the most popular and successful live bands of any style. In the early 1980s, hundreds, sometimes thousands of fans - referred to by the music press as "the Tenants' army" - swarmed to their gigs up and down the east coast of Australia. Strange Tenants also did national tours with international acts such as U2, Style Council and UB40. Performing at Sydney's Horden Pavillion in 1985, Paul Weller (The Jam and Style Council) introduced them on stage as "Australia's hardest working band".
Founded by the 'Ska brothers', Ian and Bruce Hearn, towards the end of 1981, the band was initially called The Catch, but they ditched this name in favor of Strange Tenants just prior to their first gig, at the Lygon Street Festa in Melbourne on 7 November 1981. They became overnight sensations on the Melbourne inner city live scene and received rave reviews upon the release of their self-titled debut mini album, recorded only weeks after their first gig. Their record success on alternative radio stations gave the band a national profile and almost immediately they started touring nationally.
In between their frenetic touring schedule - performing around 1200 gigs during 1982-86 - the band managed to record and release four singles, three mini albums and two full albums through their own BlueBeat label. One of their mini albums 'Take One Step', which featured some classic tracks including 'Grey Skies' and 'Two Steps Back', sold around 20 thousand copies - then and probably still, the most records ever sold by an independent band.
In the two-tone tradition, but long before it became fashionable in Australia, Strange Tenants infused their music with social commentary and staunchly left-wing politics, evidenced by their anti-war songs 'Soldier Boy', 'Cannon Fodder' and 'Ground Point Zero', their anti-fascist anthem 'Two Steps Back' and their classic song about poverty, 'Hard Times'. While not all their fans necessarily embraced their politics, everyone knew that they were a band which stood for something. While clearly a band of excellent musicianship, song-writing and vocal talent, their impact on the cultural landscape was made deeper and more durable because they were a band of substance. Never seeking 'pop stardom' Strange Tenants had an honesty and earthiness about them which created a special bond between them and their legion of loyal fans.
Despite their amazing independent achievements, unaided by management, record or publishing companies, by the end of 1986, exhaustion and boredom began to take its toll and the guys decided that they could do no more and so, although never formally dissolving, they simply stopped playing. Over the years since, they have performed occasional gigs and in the early 1990s even managed to record and release an album 'Aint that Enough', under the name of Ian Hearn and the Strange Tenants.
Today, when you play their music, mostly recorded before the widespread use of endless overlay tracks, drum machines and modern sampling techniques, listen to the quality of the songs, the honesty of the lyrics, the freshness of the musicianship and their standout vocal talents. They were the complete package! If you close your eyes and listen carefully you can almost imagine what it must have been like at their gigs in the 1980s, packed with hordes of rudies, mods, punks and skins, all skanking to Strange Tenants at venues like Melbourne's legendary BlueBeat Club, The Aberdeen or Chevron hotels, Adelaide's Tivoli or Bridgeway Hotel, Sydney's Caringbah or Manlyvale hotels, or at one of their famous ska-becue's at Brisbane's Glen Hotel.
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