A new documentary about Oz ska legends, STRANGE TENANTS debuts this month. Director FIONA COCHRANE tells PARIS POMPOR about it.

In 1979, Specials keyboardist Jerry Dammers started his British 2 Tone label, building a following on the backs of an enthusiastic new generation whose introduction to Jamaican music was often largely fuelled by UK licensing labels like Trojan. Some of its followers had connections to punk, a movement that had adopted reggae early on and eventually evolved beyond the stranglehold of three-chord rock dirges, into post-punk and new wave. Developing side by side, the proximity to punk and post-punk lent English ska some of it rebellious edginess.

Known as “second wave ska”, Dammers and Co.’s anti-racist message in Thatcher-era London, was solidified in the label and movement’s simple motif of black and white checks. Lost on some converts in the movement’s far-flung outposts, the 2 Tone checkerboard also reflected the make-up of many of the bands’ members: Black and white on stage and mobilising together.  Pre-internet, when British records and music magazines still arrived mostly on import (sometimes many months after their release) 2 Tone’s influence was still wide ranging. In less than two years after its birth, even Australia had its own ska scene, for which the most notable and possibly most socially conscious proponents, were working class trailblazers the Strange Tenants.

“For ska, the 2 Tone ska that emerged in the UK was more politically based than the original ska that started in Jamaica,“ reflects filmmaker Fiona Cochrane.

With Cochrane’s new Strange Tenants documentary Ska’d For Life premiering at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival in July, she is keen to point out some of the differences between the development of second wave ska on opposite sides of the globe. At the time, immigration and general social consensus down-under, was still informed largely by the White Australia Policy and almost 200 years of mistreating the continent’s original inhabitants.

“In Australia the actual 2 Tone element wasn’t as obvious as there weren’t as many black musicians here playing it. Most of the ska music that was played wasn’t as political as the UK.”

One of the exceptions however were Strange Tenants.

“[They] championed all the political content they could,” says Cochrane.

The band were also good at doing what ska did best: provide catchy, celebratory, dance-orientated music with serious messages. While the Tenants sang about poverty in Hard Times, the evil war machine in Soldier Boy and rallied against fascism in Two Steps Back, their English contemporaries were switching youth around the world on to a growing movement to Free Nelson Mandela via a highly infectious protest song by Special AKA called just that, as well as rallying youth with  equally important domestic protest chants like Stand Down Margaret by The Beat.

“In the documentary we talk a lot about the anti-racism message, because it was a driving force behind Strange Tenants. They certainly talked about Indigenous political issues of the time.

“I found it fascinating when making the documentary to look at how 2 Tone ska and skinheads began as anti-racist, but then the Nazi skinheads who spouted the opposite philosophy took over from the original skinheads.”

[Cue Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F**k Off!]

“This is all discussed in the documentary,” says Cochrane.

There may have been the same angular, claw-fisted approach to their instruments, but unlike the punks and skins who often attended their gigs, ska’s rude girls and boys were well turned out, looking sharp and proud in their outfits.

“I think punk [was] different [in Australia],” notes Cochrane, “because in both the UK and New York it was political with a socioeconomic base (Ramones, Sex Pistols etc), whereas in Melbourne it was much more a fashion scene with middle-class suburban kids doing drugs.”

Jamaican-based music is still largely shunned by Australian radio and media, so it’s little wonder ska in the 1980s wasn’t as big a commercial success locally as it was in Britain. Remarkably then the independently-minded Strange Tenants still sold records in decent numbers. Most notably, their 12” EP Take One Step, which contained the almost-mournful downtempo signature tune Grey Skies (Over Collingwood), sold some 20,000 copies while the band’s gigs up and down Australia’s east coast attracted large, dedicated crowds.  In part, Cochrane’s film is therefore historically important,  documenting not just a unique band, but the cusp of a cultural shift. The change they helped usher in was remarkable for many things, not least Australian men finally plucking up the courage to dance at pubs, as motivating skanking rhythms proved irresistible, while horns, rather than guitars, came to the music’s forefront.

“I saw a lot of music around the Melbourne pub scene in the 1980s and was a fan of Strange Tenants,” Cochrane says of her introduction to the band and scene.

The director also attended Monash Uni at the same time as the band’s trumpeter/vocalist Bruce ‘Boots’ Hearn. Alongside ‘Evil’ Ian Hearn, the two brothers are at the centre of the band’s formation and also Cochrane’s film.

“A couple of years ago [Bruce] told me that there was a book being written about the Strange Tenants (now out – called Strange Tenants: Godfathers of Australian Ska by Lorann Downer) and we joked about doing a documentary about them. Then I started thinking about it and it seemed like a good idea. Bruce was keen, and he knew me so didn’t need convincing, but Ian wasn’t that interested, as his life [was] full of many other things… He wasn’t against it however, and the rest of the band were happy to be involved.”

Cochrane jokes there were times when, “getting them to answer messages to organise interviews etc felt a bit like herding cats.” Regardless, “we got there.”

Fittingly, the film has its first official screening in the band’s hometown of Melbourne. It details some of the high points as well as the trials, right up to the current day. Still active and with the line-up now boasting at least one of the members’ own children, the film deserves to be seen outside of Melbourne.

“We’ll certainly be sending it to festivals around the world – particularly in Australia and the UK,” says Cochrane. “The band toured [Australia] last year with their latest album Militant Style, but [there are] no discussions about touring with the film – yet!”

Strange Tenants: Ska’d For Life has its world premiere on Wednesday 24 July, 2019 at Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Tickets/info here

Screening as part of the Antenna Documentary Film Festival on October 20