Ska’d for life: remembering the Sydney 80s ska scene
Countdown, Simon Townsend’s ‘Wonder World’, JJ and then JJJ were all there in the early 80s when the English 2 Tone ska movement exploded onto Australian shores. They were the media outlets that introduced an exciting new music to me, an impressible young lad from Chester Hill. Madness hosted Countdown, the Js played The Specials and The English Beat, and in 1983 The Allniters, a Sydney-based band had a hit with ‘Montego Bay’. They also appeared on ‘Wonder World’ and were listed on the Countdown chart list.
My first taste of live music was circa 1983-4. Western Suburbs Rugby League club was broke, so a benefit gig at Lidcombe oval was organised with local groups like Rose Tattoo and The Angels. The Allniters weren’t so popular. They came onstage to a barrage of coins being thrown at them and were quickly hustled off again. When the band finally came back to face the crowd, frontman Brett Patterson picked up a handful of coins and said, “most money we’ve ever made” and then broke into the set. For weeks after on the train to and from school I watched as they pulled down the stage and cleaned up the mess. I asked for and got their album, ‘D-D-D Dance’ that Christmas, on tape of course.
The Allniters, Strange Tenants, Club Ska, The Leftovers, The Hangovers, Tenement Dance and in the late 80’s The Allsorts and Latenotes to name just a few, were all hard working ska bands. They were on the road playing not only popular city venues like The Sydney Cove Tavern and The Chevron Rock Room but travelling to the ‘burbs’ as well, places like Sefton Hotel, Chester Hill Hotel, Sweethearts Cabramatta, and Connections Penrith. This was very important as it brought the music to the masses in a time when train strikes were rampant. I remember circa 1986-7 a group of us were walking into a pub in Campbelltown where Naughty Rhythms were about to play. The place went dead silent, the Dj stopped playing and all eyes were on us (Rude Boys, Rude Girls) as we walked through the doors. The band came on and the singer announced before the first song, “Don’t worry guys the weirdos are alright…1, 2, 3, 4”.
The early Sydney ska scene opened my eyes to a much larger world. The sounds of a young Jamaica, the plight of black people in South Africa, left wing politics and Dj-ing. When on anti-apartheid marches in the 80s, we would be called ‘race traders’, often by guys that went to ska gigs. I still Dj and own/operate the ‘Intensified Soundsystem’ playing 60s Jamaican Ska. I’m a union rep and I still choose to wear my hair short, along with Harrington jackets, Ben Shermans and Doc Martins.
I’ve been trying to pin-point what it was about 80s ska that originally drew me in; the horns, the driving off beats, the pubs, the people, the beers, the clothes. But really it was knowing I didn’t want to be like everyone else. I make no apologies; I would never have made a good yob.
I still have the 80s records and, as we used to say (with total disregards for any copyright laws), “If you want I’ll make you up a mix tape”.