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.

Album cover for d-d-d-dance by the Allniters

Album cover for d-d-d-dance by the Allniters

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”.



10 Responses to “Ska’d for life: remembering the Sydney 80s ska scene”
  1. Alsy Fript says:

    Hey, my favourite band in the eighties was the Urban Guerillas!
    I saw them at the Station Hotel in Melbourne touring with the Saints, at the Coogee Bay in Sydney with the Baby Animals and at Mosman with the Hitman. Oh yeah and at the Revesby Workers with Spy vs Spy the night they blew them away.
    The UGs were everywhere and really kicked arse then. How come they didn’t make it to your exhibition? No band I’ve seen before or since can match the Urbs for energy and passion. They had a single 1984 that George Wayne played all the time on Triple J.
    I recently found they have a website
    I’ll be there next time they play!!!

  2. Mine says:

    Just writing a blog about the Specials brought back Naughty Rhythms to me… as a Canberra girl I think I could say I’d seen them everywhere except under water! Loved the Allniters and the rest of them and spent most of 80 and 81 as a Rude Girl….

  3. Virginia says:

    What about The Skolars and The Girlfriends?? Two other VERY UNDERRATED 80s ska bands. Them were the days…

  4. Neri says:

    I spent many at night at the Greenfield Tavern watching the Allniters, Strange Tenants or No Nonsense. We would also travel to the Dee Why Hotel and also a pub a Mosman where we watched the Leftovers singing their hit the ‘Lemonade Song’. Ah the 80′s scene, I was a Rude Girl I had short cropped hair and lived in little tartan skirts and had many different coloured polo shirts topped off with my harrington and of course my Doc Martins. I spent many a night drinking at the ‘Sussex Hotel’ and later at the ‘Star Hotel thanks for the memories….

  5. Pearmanr says:

    Flaming Hands. Say no more

  6. Emma says:

    Is it particularly strange to say that I would really love a mix tape?? Being younger and in the ska scene, we dont get alot of oppourtunity to get our hands on much Australian stuff, let alone stuff from that day…


  7. Mark says:

    Don’t forget the Bystanders too! Did a cool version of “Let’s Do Rocksteady”

  8. Brett says:

    I had a friend who played in the Leftovers (Syd) – Lemonade Song ruled the 80′s. Found a couple of MP3′s online searching a few years ago, brought back good memories.

  9. Pippa says:

    The Leftovers were a new age for me. Great people…fun times. Harry was amazing. Will always remember Balgowlah. And liked the song September the most. Never played very much though. Just remeber being kissed in the middle of a song..Harry jumped of the stage and kissed me..the most romantic moment of my life. Nothing has topped that – yet! Still have the original vinyl 45.

  10. Rick says:

    Great memories. Some other venues where the bands played include: The Graphics Art Club (too many bands to list), Selinas Coogee Bay Hotel (The Allniters), Carringbah Inn (The Allniters), Sutherland Entertainment Centre (The Allniters), Strawberry Hills Hotel (Lighthouse Keepers, The Skolars?) The Marble Bar (The Skolars). I seem to remember The Skolars recording a film clip through the streets of Sydney’s CBD on the back of a flatbed truck, or was it on top of one of the buildings? We traveled all across Sydney and suburbs to support the local ska and other independent bands. Are there any good Sydney ska bands about these days? On the topic of mixed tapes, I still have a couple, but they’re of English ska. I also have some Australian Ska bands on vinyl and some other indies, mostly 45s and EPs. What’s the copy write restrictions on indies and labels that no longer exist? I’d like to convert them to MP3.


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