It was Australia Day in 2000, and Jason Rooke didn’t get much radio reception on the farm outside of Bathurst where he was living.
So, he parked himself in a pub in town and successfully negotiated with the publican, who at first wasn’t interested in playing a youth radio station over the venue’s sound system.
Rooke thought it would be cool if his band’s song You Shit Me To Tears — the first he had written since ditching Sydney for the quiet of regional NSW — made it somewhere into triple j’s Hottest 100, but he wasn’t confident.
At the same time, back in Sydney, Rooke’s bandmate Greg Thorsby was listening at home with his wife.
“Around the announcement of number 11 and 10 I was really starting to get the shits,” he says.
“I thought we’d been snubbed due to some bullshit technicality.”
Number six came, then five, four. Still no You Shit Me To Tears.
When the song was finally announced at number three, bettered only by Killing Heidi’s Weir and Powderfinger’s These Days, the musicians were stunned.
The crass pub rock song — set to be replayed on Monday as Double J relives the Hottest 100 of 1999 — was the only one the band had recorded.
Its sudden success sparked a crazy, albeit fleeting, period for The Tenants at the top of the Australian music business.
‘This song’s gonna be huge’
“It wasn’t about any one person,” Rooke, 47, says, though many people have worried it’s about them.
It was about his general frustration with living in Sydney, where he had moved to pursue music and which he was glad to escape a few years later.
Lucky for him, triple j decided to host a Bathurst leg of Unearthed, the unsigned band competition that was the precursor to today’s stand-alone radio station and digital platform.
He sent the station a demo of the song, and triple j decided to record it in its studios and play it on air.
Pretty soon, the requests piled up.
“After that, my life became very crazy in a very short space of time,” Rooke remembers.
Record labels and touring companies immediately began calling him. The musicians who helped him record the song didn’t want to tour — they had kids — so he recruited a bunch of old friends, including Thorsby.
Pretty soon, they were playing the Opera House supporting Killing Heidi, Thorsby remembers, hanging out with the guys from Powderfinger and trying to capitalise on the song’s popularity.
At a visit to the triple j offices, “Merrick from Merrick & Rosso said with great earnest, ‘Mate, get a lawyer. This song’s gonna be huge.'”
The problem of those swear words
Nearly winning the Hottest 100 20 years ago this weekend gave The Tenants even more visibility and they continued to run up and down the east coast in support of their signature song.
But a DIY ethos meant they never had much support in place.
“Basically, I was managing the band, and that’s definitely not the smartest thing to do,” Rooke says.
“You quickly realise how bad a business manager I was when you are stuck in the middle of Brisbane going ‘Geez, we’ve got no money. How are we going to get home?’.”
The song was huge with triple j audiences, but the attitude toward swear words in the media was different in 2000.
A re-recorded version replaced an F-word, but commercial radio quickly lost its nerve.
Rooke says: “A lot of people started ringing them up going, ‘triple j played the uncensored version — what are you, soft?'” The stations just stopped playing it all together.
Thorsby got through the post-Hottest 100 tours but his leave at his job was up and his wife was pregnant. Their drummer, Dean Bakota, also left.
“If you are signed to a record company, you get a bit of tour support,” Rooke says. “We really had nothing.
“In the end we just wore ourselves out.”
A whirlwind experience fondly remembered
The Tenants went quiet. They released the albums Everything You Know Is Wrong, in 2006, and All My Favourite Bands Are Breaking Up, in 2007, but never repeated the feat of making it into the Hottest 100.
These days, their most famous song is not on Spotify, though you can watch the original video — “filmed on a budget of two cases of beer and some old Super8 film” — on their YouTube channel.
Rooke now lives on the NSW Central Coast. He still writes music in between working and raising two kids.
A little bit more money would have been nice, he says now, but the thrill was always the chance to play music with your friends, to criss-cross the country surviving on Vegemite sandwiches so you could save up your meagre performance fee to make more music.
Anything else was a bonus.
“Life’s a lottery ticket anyway,” Rooke says.
“I can think, Oh, I would have tried a bit harder to maybe find a record company, or find a manager … But I look back on it with such fond memories. It’s something that I cherish.”
Hear the Hottest 100 of 1999 on Double J from 10:00am Monday 27 January. Tune in on the triple j app, your DAB+ radio, TV (channel 200) or online.