The Australian Sharpie Cult

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Terry Rawlings book on all things Mod was aptly subtitled: a very british phenomena . That mod appeared in the sixties, at a time post war Britain sought to fast forward culturally into a new decade of optimism was key to its emergence and development. British mod drew on ‘the new’.

Searching for style pointers and musical routes across its frantic, off the radar development mod delved in to and soaked up a myriad of international influence – modern jazz and it’s accompanying, ultra smart Ivy league inspired dress, Italian casual looks and tailoring, the existential cafe cool of Paris and the ska sounds and street corner style of the West Indian youths arriving in the uk at the time. Elements of all of the above imported, adopted styles were filtered, absorbed and tailored with a healthy dose of youthful optimism and excitement capturing the imaginations of young kids, first across London and then quickly across the country.

As the mod ranks grew original scene makers and stylists discretely retreated, aghast at marauding, packs of identikit youths rampaging across Southern coastal towns and on to the tabloids front pages. By the year of these pitched, sea front battles, 1964, Mod hit a high point in terms of numbers of participants but from within these swelling ranks was emerging a new breed of mod. Still with a watchful eye on smart yet casual schmutter but more than happy to duke it out with their sworn enemies, the motorcycle and rock n roll obsessive rockers. For the original ‘faces’ and ‘stylists’ the concept of mod was beginning to shift away from bespoke tailoring and an instinctual eye for detail and one upmanship in the clothing stakes. Yet just as the youth street cult known as mod had been merging imported styles and new world outlooks from its base in pre-swinging-sixties London, elsewhere in England’s outer colonies another take on the concept of over-the-top-smart teenage aggro dandys was taking shape.

Running parallel to the crossover from ‘hard mods’ and the fiercely proud, working class, toughs that bled in to the early skinhead gangs in the UK, on the other side of the world Australia was already witnessing its own, original, homegrown cult of style conscious weekend brawlers. Clothes obsessed gangs of street toughs, uniformally dressed to impress, with a strict but constant developing look were busy cultivating hard earned reputations for both fashion and fighting. This was the world of the Sharps.

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The Sharpie scene had been in development from the mid sixties onwards eventually settling on a look built around tight fitting, fine knit ‘conny’ cardigans, crest knit, casual polo/tennis shirts and levis and lee jeans. The interesting thing about sharp dress is the way it closely mirrored the casual smart look of mid sixties mod yet frequently bust out from the confines of any particular imported style to develop its own self sufficient look. At its peak, custom, tailor made garments were de-rigeur for the Aussie lout about town and it’s fascinating to see how the scene developed through the sixties then waned in popularity only to emerge again just a few years later with a second wave of, newly attired devotees in the early seventies.

Once again the parallels with the street looks of the UK were evident but again sharp was forging its own, insular and original take on the latest looks. As with England in the early 70s, a flirtation with glam and it’s outlandish taste in clothing filtered through to street, hardened young bucks on the look out for weekends filled with boozing, brawling and natty threads. Bowie was a touchstone for a while but Slades pared down boot boy terrace take on glam really caught the imagination of the Sharps at the time. Out of this developed an ultra pared down, uniform of T shirts (often emblazoned with iron letters bearing the legend Sharp and/or the name of your local crew), parallel and flared jeans and boots and heavy shoes. Again, parallels can be drawn with England where, at the same time, an era of continual change and reworking of smart looks seem to falter and former street style dandys either succumbed to the fashions of the day or withdrew from the ‘race’ settling back in to a stripped down non-nonsense, zero flash uniform of classic basics.

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Originally published in 2004, Tadhg Taylor’s ‘Top Fellas – The Story of Melbournes Sharpie Cult’ remains the essential, full story of this home grown Australian scene of aggro dandys and sharply dressed street toughs. Charting the origins of the scene Taylor explores the roots of mods inroads to the psyche of Australia’s suburban city kids.

Taylor himself had been a skinhead in the early 80s when he chanced upon a classic shot of a some Sharpies from back in the day in a now, thanks to the internet, widely known photograph by Kevin Pappas. Pre-internet however, when this book was being written there was little information around on the cult of Sharp. The similarities between this original, home grown cult and elements of the skinhead scene from the time are striking and with his limited knowledge of the cult shaken Taylor began to delve further in to the true roots of the Sharps. The book traces the Sharp phenomenon through the arrival of sixties fashions and styles from the UK, yet makes the point that elements of the influence of mod from the uk were in strong evidence already within this how grown scene.

Alongside the background story the details are filled in with some great interviews and personal accounts of life as a teenage sharp – the constantly updating clothes scene and the rucks and brawls and the succesive generations of kids that came to define the scene.

With a new edition of the book recently issued, Tadhg kindly found the time to answer a bunch of questions subbaculture threw at him regarding the story of his own journey into street style via skinhead, his subsequent discovery of Australia’s home grown Sharpie cult and how he came to write the book in the first place.

In the introduction to the book you mention that you were a skinhead in the mid to late eighties. What look were you sporting/what music were you listening to? Was the scene you were involved in heavily influenced by the uk scene?

My parents were UK migrants so I was always plugged into Brit culture. I also watched a lot of English TV so I knew skinheads from Dick Emery, The Goodies and Tuckers Luck! Then when I was 14/15 I saw some in the flesh, on holiday in Geelong of all places : anyone from Melbourne will know why that seems unlikely. I liked the look, sold my comic book collection, bought a Harrington jacket with the proceeds and fell in with a group of similarly fledgling skinheads.

We started off as Madness/Two-Tone kids and it was all about imitating the UK scene, there were definitely local twists out there (inspired by the unavailability of certain gear) but as obsessive anglophiles we did our best to stamp them out! We stayed skinheads till we were 18/19 by which time we’d moved on to reggae, soul, Slade and glam and into the side parts, crombies, fair isle jumpers and cords, a suede/smooth/skinhead jumble. Then we jumped over to ‘New Mod’, Acid Jazz and The Stone Roses!

I love the reference at the start of the book to the Kevin Pappas photograph of original sharpies. When you first saw it, it must have been quite a weird sight. Prior to seeing the picture did you have any idea of the existence of the sharpies?

I was conscious of the last days of sharpie when I was in primary school, not in an informed way, but you’d see fading gang graffiti, AC/DC were still a big deal, and short hair with ‘rats tails’ was still out there as a haircut for kids who wanted to look tough.

One time in my skinhead days I asked a tailor to take up some trousers that were a bit long, he wasn’t too sure (tailors never want to do what you ask) but he finally acquiesced saying ‘I understand, you’re a sharpie’!

Getting pulled over by the cops was part of skinhead life (this stopped when we got into the suede/smooth look!) and quite a few times the cops would tell us they were ex-sharps!

So I always had a hazy idea of sharpie but the Kevin Pappas postcard was the big revelation because before I saw that I thought seventies sharps were just lout gangs, I didn’t know they were into threads, that they were (however distantly) mod derived.

That picture and finding a copy of The Coloured Balls ‘Ball Power’ LP in a charity shop were the catalyst for me to dig a bit deeper. ‘Ball Power’ really hit me because by that point I was very big on UK seventies ‘lads rock’ like The Heavy Metal Kids, Jook and The Gorillas. The Coloured Balls were in that vein, but even more aggro and gutsy.

What did you think initially on discovering there had been a home grown equivalent to the British mod/skinhead scene?

I was bowled over by the size of the movement and the mod-like attention to detail. When I started writing the book there was literally no documentation of the cult, with the exception of one well intentioned but not very accurate essay by an academic called Judith Bessant. So when people started talking about gang wars and custom-made shoes it was quite a surprise.

What made you decide to actually write the book? When did you start work on it? How long did it take to pull together?

I started in 1997 when I got back from a trip to the UK. A trip overseas always makes you look at your own patch a little differently. It took me till around 2002 to finish it because one, I’d never written anything before and I had to learn the discipline of sitting in a chair and writing, and two, this was before social media and googling, so I had to bombard the city and suburbs with posters saying ‘Were You a Sharpie?’ and wait for them to call me. Later, after I’d learnt about the kind of tattoos sharpies sported, I could pick who’d been a sharp just by looking at them and I’d stop them in the street, at record fairs, markets, wherever. I was right every time and most of them were happy to talk.

I understand there have been a few reprints versions of the book. Did you self publish the first one? What kind of response did you think you’d get?

I hawked the book around local publishers for about two years and got some interest but no bites.  Most publishers in Australia are very conservative and sharpie just wasn’t on their radar:  they’re all university/arty types, which is fine but they were never going to get it. They didn’t know any ex-sharps and they didn’t know what a huge movement it’d been.

Eventually it was put out in 2004 with a Melbourne City Council Community History Publishing Grant. The council were great to deal with and really liked the book. We launched it with first generation sharpie rock legend Les Stacpool playing live. The first run sold out in a few months, in a few stores, and all the ex-sharps gave it the thumbs up, which was what pleased me most.

It was put out for a second time by the Melbourne University Bookshop, and is now out again thanks to the efforts of Simon Strong at Leda Tape. The printing is superior to the second edition, and if you buy it from Book Depository it’s super cheap with no postage costs!

Had you met many sharpie originals before writing the book? How did you go about getting in touch with the guys interviewed in the book?

There were a few ex-sharps that hung around the skinhead scene when I was young (blokes who’d crossed over from late-sharp to the Brit influenced skinhead revival in the early eighties) and occasionally we’d grill them on what it was all about. I’m particularly thinking about a very nice chap called Buddha who, we were very impressed to hear, had seen The Sweet live, twice!

The main stumbling block with putting together the book was sourcing pictures, everyone had lost ‘em a few divorces and house fires ago. Now there are sharpie pictures all over the internet, which is fantastic. The internet is full of great images of original UK skinheads/suedeheads too, whereas back in the day it was all about that one picture from 1970 in Nick Knight’s book and looking in old library books about juvenile delinquency!

What was the response to the book like? Did you get a load of ex sharpies getting in touch?

The day I picked up the book from the printers one of the blokes who ran the place earbashed me about how great Lobby Loyde was live. I took the books home in a taxi and it turned out the taxi-driver was an ex-sharp who’d played in a sharpie band that performed at school dances. So yes the book acted as a magnet for ex-sharps and since it came out I’ve heard no end of great sharpie stories. It also set off a whole ex-sharpie social thing, since nurtured on the ‘Skins and Sharps’ website by people like Sam Biondo, Julie Mac, Oz punk legend Chane Chane and my mate Chris O’Hooligan, who sadly is no longer with us.

Re reading the book recently I was thinking that the sharps are cross between the street youth cults of England and the US street gangs of the 70s and their fierce approach to defending their block or areas name. Were the sharp gangs as obsessed with representing their area as the book suggests?

It’s all true. People back then were a lot more tied to the area they grew up in. And these were kids, too young to drive, so they’d hang around their local coffee-bar/hamburger joint and defend it! Plus some of them just wanted to fight because they thought it was exciting. The UK equivalent is fighting for your football team. You might love your football team but it’s also kind of an excuse to have a punch-up.

Do you have a favourite sharpie look/period?
I like it all but even when I was a skinhead I was always on the mod side of the fence so I’m extra fond of the 1960s mod/Italian influenced look with its links to the inner-city coffee-bars and boxing gyms. It kind of gets overlooked because the seventies look is so bold and aggressive. But I like it all, all the cults stages were fun, imaginative responses to their times.

Is there much interest in the sharpie cult nowadays? Has there been any revival of it since the final incarnation mentioned in the book?
There’s been a revival of interest, but no, you’re not getting swarms of sharpie revival teens running around the joint, not yet!

The book and the exhibitions and websites that followed it have definitely put sharpie back on the cultural map though. There’s been a sharpie themed Levis ad, TV and magazine coverage, a reactivation of the Staggers jeans line, more books and a few films mooted.

Australia’s British inspired skinhead scene is taking on a lot of sharpie influence as well, with Melbourne Oi! band Marching Orders putting out a sharpie themed album a few years back.

How is the sharpie cult looked back/remembered on in Australia in the present day (if at all?)

There’s now a lot of ex-sharps chatting and blogging online which is great and I think they look back with great affection and interest at their youth. The average punter of a 1960s/70s vintage probably remembers sharpies as somebody you didn’t want to see when you got on the train at night!

Big thanks to Tadhg Taylor for taking the time to answer these questions, and for the press clippings on Sharp. The latest edition of Top Fellas – The Story of Melbournes Sharpie Cult is now available for less than the price of a packet of fags – It’s 6 quid including postage and ships from the UK Order your copy here

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3 Responses to “The Australian Sharpie Cult”

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  1. Lisa Morrow says:

    The Sharpies also existed in Sydney in the 1960s. They weren’t connected to the skins as were the Sharpies in the 1970s in Melbourne. There is a great book about them called “Out With the Boys: the Sharpie Days” by Kim Hewett. He was a Sharpie back in the 60s and was one of the Waterloo boys. He’s written a great account of the music, the clothes, the language and the culture of the 1960s Sydney Sharpies. Check it out here http://www.amazon.com/Out-With-The-Boys-Sharpie/dp/1484058194

  2. scorp says:

    there are also 2 books written by the lovely Julie Mac,Rage and Snap,all about the sharpie era in Melbourne,it was the greatest tim of our youth back then,i was a Melbourne Sharp from 1975 to 1978/79 when it faded out,some of the antics we got up to was hilarious,we we’re a sort morphed from skins and mods and became sharps,because we used to dress neat and tidy,hense the name looing sharp,glory days they were,ther was other cities who had sharps as Sydney,Adelaide and Perth but it was mainly a Melbourne subculture thing.

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