Sharpies outside Young & Jackson Hotel, Melbourne, 1972.
Above and below: pages from Top Fellas by Tadhg Taylor.
Last year’s Youtube posting of this excerpt from Greg Macainsh’s 1974 film about sharpies coincided with a revival of interest in the tough and stylish Australian music/fashion youth cult which sprang from Melbourne’s blue collar suburbs.
Tadhg Taylor’s definitive book Top Fellas tracks the “two-fisted, two-decade” history of sharp from its emergence (parallel to mod in the UK) through successive and distinctive Oz responses to skinhead, glam and punk.
The roots of sharp lie in the influx of European immigrants in Australia in the early 60s. “Randy” says: “I came to Adelaide from England in 1959. I became a mod when I was in high school. I’d say in a class of thirty about twenty five would’ve been British, working class from the North and the Midlands. Every three weeks a new boatload of immigrants would arrive and the kids would tell us about the latest fashions and bands. Consequently we were never that far behind what was happening in England.”
Taylor adds: “British mod kids that quit Adelaide for Melbourne were a key influence on the birth of sharp.”
With first-hand testimony from former sharps and brushes (girls) linked by his lively text, Taylor’s book emphasises the importance of clothes to these hard-nuts.
Rod of The Oakleigh Boys (and son), Melbourne, 1969.
“A lot of blokes dressed real fancy, suits with short European jackets and velvet collars, but they weren’t mods and they were rough as guts working class,” says “Martin” about the styles of the mid 60s.
According to Taylor, the “killer elite” were the Top Fellas: “To be a Top Fella you had to be handy in a blue (fight), hell on the dance floor, cocksure with a brush and dapper as all get-out.”
Angry Anderson, later of Rose Tattoo, recalls “twin-sets were huge, the matching Crest knit (jersey knit) and cardigan – maroon, silver-grey, royal blue or chocolate brown. I remember guys who’d only wear one colour or had complete outfits in one colour. In recent years I’ve tried to re-adopt the look but it’s very hard to find a twin-set for a guy! I went into storage and the only items of clothing I had left was my Bokka coat, three-quarter length, flap pockets, hound’s-tooth black, white and grey. I can barely get it on.”
Oak Park Boot Boys, Middle Brighton Station, 1973.
Sharp boy and girl, central Melbourne, 1967.
By the early 70s tattoos and earrings (left ear only) were de rigeur, as were Staggers jeans (flared but snug on the hip), singlets, fluffy moccasins, treads (sandals with bright-coloured suede uppers with soles cut from car tyres) and the short-on-top, rat’s-tails-at-the-back haircut.
The most significant garment was the Conny – a tight-fit cardigan designed by Mr Conti, a Greek clothier in Thornbury (just across the street from the site of Taylor and his wife’s second-hand bookshop Fully Booked).
“Connys came in a variety of styles, some had thin pocket flaps on each side of the chest, most had five buttons and stripes,” writes Taylor. “They always had a small belt buttoned at the base of the back, same size as the pocket flaps, about three inches long and one inch wide. Pretty soon kids started bringing in their own designs, sparing no expense to wow their mates with new patterns and colour combinations.”
“Chris”, one of The Camberwell Junction Boys in 1970 , says: “We got Cuban-heeled shoes made at Venus, Kosmanos and Acropolis. The cardigan thing carried on…we mostly wore jeans, with a Crest knit or a Penguin. The girls wore pastel coloured ‘Elta’ cardigans made by an old lady with buttons shaped like bunnies. They also wore strap-on school shoes and later clogs.”
While Slade and Bowie were accepted by the early 70s sharps, they revered the homegrown hard-rock played by Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs, Skyhooks (formed by Macainsh), Rose Tattoo, and in particular, The Coloured Balls.
That band’s charismatic leader was the late lamented Lobby Loyd. His 60s band The Purple Hearts had attracted the first wave of sharpies: “I started noticing all these strange people. I’d never seen anything like them, a distinct style. They had short hair and wore baggy trousers and cardigans. The girls wore knee-length pleated skirts, twin-sets and pearls. They were incredible to play to and had their own way of dancing.”
The MC5-inspired The Coloured Balls played long work-outs such as God (the soundtrack in the clip from Macainsh’s film). “The sharps would do dance routines and to watch it you’d think you were at the New York Metropolitan watching some bizarre modern ballet,” said Loyd.
Chris O’Hooligan and The Camberwell Junction Boys, 1970.
West Side and Melbourne sharps, St Kilda football match, 1978.
Sharp fizzled out in the early 80s due to a variety of factors, not least the increasing usage of guns to settle scores. The last big shout is adjudged to have been AC/DC’s homecoming concert at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl on the Back In Black 1981 tour.
By all accounts it was mayhem. “Every sharp in Melbourne would’ve been there, they went berserk, smashed all the trains and trams, pulled the cops off their horses, a riot,” says “Chris”. “I got smacked in the mouth and ran for my life. By this stage I was into punk, the ballroom, speed, to me these kids with their moccasins and Bon Scott RIP t-shirts, they weren’t sharpies, they were just headbangers.”
Now sharp is back.
This summer an exhibition dedicated to the cult was held at Melbourne’s Kustom Lane Gallery, while Chane Chane – a contributor to Taylor’s book whose glam-punk band La Femme is seen as the great lost sharpie act – leads the City Sharps.
Copies of Top Fellas: The Story Of Melbourne’s Sharpie Cult are available here – the Custom Book Centre says that they’ll do a deal for international cost postage to be equal to Australia-only mail (so approximately half the usual freight charges).
John and Molly’s new work comprises screen-prints on hand-made rag paper created from recycled T-shirts.
//Siouxsie Face No 2 2009. John Dove & Molly White/
Now they are preparing for a show at Stolper’s Museum Street gallery. “Our prints are hybrids which have evolved over many years of producing rock & roll and punk images on T-shirts,” says John. “When you first create the image, you take great care to develop every nuance and facet of the print but, as you continue to repeat the process, you may eliminate some screens or colours and streamline the various stages of the print.
//Westernise 2009. John Dove & Molly White//
“These prints on paper retain all the character of that journey but we’ve revisited the image and returned to that careful nurturing.”
The publication of this year’s best autobiography – Jah Wobble’s intriguing and inspirational Memoirs Of A Geezer - has coincided with John Lydon’s decision to take Public Image Ltd on the road for the first time in 17 years (bassman Wobble and fellow founder members guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Jim Walker are not taking part).
What with Undercover’s recent PiL-inspired clothing range, it seems timely to celebrate the fantastic visuals delivered by Wobble to match the towering music he has created over the last three decades.
In this exclusive interview with Wobble, we also explore the importance of PiL photographer/design director Dennis Morris and a figure who has remained in the sartorial shadows for far too long: Kenny MacDonald.
//Jah Wobble, east London, 1981//
We also have a copy of Wobble’s book to give away; details below.
It’s well documented that Wobble – real name John Wardle – knew Lydon long before he joined the Sex Pistols when they were part of the teenage gang the Four Johns (including John Beverley aka Sid Vicious and John Gray) knocking around east and north London, following football and voraciously consuming music from Can to Hawkwind to Big Youth and beyond.
//Public Image Limited, summer 1978. Photos: Dennis Morris//
In 1974, the Johns paid a visit to hairdresser to the rock elite Keith Wainwright at his Chelsea salon Smile and had matching haircuts. “Round about that period me and my mate Ronny were wearing pleated Army trousers from Laurence Corner, the ones American GIs would wear,” says Wobble.
“It was a soul boy look, very smart with cap sleeve t-shirts and those half sandals/half shoes, not the plastic beach sandals which some people wore. They were horrible.”
With The Great Gatsby influence merging with the Glenn Miller revival, the teenage Wobble scoured the second hand clothes shops of Brick Lane on Sunday, picking up drape jacketed 30s and 40s suits.
//Jah Wobble, 80s//
Although he was at the epicentre of the punk storm, Wobble avoided adopting the fashions of the era. “It just wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says. “I’m from the East End. It’s in our DNA to sport the Terry Venables look: smart grey jackets with black polos, loafers and well-pressed trousers.”
When he was recruited into PiL, the original line-up jibbed at the punk uniform with an absurdist appearance. Lydon, for example, wore hand-painted shirts supplied by Mark Gray.
//Front and back cover, both sides of inner, First Issue, Public Image, Virgin Records, 1978. Photography and design concept: Dennis Morris//
For the sleeve of debut album First Issue, photographer Dennis Morris – who also created the band’s enduring logo and was responsible for the packaging for second album Metal Box - conceived a plan to present the four members as cover stars of various magazines.
Wobble is depicted as a Ronald Coleman-moustached matinee idol in a Vogue pastiche, wearing a blue pinstripe suit he’d had made for himself the previous year. ”You didn’t get many 18-year-olds doing that,” he says. “It was perfect for that shoot. Dennis was very important to PiL. He understood the humour and chemistry of the band and bought in Terry Jones from Vogue to help style it, which made it proper.”
//12″ Metal container sleeve, Metal Box, PiL, Virgin Records, 1979//
Kenny MacDonald was another integral figure, producing tailored traditional style menswear with a twist long before it became the High Street norm. He was introduced into the circle by sometime PiL member Jeanette Lee, who had managed King’s Road store Acme Attractions with her then-boyfriend Don Letts.
“Kenny was very quietly spoken and thoughtful, a real London bloke,” says Wobble. “You would not get someone like him anywhere else in the world at that time. He was absolutely London.”
MacDonald was such a fan of classic movies that he put on screenings himself at the Kings Cross cinema The Scala.
“It was interesting because he was a black bloke into the public school look, making fake Jockey Club ties and talking in a upper-class accent,” says Wobble.
//Jah Wobble, 90s and 80s.//
“That was strange and somehow great. And he’d always do the unexpected. When everyone else was producing pegged trousers, he did a straight-legged, conservative cut. When everyone was wearing low, long thin lapels down to one button, quite 50s, he made a higher cut jacket, slightly uptight, very English.”
MacDonald’s flamboyant masterstroke may well have been the giant and brightly coloured Teddy Bear fur coats he made for the band; John Lydon sported the red version for a performance on The Old Grey Whistle Test.
Wobble’s was in green and yellow “like something worn by Flanagan & Allen. Oh man. I wore it with a Homburg from a local Jewish outfitter, a Daniel Hechter suit and walked into The Globe public house; they all started singing Underneath The Arches!”
Through the 80s Wobble checked for Daniel Hechter, buying suits two at a time from his Bond street shop, and into the 90s had a wide variety of suits made in the Far East, one in Versace logo material.
“It had this Roman element with the beautiful dark blues and gold,” he says. “And it was mixed with the East, which is very sensual; I love silk.
//Jah Wobble 2001//
These days he still has bespoke suits made in the Far East and persists in hunting down quality second hand clothes.”I’m like those older guys who chase young women: I play the percentage game. They’ll keep knocking on the door until they get one, though of course the law of diminishing returns kicks in.
“I keep going into second-hand shops and about one in every hundred visits pays off: you come across a fantastic, hardly-worn Armani suit or something.”
He is also a great fan of Missoni. “I have quite a few jackets; there’s something wonderful about their interwoven material, it’s kind of like the stuff Kenny was doing. Not predictable grey and black.”
//Chinese Dub tour, 2008.//
For last year’s acclaimed Chinese Dub live extravaganza, Wobble and his wife, the ghuzeng player Zi Lan Liao,blended authentic eastern styles and artistry into a visual tour-de-force to match the spectacular nature of the music.
And what about the stubble? Some might argue that Wobble’s refusal to shave was his most radical visual contribution of the post-punk era, given the silent new wave “no facial hair” diktat of the times. By doing so he predicted the 80s “designer stubble” fad by a good few years.
“Initially it came about through laziness, but then I started to use a trimmer,” he says. “In those days it was akin to luxuriant prairie grass. Now it’s like bramble. If you try and carry it off you look like old man Steptoe!”
As Mark has explained, he clipped one of the nine photos for a home-made badge. Not only did that go missing, but Mark couldn’t recall the photograph at all.
//Johnny Rotten, September 1976. Photo: Wolfgang Heilemann//
So we put a call out and THE LOOK fan Dai Ando from Japan has come up trumps. Here is the missing image in all it’s glory: a close up by the photographer Wolfgang “Bubi” Heilemann of Johnny Rotten in full flight, teeth bared, Peter Pan shirt collar turned up, studded wristband to the fore.
Thanks to Mark and Dai for enabling us to present this long-lost artefact in it’s entirety for the first time online. Nice work chaps.
It’s over a week now since September 9 2009 was declared “Beatles Day” as part of the media frenzy surrounding the release of new game The Beatles™: Rock Band™ and the remastered CDs of the Fab Four’s catalogue.
As noted widely elsewhere, the negative aspects of the overkill resulted in sales of the game flagging behind Guitar Hero 5, while Dame Vera Lynn out-sold the new CDs to become the oldest artist to top the UK charts.
THE LOOK ain’t saying nothing new when we express weariness at this grand spectacle of Beatle barrel-scraping; recent days have witnessed a great deal of vitriol aimed at the promulgators.
//Cook, Jones and Rotten, 1976. Photos: Bravo, Ray Stevenson//
Now the mood has been captured by Burro’s reissue of it’s I HATE The Beatles shirt from 2001. This was inspired by John Lydon’s adapted Pink Floyd t-shirt from 1975, a statement against the dinosaur acts who ruled the musical landscape of the time.
The shirt (which was yellow but because of stage lighting appears to be green in some shots) aligned Lydon with the SEX shop crowd, and was worn by him and his cohorts in the Sex Pistols in the first year-and-a-half of their existence.
By the time Burro’s Olaf Parker came to reappraise Lydon’s tee at the turn of the new millennium, The Beatles had become a fertile symbol of a moribund pop culture; post-Britpop the group had attained an near-unassailable position, with their influence endlessly dissected as the Anthology series brought in the bucks.
Parker says that the “juvenile nihilism” of Lydon’s shirt had always struck a chord. ”I’d only recently started to get to grips with Photoshop and was experimenting with the various possibilities it offered for manipulating images, pushing them until they were almost unrecognisable,” he says.
“The Beatles image was one which was used as an experiment. However far the picture was pushed it still retained it’s ‘Beatleness’.
“For us it became a symbol of how much our culture had been undermined and infused with blind adulation for a long-dead pop group.”
Parker made a single tee bearing the design for a 2001 catwalk show in Paris. “The response was such that we produced a small run mainly for our own shops. Things took off from there. Now the time seems right to bring it back.”
As Parker points out, the tee continues to polarise opinion, a capacity it shares not only with Lydon’s original but also the peerless designs produced from 430 King’s Road in the 70s – to this day some of those cannot be worn without causing discomfort and prompting comment.
//Dougie Millings laughs it up with The Beatles, son Gordon, daughter Angela and wife Lilian. Courtesy: Gordon Millings//
During the publicity campaign for Rock Band and the remastered CDs, Paul McCartney has made the the surprise claim that it was he who was responsible for the besuited look which launched the band’s commercial career.
In a recent interview he told how, while on holiday with his family at a Butlin’s holiday camp in the mid 50s, he experienced an epiphany; four young men walked past the swimming pool dressed in exactly the same clothes. That night it became apparent they were a band, who appeared on stage in the ballroom wearing suits of the same smart cut.
When The Beatles signed to EMI Records in 1962, McCartney says he drew on that memory and persuaded his band-mates that this was the image that would help them on the road to stardom.
//The Beatles await delivery of their new suits, December 17, 1961. Pic: Albert Marrion//
McCartney’s tale does not accord with any previous accounts, including that of their late tailor Dougie Millings in THE LOOK. In Brian Epstein’s 1964 autobiography A Cellarful Of Noise their manager describes in detail how he had to address their “scruffy” early leather-clad rocker look. Epstein’s assistant Alistair Taylor recalled in his own book that on December 14 1961 – the day after The Beatles signed their management contract – the foursome were marched to Birkenhead tailor Beno Dorn (a friend of Epstein’s) for fittings for matching made-to-measure dark blue suits. They also had their hair neatened at Liverpool’s top-notch barber Horne Brothers.
//In Millings’ round-collared suits 1964//
According to the excellent website Savage Young Beatles the suits were first worn onstage at Manchester’s BBC Playhouse Theatre on March 7, 1962.Cut to the autumn of 1962 when Dougie Millings was commissioned by Epstein to make a suit for one of his charges, Gerry Marsden. Suitably impressed, Epstein made an appointment at Milling’s first-floor studio at 63 Old Compton Street, Soho.
“In late 62 Brian brought in four guys who all had this strange hairstyle,” Millings says in THE LOOK. “They said, ‘Make us something different. Don’t make us look like The Shadows!” so I dreamed up the round-neck collar. I make no claims I invented it, but we did add individual touches – the bell-shaped cuff with the link button; this strange collar with the four buttons.”
//My obit for Dougie Millings, Mojo, 2001//
That McCartney’s claim has come out of the clear blue sky after 50-odd years should not undermine it’s veracity. It would be a great shame, however, if it casts a shadow over the considerable stylistic achievements of Epstein and Millings, ones which were crucial in catapulting the band’s popularity into the stratosphere and underpin worldwide, multimedia promotional campaigns to this day.
Priced £25, Burro’s I HATE The Beatles tee is available here.
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