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).
Bit late I know, but here are some exclusive photos (courtesy of Chelsea Space director Donald Smith) from the recently staged discussion between Mick Jones and I as part of the Shards Of Utopia evening at Tate Britain.
//Listening to the introduction from the evening’s moderator Jen Thatcher//
Donald is the key connector: Mick’s Rock & Roll Public Library made a return for a concentrated period to Chelsea Space as part of the gallery’s fifth birthday celebrations, while my Barney Bubbles exhibition will be held there in September – more details soon.
Shards Of Utopia was curated by writer/academic Cecilia Wee; Mick and I were down to natter about the sci-fi and conspiracy theory books in his library but we couldn’t let the opportunity go without discussing the importance of Malcolm McLaren.
“You came away a different person from all those experiences,” he said. “Without Malcolm, none of us would be doing what we’re doing today. It’s so sad we won’t hear any more of his great ideas; not just the Pistols and the shops but things like Waltz Darling, the Surf Nazis film, Duck Rock…it was just endless with him.”
For a select few the evening ended with Mick accompanying himself at Chelsea Space on acoustic for a rendition of Should I Stay Or Should I Go?. Amid rumours of a B.A.D. reformation, the success with Gorillaz and the acceptance of the Rock & Roll Public Library as a living, breathing and evolving creative environment, the answer is a very definite: don’t be going anywhere soon, Mick. We loves ya.
Since the genius Shawn Stussy has recently re-entered the game with a great new blog and new label S/Double Studio (thanks for hipping us, Disney Rollergirl) it seems fitting we should play out with a fave of THE LOOK and one which inextricably links Mick to the International Stussy Tribe – B.A.D.’s The Globe:
Who would have thought this single article of clothing would contain such a legacy?
Maybe it speaks of the universal breast fixation, but the fact is that this design – at once simple and complex – continues its journey from art project to novelty item to radical fashion apparel and eventually to 21st century art object.
Along the way this tale absorbs such disparate elements as Rhode Island School Of Design, Oz magazine, Bourbon Street, the King’s Road, Alice Cooper, the LA Free Press and Forum in the 70s, The Face in the mid-80s, the late lamented model, boutique owner and novelist Pat Booth, the implosion of the New York Dolls and the rise of the Sex Pistols, the Met’s Anglomania exhibition of 2006 and much, much more.
//Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones keeps ’em hid in Seditionaries version, Sweden, 1977. Photo: Dennis Morris//
Imponderables abound; the stock of the first edition produced for a college yearbook in 1969 was stolen by persons unknown, which maybe account for the variations down the years.
The final mystery is that nobody can remember the name of the original model.
A room-mate of the students who came up with the concept, like the Mona Lisa she has receded into history leaving not an enigmatic smile but a pair of perfectly formed breasts to entrance forever.
This is THE LOOK’s three part three-part special, based on testimony supplied exclusively by the key protagonists, presenting rarely seen images and previously unpublished and updated interviews and information for the first time anywhere, ever.
The story of the tits tee starts in the late spring of 1969 with Janusz and Laura Gottwald, students at Rhode Island School of Design with their own studio Amperzand Design in the college’s town of Providence.
//Advert in Los Angeles Free Press, June 18, 1971//
Janusz came up with the concept of the trompe de l’oeil shirt – as well as another featuring a hairy male chest – and together the pair produced a limited edition RISD “yearbook” consisting of a corrugated box containing various editions of items, one of which was the t-shirt.
“But word got out and the closet storing the boxes was raided and the tit t-shirts were stolen.”
//Alice Cooper, Max’s Kansas City//
On leaving college the Gottwalds produced the shirt commercially via San Francisco-based Jizz Inc, the label run by Dick Lepre, Janusz’s best friend from Notre Dame, and his wife Judith Muller.
“We produced the tits t-shirt in our basement in San Francisco, selling them along with other Amperzand designs,” says Judith, who was Jizz production manager. “The original ideas came from Amperzand, but we branched out to include other designers. All our clothing was produced in and around San Francisco and presented at the Men’s Sportswear and Boutique shows in New York.”
Among the boutiques which stocked the tits tee was San Francisco’s Water Brothers. The Rolling Stones played their fateful gig at the Altamont Speedway in nearby Livermore on December 6 and it is at Water Brothers that Charlie Watts is believed to have bought the one he sports in the David Bailey photograph on the cover of the Rolling Stones’ live album Get Your Ya-Yas Out!.
Watts also wore the t-shirt for performances recorded for the BBC back in England on December 12 1969, and the group’s chronicler Stanley Booth recounts how the Ya-Yas cover shoot took place near Birmingham towards the end of that month.
//Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, The Rolling Stones, released September 10 1970//
On September 8 1970 the Alice Cooper band played New York’s hallowed Max’s Kansas City. According to alicecooper.co.uk, the singer was arrested that night for uttering the word “tits”; maybe it was actually for the perceived obscenity of his t-shirt.
Just the day before, Time magazine featured the tits tee in a report on the growing popularity of printed tops headlined: The Breakout Of The Undershirt: “Exhibitionists will love the startling model imprinted with a properly located life-size photo of a pair of breasts…”
//From Time, September 7, 1970. Courtesy Ben Cooney collection//
“We also produced NASA photograph moon and saturn shirts, several Jesus ones (Catholic and Protestant versions) and a gorgeous snake shirt,” says Laura.
Meanwhile, Judith points out how deals with other 70s fashion companies such as Smiling Crow, and designs by the likes of Norman Stubbs of East West Musical Instruments Company and Bruce Smith of Rainbow Cobblers enabled Jizz to expand into a full range of shirts and jackets which were sold through independent outlets across the US.
“I designed men’s smoking jackets and satin cowboy shirts with embroidered yokes which were featured in Playboy and Esquire,” says Laura. “Actually, I won a designer of the year award from Esquire for the robes.”
One of Jizz’s most avid customers was Goods Department Store on Harvard Square in Cambridge MA, described by Laura as “Biba-like”. The owner/founders were entrepreneurs Daryl and Don Levy, who now run the Deluxe Town Diner in nearby Watertown.
“It carried merchandise ranging from charming conceptual kitsch like our t-shirts to divine Brit fashion from Mulberry and Margaret Howell,” adds Laura, who believes that the enduring appeal of the tits tee is rooted in the care and attention originally lavished upon it.
“Quality was the key,” she says. “Ours were silk-screened, using a very fine dot screen, as you’d expect from an art object created by RISD students.”
The Jizz team is still smarting that the design was later picked up by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood for their shop SEX. While Dick Lepre has said that he has been tempted to contact the San Francisco Museum of Contemporary Art over it’s attribution of the design to Westwood, Laura Gottwald has also expressed her annoyance.
“Vivienne Westwood ripped us off; we had the shirt out first,” is Judith Muller’s succinct summation.
Yet, as we shall see, it was actually McLaren who brought the design to England where it was positioned in a very different context. Judging by the difference in proportion and size of print, this may have been taken from a copy of the original.
But such dissection of the garment lay far in the future.
The installation/collection was unveiled at Chelsea Space a few months back, but at 2 Acklam Road (fittingly right underneath the Westway) the new manifestation has a more orderly, “curated” feel, with the lock-up flavour replaced by dedicated sections for Jones’ voluminous collections of clothes, magazines, books, equipment, games and all manner of knick-knacks as well as new additions such as Mick’s “office” and a rehearsal studio.
Also up for grabs is the most excellent comic Tales From The Rock & Roll Library, a collaboration between Jones and artist Crispin Chetwynd.
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