Sharpies: Top fellas and brushes

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Sharpies outside Young & Jackson Hotel, Melbourne, 1972.

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Above and below: pages from Top Fellas by Tadhg Taylor.

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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.

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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.”

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Oak Park Boot Boys, Middle Brighton Station, 1973.

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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.

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Chris O’Hooligan and The Camberwell Junction Boys, 1970.

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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.

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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).

madame said,

September 5, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

‘mazing! x

Mondo said,

September 5, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

I did a bit on Sharpies myself earlier, claiming they’ve got the look of Jesse Hector’s distant cousins about them. There’s also a walloping 22 track ‘Sharpie Attack’ comp downloadable here at the always excellent Crazee Kids Sound

rockpopfashion said,

September 7, 2010 @ 5:49 am

Hi Dave
Their hair was too short at the front to be like the Gorillas (whose clothes were also too fancy).
The closest I can ally them in England is to blokes I saw on Sunday afternoons in Sefton Park etc visiting relatives in Liverpool 1970-73; hard-nuts in parallel trousers and army boots with longer hair.
But I don’t think they would have liked hard rock; these guys were like the suedeheads in London into soul and reggae. From Tadhg’s book (and what my wife tells me), the early 70s sharps rejected imported music for homegrown rough-as-guts rock.

Simon Strong said,

September 7, 2010 @ 8:11 am

Simon from Custom Book Centre here – CBC will ship copies overseas at Aust Post cost. Please ignore the freight charges in yr basket – we’ll charge approx. half that. Thanks…

PS Sharpies Attack! is essential too!

Mark E said,

September 11, 2010 @ 11:41 am

Some great pix, kinda a long lost cult – amazing it lasted so long and now there is not a trace!

pete said,

October 4, 2011 @ 7:41 am

some mistakes in book acropolis shoes was in collingwood and no way the oakleigh boys ever bashed the collingwood boys

robert drennen said,

November 10, 2011 @ 9:15 am

hi i used to be in the holmesglen sharps, my nickname was speedy and cliff mitchell used to be in our gang, he made a few comments in the book top fellas, which i just recently read and would like to buy a copy,it was also good to see a comment made by cliff re,, a scuffle with ac/dc i was there also, aah what good memories and great music we had back then! we all hung out drinking underage ( as you did)at the back of the holmesglen shops, there was a laneway we named with spray paint skins lane, and i have great memories of the good old days, love to hear back from you re the book top fellas or anything else related to holmesglen sharps

robert drennen said,

November 12, 2011 @ 12:48 am

would love to get a copy of the book top fellas, i used to be a holmesglen sharpie, and loved being mentioned in the book, used to hang out with cliff mitchell who made a few comments

Delinquent Angel said,

April 19, 2012 @ 1:29 pm

I used to be a Sharpie here in Sydney in my younger days early 70s cheers

john neville said,

June 7, 2012 @ 4:38 am

i was a penrith sharpies in the 70,s with the liverpool guys and town hall guys as well , and in 74 i was a frankston sharpie hanging around with the normans etc for 2 yrs.

would be great to here more from more sharpies that were around at that time.

john neville
ex N.S.W sharp and VIC sharp

Spike said,

January 11, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

.HiGuys dont forget the sharps of BOX HILL. Well known back in the day as the Box Hill Boys. During my sharpie days from early 82 to 87, I have fond memories of belting the Croydon and Ringwood boys. Some may remember the huge blue at Box Hill Station between the Box Hill boys and the Croydon boys in mid 1984. So confident were the Croydon boys that they invited the Ringwood boys to my understanding, to witness them masacre us. This, however, was not to be. The word had gotten around at the blue light disco that they were on there way, so polite as we were, we were ready to greet them at the station. Between the Box Hill boys and some help from our staunch allies, ie Blackburn boys, some Dony boys included in which, the little Houston Sharps. We beat the shit out of em. funny, they never came back!!!!Couplw of their crew ended up in the big ditch recently exavated for the curent station and Central shops. A mint r’wood or Crodon Connie intact would be worth A bit. What wasnt souvenier we chucked. Many were to small. Cops stood back and watched the show while we sent em back well the the is.That was the ones h r coppers didnt lock up of coures. That wassth e most anb biggeset brawels i I hed beenbeen in

scorp said,

April 8, 2013 @ 11:34 pm

as a Melbourne sharp for years[and a leader] I can tell you that they died out after 1979,i remember those good old days of waiting for the gang at flinders st station,hanging around mutual bowl,centrepoint plaza,the graham hotel,london tavern,y&j,hosies,going to the myer music bowl; to see rod stewart,status quo,going to the mcg,having the occasional punch on,getting harrassed by coppers,especialy the old consorting squad,giving the railways coppers hell,wearing our conti’s cardigan,accroplis platform shoes,it was great and I would do it all again in a heartbeat,.

Steve McGarrigle said,

February 18, 2016 @ 11:07 am

Good mate of Gus Pryor (wombat), Steve Coffey and Bull. Myself, former Penrith Sharp.Good to know the memories are still alive at the Old Federal Pub.

thielen said,

June 21, 2016 @ 12:30 am

thielen

“[…]::THE LOOK – adventures in rock and pop fashion:: » Sharpies: Top fellas and brushes[…]”

[…] history of Sharpies on THE LOOK blog is based on Top Fellas, Tadhg Taylor’s highly recommended book about Sharp’s two-fisted, […]

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