When Sharpies Ruled: A Vicious Selection

Daily Review‘s Engel Schmidl interviews Glenn Terry and Ian Millar about the newly released compilation of “sharpie” music When Sharpies Ruled!

By reputation, the teenagers from Melbourne known as sharpies weren’t averse to the occasional episode of biff and bash, often carried out on a Red Rattler train trundling from an outer suburban post to the city’s Flinders St station.

The sharpies were a mainly Melbourne tribe. You can find mention of ‘sharps’ in newspaper reports all the way back to the 1950s, the magical sepia age of juvenile delinquency, but the tribe really came of age as ‘sharpies’ in the early 1970s.

It was a demographic youthquake of suburban discontent funnelled from far-flung locales like Frankston, Ringwood and Thomastown and poured onto the streets of the city to run riot — at least that’s the tabloid version of events.

Make no mistake, the sharpies could be a tough bunch. However, the sensationalist version of sharpie life portrayed by newspapers like Melbourne’s Truth was just a small part of the bigger picture.

Like all good teenage tribes, the sharpies had their code of belonging. The badges of membership included fashion (Conte cardigans, flared trousers, Cuban-heeled wedge shoes and the distinctive rat-tails and shaved head haircut were all pretty common), fighting (squares and longhairs watch out!) and music.

Glenn Terry, owner of Melbourne record store Vicious Sloth Collectables, has put together a compilation called When Sharpies Ruled! for Warner Festival’s Australian music reissue series. Terry was a sharpie back in the day, a teenager just getting his ears wet to the sounds of glam, boogie and pop pumping out of transistor radios on Melbourne radio stations like 3XY.

“It was a soundtrack for almost everything; it was a soundtrack if you went out to listen to records at a mate’s place; it was a soundtrack if you went to see the bands live; and it also led to lively discussion about different types of music as well if you were just hanging out with mates or if you were going on the train to Ringwood Ice Land [skating rink] to see the bands. It was all-encompassing,” Terry tells Daily Review.

The compilation includes the more glam end of the sharpie listening spectrum, with bands like Hush, Skyhooks and Ted Mulry Gang, along with the meaty, beaty, big and bouncy sounds of Lobby Loyde’s Coloured Balls, Rose Tattoo and Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. There’s also a selection of lesser known bands from the era, including Rabbit, Taste, Fatty Lumpkin and Finch.

Terry says the compilation is a snapshot of the music you could hear coming from high school dances as well as suburban pubs at the time. It was a sound that could be described as the snotty younger brother of boogie blues: loud, snarling and horny. He says overseas bands that had toured Australia in the early 70s like Rod Stewart’s Faces and Slade had made a big impact on local fans and bands.

“R’n’B crossover stuff had always been embraced here; it was really built for dancing. And as strange as that sharpie dance might seem now to people looking back, that was really the beat these guys were looking for: it was that propulsive forward-moving beat and it was just slightly faster than that boogie blues,” Terry says.

“We were probably blessed in this country as well with the Albert Productions guys, starting with Ted Albert and ending obviously with Vanda and Young. They liked the choppy overdriven guitar sound, they liked the hi-hat and the snare, they liked that crunchy sound with a lot of clatter, and that also seemed to have a lot of appeal at the time.”

Two of the most popular bands on the sharpie scene were AC/DC and Rose Tattoo, who were both Alberts produced bands. Terry couldn’t include an AC/DC track on the compilation because of licensing issues, but the scorching Rose Tattoo track “Remedy” is on there.

Of course, AC/DC have become one of the biggest bands in rock music history — it’s a long way to the top from Box Hill Town Hall to Wembley Stadium; while Rose Tattoo, led by the street poet sneer and swagger of Angry Anderson, are still revered by many heavy rock fans and were a major influence on bands like Guns ‘N Roses.

However, for many fans, the Coloured Balls were the band that embodied the sharpie spirit, haircuts and all. Led by Aussie guitar legend Lobby Loyde, the Coloured Balls developed a proto punk sound on albums like Ball Power and Heavy Metal Kid that has been lauded by musicians such as Henry Rollins and Stephen Malkmus and bands like Endless Boogie.

Loyde has been called the “founding architect and guardian spirit of Aussie garage rock and heavy music” by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke and his powerful, textured sound influenced generations of Australian hard rock guitarists.

Rhythm guitarist Ian “Bobsie” Millar joined the Coloured Balls in late 1972 after a stint in the Army and playing in bands around Melbourne. He recalls Loyde — a veteran of the Australian rock scene by then — was keen to find young musicians who wanted to create a harder sound.

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“Lob had come out of playing with the Aztecs and playing that boogie, pub rock type of thing and he had a few ideas and he was looking at fresh, new music. He was looking at getting young kids who hadn’t been in the business so much,” Millar tells Daily Review.

The band spent hundreds of hours jamming and playing gigs in the hothouse of Melbourne’s live music scene, honing their full-tilt boogie sound, sometimes playing up to three gigs a day.

“We continued with the boogie thing but it became very high-energy rock’n’roll and we were all pretty passionate about it. The sharps got on to it because they dug the energy.”

Millar says the band were probably a little too early to hook into the burgeoning punk sound about to explode with bands like the Sex Pistols, Ramones and The Saints; but then, like AC/DC, they were never really a punk band.

“It was all sort of pre-punk, I guess. Even Stiff Records in England were making noises about us but we were already signed up. It would’ve been a good time to go, but unfortunately, with everything that happened, punk took over and then there was the demise of the Coloured Balls through the violence thing.”

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By 1975, press attention had focused on the sharpie scene and a crusade by the Truth newspaper soon made it almost impossible for the Coloured Balls to take to the stage. Millar says a lot of the violence at shows was initiated not so much by their sharpie fans as by some of the heavy-handed techniques used by security staff.

“There were a lot of violent bouncers in those days and the Bob Jones crew was pretty well known. They were a great mob of guys but they were karate guys; they were out there protecting themselves as well. I saw a lot of bouncers who were worse than a lot of the patrons.”

He says the reputation of Coloured Balls shows for fights and even knifings effectively put an end to the band.

“It got to the point at gigs where people were turning up and standing ten feet from the stage because they thought we were going to do the belting up — it was crazy.”

The band’s reputation even followed them interstate.

“When we went over to Perth, no one turned up because they thought we were that violent that we were going to belt them and it wasn’t till after a few gigs that people starting turning up.”

Millar remembers the bands he saw playing live in that era: from AC/DC rocking out in the basement of Melbourne’s original Hard Rock Café, to the original lineup of Rose Tattoo at the Tiger Lounge, as well as the hundreds of lesser known bands around at the time.

“Melbourne was really the centre of music in Australia at the time,” he says.

At least three classic hard rock albums came out of the scene: the Coloured Balls’ Ball Power in 1973, AC/DC’s T.N.T in 1975, and Rose Tattoo’s self-titled debut in 1978. Those albums give a solid measure of the strength and depth of the bands playing in Melbourne at the time.

With hundreds of bands playing in venues across greater Melbourne to an audience of thousands of young and thirsty punters eager to hear local rock bands, this was no place for bands that couldn’t cut it. It could be a brutal and unforgiving testing ground, according to Terry.

“You really needed to be a good band to play at those venues. If you were a shit band, you found out about it pretty quickly from the audience,” Terry says.

When Sharpies Ruled: A Vicious Selection is out now through Warner Music Australia.

Engel Schmidl is a freelance writer. He is the co-publisher of sport and pop culture website Shoot Farken.

7 responses to “When Sharpies Ruled: A Vicious Selection

  1. Sharpies were complete wankers who’s main purpose in life was to go around in gangs bashing people. Violent gangs are nothing new in Melbourne, they just change nationalities every so often.

  2. I cant recall that many sharpies around Frankston/Peninsula way but they were just thugs who looked tough and scary. Its comical now when you look back on it. Todays version of a bogan but a lot uglier

  3. No mention of misogyny in this article- hard to get excited about the music of a bunch of male misogynists & abusers of young women. This article could do with some context.

  4. Some groups of Rockers targeted us at Hampton High School l remember a classmate about 15 a vulnerable girl lured in and told she could be in the gang but all the male members had to be able to have sex with her . She tried to convince us it was a good idea she was groomed and tasked with hooking in other girls l remember sitting outside at lunch time as she promoted the rocker lifestyle and one of the blokes turned up. She seemed really lost and sad. The sharpies in Hampton bent towards gang rape targeting girls already on the margins and labelling them sluts as a shield. As young girls we were scared of these groups maybe take a closer look under the surface and you find crimes of violence , Rape Shameful silence

  5. As a teenager growing up in Box Hill in the late 60s to mid 70s l can only say that while it is great to catch up with old friends and talk about old times the truth is that the behaviour of some of those gang members was exactly the same as the current one punch mentality that struck terror in the hearts of any non gang member braving the Box Hill tunnel , the bus depot and surrounding streets. Though l don’t wish to speak I’ll of the fathers of some of the people posting on this site ,the fact is my friends and l had a good time in our youth also ,but it didn’t involve attacking random young people with often brutal outcomes. I note that many of the Box Hill Gang ended up junkies, prisoners or dead before their time and probably required a social worker or two. This may seem harsh but my friends and l spent nearly ten years in well founded fear whenever we ventured near the train station after dark and that was and will always be totally unacceptable. Yes talk of your past mates and good times but quite frankly 45 plus years later you still piss me off.

  6. Growing up in Ringwood and preferring a different look, we were constantly targetted by first Rockers and then Sharps. The dress code etc was merely a badge that allowed young thugs to clump together and cowardly attack people in groups of two or three. They were a menace, no better than any other gang. It’s wrong to glorify their preference for violence as a (anti)-social outlet even after all this time. There was a case where a young guy was attacked by a gang and killed. Someone on trial for his death pleaded not guilty. His defence was he knew they would be attacking people that night so he deliberately wore soft shoes so his kicking wouldn’t do too much damage. Such was the thinking of these mob-mentality morons.

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