Just when I think I’ve carefully cataloged all the rock ‘n’ roll subcultures in my nerdy little brain, I hear about a group of kids that did something totally recognizable, yet completely regional, and realize I’m just a provincial American. The “sharpies” of Australia (not to be confused with anti-racist skinheads called “sharps”) were a bit like English skinheads. They were regional groups of generally working class kids, dressing up to signify their solidarity with the movement or even membership in a specific sharpie gang. The similarities mostly stop right there.
First of all, the fashion, while reminiscent of traditional skins, has a few notes out of left field. For one, they usually had mullets. (As some one who comes from a mulleted people, you cannot imagine my delight when the hairstyle is embraced abroad.) It was sort of skinhead in the front, glam rocker in the back, often with big, traditional-style tattoos as accent. The girls (called “brush”) favored the sorts of pleated skirts or mini-skirts associated with skinhead girls, sometimes with cartoonishly high wedged heels, but the boys didn’t always go for tight jeans, often choosing to combine their bright cardigans with sailor pants and Cuban heels.
I actually stumbled on sharpies by way of the band, Coloured Balls, and their awesome album, Ball Power, (reissued on Sing Sing Records). Considered the ultimate sharpie band, at first glance I thought they were skins, and one or two tracks actually sound very Oi! Fascinatingly, they formed in 1972, before Cock Sparrer, Sham 69 or The Business were known entities. Although sharpies often co-existed with skinheads (and probably shared barbers), musically, they were further apart.
In lieu of ska, rocksteady, reggae, or soul, these kids created an esoteric pastiche of rock ‘n’ roll. Coloured Balls, for example, is really hard to pin down. Sometimes it’s a bit acid rock, sometimes very white-boy blues, sometimes it almost feels like Oi!, or glam, or power pop. The band certainly didn’t feel constrained by genre, something I’m sure was a testament to diverse sharpie tastes. Singer Lobby Loyde remembers very vividly playing to sharpie kids well before Coloured Balls existed, and well before he had adopted a sharpie aesthetic.
“When the Purple Hearts first came down to Melbourne in 1967, we were a long-haired blues band. We started playing at the circle ballroom in Preston and I started noticing these strange people. I’d never seen anything like them and their distinct style! They had short hair and wore baggy trousers and cardigans; the girls wore knee-length pleated skirts, twin sets and pearls.”
And then there’s the distinctive dancing, which I have to admit, has an elegance that skanking doesn’t quite achieve.
Like skinheads, sharpies were largely disaffected youth, and gang violence was heavily associated with the lifestyle, much to the chagrin of Lobby Loyde, who said in retrospect.
“Coloured Balls were the greatest bunch of hippies that ever crawled. They were really gentle guys, but on stage we let it go and spat out all the venom we had… that was our release.”
While it’s unclear exactly how much fighting actually went on (as opposed to just plain moral panic), there was tension between sharpies and Australian mods (Since many early sharpies were actually British transplants, and former skinheads themselves, it makes sense that the beef would travel). The violence and the emergence of disco are largely credited with the fade of the sharpies, but they remain a fascinating moment of youth culture history. Below you can see an amalgam of sharpies at an outdoor music festival in 1974. Coloured Balls is playing one of their more acid rock numbers.