When Sharpies Ruled - A Vicious Selection – Various Artists (Festival/Warner Music)

sharpies coverDepending on which side of the footpath you were on in the Australian 1970s, Sharpies were either misunderstood working class rebels or teenage thugs and bullies.

One Sydney Sharpie who went by the name of Big Victor (name changed to protect the guilty) would wait at suburban railway stations looking for long-haired surfers with the intention of breaking their surf boards and, if need be, a bone or two in the process. The Sharpies in Melbourne may have been different.

This is their soundtrack - ironically of mostly long-haired bands. The only real sharpie bands would have been Lobby Loyde and the Colored Balls and Buster Brown, whose singer Angry Anderson was a sharp. Certainly, Billy Thorpe had a sharpie haircut for while. The music is Australian 1970s pre-punk heavy rock/glam and as a collection that's representative of this era, it is nothing short of excellent.

So what do you get? There’s the proto-AC/DC guitar sound of The Colored Balls, a boogie-fied version of a Eagles song by Finch (who included future Angels/Skyhooks guitarist Bob Spencer who, even as a teenager, was playing incredible stuff). There’s some raunchy slide guitar, meat and potatoes Oz rawk by The La De Das with “The Place” (supposedly about infamous Sydney venue The Bondi Lifesaver.)

The Aztecs were flying high on acid at Sunbury performing a blitzing version of “Let’s Have a Party” (a song made famous by Elvis Presley and Wanda Jackson), Stevie Wright proving he was one of Australia’s most charismatic singers with “Hard Road” (anybody heard Rod Stewart’s lame attempt at this song?) and Rabbit, who take the sound of ‘70s era Kiss and Sweet and blast it through the roof with “Wildfire”.

There are guaranteed sharpie dance floor fillers by Hush, TMG,Taste, Supernaut , The Rosy Tatts and more, and two great booklets with text and visuals about Sharpies. Just the thing if you’re too tired and emotional to do the Sharpie Dance to these tunes (lessons on how to can be viewed on YouTube here.)

The only question is why weren’t Daddy Cool or Buffalo on this CD? And I wonder whatever happened to Big Victor… - Steve Lorkin

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If you didn’t grow up in urban Australia in the 1960s and early ‘70s you’ll be wondering what this compilation’s about. Sharpies were a sizeable sub-culture doused in beer, prescription downers and extreme violence and this is the music they revelled in.

Sharps wore their hair short and dressed in tight cardigans, straight-leg pants and boots. They loved boogie, glam and mod music with a preference for the home-grown kind. That meant it had to be rawer, harder. They danced (both sexes) like constipated chickens. Bet you wouldn’t have told any of them that to their faces…

Defiantly working class, the sharpies ruled the back streets and public transport system and had a liking for beating up anyone who looked different to them (read: The Rest of Us.) Their collective reputation was amplified by a nascent local tabloid media that but I can tell you that as a kid growing up in the inner south-western ‘burbs of Sydney, no trip to the milk bar was complete without hoping you wouldn’t be noticed by the surly gang gathered around the pinball machine. Yes, I'm old.  

Major label Warners has unleashed a steady stream of heritage-themed collections uynder the revived Festival marque in recent years, due almost entirely to ex-indie label manager Dave Laing crossing over to their dark side. Releases like “Boogie” and “(When The Sun Sets Over) Carlton” have been top-shelf and “When Sharpies Ruled” maintains the high standard. With ex-sharpie Glenn Terry on-board as co-compiler, it gathers 23 tracks of sharp-edged Oz tuneage and waves them squarely in your face.

The tracklist runs from the semi-obscure (Fatty Lumpkin, Rabbit) to the mainstream (Ted Mulry Gang, Skyhooks and Rose Tattoo.) The irony is that most of the bands here were adopted by the sharps and weren’t consciously chasing them as an audience. Top of the heap was the Colored Balls, the hard-arsed buzzcut blues-boogie machine headed by Australia’s first true guitar hero Lobby Loyde. They’re represented by “Time Shapes”, "Flash" and “Love You Babe”, both on the boogie side of proto-punk.

Being adopted by the sharps might have been good for packing halls but the Colored Balls were hash-devouring hippies at heart whose short hair was a nod to the Hare Krishnas. The association with a threatening blue-collar cultural movement landed them squarely in the frame of a media fright campaign and did their mainstream acceptance prospects no good.   

A case of making your own luck was Skyhooks who grew out of the arty Carlton scene and existed on the fringe of the sharps’ orbit, playing shows with bands that they followed. The ‘Hooks jumped right over into the land of Middle Australia radio airplay with their “Living In The ‘70s” album and left both worlds behind. A re-mastered “Horror Movie” shows the mark they left. Bass-player/songwriter Greg Macainish pens a thoughtful essay in the accompanying photobook and shot the footage of the Melbourne sharps scene now doing the YouTube rounds. 

You could wonder why Ted Mulry Gang’s “Jump In My Car” is here but TMG’s leering chunka-chunka boogie was as good a candidate for Sharpie adoration as anything else. It's not my cup of tea and maybe not yours either. Likewise, you could question the inclusion of ex-Easybeat Stevie Wright’s driving “Hard Road”. It's far more palatable to me and a step above TMG. You have to remember that the cultural lines that later divided punk from the mainstream weren’t as clearly defined back then. 

Back in the '70s, glam rockers Hush ruled the radio airwaves and used TV as a launching pad. Most of their output was trite but early track “Riff In My Head” shows they could strut their stuff as well as UK posers like The Sweet, while “Boney Moronie” exposes their traditional rock and roll roots. That one was truly an earwig back in the day.

Buster Brown (“Roll Over Beethoven”) and Finch (“Out of Control”) fly a flag for bands closer to street level.  Buster Brown was probably more closely aligned to the sharpie movement than most and gave a home to Gary "Angry" Anderson. Their solitary album was patchy at best, but the pint-sized blues wailer jumped on the fast-track to underrated greatness when he left, moved to Sydney and signed on with Pete Wells’ Rose Tattoo. Their “The Butcher and Fast Eddie” is the ultimate story of wanton street gang violence carved out with a blade, but the compilers have gone with the less obvious but still searing “Remedy” for this collection. It burns like a magnesium fuse in any company.

“Suck More Piss” was a popular refrain at Billy Thorpe and The Aztecs shows and with good reason: they were at the forefront of Australian rock and roll’s move from halls and school dances to pubs dressed up as licensed beer barns. “Let’s Have a Party” is a live track from their 1974 Sunbury festival appearance.

His braided ponytail look might not have fitted the sharpie mould but Thorpey‘s command of hard-driving guitar boogie made earned him points. Yobbos existed before Thorpey shrugged off his popstar past and plugged into an amp at stun volume. The Aztecs just gave them a reason to sing along. Be thankful that you’ve been spared exposure to “Oop-Oop-Pa-Do.”

Thoughtful tracking means “When Sharpies Ruled” flows really well. Personal thumbs up for the inclusion of Kevin Borich in his la De Das guise (“There’s A Place”) and with the Kevin Borich Express (“I’m Going Somewhere”), both of which are placed at the midpoints of what would have been the A and B sides.

Speaking of duration there’s value for money in this 80-minute long collection, encased in a slipcase with two booklets.  It probably could have been expanded and bumped out to two discs but that’s not a complaint. Like some members of the culture whose music it contextualises, it does its business and gets out of the way.   

There’s been some pointed social media criticism that this collection glorifies a society sub-strata  that, at its extreme edges, was used by some as an excuse for extreme violence. As alluded earlier, I was either too young or not (yet) enough of a smartarse to end up on the physical side of their loathing. If you have a problem, you probably need to separate the myth from the music. “When Sharpies Ruled” doesn’t come to praise or bury a sub culture; it’s just shining a light on its music.  - The Barman

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Tags: skyhooks, lobby loyde, colored balls, billy thorpe, aztecs, hush, finch, TMG, ted mulry

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