The Sydney Sharpies 1964-1970
by Kim Hewett, author of Out With The Boys: The Sharpie Days
The Sydney Sharpies of the 60’s were unique, and their network of members stretched from the inner-city to the suburban fringes 30 kilometres from the city centre. These teenagers were very different to other subcultural identities of their time: in their preferred musical tastes, dance and hair styles, the way they walked and stood, the special language they used, their codes of conduct and their dress rules. No subculture before or after this group combined these characteristics in the same way as to form an identity like them.
“The ‘original’ sharpies seem totally different to the ones that came in latter years.
No comparison in appearance whatsoever. I suppose it would have been easier to have called themselves by a different name, but obviously it just continued on as the years went by. Original sharpies, were cleancut, chose quality gear and always looked ‘sharp’…(pardon the pun) and impressive (obviously a girl’s point of view) but that’s how it was. They were very manly in appearance and dressed to impress. Well known ‘tailors’ made a killing as that’s where most headed to have their pants made to measure. Quality Italian knits completing the outfit. No expense seemed to be spared and the girls always noticed. I don’t know if it was purely the thing to do for the males, but it appeared that they went to a lot of trouble to look their best. Yes, the crestknit tops were the go. My ‘boyfriend’ at the time got his licence, let his mate have a drive and the mate wrote the car off. So, me feeling so upset went and bought him a tan Crestknit top (to lessen the grief!) (expensive for a ‘Junior’ back then!)
They were the best times and I guess it is a little difficult reading about the latter sharpies, when you experienced being the ‘original’ and as I said, so totally different in appearance. But, we have ‘our’ magical memories, that shall last us a lifetime.” Vicki, February 10, 2011, SkinsnSharps website
Sydney Sharpies followed strict dress codes to create a sophisticated, wealthy and sleek look, especially so when it came to trousers. Each boy went to great pains to achieve this look, very often creating his own designs before the cloth was sent off to Zink & Sons tailors in trendy Oxford Street. Trousers had to be cuff-less and no more than 6.75 inches wide at the bottom, where it was acceptable to have a 2-inch long slit with a button above it, or even two buttons. Belts were abandoned in favour of waistbands, which would range between 2 and 4 inches wide and were usually buttoned up with two to four buttons. The absence of any side or back-pockets meant the pants hugged the body closely and looked sleek and sexy - only a fob pocket with varying flap shapes was allowable. Four inches below the waistband at the back, a belt buckle was usually sewn on, but some Sharpies opted for two, just to be lairs. The more classical Prince-of-Wales check and herringbone patterns were very popular choices for trousers, even summer shorts were often tailor-made, with terry towelling a favourite. Straight-leg jeans, such as Levi-Strauss in blue, and Lee jeans in white, beige and blue were preferred to other brands, but Sharpies saw jeans mainly as casual day wear. Both jeans and trousers were accompanied by casual footwear which was either the plaited (basket-weave) leather style or the smart Boating lace-ups, both Italian-made and expensive. Nobody wore socks with casual shoes. They wore them only with dress shoes, slightly chisel-toed and shining like mirrors, above three-piece suits. Runners of any kind were totally shunned.
On the upper part of the body, nothing looked better than a very expensive close-weave polo-shirt called a Ban-lon in a plain colour, with all the buttons done up to the neck. Nobody wore a long-sleeved shirt unless it was with a three-piece suit and a Stetson hat, and short-sleeved shirts had to have button-down short-peaked collars, be in a paisley design and tuck tightly into trousers and shorts. Over the shirts, the Sharpies donned light-weight, zip-up Californian Jackets in the autumn, while in the winter they covered with Alpaca cardigans or woollens in cable-stitch and harlequin-check, always buttoned up. Sometimes an expensive Suave brand long-sleeved polo shirt was enough, but jumpers were a no-no because they suggested intellectualism. Most winters three-quarter coats were not necessary, but most Sharpies kept one for a bitterly cold night at the trots or greyhounds. These coats were also a great place to hide wads of cash or iron bars and the look was intended to suggest the wearer was someone important and not to be messed with.
The typical walk of the Sydney Sharpies was an intimidating swagger, with shoulders swaying back and forth, chest out and head up, ready to confront. Their way of standing, or their ‘pose’ whenever they wanted to assert an air of dominance, was like the ‘at ease’ stance of a soldier, only the legs were more widely spaced and the trousers were hitched higher on the waist. This aggressive posturing combined with their short-cropped hair and a language heavily spiced with jailmate jargon, Cockney rhyming slang and numerous colourful metaphors made it almost impossible for any outsider to understand what any of their spoken and body languages were about. This special language allowed information about Sharpies and their activities, some of them illegal, to circulate within the network. Basically, it was nobody else’s business and even harmless gossip was coded to protect the integrity of the person spoken about.
During those turbulent years the Sharpies frequented city dance venues like the Teen Canteen, Surf City, Beach House and John Henry’s, giving their full support to emerging rock bands like Billy Thorpe & the Aztecs and Ray Brown & the Whispers. Quite often there were as many as 200 Sharpies at these venues, most of whom knew each other or knew about each other through word-of-mouth via the vast network stretching from Blacktown and Bankstown to the inner-city working class hubs of Redfern, Chippendale, Waterloo, Zetland, Mascot, Alexandria, Stanmore, Leichardt, Pyrmont, Glebe, Drummoyne, Woolloomooloo and Kings Cross.
“It was any Saturday night in 1964. The night was yet young - where to now? Why, Surf City of course - an old movie theatre transformed into a venue for rock bands and dancing. Just a walk down Victoria Street towards the bright lights at the corner of Darlinghurst Road . . . now round the corner to where the crowds of teenagers were - Surf City.
Into Surf City then, with the lights and music blaring and the sea of dancers - Mods, Rockers, Sharpies, Surfies - frenetically dancing away there . . . and nearly always at Surf City we were dancing to the music pumped out by a band wearing neat suits, the beginnings of long hair, but with incredible energy and style: Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs. The lead singer, hands clasped behind his back, would be leaping around from one foot to the other out the front, belting out amazingly good songs... this is how good Billy Thorpe was: we all reckoned that his version of "Poison Ivy" was a fair bit better than that of the Rolling Stones, who we adored. In fact Billy Thorpe's version of Poison Ivy actually went to Number One on the Hit Parade ahead of the Beatles while the Beatles were touring Australia. This seemed impossible, but it happened.
You couldn't listen to or dance to Bill Thorpe without getting a real buzz - his music was upbeat, brash, fun, yet entirely what would now be called "cool". In later years Billy Thorpe reinvented himself and his music several times, and importantly, after moving to Melbourne, pioneered Australian Pub Rock music and circuits.
Bright-eyed and buzzing, we would stumble out of Surf City after an hour or two into the Kings Cross night and glaring lights, the traffic and the crowds, and we'd do the Darlinghurst Road promenade, gawked at by tourists and suburban straights who had come up to the Cross to see the bizarre bohemian sights and to hunt for easy sex from the Strip-clubs and prostitutes…”
and tadpole said...
“Ah yes, there are always those memories of Surf City . . . how many though, remember Beach House in Elizabeth St, let alone were there for Thorpie's debut night on New Years Eve 63/64 after his escape from Brisbane???
Most Sharpies rarely danced. They thought it effeminate, and risked weeks of constant teasing from other Sharpies if they appeared with an unknown girl on a dance floor. Unless there was a very good chance of pulling the girl for sex it was wiser to stay in your seat and talk with your mates. The only time it was acceptable was when your Sharpie girlfriend asked you, and never the other way round. Then, the preferred dance was the jive, high energy American rock’n’roll with lots of spinning and fancy footwork. Very few of the Sharpie boys could manage it, but the girls, dressed in twinsets or knee-length pleated skirts, knitted tops, pearls and winkle-picker shoes became experts. At the Teen Canteen and John Henry’s there was no live music and people danced to the recorded sounds of Tamla Motown, Soul and R&B. The Beatles were ignored, despised even, because long hair was considered effeminate and ‘unmanly’, a belief that led to years of bloody wars between the Sharpies and Sydney’s ‘longhairs’. The ‘hairs’ frequented dance spots like Beatle Village in Oxford Street, only a stone’s throw from the Beach House, so the two groups were often on the same streets as they made their way towards Town Hall Railway Station at the end of a night. Such was the hatred between them they often lay in wait in darkened Hyde Park and pounced with all kinds of weaponry upon their foes. The violence intensified even further when both groups launched attacks on their enemy’s venue, causing major damage to property and injuring many. Under threat of closure by the police, the owners of the Beach House and Beatle Village pleaded to their patrons for calm, and suddenly everything turned very quiet, and stayed that way as the sixties came to a close.
“In about 1967 my ex-husband and I attended venues in Sydney City. I guess you could have called us hippies as we were a Sonny and Cher type who mostly attended Beatle Village in Oxford St, Sydney. We were leaving there one night when a gang of Sharpies decided to attack us outside the venue. We can laugh about it now as no serious assaults took place. As a female I was mad so I tapped a Sharpie on the shoulder and when he turned around I abused him, I socked him in the face. Oops, wrong move but he was very gentle with me. One of our friends jumped into a cardboard box to hide and was kicked by the Sharpies from the top end of Oxford Street, many metres down.”
Samantha, February 18, 2013, SkinsnSharps website
“I was a John Henry’s boy. We were sharpies per ‘66. There was no live music, it was all discs. It was advertised as 3 and a quarter miles of music in the solid silver discotheque. Fluor lights with silver foil all over the walls, ratty old couches around the walls. Come in with long hair, you didn’t make it out in one piece.
I was a gladsey boy we would all meet up at Birchgrove oval as we all played footy
Redfern boys, Erko boys, Waterloo, Redfern, Balmain, Glebe. The town hall sharps were a later generation that hung out at the Windsor hotel they morphed into Skinheads. The Sydney dress style was preppy, expensive clothes tailor made, Basketweave shoes, no socks. Music Tamla Motown. Dances the clic and the Henry’s shuffle.”
Wayne Hansen, March 8, 2013, SkinsnSharps website.
Away from the dance venues, Sharpie groups came together at rugby league matches, the Sydney Domain, Coogee and Bondi Beaches, and Sydney racecourses, where they were ‘in the know’ with various ‘racing identities’. Rugby league was the sport every Sharpie was expected to play in the winter, so the various groups of boys who hung out with each other at the dances were also together two nights a week at training and at weekend matches. Being from different areas they often played for different clubs and never had to face each other, but they went as supporters to games where Sharpies were playing, when kick-off times didn’t clash with their own. Even in these junior competitions plenty of money changed hands betting on the results, and at the first grade level, Sharpies got together in huge groups as spectators and keen gamblers. In the absence of any rugby league on a Sunday they eagerly headed to the Domain, where they challenged, heckled and harassed men standing on soapboxes spruiking their religious, political and social beliefs for all to hear. If the speakers thought they could persuade their audiences with clever words, the Sharpies often proved to be as quick-witted and fast-talking as them. For this reason the Domain was a place to go for lots of harmless fun and laughs, somewhere to hang out after spending a summer’s morning body-surfing and chatting up girls at Bondi and Coogee Beaches. Saturdays, by contrast were the days when things got serious, when real money could be made in a trip to the racecourse. Many Sharpies had relatives who worked for bookmakers and passed on information about certain horses’ chances in each race. Quite often the ‘secret service’ was very accurate and those days would end with a huge group of Sharpies visiting Chinatown to splash their winnings on a Chinese feast and then take a taxi to Kings Cross for more celebrations. But Sharpies had credit accounts to settle, with their favourite clothing shops and tailors, with an illegal SP bookmaker or a Sharpie mate, or for their board at home, and usually in that order.
Outside the larger network’s common activities, the smaller Sharpie groups played together at their local snooker parlours and bet at local SP betting shops, frequently window-shopped for new clothes and shoes, occasionally strayed into non-Sharpie venues like The Bowl and Martin’s Place, hung around on street corners chatting and skylarking and ‘put the meat on’ the local ‘brushes’ as they passed on the street. Banter was always prominent in conversations and membership of a Sharpie group was conditional on factors such as courage (‘ticker’), fighting prowess, girl-pulling power, sporting skills, ‘gift of the gab’, sledging ability, behaving like a larrikin for laughs, loyalty to the gang, being well-connected within the Sharpie network, knowing the special Sharpie language and looking the part of a Sharpie in posture and dress. Occasionally, some levels of commitment to criminal activity were considered necessary for survival, especially amongst the poorer working-class neighbourhoods in Redfern, Chippendale and Waterloo.
“I remember standing around in George Street on top of Town Hall station eating hotdogs and talking to Sharps from various parts of Sydney, as far out as Blacktown and St Marys….I was a Campsie sharp…but I knew Sharps from all over Sydney -Belmore, Five Dock, Marrickville, Glebe, Leichhardt, just to name a few….
I wont mention surnames but Sydney Sharps may remember nick names such as Mad Dog, Chopper, Greg the Butcher, Stan the Man, Tiger, Babyteeth, Pea Knuckle, Freddy and Paul, Pat, Pockets, Kenny, Jammie, Ted, Arthur, Huck, Seagull.
The hot dog man must have cried when the Sharpie era come to an end… on a cold night, standing in our three quarter coats, he would give you extra, I used to get sauce and mustard… he could write 2 books about what went on around Town Hall station… I would love to sit down over a few beers and have a talk to him… by 1973 in Sydney, the original Sharpies, including their tailor-made high waisters, hand knitted cardigans, shoes without socks, faded out to make way for a new breed of sharpies with a new style of clothes…”
Ron, March 1, 2011, SkinsnSharps website
Music for the Jive
“Land Of A 1000 Dances” and “Mustang Sally” – Wilson Pickett
“Johnny B. Goode” and “Roll Over Beethoven” – Chuck Berry
“Your Love Is Like A Heatwave”, “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “My World Is Empty Without You” – Diana Ross and The Supremes
“It Takes Two” – Otis Redding
“Can I Get A Witness”, “Route 66”, “Around And Around” and “Paint It Black” – The Rolling Stones
“Baby Please Don’t Go” – Them
“Baby Let Me Take You Home” and “See See Rider” – The Animals
“River Deep Mountain High” – Ike & Tina Turner
“Tell Him” – The Exciters
“Build Me Up Buttercup” – The Foundations
Music for the side-to-side step
“In The Midnight Hour” and “Mustang Sally” – Wilson Pickett
“He’s a Rebel” and “Da Do Ron Ron” – The Crystals
“My Boy Friend’s Back” – The Angels
“Dancing In The Street” – Martha Reeves & The Randels
“Mr. Postman” – The Marvelettes
“Locomotion” – Little Eva
“It’s My Party” – Lesley Gore
“Leader Of The Pack” – Shngri-Las
“Our Day Will Come” – Ruby &The Romantics
“Hold On I’m Comin’” – Sam & Dave
Music for waltzing
“My Guy” – Mary Wells
“Come See About Me” – Diana Ross & The Supremes
“Chapel Of Love” – Dixie Cups
“Then He Kissed Me” – Crystals
“Be My Baby” – The Ronettes