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CREDIT Mick & Steve M, photo Jack Kosky_courtesy Julie Mac
Mick & Steve M, photo Jack Kosky_courtesy Julie Mac

Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips revisits his Sharpie-era roots and chats to Ian ‘Bobsy’ Millar, guitarist with 70s rockers Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls.

The Melbourne sharpie scene in the 70s was as much about fashion as it was about angst and both weren’t particularly pretty. Mullet hair-dos, platform shoes, flared jeans, connie cardigans (named after their designer Mr Conti from Melbourne’s northern suburbs), sneering faces and the neanderthal dance moves which accompanied their aggressive music, it was not one of history’s most stylish eras.  But by and large, the sharpies copped a bum rap. Even though the scene was gang-related, the sharpies’ bark rarely turned to bite. Most of them cared more about their knitwear than fighting and if there was trouble, it was usually against sharps from a rival suburb rather than anything involving the general public. The soundtrack to this generation came from bands like Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Rose Tattoo, Skyhooks, La Femme and the sharpies’ pin-up boys, Lobby Loyde and The Coloured Balls. To celebrate the period, a brilliant new compilation has been released called ‘When Sharpies Ruled – A Vicious Selection’ and it features the aforementioned bands plus many others and comes with a sweet 80 page photo booklet.

Coloured Balls at Sunbury '73
Coloured Balls at Sunbury ’73

Ian ‘Bobsy’ Millar, was at the sharpie movement’s epicentre, playing rhythm guitar in the band Lobby Loyde and the Coloured Balls. According to Bobsy, the sharpies were merely a misunderstood subculture. “They were a good bunch of guys,” he recalls. “Everyone goes on about the violence. With these guys, the violence wasn’t anything like it is these days. Nobody carried knives or anything like that and the blewin’ would be between themselves, groups of themselves. Box Hill would be fighting the guys from Jordanville and stuff like that. It was never like a … let’s go out and destroy people kind of thing. I saw more violence from the bloody bouncers than the sharps. The bouncers in those days were pretty savage. It was in the days of the Bob Jones security boys, he had a karate school and those guys always wanted to test themselves out.”

The Coloured Balls were always tarred with the same brush as the sharps because the gangs formed a large portion of their audience and they looked alike. The truth of the matter is that the band’s look came from a completely unexpected source. “That was really funny,’ laughs Ian. “Back in those days we had a roadie who was a Hare Krishna and they had a farm up in Queensland and we’d go up and stop there a few times. If we were travelling through we’d stop and have a bit of a play and it was their influence because they used to have their hair cut like that, with the tail at the back. So that was the original motivation to get that mullet. We bleached it at the back  and the sharps thought that was fantastic but it was all from the Hare Krishnas, they were into the mullets.”

Although The Coloured Balls occasionally ventured out of Melbourne, the sharpie phenomena was pretty much unique to the southern city. Unfortunately, any kind of violence at a venue where The Balls were playing, no matter who it came from, was attributed to the band. “We played outback country towns and shearing sheds through Queensland but most of the work was in Melbourne and Adelaide,” says Ian.  “In Adelaide it was the migrant  group from out Elizabeth way who were the main contenders over there. I saw more brawls over there but that was more bikies than anything else. The violence in the Sydney clubs had nothing to do with us either, it was more to do with the bouncers. Pretty heavy guys up there. The coppers were so corrupt too. I remember we used to finish up gigs at The Whiskey and the cops would be throwing us $20 notes and buying us piss to keep playing while they squared up with all the crooks.”

Photo courtesy John Bowie
Photo courtesy John Bowie

The raw, aggressive, garage rock sound of The Coloured Balls pre-dated AC/DC, Rose Tattoo, even the punk rock era and the band has been cited by many a musician both here and overseas as a major influence. Henry Rollins and Pavement’s Stephen Malkmus are huge Coloured Balls fans. But again, Bobsy surprises when asked about the band’s own musical influences. “We lived together for months, staying up smokin’ dope all night and listening to a lot of Peter Gabriel, early Genesis,” states Ian. “Surprisingly, we used to listen to a lot of that but we’d listen to everything. We’d sit down and listen to classical music, Lob and I. He was an amazing wealth of knowledge Lobby Loyde, when it came to music and he could talk your ears off. He’s the sort of guy who would come up with a fact and you’d go, how the hell did you know that. He was an incredible guitar player and an incredible guy”

Lobby Loyde’s affection for volume is well known and the band used it to great dramatic effect. Ian can attest to this. “We couldn’t find amps big enough half the time,” he says. “We were using Strauss Warriors, it was like Latrobe power station. They dragged a lot of power out and were pretty loud amps. Lob would have about 32 twelve inch speakers stacked up and I’d have about 15 and the bass player had 16. It was a pretty amazing sound. Now of course, you can mike up with a little 60 watt amp and sound like you have 32 speakers.”

ALBUM SLICKMillar’s guitar of choice back in the day was an Ibanez Strat copy. The band had a deal with Ibanez and were afforded the luxury of visits to the factory to choose whatever guitars and pedals they liked. “I still have a Fender Strat copy that they built, which has been worked over by Brendan Mason of Madder Lake,” he says.  “It’s the guitar I have had for forty years I guess. I used a few though, a Fender Telecaster for a while but kept coming back to the Strat. In those days there wasn’t much around pedal-wise. There was the wah wah pedal. The talking box came out and Lob used one of them for a while but Ibanez had these different pedals. They were just innovating back then. They had some weird pedals which we used on a few things. I just preferred the natural sound, a good guitar and a loud amp.”

Sadly, the rest of the world never got to experience The Coloured Balls full-on rock ‘n’ roll sound. A tour of the UK may have seen them develop a Motorhead-style following. Instead they were virtually run out of town by a persistent right wing journalist from The Truth newspaper who continually linked alleged sharpie-related violence to the band.
“It was a mutual decision to end the band really,” says Ian on reflection.  “With the vigilant Truth newspaper guy attributing all this violence to the Coloured Balls music, you know, music from satan … it got to the point where venues didn’t want to know about us. He was one of these Andrew Bolts or Alan Jones that talk shit and think their shit don’t stink and it was all crap and lies and all about them. They (the venues)  thought the sharps were going to come and tear the place apart but that was so far from the truth. They wanted to come and dance, that’s all they wanted to do. They were really vigorous, energetic dancers. It was great. Young kids having a good time.”

‘When Sharpies Ruled –  A Vicious Selection’ is out now

Album tracklisting:
1. Coloured Balls : Time Shapes
2. Finch : Out Of Control
3. La De Das : The Place (single edit.)
4. Coloured Balls : Flash
5. Billy Thorpe & The Aztecs : Let’s Have A Party
(Recorded live at Sunbury 1974)
6. Stevie Wright : Hard Road
7. Buster Brown : Roll Over Beethoven
8. Skyhooks : Horror Movie
9. Coloured Balls : Love You Babe
10. Hush : Riff In My Head
11. Fat Daddy : Roll Daddy Roll
12. Ted Mulry Gang : Jump In My Car
13. Bullet : Rock My Lady
14. Hush : Bony Moronie
15. Fatty Lumpkin : Movin’
16. Kevin Borich Express : I’m Goin’ Somewhere
17. Ted Mulry Gang : Crazy
18. Finch : Hey Spunky
19. Taste : Tickle Your Fancy
20. Rabbit : Wildfire
21. Supernaut : I Like It Both Ways
22. Rose Tattoo : Remedy
23. La Femme : Chelsea Kids (single version)

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