Martin Sharp (1942-2013) was one of Australia’s iconic pop artists. A flamboyant figure during the 1960s, he was an early contributor to the infamous magazine, Oz, and he created psychedelic album covers and posters for the likes of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. In 1970 he founded the Yellow House in Sydney and later in life he became passionate about both Tiny Tim and Luna Park.

Joyce Morgan details his eccentric career in her biography of the artist, Martin Sharp: His Life and Times. The extract below, reproduced with permission from chapter 4, outlines the genesis of Oz magazine and details its first obscenity trial, but not its last!

The Trials of Martin Sharp

Sydney slumbered through its summer break, punctuated by the reassuring thud of leather on willow and test-match cricket commentary. Meanwhile, Martin and a group of students were working on a project that would shake Australia out of its long cultural somnambulance. The idea of a satirical magazine had gathered pace since the mid-year student editors’ conference. The  initial idea for a one-off annual issue had widened to the possibility of a monthly magazine that would appeal beyond university campuses. Undergraduates had spent long enough simply talking to themselves through their student papers. It was time to make an impact on the wider world.

With his cartoons, graphic eye and experience on The Arty Wild Oat, Martin’s talents were in demand for the new publication. Martin, Alex Popov, Peter Grose and Richard Walsh were among those who gathered during the long university holiday at the Mosman home of Richard Neville’s parents on Sunday, 6 January 1963.

The magazine needed a name. Martin favoured ASP—the Australian Satirical Paper. Richard Walsh disagreed; he thought the venomous acronym clunky. He wanted Oz—it  was snappier and typographically stronger. With little money for advertising, the magazine needed to stand out visually. At the time the word Oz was associated with the movie The Wizard of Oz and its Yellow Brick Road, rather than a shorthand for Australia: ‘It didn’t occur to anyone that it was the first syllable of our native land . . . for a long time it was a great mystery that we had called it Oz,’ Walsh says.

Martin disliked the name, but Oz won the day. Fifty pounds was raised, and a printer in suburban Hornsby was lined up. The father of one of the editorial team, Gina Eviston—a fellow student, part-time model and later an investment guru—made available a carpentry workshop in The Rocks that they could use on Sundays. This Harrington Lane office had once been the stables of Britain’s regal representative, Governor Arthur Phillip—appropriately enough for a magazine about to hurl manure at the monarchy.

The magazine launched on April Fool’s Day 1963, when about forty female student volunteers took up their positions on Sydney streets with copies of the first issue.

Grose, Neville and Walsh were editors of the sixteen-page publication, Martin was among its artists, and its editorial assistants included Garry Shead and Alex Popov. ‘Oz is a new magazine,’ the cover announced. Its front-page image featured a cartoon Queen Elizabeth and a scantily clad male with a padlock over his privates. The Queen had just visited Australia, and the paper poked fun at some of the more fawning press coverage—and at that time there was little else—including Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ infamous brown-nosing comment: ‘I did but see her passing by, and yet I love her till I die.’ The feature was accompanied by Martin’s cartoon of the monarch grinning like a Cheshire Cat.

Sexual repression was a dominant theme in the first issue, perhaps not surprisingly: as poet Philip Larkin memorably observed, sexual intercourse began in 1963. A feature on chastity belts was accompanied by Martin’s drawing of an alarmingly spiked device. There were interviews on abortion, including with an abortionist. Abortions were illegal and were often being performed under dangerous conditions by unqualified ‘backyard’ operators.

‘Everybody is talking about Oz!’ the paper announced—perhaps only a little prematurely—beneath Martin’s prescient cartoon of a tree branch on which sat three vultures and a clergyman, eagerly waiting to swoop. The first issue sold about 7000 copies, some of which were torn up by irate buyers.

Oz and other alternative shoestring magazines that sprang up in Australia and overseas around this time—Village Voice had begun in Greenwich Village in 1955 and Private Eye launched in Britain in 1961—were aided by changes in printing technology, including offset printing. By the early 1960s, anyone with a typewriter, scissors, Letraset and pot of paste could produce a magazine. Oz had most in common with the satirical Private Eye, with its mix of undergraduate cheekiness, ridicule of the powerful and sensational stories that the mainstream press dared not touch.

A bigger target than the Queen was the focus of Oz’s second issue. An interview with God was accompanied by Martin’s cartoon depicting a cigar-smoking tycoon, with angel wings and a halo on a peg behind him, seated at his desk before three trays marked Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Martin in later life would become a defender of the monarchy and deeply religious, but there was no sign of this in his early Oz work.

Martin’s cartoons grew in strength and prominence with each issue. By the third—when he was listed in the staff box as ‘Beautician’—a whole page was given over to his main cartoon. It was a narrative-style monologue, and this full-page format became the hallmark of his most popular early cartoons. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man satirised the faddishness of the art world. It traced a hapless young artist trying to carve a name by appearing at the right openings, drinking at the Windsor Castle (then a popular Paddington artists’ watering hole), winning critical acclaim and a trip to London. There the critics turn on him, his art fails to sell and he returns crestfallen to Australia, where he passes unrecognised in the Windsor Castle. Even as a 21-year-old, Martin had few illusions about the capriciousness of the art world.

The third issue continued to provoke. With homosexuality not just a crime but ‘Australia’s greatest menace’—according to former New South Wales police chief Colin Delaney—a letter writer suggested homosexuality could be harnessed for the good of the country. The correspondent advocated filling the military entirely with gay couples: ‘“Army camps for army camps” would be our slogan and “God Save the Queens” on every lip.’

The cover alluded to the mysterious deaths of physicist Dr Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler, whose partially clad bodies had been discovered in a lovers’ lane beside the Lane Cove River after a New Year’s Eve party that year. Bogle was an eminent CSIRO scientist, Chandler the wife of a scientific photographer also employed at the CSIRO. The case gripped Sydney for months, eliciting tabloid coverage with salacious tales of North Shore wife-swapping,  drug-taking and conspiracy theories. Above a photo of the Chandlers together and dressed  up  there was a speech  bubble—a form of satire  familiar to readers of Private Eye—with the words: ‘Apart from that it was a good party.’

But the magazine was by then in trouble with the authorities. The editors were charged with publishing an obscene publication. In the fallout, advertisers cancelled their contracts, except for a loyal ham burger bar, Binkie’s Burgers. Hours before the fourth issue was poised to go to press, the Hornsby printer got cold feet. The issue had been typeset, but its editors scoured Sydney for three days to find a printer willing to put it on his presses. A saviour came in the eccentric, ebullient form of Francis James at the Anglican Press.

James had been a religious correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald, where he made his office in the back of a Rolls-Royce parked beside the newspaper’s offices. Colleagues got his attention by dropping paper clips onto the vehicle’s roof. An air of mystery and panache surrounded James, heightened by his fondness for sunglasses and a broad-brimmed hat. Flamboyant as his sartorial style undoubtedly was, it also served to shield his eyes, which had been damaged when his Spitfire was shot down over France in World War II.

James had been at the centre of an infamous media dust-up in 1960 when a young Rupert Murdoch was competing with rival media baron Sir Frank Packer to take over the Anglican Press. Alerted that Sir Frank’s sons, Kerry and Clyde Packer, had broken into the offices of the little printing and publishing house in an effort to gain control, James appealed to Murdoch for assistance. The Daily Mirror’s knock-about sports columnist Frank Browne, a former professional boxer, duly turned up with four burly men to confront the Packers holed up inside the building. A brawl ensued, in which the Packer boys came off second-best. ‘Knight’s Sons in City Brawl’, Murdoch’s Mirror screamed the next day and carried a front-page photo of the scrum.

The larger-than-life Francis James is said to have later claimed to have simply been studying Psalm 35 with Browne. In a sense he was. The psalm advocates taking up spears and swords against one’s enemies.

After James rolled the presses on the fourth issue of Oz in July, publication was suspended until the obscenity matter was resolved.

Neville and Walsh, together with Grose—who had by then left Oz to become a mainstream journalist—did not defend the charge when it went to court in September. They knew a criminal conviction would have serious consequences for young men with their careers ahead of them. Instead they pleaded guilty in the hope that, as first offenders, they would get a smack over the wrists but no conviction would be recorded. They were each fined twenty pounds.

Martin was unimpressed that the three had pleaded guilty rather than take a stand. In particular, he satirised his friend Richard Neville in a cartoon depicting him as full of bravado ahead of his court appearance before buckling to pressure, getting a haircut, borrowing a suit and meekly pleading guilty. Martin, of course, had rather less at stake. He had family money behind him and the independence this brought. He was untroubled by the need to earn a living. And controversy never did an artist any harm.

Neville and Walsh seemed only slightly chastened when, with their university exams over, the magazine reappeared in December 1963. ‘We think you will find that six months has not dampened our vigour nor court appearances tamed our thoughts,’ they declared. But they acknowledged the first issue had sailed close to the wind, and added
‘we are unlikely to sail so close again’. How wrong they were.

Martin Sharp: His Life and Times is available at all good bookshops and online.

Book Extract