Although I grew up in London with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Joan Bakewell, the day I discovered the underground press, to use the vernacular of the day, “blew my mind”.
Since 1975, I’ve collected printed materials associated with the British underground press, an anarchic phenomenon that provides a fascinating alternative history of the modern United Kingdom. It was within the pages of these underground publications (and be assured the majority of the editorial offices of these were indeed sited underground, in cellars and basements) that the counterculture defined its aims and aspirations, exploring and campaigning for personal, social, political and aesthetic change in society.
They advocated a radical and diverse number of causes, among them the ecology movement, recycling, free-schools, the recognition of rock ’n’ roll as an art form, alternative humour and lifestyle. The movement launched campaigns for, among other things, racial equality, and the drastic alteration of sexual convention and gender-based attitudes.
On this last point, it has to be noted that although the British underground press remained rather sexist throughout the sixties, many feminist activists who came to prominence in the following decade first found their platform (boots) in activism through their contributions to underground papers.
At the time, the printed medium was considered a key to revolutionary change, because it was the revolutionary word, and it was spread in unconventional ways (distribution was via street sellers and at rock festivals).
The British underground press disrupted everyday newsprint (then known collectively and colloquially as ‘Fleet Street’) as much through their adoption of new forms of print technology – adding colour newsprint pages long before Fleet Street, for instance – as through their editorial direction and journalism (many underground writers ended up with columns in the mainstream media).
You could say this exhibition is the front page of the British counterculture of the 1960s. At a time when print media is rapidly disappearing from Western society, it offers a rare and engaging window onto a time when the printed word could break the law and bring about great social and intellectual change.
I’m putting together an exhibition at the A22 Gallery in Clerkenwell that gathers together a large part of my collection, a primarily visual, rather than literary, experience, that shows every cover of the underground press – of Oz, IT, Friends, Frendz, Ink and others — launched in Britain in the 1960s. Here’s a taste of what you can expect, with some first-hand stories about them by my friend and co-conspirator Barry Miles.
One evening just after Christmas 1966, I was telling Paul McCartney about IT’s terrible finances when he suggested that I should interview him, reasoning that if IT ran pop interviews, we could get record company advertising.
Aside from reviews of the Pink Floyd, and a news item about Little Richard, IT hadn’t really covered rock ’n’ roll in our first five issues; its coverage had been almost entirely of jazz and modern classical music, reflecting the interests of its founders. I’d never interviewed anyone and it didn’t even occur to me to prepare any questions.
So I just went to Paul’s house in St John’s Wood and recorded a conversation with him. Before I turned on my cassette machine, he played me an acetate of Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, which the Beatles had just recorded. Mrs Kelly brought us some tea and biscuits and we smoked a joint… The interview was published in issue six, on January 16, 1967, and got picked up by the underground press syndicate all around the world. For me it was the beginning of a career in journalism and writing that has continued to this day.
The first issue of Oz came out in February 1967 and included a take-off of the London underground scene, which the editorial team regarded with a certain disdain: Indica, IT, Ginsberg (whose name OZ always misspelled) and the Beats were used as the subjects of a satirical photo-collage.
The first few issues were very self-conscious imitations of Private Eye, the model for Australian OZ, but even by the second issue it was obvious from the cartoons that Martin Sharp, at least, had taken acid. Martin’s cartoon-collage style occupied even more of the third issue and even though he couldn’t spell psychedelic – “pschyedelic” he called it – his bit of the magazine showed him to be an underground convert.
OZ was completely psychedelicised by its fourth issue, which came complete with a fold out Hapshash and the Coloured Coat cover printed in gold ink. From then on, OZ was the magazine for hippies. The editorial content had much in common with IT, the difference being that IT was a newspaper and carried a lot of underground and community news, whereas OZ was a monthly and almost entirely given over to essays and full colour graphics. Many people, myself included, wrote for both.
Gandalf’s Garden, the “Mystical Scene magazine” began in 1968. It was edited and inspired by Muz Murray, who ran the community centre, head shop, restaurant and meditation space of the same name at World’s End, across the King’s Road from Granny Takes a Trip.
Indigent hippies crashed out there by day, and meditation sessions and talks were held each evening. Muz wrote most of the copy for the magazine, but, attracted by the gentle, non-violent nature of the magazine, John Peel, Christopher Logue, Robert Wyatt, Joan Baez and other underground stalwarts also appear in the contributors lists. One notable character associated with Gandalf’s Garden was the innovative graphic designer Barney Bubbles, who is credited with “topiary” in issue six. He went on to join Frendz and later became celebrated for his work with Stiff Records during the punk era. Gandalf’s Garden folded after six issues in 1969.
Like most of the underground papers, The Black Dwarf was subject to intense scrutiny by the police. On one occasion, five special branch officers were waiting outside the paper’s offices at 7 Carlisle Street, Soho, when editor Tariq Ali arrived for work.
They were led by Chief Inspector Elwyn Johns, who produced a search warrant and spent a happy hour going through files and taking measurements of the offices. They ‘found’ a drawing of how to make a Molotov cocktail – clearly a parody of how a revolutionary HQ should look– on a wall underneath a poster.
The police clearly knew about the diagram otherwise they wouldn’t have taken down the posters. They photographed it and sent a report to the director of Public Prosecutions. Tariq Ali told the Guardian “I don’t know who did it, it could have been anybody. There are all sorts of people in and out of our offices. Of course, the moment I saw it I gave instructions that it was to be erased immediately but, due to the laziness of the staff here, it wasn’t. Actually, they just put two posters over it, intending to paint it over later.”
Friends grew out of the London edition of Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine. It was started in the spring of 1969 with money put up by Mick Jagger, who was irritated that Rolling Stone had used his group’s name. US Rolling Stone sent over the negative films of their news and articles, and the UK edition added new material originating in the UK.
But it wasn’t long before editor Jane Nicolson and her British staff came to blows with the Americans. Ostensibly the problem was finances and distribution. Wenner wrote Jane Nicholson a letter saying, “Your business practices are appalling … Is this some kind of joke? … You’re a bunch of amateurs and kids playing at the game of publishing…”
This from a newspaper that the previous year had offered a free roach holder with every new subscription. But Wenner was, of course, right about the finances. They hadn’t a clue and Friends was constantly being bailed out by an editor’s businessman father in South Africa.
In May 1971 after issue 28, Friends was forced to close, but the paper continued under different management and a different editor, Jerome Burne, as Frendz. In order not to confuse readers too much, the old numbering system continued – in parenthesis – for the first nine issues of Frendz.
Money came from unusual sources. Staff writer Rosie Boycott, who went on to co-found Spare Rib, remembered, “one day a woman arrived with a dirty white handbag stuffed with five pound notes which she proceeded to throw around the office like Kleenex. She needed somewhere to stay and installed her own set of old rusty bed springs under a window, where she lay, naked and exposed, while the office bustled by around her. The contents of her bag paid the print bills, but how we all actually survived is a mystery I cannot fathom to this day.”
So, there were three underground publications, all vying for 15 pence a week. IT and OZ had long before agreed to never publish in the same week, but Frendz had such chaotic business management that they sometimes had simply no idea when the next issue might arrive.