Books: Going underground

Written By: Clive Jennings
Published: November 14, 2017 Last modified: November 17, 2017

The British Underground Press Of The Sixties

by James Birch and Barry Miles £35


Picture the scene: it’s June 1965 and Barry Miles and his pal John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins joined 7000 other like minded souls at the Royal Albert Hall for an international poetry gathering, led by the Americans Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. Miles (for nobody calls him Barry) explains: “As a reading it was not special; as a meeting place for young people – students, musicians, poets, actors, people from the arts, the sciences and education – it was a revelation. There were thousands of us! My friend Hoppy and I looked at each other and nodded, we both had the same idea. These people need a newspaper of their own! There was a constituency there that Fleet Street was simply not covering.”

The idea for International Times (IT), the first European underground newspaper, was born. Co-editors Miles and Hoppy got busy. The company Lovebooks Limited was formed, a used offset litho press was purchased and a proto IT – consisting of facsimiles of Miles’ correspondence with pals on the underground scene in the US, graphics and a comic strip from friends, and a competition with a 20 guinea prize supplied by Paul McCartney – was produced. Around 500 were printed and the next day they took them to the 1966 CND Easter Aldermaston March – in a couple of days they had all gone.

Time to get organised. Lots of people offered to help and various luminaries came on board including Jim Haynes, the American proprietor of Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and founder of The Arts Lab, who supplied them with their first typewriter, which came from Sonia Orwell and had apparently been owned and used by her husband George. At a raucous meeting to decide on a name someone shouted “IT”, which could be interpreted as Intergalactic Times, Inscrutable Times, Insane Times, but International Times was settled on. The logo, which was supposed to feature the original It-girl Clara Bow, mistakenly used a picture of Theda Bara in her 1918 silent movie role as Salome, an image that has endured for 50 years.

The paper was launched with a huge all night party on 15 October 1966 at the then semi derelict Roundhouse in Camden Town (courtesy of playwright Arnold Wesker). Around 2000 people attended including Michelangelo Antonioni, Monica Vitti, Paul McCartney and Jane Asher. Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine played from the back of an old wagon with a bed sheet tacked up behind them for what would be for many people, their first lightshow. The first issue included an obituary of André Breton and a poem by Adrian Mitchell.

Miles went on to a successful career as a writer (over 50 books, including London Calling, a definitive history of London’s counterculture since 1945), journalist and sometime fifth Beatle, and for three years was William Burroughs’ archivist, entertaining everyone from Frank Zappa to Joe Strummer in his modest Fitzrovia flat. Hoppy co-founded the club UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) in an Irish dancehall called the Blarney Club in the basement of 32 Tottenham Court Road, under the Gala Berkeley Cinema, and became a successful rock photographer with the New Musical Express.

IT was followed closely by Oz Magazine, co-edited by Felix Dennis – later a press baron, poet and planter of forests – Richard Neville and Jim Anderson, and many other underground publications. The championing of the alternative music scene by IT and Oz changed the face of the formerly staid music press, such as NME and Melody Maker, and was directly responsible for many new publications. Without the British underground press of the 1960s, there would have been no countercultural underground and no psychedelic revolution.

The underground press changed the cultural landscape of Britain forever, inviting debate on recreational drugs, homosexuality and sexual freedom – Miles: “What is extraordinary is how threatened the establishment felt by the underground press and the hippy movement. In no way were we going to smash the state, I mean there were only a few hundred of us anyway but they took it extremely seriously.” IT and Oz were repeatedly busted and taken to court by the Obscene Publications Squad, once for its gay contacts ads, topical 50 years on as we celebrate Queer Britain. The underground press had the last laugh when many of their old persecutors from West End Central were prosecuted for corruption in the early 70s.

Questions were asked in the House, and I personally remember, as a provincial schoolboy, it was a badge of honour to have a copy of IT ostentatiously sticking out of one’s school bag. We really did feel that this was a new psychedelic age in gloomy post war Britain. As Miles explains: “It’s curious that when people look back 50 years to the youth movement of the sixties, they always mention the music but don’t mention the underground papers and they were the main way that the ideas got transmitted. … I don’t think it’s a conspiracy it’s just that we never think where do these ideas come from and how do they get transmitted?”

Miles has solved this by collaborating with curator and art dealer James Birch – best known for his innovative championing of British art, in particular for exhibiting Francis Bacon in Moscow, in the then USSR, in 1988, and Gilbert & George in Moscow in 1990, and Beijing and Shanghai in 1993. Together they have created an exhibition and a book that brings together for the first time every single iconic copy of International Times, Oz, Friends, Friendz, Gandalf’s Garden, Black Dwarf and Ink.

There are also comic books, ephemera, original graphics, t-shirts, posters and prints, including the famous Hockney etching of the Oz editors in the nude, and a John Lennon and Yoko Ono drawing that includes an interactive mirror. Much material is still controversial 50 years on. These publications caught the spirit of the times and inspired a revolution in alternative magazines through the 70s and 80s; their influence is still felt in today’s publications.

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