The Underground Press

Barry Miles charts the rise of the underground press in the late 1950s and 1960s, which covered art, leftwing politics and alternative lifestyles ignored by the established media.

The underground press developed to give a voice to a new post-war generation of young people who were not catered for by Fleet Street newspapers. The majority of their parents had left school at 14, but the 1944 Education Act provided for free schooling up to the age of 15, enabling a huge number of young, working-class people in the late 1950s and 60s to continue on to sixth form and university; something that had previously only been available to the wealthy. These young people were thus better educated than their elders, and turned elsewhere for mentors. This was the generation that grew up with rock 'n’ roll (Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, et al.) and with Mary Quant’s fashions: teenage clothing that allowed young women to run and dance. (Young women used to leave school and immediately begin dressing like their mothers.) Young men no longer put on a suit like their dad. John Stevens’ Carnaby street shops offered flamboyant new styles, more appropriate to the new teenage lifestyle. Young people were able to pay for all this because in the 1960s there was full employment.

The new independence of young people, and the demographic shift in spending power naturally gave rise to tensions. Many older people expected Britain to return to the pre-war British mono-culture with its rigid class system, and with society’s values determined – and imposed – by the middle class. These were the values embedded in the Fleet Street newspapers, but the cat was out of the bag: young, educated working-class people became photographers, actors, models, playwrights, novelists, artists and entertainers, even politicians, changing the face of British culture forever.

There was no youth press. Fleet Street was completely controlled by the print unions. In order to work for a national paper you had to work for some years on a regional paper first, ensuring that you became part of the established culture. The new youth market was increasingly catered for by the weekly music press and weeklies aimed at teenage girls. But there were still many subjects that concerned young people that were not covered: the anti-nuclear weapons movement; the anti-Vietnam War movement; sexual liberation; avant garde art including rock music; ways of exploring and widening the field of consciousness using drugs or meditation; the price of drugs; Eastern religions and philosophies. This kind of information could only be found in the underground or alternative press.

Joining the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in 1959 or the early 60s meant young people rallied around an ethical cause in which they believed strongly. For many it transformed their lives. Going on the annual Easter Aldermaston to London march, they had left their small towns and villages, often for the first time, and were meeting thousands of other like-minded young people. They met Scottish anarchists, pacifists, radical priests, earnest booksellers, communists, students from every university in the country, beatniks and bohemians. They discussed and debated, they had affairs and developed relationships, they smoked marijuana for the first time or sometimes drank for the first time. They returned home as changed individuals.

The new ideas on how to live came from a variety of sources, from the writers of the Beat Generation – William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac, from the music of Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis; from philosophers like Bertrand Russell and Herbert Marcuse, architect Buckminster Fuller, from Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley. As pop developed into rock, singers and groups like Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones addressed the issues that their audience were interested in: sexual freedom, parents, running away from home, broken relationships, lovesickness and getting high.

In the summer of 1965, a sold out Beat Generation poetry reading featuring Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso was held at the Royal Albert Hall on June 11. One of the organisers, John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, looked around the audience and realised that here there was a constituency without a voice. What London needed was an equivalent of New York’s Village Voice, a radical weekly newspaper covering art, literature and left-wing politics with a strong focus on community issues. Or perhaps an equivalent to New York’s East Village Other (EVO), started in 1965 and made up of Dadaistic photographic montages, scurrilous news reports, anti-war news, articles about LSD and featuring underground pin-up slum goddesses. The present author, Miles, was EVO’s London correspondent.

To this end Hoppy and Miles started a publishing company, first publishing poetry magazines and releasing a spoken word poetry album. In Easter 1966, they launched The Long Hair Times, a thrown together collection of newsletters and cartoons that they sold on the Aldermaston march.

International Times

Cover from the International Times newspaper, featuring columns of text, a photograph and logo with the text 'it' alongside an image of a woman

The radical weekly publication International Times, or IT as it became known, was Britain’s first underground newspaper.

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More people were brought in, the proposed new paper was given a name: International Times, soon shortened to IT. Tom McGrath was appointed editor and Britain – and Europe’s – first underground paper was launched on Saturday 15 October 1966 with a big party held at the Roundhouse. It started at 11 p.m., the Pink Floyd and the Soft Machine played and everyone was given a sugarcube as they entered. People were still arriving at 3 a.m..

The first issue was heavily arts oriented. It featured an obituary of Andre Breton by Jean-Jacques Lebel, the Paris correspondent for EVO; a review of Yoko Ono’s show at Indica; a report on Nikki de Saint Phalle’s ‘She’ sculpture in Stockholm; a review of Bob Cobbing’s Group H show and two reviews of the 'Destruction In Art Symposium'. There was report on 'Provo' by Simon Vinkenoog from Amsterdam, a review of Tim Leary’s spiritual stage show in New York, reviews of the Rolling Stones at the Albert Hall, the Warsaw International Festival of Music and a poem by Adrian Mitchell written as part of a play about Vietnam. A listings column included Roland Kirk at the London jazz club Ronnie Scott’s and the ‘Pink Floyd Mix Media Show’ at the London Free School. More controversially IT also included the street prices of marijuana and LSD. The police raided four months later using an obscene publications warrant, and stripped the office of every piece of paper including the phonebooks, returning it all three months later without bringing charges. But this did not put IT out of business as intended; if anything it increased support from the underground community.

With very few exceptions, underground papers were non-commercial; written by and existing only to serve their community. The staff often did not get paid, no one made any profits. The people who made the papers created communities and a culture, and thus shaped the identity of each of the papers. A lot of IT’s readers smoked marijuana, and some of them took LSD. As the British counter-culture grew and developed, IT became the chief outlet for news of the alternative lifestyle with articles on ley lines, numerology, Arthurian legends, Eastern mysticism, Tim Leary and his cohorts, macrobiotics, vegetarianism, ecology, communal living and of course drugs. The staff of IT were also the staff of the UFO club, started in December 1966, and that way they were guaranteed to get paid a minimum amount each week. W H Smith refused to sell or distribute IT, and no other distributor would touch it, so IT relied on street sellers. They were given a bundle to sell, and if they didn’t bring back the money they didn’t get any more. Hoppy would drive around town putting copies into the racks of corner newsagents, then following up a day or two later. If those copies had sold, then the newsagent often placed a regular order.

IT was soon joined by OZ, which, being a monthly magazine, did not deal much in community news but ran longer discussion pieces on the same free lifestyle, with rather more emphasis on the sexual revolution. Both IT and Oz quickly realised that record company advertisements would provide a regular income, and IT in particular ran regular interviews with rock musicians such as Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, John Lennon and so on, always in the form of unedited Q&A discussions on a variety of topics. Oz began to do themed issues on women’s liberation, homosexuality and revolutionary politics. Controversial pieces by writers like Germaine Greer included subjects such as groupies. For issue 28 they handed the editorial over to schoolchildren, who produced a magazine that resulted in the longest obscenity case in British history.

IT and Oz were joined by Friends, later called Friendz, and more specialised magazines began to appear: Gandalf’s Garden for the more mystical end of the counter-culture; Zigzag and a bit later Strange Days on progressive rock; Shrew, then Spare Rib for the women’s movement; first Jeremy, then Jeffrey, then Gay News following the partial legalisation of homosexuality in 1967. Oz launched a newspaper called Ink, hoping to bridge the gap between Oz and Fleet Street. Meanwhile, home-made mimeo and offset magazines appeared all over the country: the Swindon Free Press; Manchester’s Catonsville Roadrunner; Grasseye and Mole, followed by the Manchester Free Press;  the Liverpool Free Press; Fapto published in Kent; The Snail from Devon; Snapdragon in Southampton; Horsefeathers from Glasgow and more, each representing a local community of young people. This tradition continued later in the 1970s with the explosion of punk fanzines like Sniffin’ Glue or Apathy in Ilford, mostly made out of hours on office photocopy machines. All provided an alternative to the establishment commercial press.

Spare Rib magazine issue 122

Spare Rib magazine issue 122 p. 1

The division of domestic labour and childcare was debated long and hard through the pages of Spare Rib. The magazine often used humour to draw attention to the frustration experienced by many women with regard to housework and childcare. Striking visual images on many front covers of the magazine pay testament to this struggle.

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  • Barry Miles
  • Barry Miles is the author of biographers of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski, Frank Zappa and books on the sixties counterculture, including London Calling: The Countercultural History of London Since 1945. He was the London correspondent for the East Village Other (EVO) from 1966–70 and the co-founder of International Times (IT), Europe's first underground newspaper in 1966. He wrote extensively in EVO, IT, OZ, The LA Free Press, The Oracle and many other papers. His full biography and bibliography is available at www.barrymiles.co.uk. In 2016 he wrote catalogue essays for the V&A's counterculture show and for the Beat Generation show at the Centre Pompidou.

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