The sixties were the first, and may well turn out to be the only, time when we had an authentic intelligentsia in this country just like the ones in Europe and America—a full-blooded, enquiring rootless urban intelligentsia which didn’t define itself as a class by what its parents had done for a living.
(Angela Carter, ‘Truly, It Felt Like Year One’ in Maitland (ed), Very Heaven)
If the sixties were truly ‘about’ anything, it was the notion of a decisive shift of power away from its traditional centres and towards people who had been historically excluded from any significant degree of control over their own circumstances and history. From the rich to the poor, from the old to the young, From the Right to the Left, from whites to blacks.
(Charles Shaar Murray, Crosstown Traffic: Jimi Hendrix & Post-War Pop)
We were the first working-class heroes in England to ever get anywhere without changing their accents… Changing the life-style and the appearance of youth throughout the world didn’t just happen—we set out to do it; we knew what we were doing.
(John Lennon, cited in John Lahr, Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton)
If you want revolution—sexual freedom, freedom of thought, freedom to discover who you really are—in short, if you want a new world and won’t settle for less, then these journals are your only overt communications media.
(Editorial, IT 56, May 9th-22nd 1969. This editorial followed a police raid on IT’s offices)
OZ is a magazine which is not committed to being rigidly or destructively anti-society; it does not only mirror the prejudices of its editors, but has become the sounding board for people with new things to say and nowhere else to say them. So, for example, there has been a Homosexual OZ—edited by homosexuals for the usual OZ readership. There has been a Women’s Liberation OZ—edited by Germaine Greer, a women’s liberationist, and distributed to the usual OZ readership. There has been a Flying Saucer OZ—edited not by men from Mars, but by people who believe in such things, and the issue was sold to the usual OZ readership. Perhaps when this trial is over, we can ask you all to edit a Juror’s OZ... which, like all the others, will be distributed to the usual OZ readership.
But all of these issues of OZ should not be seen in isolation from other magazines and newspapers published in this country such as International Times, Friends, Ink, Mole Express, Styng, Press Ups and dozens of others, known generally, if misleadingly, as the underground press—papers which offer a platform to the socially impotent, and which mirror the changing way of life in our community. And because this ‘underground’ or ‘alternative’ press is a worldwide phenomenon and because it represents a voice of progress and change in our society, then it is not really only us who are on trial today... but all of you... and the right of all of you to freely discuss the issues which concern you...
Remember, if you convict us at the end of this trial, you are in reality convicting schoolchildren. And if you convict schoolchildren, then you yourselves must accept some responsibility for their guilt. So far from debauching and corrupting the morals of children and young persons within the Realm, our evidence will show that OZ is part of a communications network which intends the very opposite. It sets out to enlighten and to elevate public morals.
(From Richard Neville’s opening defence, cited in Tony Palmer’s The Trials of OZ)
Spare Rib was begun because of the impetus of the women’s liberation movement, but it was also a daughter of the underground press. It was a product of the counter-culture and a reaction against it. The newspapers and magazines that spouted up as part of the youth culture of the sixties included IT, OZ and Frendz, all based in London. Their production was made possible by the technical development of offset litho printing, which did not entail expensive metal blocks for photo and type. Offset litho also meant that designers had more free play in layout. Colour could spread over margins, pictures could be stuck down at odd angles, and the page could be assembled so that print and colour superimposed upon each other, the psychedelic result resplendent with the excitement of experimenting with symbols, words and technique.
The visual effect of Oz magazine especially was often spectacular, like a cubist painting done by a surrealist, an attempt to deny the dimensions of the flat page, not by the single viewpoint realism of a photograph, but by simultaneously representing as many different perspectives as possible. It was a graphic exploration of the youth-culture aesthetic, the expansion of consciousness, affirming the power of the imagination, and posing the validity of subjective experience against establishment values. The underground press offered an alternative outlet, a more authentic voice for the concerns and mood of the youth movement than the mass media.
The editorial content was eclectic, covering ecology, sexuality, communal living, drugs, music, Third World politics, food, health, mysticism, psychology amongst others. Germaine Greer described the free-wheeling inclinations and interests of the underground in the July issue of OZ in 1969: "The political character of the underground is still amorphous, because it is principally a clamour for freedom to move, to test alternative forms of existence to find if they were practicable, and if they were more gratifying, more creative, more positive, than mere endurance under the system".
These aspirations were given shape in the music of the sixties, which drew on a host of sources: folk, blues, soul, jazz, country & western, rock & roll. The music, at small events, or combined with ‘happenings’, or at enormous festivals which drew thousands of young people together, integrated the counter-culture more than any other single element, and also revealed its emphasis. The cultural radicalism had energy and vision but it was also a dream world, dependent on the prosperous, consumerist society it criticized. A young woman interviewed in Spare Rib No.4 said that, on looking back, she felt betrayed: "At first, the alternative way of life was great, back in the days of flower power, but when the initial enthusiasm wore off, most people didn’t make the effort needed to actually plan and work for an alternative society".
But the disintegration had begun earlier, partly because the rhetoric of free love and dope was legally unacceptable. These two were twin births—the sexual and the spiritual—of the counter-culture’s reaction against repression of libido. Mind-expanding drugs, as the means for heightened spiritual awareness which would release creative potential and radicalize the person, became ‘the politics of ecstasy’. However, of course, the drugs were illegal and those who took them were subject to criminal law.
The flaunting of a defiant sexuality also provoked legal prosecution. IT was taken to court for publishing small ads for homosexuals, despite the legalization of homosexuality between ‘consenting adults in private’. Police seized OZ magazine’s ‘School Kids’ Issue’, produced by a guest editorial team of twenty young people. The charge brought, not against the school kids, but the three OZ editors, was the first time the Obscene Publications Act, 1959, was combined with a moral conspiracy charge. The three were convicted and given jail sentences. During the trial, the prosecuting barrister accused the community of which the magazine was a part of being without love. Richard Neville responded that, on the contrary, OZ was against the guilt and obsession of repressed sexuality and that "OZ was trying to redefine love, to broaden it, extend it and revitalize it, so it could be a force of release and not one of entrapment".
The irony of this was that, while this may have been true for men, it was rarely the case for women. The underground press used sex-objectifying images which had developed from being fairly romantic to stridently sadistic. The women who worked on its magazines and newspapers served the men and did the office and production work rather than any editorial work. After a time on OZ I had worked for the defence in the OZ trial, and the cover of that issue was a montage of pictures of a naked woman in erotic display. In November 1971, three months after the trial, I went to the women’s liberation demonstration outside the Albert Hall, the second against the Miss World competition, and was beginning to feel contradictions exploding inside my head.
I was aware of a change in the political atmosphere around the time of starting Spare Rib . . . the relaxed optimism of the sixties had faded and the fact that being ‘cool’ and ‘laid back’ had existed for the men, but not for the women who had handled the nitty-gritty work in the underground. The layout of the magazine was meant to be calmer, clearer and easier to read. We felt it had to be grounded in a style which would reflect the manner in which we were redefining ourselves as women. Instead of seeing ourselves in a world set apart, we were beginning to connect with the lives of other women. It was part of a broadening out of our political awareness.
(Marsha Rowe, Introduction to the Spare Rib Reader, 1982)
Today the teenage music is an environment not something to be played inside an environment.
(Marshall McLuhan, Counterblast, 1969)
The rock revolution failed because it was corrupted. It was incorporated in the capitalist system which has power to absorb and exploit all tendencies, including the tendencies towards its own overthrow.
(Germaine Greer, ‘Mozic and the Revolution’, OZ 24, October 1969)
At Hornsey a microcosm of society changed totally, the people who took over had to challenge the inner organisation, to change its relationships with the outside world, and to change themselves. Revolution of thought and feeling is the only permanent revolution. A structure can only work so long as it grows out of feeling. The only magic wand was our imagination. Anyone, anywhere, can create this revolution.
(‘Hornsey—The Flower Breaks the Concrete’, in IT 34, June 28-July 11 1968. Written shortly after the student ‘takeover’ at the Hornsey College of Art)
What is in fact happening is the convergence of a dissident and political intelligentsia with a mass and rebellious youth movement. The previous emergence of such a genuinely subversive intellectual movement were fin de siecle bohemianism and, between the wars, Stalinism. What happened in the era between the end of CND and the beginning of what can be called with justice, the period of revolutionary politics, was the emergence of both bohemians and revolutionaries alongside. The kind of folklorique anarchism of the underground's politics is an essential stage just as Narodkinism was prior to Bolshevism. 'Where there is revolution there is anarchy, the first stirring, the first cry, the first position before organisation begins. We must greet and welcome anarchy.'
(David Widgery, 'Over & Under', OZ 17, December 1968)
As the hippies, quoting Plato, had it: ‘When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake’.
(Jonathan Green, Days in the Life)
I wasn’t consciously listening to rock ‘n’ roll as a political statement, but it was the pleasure side of this pre-60s revolution, and I see it as the first big shift which then allowed the 60s to take off with a big bang. The groundwork had been done in the mid-50s. The other branch was a turning towards Europe, French theory, French Marxist theory, as opposed to British Labour Party tradition, and then eventually to a French psychoanalytic theory. So there was a mixture of the high French intellectual culture and the low American popular culture.
(Laura Mulvey in Green’s Days in the Life)
...the Sixties was special and that evening [‘The International Poetry Incantation’ at the Albert Hall, June 11th 1965 which Whitehead documented in the film Wholly Communion] was the first real manifestation of it. Although a lot of the audience were perfectly ordinary middle class people who’d come to see what was happening, one hell of a lot of the audience were actually people who were on the verge of or already into the counterculture. Which had already started, of course, with CND and all that stuff. In England the counterculture stroke Beat which became the hippie movement and hippie counterculture and eventually led to International Times and Miles’ gallery and these kind of things, the whole ‘swinging London’ phenomenon started, actually, on the Aldermaston march. It started with the committee of 100 and CND and all that stuff. It was where people started to get politicised and aware of America and the Vietnam war and protest and the people that were writing pop music, pop poetry. They were all starting to link up and make a kind of network that eventually was going to make itself evident to everybody on that occasion, the 11th of June 1965. A lot of people thought 1000 people might turn up. From that moment onwards it wasn’t just Beat poetry, because a lot of poetry—you listened to it and it just went. That kind of poetry you don’t go around reciting to yourself weeks afterwards. It was an event. The first big ‘Happening’. It was proof absolutely that what was going on was becoming serious and not to be ignored. From then on everybody who’d been growing towards it and slightly unsure and full of doubt, like I was—suddenly thought "It’s really happening, it’s real. By God we’re in the beginning of something that could change the world".
...The very last film I made in the 1960s was a two hour film called The Fall, which was about the collapse of the Protest Movement in America and the occupation of the Student Union of Columbia University. I was inside the occupation for a week and filmed the police coming through the front door. Now that was the climax of the protest which had started for me, and a lot of English people, with Wholly Communion. . . That was one month before the students occupied the Sorbonne in Paris. I was living it out filming the real thing and the next minute it happened in Paris. It was the beginning of the end of the 1960s.
(Peter Whitehead, interview in Beat Scene 28, 1997)
I met Leary . . . and I asked him to explain the whole thing. He said, ‘Well, it takes you out of the box’, and that was his whole explanation for drugs: ‘It takes you out of the box’. And that still seems a very profound evaluation of drugs.
(John Wilcock in Green’s Days in the Life)
People grew up, came into pop music through rhythm and blues and black music and you just took the drugs and that just sort of mingled everybody in and out of society . . . Scoring was classless.
(Maldwyn Thomas in Green’s Days in the Life)
The underground was always incredibly entrepreneurial. When you think about what they managed to do with their limited resources — they didn’t have merchant banks coming round and throwing money at them — it was pretty amazing that people could actually produce these things and I think they gave a lot of hope to other entrepreneurs. Branson was around, but he was only a tourist. He always was a Tory and an exploiter of the trends.
(Andrew Bailey in Green’s Days in the Life)
From Paris to Berkeley, from Munich to Oxford, the "West" offered a supermarket of avant garde products, some branded as "Marxism", each cutting the price against the other. But how many of these products, when unpackaged, contained only old and discredited arguments under a new label, or a horrific make-up kit for the revolting young bourgeoisie (a fast sports-car, a villa in the Apennines, and the Thoughts of Mao-Tse-Tung) to act out their transient, fashionable pantomime? Posters of Che Guevara, juxtaposed against mini-skirts, "Mao tunics" and military leather jackets decorated the most modish, swinging boutiques, in the King’s Road and in Royal Leamington Spa; for a year or two, intoxicated by "May 1968" in Paris—or rather, by this event as assimilated in instant myth—cohorts of leftist students imagined that, by some act of occupation of a few administrator’s offices, they could announce in the heart of repressive capitalist society a "red base" which would bring an instant voluntaristic proletarian revolution looming out of the streets.
(E.P. Thompson, ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, in The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays)
The revolution which is beginning will call in question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer’s society must perish of a violent death. The society of alienation must disappear from history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.
(Pinned to the main entrance of the Sorbonne, Paris, May 1968)
The decade was a unique one of transformation in personal relationships, in attitudes towards authority, in modes of self-presentation, in material standards, customs and behaviour. It is right, of course, to give attention to artists and cultural leaders, to movements and sub-cultures, but the ultimate significance of the sixties lies in what happened to ordinary people.
(The Open University 60s Research Group http://www.open.ac.uk/OU/Academic/Arts/60s/thematic.htm)
In Britain . . . the sixties revolution can be attributed largely to a combination of . . . free education, of open admission to art schools, and . . . the post-war economic boom. . . As Simon Frith and Howard Horne wrote in Welcome to Bohemia!: ‘The art college was the flaw in the British education system, a space where both middle and working-class youth could deny the implications of past and future and live out, however briefly, a fantasy of cultural liberation’.
(Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now)
IF YOU’RE NOT BUSY BEING BORN, YOU’RE BUSY BUYING
All the sales girls in flash boutiques are made to dress the same and have the same make-up, representing the 1940s. In fashion as in everything else, capitalism can only go backwards—they’ve nowhere to go—they’re dead.
The future is ours. Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt.
Brothers and Sisters, what are your real desires? Sit in the drugstore, look distant, empty, bored, drinking some tasteless coffee? Or perhaps BLOW IT UP or BURN IT DOWN. The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses—called boutiques—is WRECK THEM. You can’t reform profit capitalism and inhumanity. Just KICK IT TILL IT BREAKS.
REVOLUTION. COMMUNIQUE 8. THE ANGRY BRIGADE (May 1, 1971).
(Tom Vague, Anarchy in the UK: The Angry Brigade)
Play Power was a gigantic exercise in wish fulfilment. A few people in London and other big cities could get away with living like this, at a time when things were cheap, when the dole and a bit of discreet dealing would enable you to live quite comfortably. One thing Richard was right about was that full employment as our parents understood it was not going to be around for very long and that people had better start making other plans. He was dead right about that. About virtually everything else he was totally wrong. The thrust of the book was basically: if everybody listened to pop music, wore funny clothes, took drugs and screwed a lot, the millennium would come. Which devalued the serious point about the coming unemployment. But his solutions for unemployment weren’t particularly valid, unless you happened to be a young media type, living in a relaxed and bohemian part of a major city. The line from hippie to yuppie is not nearly as convoluted as people like to believe and a lot of the old hippie rhetoric could well be co-opted now by the pseudo-libertarian Right — which has in fact happened. Get the government off our backs, let individuals do what they want — that translates very smoothly into laissez-faire yuppyism, and that’s the legacy of the era.
(Charles Shaar Murray in Green’s Days in the Life)
The underground was exactly the same as everything else: there were rich people and there were poor people and there were people in the middle. There was a kind of decadence there and you could belong to that because you might be beautiful or you might be able to rake a lot of drugs or able to get lots of drugs — it was just the same as any other society, it was class-ridden. And that elitism took the whole movement over and the people who could afford to carry on living like that did and the rest dwindled away. . . You didn’t have to be an intellectual and you didn’t have to be rich, but you had to have something that you could contribute to be one of the ‘beautiful people’. If you were an ordinary person who lived in some suburb, you had no chance at all.
(Cheryll Park in Green’s Days in the Life)
There was this social callousness. The callousness over drugs was what I’d call the macho aspect.
(Jonathan Park in Green’s Days in the Life)
It’s amazing that one communicated with so many people on this sort of erotic level. Sometimes you slept with people and it meant nothing, sometimes it was more than that. You allowed each other to touch each other very deeply and you somehow communicated through this.
(Marsha Rowe in Green’s Days in the Life)
The music business was the engine-room of the underground, the source of the finance. You didn’t need a lot of money to live in those days, but you needed some. The great thing about the music business was that there was always some cash floating about. So IT was financed by record company advertising. UFO provided employment . . .
(Steve Sparks in Green’s Days in the Life)
This sudden vogue among teenagers and the avant-garde middle class for colourful playthings and visual ‘images’ pillaged indiscriminately from a century of industrialised culture, whether art nouveau ties or grandfather clocks painted white or vests printed with slogans varying from ‘I love The Beatles’ to ‘Jesus Saves’, was marking the disintegration of the youthful collective fantasy into a more fragmented and inconsequential phase, in which no one ‘look’ or fashion would prevail, but in which titillatory images could be seized on almost at random. . . the pop musicians were already on the trail which was to lead them over the next eighteen months to using anything from lutes and string quartets to the sound of the Indian sitar.
An even more revealing aspect of this disintegration was the wide-spread and rapid merger that was taking place between the cultural interests of teenagers and the avant-garde intellectuals. Eight years before, there would still have seemed an almost unbridgeable gulf between the concerns of, say, the teenagers jiving to Tommy Steele in the basement of the Two I’s coffee bar and those of the audiences for Ionesco at the Royal Court Theatre. Now, in 1964, the coalescence of one form of fantasy with another to make up a sort of overall ‘pop culture’, was taking place so fast that, within a year or two, no one would be surprised to see the pages of the ‘quality’ press regularly taken up with the rapturous reviews of the latest pop records, or prominent pop singers being starred in plays and films by directors of impeccable ‘intellectual’ credentials, such as Peter Hall and Jean-Luc Godard — any more than they would be surprised to see Paul McCartney advertised as spending his leisure hours with the latest electronic fragment from the pen of Stockhausen.
(Christopher Booker, The Neophiliacs)
We weren’t really living in Edge City — we all had parents and back-up systems, which the working-class people didn’t have — but at the same time we were living a more precarious and more varied existence than people who went off to be bankers and lawyers. It was a democratisation of things that had always been the preserve of the upper classes. Take the issue of sexual freedom: the upper classes had always had pornography and so on; the question was whether it should be available for ordinary people on street corners. And the same with drugs. And the feeling for style and decor began then. The one thing that didn’t happen was that it produced no literature.
(Jerome Burne in Green’s Days in the Life)
Obscene is not the picture of a naked woman who exposes her pubic hair but that of a fully clad general who exposes his medals rewarded in a war of aggression; obscene is not the ritual of the Hippies but the declaration of a high dignitary of the Church that war is necessary for peace... Morality is not necessarily... ideological. In the face of an amoral society, it becomes a political weapon, an effective force which drives people to burn their draft cards, to ridicule national leaders, to demonstrate in the streets, and to unfold signs saying "Thou shalt not kill" in the nation’s churches.
(Herbert Marcuse, An Essay On Liberation)
GLF [Gay Liberation Front] was a very working-class movement . . . The first couple of meetings at the LSE attracted 30-40 people. . . Soon the lecture room was crowded out with 300 or more. By the time we moved to Middle Earth, after about four months, there were probably 1000 or so. But then attendance began to dwindle. People from all over the country had heard about it on the grapevine and came rushing to take part, but when they went back home they started up groups of their own.
(Andrew Lumsden in Green’s Days in the Life)
...crime, violence and illegitimacy and venereal disease are steadily increasing, yet the BBC employs people whose ideas and advice pander to the lowest in human nature, accompanying this with a stream of suggestive and erotic plays which present promiscuity, infidelity and drinking as normal and inevitable.
. . . black or pseudoblack voices cut loose from the practical language of the wider world . . . What adult critics heard as incoherence, primitive regression, was indeed part of the music’s appeal. But all these devices could be heard . . . as a distrust of language, distrust of the correct, distrust of practicality itself . . . With a catch in its collective throat, rock announced to unbelievers: Before your very ears we invent a new vocabulary, a generation’s private language. Distrusting the currency, we coin our own.
(Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage)
Something one misses too easily looking at the intellectual record of the period is that there were lots of ordinary people doing things that ordinary people didn’t do. There was much more questioning, people asking what the hell was going on. And feminism was like that sort of force.
(David Widgery in Green’s Days in the Life)
I missed the Oxford conference but I heard about it . . . the women’s movement would be set up not as a unified, centralised organisation, but as a loose confederation of local groups, based on women who lived in the same kind of area getting together and organising themselves. The women’s movement would co-ordinate, rather than organise.
(Laura Mulvey in Green’s Days in the Life)
... the insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of the third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the Sixties.
You had to fill so many roles: you had to be pretty and you had to be a ‘good fuck’, that seemed to be very important . . . There was a huge pressure to conform to non-conformity, which left very little room for actually finding out what your preferences were.
(Nicola Lane in Green’s Days in the Life)
My view of the period, from the early 60s onwards, is not of continuity so much as of constant revolution . . . The few people I would call similar to beatniks that I met in the early 60s looked upon the civil rights folkies etc, etc with absolute horror; and then the civil rights folkies looked upon the people who took dope and were into psychedelics in the mid-60s with absolute horror; and those people then looked upon the wider spread of psychedelics into a broader community, people who were less concerned with the aesthetics of the experience, with absolute horror. You can establish a continuity, but you can also establish this continuity of divorce, that each successive wave was anathema to the leaders of the previous one.
(Joe Boyd in Green’s Days in the Life)
It’s a fact that people’s everyday lives have changed from the early sixties to now... movements have really changed our whole lives, our mentality, our attitudes, and the attitudes and mentality of other people—people who do not belong to these movements.
(Michel Foucault, interview in Edinburgh Review)
I think in the end that by not beating the system we strengthened it. In the end the culture we were involved in was an Anglo-American cultural narcissism revamped, and if you look at it from the point of view of world culture it actually reflected the power structure, the extraordinary media power of the English-speaking West. With the best will in the world the people involved might have thought that they were providing an alternative, but they were simply making the Establishment more flexible. So I’m not at all surprised that we have proceeded to vote in lots of incredibly right-wing and chauvinistic governments. I don’t see it as a reaction to the 60s, but as a direct result. What a pathetic thing to think: that you can just blow the castles down.
(Robert Wyatt in Green’s Days in the Life)
Future generations wanting to learn about the hopes which the counter-culture dared to hope will need to listen to the music which expressed its moods and visions: it is in this music that the counter-culture’s poets are to be found.
(Elizabeth Nelson, The British Counter-Culture)
All that stuff had enormous effect. It changed the attitude of the police. It changed the attitude of the government and the army. All that kind of subversive, revolutionary journalism, dope, all the stuff. They too k the underground press a lot more seriously than it took itself. For a time it did seem that things would really change, that people were coming together. . . It will probably be seen as a cultural bubble. But we didn’t die and we participated in what will stand as the finest, most brilliant technicolor display of individuality, bohemianism and revolution that has been seen in the last 50 years. It was brilliant, a fantastic display, but like all displays the rain comes along, the wind blows and it dies.
(David May in Green’s Days in the Life)
Essentially rock ‘n’ roll was the key factor, from an early age. There’s always been an underground and there always will be. It just expands and contracts. The essential thread of bohemianism, things get left over — bookshops, bars — all from the previous incarnation. . . I don’t think there is an alternative world. For about three weeks there was this dumb idea that you could revolutionise the whole manifest destiny of the planet by example, but on the other hand the things that have been achieved are not to be sniffed at.
(Mick Farren in Green’s Days in the Life)
It seems that the poems and songs of protest and liberation are always too late or too early: memory or dream. Their time is not the present; they preserve their truth in their hope, in their refusal of the actual.
(Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation)
Fashions began to develop for army surplus and second hand clothes. The Cuban revolution provided a cheap and handy rebel look that could be achieved with fatigue caps and combat coats from the neighbourhood government surplus store. A church jumble sale could easily turn a teenage girl into a Victorian whore or a twenties flapper for the art school dance. The castoffs of previous generations were blended into bizarre combinations to fulfill individual and collective fantasies. Although the effect was often more Marx brothers than haute couture, it was the first time that a section of youth was working out its own fantasies without waiting for capitalist merchandising and mass media to provide them with the props.
(Mick Farren & Edward Barker, Watch Out Kids)
The underground never even got a decent funeral. It is simply recorded that something that started out in a duffel-coat in the direction of Aldermaston pegged out in a back room full of unsold comic books and barbiturates. The real, unlikely people who, in pub rooms and over duplicators and behind scaffolding stages made up a movement, have not been asked to comment on the corpse. A new generation of groovers can't see what all the fuss is about. Apart from desultory cries of Bad Dope and It's the Pigs Again, there is no explanation, an almost self-induced amnesia. Which is a pity because no movement can begin again except out of some understanding of its own history. And that history is so personal and intense it has become virtually psychiatry (psychiatrists being simply the historians of the recent past) alone offering explanations of why erstwhile rebels decide to become sheepfarmers, Stalinists, senior lecturers in Deviant Sociology, recluses, 'rock writers', commercial radio hacks or live unhappily ever after in a groovy nuclear commune in the country.
The truth of the matter is not that The-Leaders-Sold-Out or that-something-greatly-beautious-grew-cankered, but that the underground got smashed, good and proper by exactly those forces of which it stood in defiance. It was smashed because it could not, by 1968, be laughed at or ignored or patronised any longer. The underground was able to make really painful attacks on the system's intellectually based forms of power. Of all the intellectual property speculators of the 60s, it made the most sizeable incursions into capitalism's ideological real estate, the family, school, work-discipline, the 'impartial' lawcourts and the British Broadcasting Corporation. Unlike previous movements of radical arties, it actually transmitted its mood of indiscipline to young people of all classes.
'It is an attack on family life', said Inspector Luff at the OZ trial, quite rightly. The popularity of OZ's atmosphere (no matter how incomprehensible and downright boring the actual magazine) was, especially to working class kids, an index of the end of decades post war deference, evidence of a new refusal to any longer even pretend loyalty to the Queen, The Law and The Empire. Already the obscenity and dope trials of the sixties look like light comedy compared to the massive police operations around the Shrewsbury building workers' conspiracy trial or the Winchester bombs trial. But they were the first omens of a new legal viciousness, the opportunity for the police to cut their teeth and the Special Branch to enlarge its files. They could take the Angry Young Men out to lunch, but the hairies had to go to jail.
...It was a politics of gesture, a species of street theatre, a series of provocations, The Cafe Voltair meets the Claimants Union...
What finally knackered the underground was its complete inability to deal with women’s liberation. For the underside of the underground’s romantic revolt is its treatment of women. Men defined themselves as rebels against society in ways limited to their own sex, excluding women except as loyal companions or mother-figures. From its origin in white identification with urban blues through Brando and Mailer and Dylan and Lennon, the defiance of capitalism has been intertwined with a punishment of women (look again at Blonde on Blonde or Look Back in Anger). Because the underground remained so utterly dominated by men, sexual liberation was framed in terms saturated with male assumptions, right down to the rape fantasy of ‘Dope, rock and roll and fucking in the streets’.
And because the feelings and resentments felt by women so long in the underground had been fobbed off by the standard clichés about ‘hang-ups’ and ‘hanging loose’, when the wave came it came as a devastating blow...
But it will go forward again, in different ways, because it asserts that most revolutionary force, the power of the imagination; the ability to compare what is with what could be. The underground (RIP) inflicted such damage on the system’s self-confidence before it was smothered by policemen and smoothies because it provided a possibility of releasing and expressing feelings which the system can only pretend to satisfy. It overrules for good the view that politics is simply a question of cheerleading in an empty electoral stadium. But when the fire comes next time, it will have to be a lot bigger and better organised, less myth-ridden and above all anchored in working class politics. As Tom Mann used to say ‘As we grow older, may we become more dangerous’.
('What Went Wrong' by David Widgery from OZ 48, Winter 1973, the final issue)