Counter Cultures: Cultural Politics and the Underground Press

Most of the material here was published from the British underground between the early 1960s and 1970s. It is drawn in the main from two sources: IT (which was the International Times at its inception in 1966 but The Times objected) and OZ (first published in January 1967). Despite constant demonizations and prosecutions (for obscenity, for promoting drug experimentation, for carrying adverts placed by homosexuals, for printing articles on sex, venereal disease and contraception) both magazines continued publishing until the mid 70s. However, the death-knell really sounded for them in June 1971 at the Old Bailey, when the ‘School Kids Issue’ of OZ (assembled by, not for children as the prosecution assumed) was, in the longest obscenity trial in history (6 weeks), deemed obscene and likely to corrupt. The editors were charged with conspiracy and obscenity, and all received fines and jail sentences (Richard Neville alone was to be deported, but everyone got prison haircuts). After a public and media outcry at the severity of the sentences they were mitigated, and the charges quashed, on appeal. The original judge, Michael Argyle, was found to have misdirected the jury on 78 occasions. At the time of writing he is president of the British campaign to restore the death penalty. The Drug and Obscenity squads who initiated charges were cleaned up by a new police commissioner in August 1971; hundreds of London detectives left the force in disgrace. Oz finally ceased publication in May 1973, after 48 UK editions. Richard Neville’s Playpower is written in the polemical editorial style of the underground press; his autobiographical Hippie Hippie Shake provides a readable account of the OZ phenomenon and a good commentary on the obscenity trial.

Many of the texts and images (and the difference between text and image is debatable in many of these examples) deal with the drug subculture, the political counter-culture, and sexual politics. While the material is, we feel, representative of the underground presses in the 1960s, we are aware of its often controversial and provocative nature.

You are asked to view and study this material voluntarily. If you feel that it is likely to cause offence please feel free to disregard it, as there is other, less graphic material available for the class.

We apologise for what appears to be bad copy. This is actually due to the prevalence of coloured inks and print-overs in these publications—perusing an article in mauve on a blue and green psychedelic background was quite common. Our hope is that these fragments will convey an impression of the counter-culture that produced them.

Sources and brief descriptions of the material:

1. Cover, ‘Legalise Pot’ and ‘Cosmocracy’ from IT 34, June-July 1968 The ‘Hornsey’ reference on the cover refers to the student rebellion at the Hornsey College of Art at the end of May 1968. Rebelling against the authoritarianism of the institution and its courses, the students occupied the college and issued manifestos. The scale of reprisals against students and staff after this event were unmatched on any Western campus in the 60s; all students and part-time staff implicated in the revolt were dismissed. Student protest [by no means confined to ‘students’] in the USA and Europe was widespread in the 60s, but these movements took their cue in May-June 1968 from France, where demonstrations, occupations, riots and wildcat strikes fuelled a political crisis that bordered on revolution. For a few heady weeks, students, workers and others demanded nothing less than the total reform of society, and this rejection of the system, impressed upon the riot police by the cobblestones that were torn from the streets for ammunition by the protesters, is summed up in a famous graffito from the period: "Sous les Pavés, la Plage!"—beneath the paving stones, the beach!.

2. A page of reports on happenings and adverts from IT 8, Feb 1967.

3. ‘The Digger Thing’ is from OZ 9, Feb 1968. This utopian manifesto which looks to the English past and the American present for its inspiration, is regarded in Elizabeth Nelson’s study The British Counter-Culture to be a prime example of "the optimism" which "encapsulated the ‘great days’ of the counter-culture". The illustration which follows is by Martin Sharp, an influential underground artist whose talents spilled out of the pages of OZ and onto some of the most famous posters and LP covers of the decade. The text which Sharp ‘illustrates’ ("If I could turn you on...") is taken from R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise.

4. ‘Free Housing’ and ‘Trashing’ from Steal This Book by Abbie Hoffman (New York: Pirate Editions, 1971). Hoffman was a member of a group of politicised American hippies called the Yippies (Youth International Party). When asked to define ‘yippie’ Jerry Rubin said that a yippie was a hippie who had been hit on the head by a policeman.

5. Rudi Dutschke interview (student ‘agitator’ who was shot and badly wounded by a right wing assailant) and London anti-Vietnam protest (which turned into a pitched battle with police) report from IT 29, April-May 1968. The politics of the underground press were often inconsistent (a feature of minimal editorial control) and in this treatment of the Vietnam protest in Grosvenor Square the tone is decidedly hostile to the rally’s organiser (Tariq Ali).

6. Cover featuring Germaine Greer and Viv Stanshall, Bob Crumb (a very popular, odd and widely featured underground cartoonist) and ‘The Universal Tonguebath’, an analysis of the groupie phenomenon, by Greer from OZ 19, March 1969.

7. Articles on the Black Panthers, pamphlet from Paris May ’68, Julian Beck’s poem ‘Paradise Now’ and a page with an advert from Apple (a call to creative people from the Beatles’ company in the days when big money and the subculture attempted to interact) from IT 35, July 1968.

8. ‘Magic Theatre’ cover (the reference is to Hermann Hesse’s cult novel Steppenwolf) and montage (including the lyrics to the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ and part of the Lennon/Ono cover from ‘Two Virgins’, an LP of avant-garde ‘sounds’ which featured the couple naked on front & back covers) from Oz 16, November 1968. This issue consisted exclusively of such montaged images and was compiled by the artist Martin Sharp.

9. Bob Crumb Cover and Image/text from Oz 27 (‘Acid Oz’), April 1970.

10. Unreadable (dark red on dark blue) reproduction of J.G. Ballard’s ‘Why I Want To Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and John Peel’s ‘Perfumed Garden’ and adverts from IT 26, February 1968.

11. Hell’s Angel cover, Situationist-inspired text (the Situationists were a Paris-based but International group whose writings helped fuel the political theory and the graffiti of many political movements) and poems from Oz 20, April 1969.

12. Pop-art image ("I crossed my fingers...") from OZ 37, Sept 1971.

13. IT subscription form, text and détourned Situationist political cartoon images from OZ 10, the ‘Pornography of Violence’ issue, March 1968 (détourned images are conventional or ready-made images which have been modified or ‘diverted’ for subversive political ends). Each page of this issue was divided into three strips, and the opening page encouraged you to cut along the lines to acquire "thousands of different possible page variations".

14. ‘The Slag Heap Erupts, by Germaine Greer, and some extracts from the ‘Chicago 8’ conspiracy trial (yippie-inspired demonstrations in the US were provoking massive clampdowns. Country Joe MacDonald, front-man of the group Country Joe and the Fish, demonstrates his respect for the court) with a small-ad from John & Yoko (‘BANG’) whose irony is apparent, from Oz 26 (‘Pussy-Power Oz’), Feb-March 1970. This issue also contains the announcement, prompted by accusations that Oz was too intellectual, that the editors "are feeling old and boring, so we invite any of our readers who are under 18 to come and edit the April issue"; the ‘Schoolkids’ issue, and the subsequent obscenity trial, arose from this announcement.

15. ‘Love it to Death’ revolutionary sexuality manifesto from Oz 44, Sept 1972.

16. Cover and subverted (détourned) ‘Charles Atlas’ advert from Oz 31 (Nov-Dec 1970).

17. ‘Rehearse for the Apocalypse’ and détourned Bob Crumb/Rupert Bear cartoon from OZ 28, ‘School Kids Issue’, May 1970. The Rupert cartoon became a key piece of offensive material in the trial. Vivian Berger, age 16, created the cartoon, and in his evidence he said to the bench "I subconsciously wanted to shock your generation—and to portray our attitudes as different from yours . . . This is the kind of drawing that goes around in every classroom every day in every school". He also testified to being harassed and beaten up by the police during the course of the trial.

18. Poster publicising an OZ obscenity trial benefit. The other side declares an ‘Independence Day Carnival: A Celebration of Peoples’ Rights’ with a mass smoke-in and ‘picnic theatre’ in Hyde Park. "We are coming together with Release, Bit, Agit-Prop, Gay Liberation Front, Advise, Street Aid, Dwarves, UPS and other community groups to support the defendants in the OZ Obscenity Trial and to protest against the Misuse of Drugs Bill censorship laws and the growing climate of government repression".

19. Bob Crumb ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’/Charles Manson from OZ 40, Jan 1972.

20. ‘Frost? Pranks and Politics’ is a report of the hijacking of British TV’s David Frost Show on Nov 7th 1970 by Jerry Rubin and assorted American Yippies and members of the British counter-culture, from IT 92, Nov-Dec 1970.

21. Germaine Greer’s articles ‘Flip-top Legal Pot’, ‘The Million-Dollar Underground, and ‘Hey, Jimi, Where you Gonna Run to Now?’ all appeared in OZ. Greer was one of the most astute, articulate and controversial writers whose careers began in the underground press. These, and most of Greer’s other contributions to underground publications are collected in The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-1985.

22. ‘What Went Wrong’ is from OZ 48 (Winter 1973), the final issue, and is a critical diagnosis of the end of the underground by David Widgery, one of the few left-wing ideologues who maintained a close relationship with OZ and the counter-culture.

Gerry Carlin and Mark Jones