Anecdotes Tell Dramatic Story
of British Underground Press
Underground--The London Alternative Press, 1966-74
Comedia/ Routledge Publishers, London, 217 pages, 1988. Not yet
available in Canada.
Reviewed by Ron Verzuh
John Lennon wrote out a cheque for one thousand pounds sterling
to be paid to It. He'd noticed that the London underground
paper, aka International Times, had not been coming in the
mail. He thought his subscription had run out, and he missed not
getting the first of the raunchy tabloids that made up the British
underground press of the 1960s.
The money might have been enough to revive It, says Nigel
Fountain in a new book called Underground, but the Beatle's
generous cheque came too late. The dream of a vast co-operative
empire of newspapers to serve the British counterculture was already
over. And Lennon, stoned much of the time on heroin, was edging
closer to his own tragic death in 1976.
Lennon and Yoko Ono had been at the founding of It in 1966,
described with great colour and flair by Fountain, and he had remained
a strong supporter. He had read the undergrounds and given them
money. But most of all he gave them confidence, told them they were
doing something right for the world, granted them interviews when
other rock stars shunned them.
Dave Bush, who founded Toronto's 1960s underground paper, Harbinger,
recalls being shocked and then very pleased when Lennon granted
him a telephone interview before a local concert. And the editors
of Montreal's Logos were also treated with respect when the
couple held their famous "Give peace a chance' 'sleep-in.
By contrast to Lennon's quiet encouragement, Rolling Stone Mick
Jagger made a public spectacle of bankrolling a London edition of
the more commercial Rolling Stone magazine, writes Fountain.
But when the huge ego of the rock star clashed with that of RS owner
Jann Wenner, the project quickly foundered. Its failure meant the
underground papers would enjoy windfall revenues from the music
advertising RS would have attracted.
But the monopoly didn't last long. Instead, Time Out, a
politico-cultural paper slowly rose to the top of the heap, as the
more radical counterculture papers went into speedy decline.
Long before that, however, the satirical magazine Private Eye
began introducing Britain to some of what the underground press
had in store for it. Started in late 1961, it had borrowed from
Le Canard Enchaine, the French satirical daily, in its efforts
to annoy the establishment. But the undergrounds would give Britons
something they had never seen before.
It came first, growing out of a gallery/ bookstore whose opening
in 1966 Lennon and Ono had attended. Paul McCartney had aslo helped
start Indica Gallery. But it was Barry Miles and a group of friends
around the bookstore who set the process in motion. By late 1966,
they were ready to compete with Private Eye as the other
half of London's alternative press.
Fountain's book documents It's founding with the excitement
of someone who was there. He does the same with Oz (born
of an earlier Australian paper) and Black Dwarf, the other
major underground paper of the time. We also get insightful glimpses
of the short, intense lives of papers like Red Mole, Idiot
International, Friends, Ink, and 7 Days.
Most interesting are Fountains' descriptions of crucial events
such as the arrest in Northern Ireland of the whole editorial staff
of Friends and the ensuing debate on how to cover Britains'
Vietnam, the battle for economic survival, and the constant struggle
At Black Dwarf, for example, Sheila Rowbotham cultivated
her radical feminist rage before moving on to write her famous book
Women, Resistance and Revolution. Martha Rowe, who founded
the excellent feminist paper Spare Rib, also saw her feminism
grow partly out of her experience as an Oz staffer. And Germaine
Greer used Oz to test ideas that would later resurface in
The Female Eunach. She too cut her ties over sexism and a
major disagreement on the role of Oz. Fountain tells of her
bitter departure after the editors ran a nude photo of her on the
cover, instead of using a group photo with her in it, as agreed.
Like the power struggles at It and the feminist arguments
at Black Dwarf, the trail of Oz, with John (Rumpole
of the Bailey) Mortimer as counsel, also provides a unique thread
for this detailed book on the underground. Fountain lets the story
unfold slowly as he injects the sweet and sour details of London
References to the European counterculture add a world of perspective
to what has sometimes been treated as an American phenomenom. Of
course, the American underground scene plays a role as well, but
Fountain gives us a closer look than we've had before at the underground
in Germany, the Netherlands and France. When he does turn to the
United States, we get a genuine British view partly through the
experiences of British expatriates like John Wilcock and Alexander
Wilcock had migrated to the United States in the 1950s and been
fascinated by the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, the novels of Jack Kerouac
and the beat scene in New York. He soon joined the newly founded
Village Voice as news editor, then left years later to work
on the East Village Other, one of the first underground papers.
His Other Scenes column was to become a mainstay of many underground
Cockburn, now the quintessential alternative journalist in the
U.S., honed his skills as an acerbic social critic in the British
underground and above ground press. He, too, worked for the Village
Voice, writing media criticism until he had a falling out with
the weekly owned by Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch. He now
contributes a column to The Nation. (His father, Claud Cockburn,
helped inspire the new breed of papers by publishing The Week,
a kind of British I.F. Stone's Weekly, in the 1930s.)
Sadly, Fountain fails to even mention what was happening in Canada
at the time. The omission is a great disappointment, especially
given the international prominence of paper's like Vancouver's Georgia
Straight or Montreal's Logos. There were some key links
to be made, but Fountain missed them and his book is poorer for
Still, Underground is a frank look back at what made the
British underground press tick. Unpredictable, sometimes unbearably
silly, and almost always irreverent, these papers slapped the British
stiff upper lip until it was blue. But somewhere along the line
they lost their craziness.
Fountain uses the search for that moment to add some dramatic tension
to a book that could easily lapse into boring insider political
debates or obscure philosophical arguments. In a further effort
to avoid the kind of political writing that too often appeared in
the underground papers themselves, he fills us to overflowing with
tales of zany incidents and bizarre anecdotes. The mix makes a solid
contribution to the study of an era we seem more inclined to dismiss
Ron Verzuh is an Ottawa writer who specializes is alternative
This article originally appeared in Sources, 22nd Edition,
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