With information at our fingertips and innovative design just a few Tumblr scrolls away, it’s easy to forget that just a few decades back, print was still the most radical medium for disseminating information. The internet means that wherever you stand on the political spectrum, it’s never hard to tap into a community of voices that reaffirms your beliefs and supports the things that mean the most to you. In the 1960s, information in Britain was still largely the preserve of the Fleet Street hacks and the presses that created it. But people demanded an alternative, and so the underground press was born.
Amongst those railing against the monoculture of mainstream media were Barry Miles and John “Hoppy” Hopkins, who started the first British underground newspaper, the International Times (IT) 1, in 1966. Other magazines soon followed, including Oz, Friends (which became Frendz), Gandalf’s Garden, Black Dwarf, and Ink. Now a new London exhibition, simply titled The British Underground Press of the 60’s, is showcasing every single issue edition of every significant underground publication dedicated to counterculture. The accompanying catalog, published Rocket88 and designed by Zoe Ansbach with Essential Works, marks the first time the covers of these publications have been compiled in a single edition.
If it seems like this should have happened already, it’s not been for a lack of effort—the show has been 17 years in the making. Co-curator James Birch had initially looked to present the publications in the British Library, but “for political reasons, it got stopped,” he says. “At that time New Labour was in power, and Jack Straw was home secretary.” In the late 1960s, Straw had been the head of the National Union of Students (NUS), and marched against the Vietnam war. As part of New Labour, he was seen to be pro the Iraq war—a position very much at odds with the anti-war views of the underground press. And so the exhibition was put on ice until now.
It’s worked out well though: 2017 marks 50 years since the inception of Oz, and 51 years since its older sibling (of sorts), the International Times (it) 2 launched. Birch has curated the show with one of the it founders Barry Miles. The pair initially met in the late ’80s in a bookshop through artist John Dunbar, a figure known for his connections to 1960s countercultural movements, who co-founded the Indica gallery with Miles, where Yoko Ono famously met some Scouse chap named John Lennon.
The British underground press movement followed the model of similar publications across the Atlantic earlier in the 1960s. According to Miles, the first such paper was the weekly Los Angeles Free Press, launched on May Day 1964 by Art Kunkin, who had previously worked for socialist magazines, like Militant, and who is said to have handed out copies of the first issue dressed as Robin Hood at the Renaissance Fair fundraiser event for radical TV and radio stations.
In 1965 came Max Scherr’s Berkeley Barb, produced in his living room but within five years racking up a circulation of 90,000 copies a week. The East Village Other (EVO) arrived later that year, aimed as a direct competitor to the Village Voice “which had become successful, staid and less radical,” Miles writes.
The term “underground press” was coined in June 1966, when EVO’s John Wilcock, Walter Bowart, and Allen Katzman discussed a model in which different papers would combine subscription lists, share advertising, and exchange copy and reprint rights. They termed these papers “underground,” and formed the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS), agreeing that papers would send copies to one another, and would allow each other to reprint anything they liked from other titles for free.
For Birch, underground has wider meanings beyond that specific context.“These were certainly not mainstream [publications] 3,” he says.
They were either sold on street corners or at pot festivals—newsagents very rarely took them. They covered things like drugs, free schools, gayness, and feminism—things that mainstream Fleet Street wouldn’t touch.
So why then—what was happening to engender these publications, and make such a willing readership for them? “The ’60s saw people sort of opening up and become more anti-establishment,” says Birch. “There were a lot of people who needed to know this sort of information, things like how to squat, the practicalities of breaking into a house to squat it. You wouldn’t get that sort of information in the mainstream press.”
For all these publications’ radical and even utopian viewpoints, to the modern viewer there’s a significant shortfall: their lack of (and dismissiveness of) female voices 4. Birch concedes that the underground publishing sphere was “quite sexist.”
“At that time, it was a male-dominated press, and in some of the magazines it’ll say something like ‘thanks to Sue—even when people like Rosie Boycott, Marsha Rowe [founders of the feminist magazine Spare Rib] and Germaine Greer wrote for Oz, women were only mentioned by their first name.
That was the typical hippiesh sexism at that time; that’s the way the world was then, and they didn’t think any more about it.
In that way, women-led feminist magazines that arrived shortly after, like Spare Rib or Shrew, can be seen as catalyzed by this disappointing “boys club” of supposedly forward-thinking publishing. Some (but far from all) of the illustrations and photomontages are similarly dubious for their sexism. “I think some of the imagery was middle class titillation, which looks a bit dated now,” says Birch.
Perhaps the most notable of the bawdiness was in the image that famously landed Oz in an obscenity trial 5. The magazine had put out a call for “school kids” to edit an issue, and 20 secondary school pupils (including future music writer Charles Shaar Murray and future Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic) came on board to put together the May 1970 issue, Oz No. 28, or Schoolkids Oz. The most inflammatory inclusion [link NSFW] was created by 15-year-old Vivian Berger, who had pasted Rupert Bear’s head onto a Robert Crumb cartoon showing a rather large erection. The magazine’s title confused many, who thought it was aimed at, rather than created by, school children.
Prior even to this innovative approach to commissioning, the underground press ushered in bold new directions for graphic design. The wonderful thing about the designs on the likes of Oz, Nasty Tales, and it, is that they manage to look totally of their time, but also intriguingly contemporary: their influence continues to resonate in modern use of colorways, collage, and the reappropriation of imagery to give it subversive new meaning.
Martin Sharp’s covers, cartoons, and illustrations were a central feature of Oz magazine, both in its Australian and London-based incarnations. His unapologetic aesthetics merged a staunchly DIY approach with the burgeoning psychedelia that has since come to define how we view 1960s visual culture. “Those sort of muted colors6 come from that feel or that look, as if people had done mushrooms or acid,” says Birch. “It’s certainly informed graphic designers since in all sorts of ways: so many things you see today come from the underground press. It’s fascinating in a way how that influence continues, as the style is so unusual and very much of a certain time.”
It seems this sort of graphic design has never really gone out of style: while the punk of the 1970s stood vehemently against hippies, long hair et al, it still borrowed heavily from the cut-and-paste collage look, and the idea of railing against the establishment by putting matters into the hands of youth. Birch points out that it wasn’t just style, but ideas that have endured in unexpected ways: 7“the underground press mentioned things like recycling, free schools, and environmental activism that have now become the norm 50 years later. Things we deal with every day have come from the underground press.”
How we discuss those things, and the more radical or outré matters affecting us, has moved largely onto online platforms, though the recent boom in indie titles and zines is a direct parallel to the 1960s press: if stories aren’t being told by the mainstream media, people are finding ways to tell them themselves. “The underground press still exists, but now it’s online,” Miles concludes. “We need it now more than ever.”