British Undergound Press

Fans of the London underground should head to a small exhibition at the A22 Gallery on Laystall Road between Farringdon and Holborn (hey, let’s split the difference and call it Midtown).

That’s not the London underground that gets us from A to B, but the inky, colourful, progressive newspapers produced by a small coterie of hippie publishers in the 1960s. The exhibition – curated by James Birch and Barry Miles – features just about every copy of Ink, IT, Oz, Friends/Frendz, Black Dwarf and Gandalf’s Garden ever published, strewn tantalisingly out of reach under glass cases. There are also some of the Crumb-inspired comics, such as Nasty Tales.

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There’s also a large amount of ephemera – letters, memos, badges and posters, including an entire wall devoted to the Australian maestro Martin Sharp.

The British underground press – which was conceived, written, edited and published in London – was inspired by the hippie/Beat press that sprang up in America from 1965. These took some inspiration from Beat/avant-garde art magazines, but added a heavy dose of hard and lifestyle politics. They were also printed on offset litho, which made layout easier to manage as there was no need for hot metal plates. These newspapers were by no means ideal – writers were rarely edited, illustrations were crude, there was rampant sexism both in offices and in print – but they were visually exciting and  challenging, advocating both political and cultural revolution.

I wrote a piece about them for Uncut a few years ago, when Mick Farren told me: “IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about that.’

Farren also talked to me about the working practices, which were as ad hoc as the financing (IT‘s profits were reinvested in drugs, as this was the best way to make a little go further). ‘It was all hands to the pump,” he said. “What are we going to do now? Well, we’re going to take speed and lay out a newspaper. It was systemised chaos. But a lot of us had learnt how to manage chaos in art school, and that gave us a nodding acquaintance with typesetting and a more than nodding acquaintance with amphetamines. Somehow, it worked.’

Another participant, Mike Lesser told me: ‘Vogue would try to do an IT issue but it didn’t work. They weren’t 36 hours behind deadline, they hadn’t been up for a week and they weren’t stoned.’

The underground’s obsession with sex, drugs and radical politics meant the newspapers and magazines would inevitably get targeted by the police, who were also doing their best to nick rock stars left, right and centre. IT and Oz were both raided and Oz famously charged with obscenity following the Schoolkids issue. The resulting court case could well be seen as the crowing glory of the London counterculture, and there are several exhibits relating to the trial. For Farren, this wasn’t much fun. “At least if you’re busted dealing coke you’ll have had a good time and made a lot of money. But you’re happily going on practising your art and craft and philosophy and suddenly, boom, you’ve got to deal with the law. it’s a fight and you get to know far more about obscenity than you care to know, and there’s also the chance that at the end of it you might have to spend 18 months in prison. That’s a sobering thought, because you have plans for those 18 months.”

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue – which can also be purchased online – which has almost every cover of every issue of the leading publications. It’s well worth your money.

 

 

 

 

 

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