Clerkenwell's A22 Gallery open major exhibition of British countercultural press
PUBLISHED: 17:16 03 October 2017
Aging gracefully, British underground press turns 50 and celebrates with major exhibition
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Summer of Love, the movement which started it all in the ‘60s.
That was the beginning of British counterculture and its subversive spreading of alternative messages through the countercultural press.
The print press was the only medium that could question authority back then, a medium which will be celebrated by a major exhibition this September at the A22 Gallery in Clerkenwell.
Fifty years on from those very first shocking covers, The British Underground Press of the Sixties curated by Barry Miles and James Birch aims at displaying decades of underground newspapers such as the International Times (IT), founded by Miles and John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins in 1966.
The IT was born as a reaction to the straight British press, which didn’t cover rock’n’roll, drugs or any relevant topic for young people at the time, as Miles explains. Their epiphany, however, was a Beat generation poetry reading at the Albert Hall in 1965, an event which included performances by Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso.
“It was a celebration of the Beat generation and English poets,” recalls Miles. “Hoppy and I were looking around at the audience and it was obvious that there was a whole constituency of people who weren’t really represented at all: students, theatrical people, artists, poets.”
They first bought an offset litho press to experiment with little underground magazines and printing Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. In 1966 they did a test run of a prototype of the International Times, including letters from American poet Ed Sanders and underground papers The Village Voice’s columnist John Wilcock.
“We reproduced it all facsimile, just stapled it together and sold it on the CDN Aldermaston march. We printed 800, maybe 1,000 copies and we sold out immediately,” says Miles.
“We really wanted to have our own equivalent to The Village Voice, which could cover areas that young people were interested in.”
To that print pioneer, soon other magazines followed: Oz, Friends (which later became Frendz), Gandalf’s Garden, Black Dwarf and Ink.
Those were the publications which rejected and revolutionised the style of mainstream editorial outlets by bringing new topics, such as the psychedelic art scene, to the attention of the readership and creating new forms to convey those messages.
IT also provided the space and events for underground bands whose fame was about to skyrocket to perform. The newspaper was launched during London’s first big happening at the iconic Roundhouse, at which Pink Floyd and Tomorrow appeared.
“What is extraordinary is how threatened the establishment felt by the underground press and the by the hippie movement. There were only a few hundred of us, but they took it extremely seriously, partly as the police used it as an excuse to cover up their own corruption,” says Miles.
“It is also because there was one British way of life and any deviation from it was seen as quite terrible at the time.”
Printing a swear word was not acceptable in a society where “businessmen still wore bowler hats and carried their furled umbrellas”.
“We were busted as we ran an interview with Dick Gregory, who was to run for President the next year. He used the word ‘motherf*cker’ and we stupidly printed it,” Miles says.
Those very same newspapers and magazines have provided a guiding light throughout the years for younger alternative publications dedicated to the underground music scene.
Running from September 28 until November 4, The British Underground Press of the 60s is the first attempt at bringing every single edition of every significant underground publication dedicated to counterculture together.
Similarly, a book sharing the same title as the exhibition will be published by Rocket 88, marking the first time the covers of these publications have all been compiled together in a single edition.
Free entry. A22 Gallery, 22 Laystall Street, EC1R 4PA