The 60s underground press revisited: Barry Miles Q&A

A new book and exhibition are honouring the legacy of the magazines that formed a key part of 1960s counter-culture

The cliché that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t there couldn’t be more wrong in the case of Barry Miles. He was at the centre of the decade’s counter-culture, naming the likes of Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger among his friends, organising huge events such as the International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall and the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream, an epic concert that took place at Alexandra Palace featuring Pink Floyd.

That latter gig raised funds for the International Times (IT), a magazine that Miles helped found in 1966. The magazine built up a huge following, with circulation reaching just over 40,000 per issue at one stage, with contributions from writers including William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. IT paved the way in Britain for other provocative publications including Oz, Black Dwarf and Ink – and trouble with the authorities, from police raids to obscenity trials, quickly followed.

These magazines are now being celebrated with the publication of a new book, The British Underground Press of the Sixties and an accompanying exhibition at the A22 Gallery in Clerkenwell from September 28 to November 4. Miles has played a key role in organising both the book and show, and his illustrated history, In The Sixties, is also being re-published. He spoke to us about his role in the British underground press and what made the International Times and its peers such a key part of 60s counter-culture.

A cover of the International Times from March 1968

Why do this exhibition now?
James [Birch, co-curator] and I have been talking about this, along with various friends, for about 17 years. Reasons for doing it now include the sudden availability of exhibition space and the interest in the 60s caused by the 50th anniversary of the so-called ‘Summer of Love’. Also, in my case, I’m getting on and wanted to see that part of my life documented while I’m still around.

How did the International Times get started and what was the aim of it?
In 1965, I was one of the organisers of the Albert Hall international poetry reading featuring Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. My friend Hoppy – John Hopkins – and I looked at each other and looked at the audience of 7,000 young people, and realised that they had no voice. Fleet Street in those days was a closed shop, you had to do two years on a regional paper before you could work there, by which time journalists had absorbed the culture and were out of touch with what young people were doing. Our aim was to emulate the Village Voice, an anti-establishment, community and arts paper from New York that reported radical politics, avant garde art, music and gave space to dissenting voices. Our only aim was to provide the vehicle, we did not have a political agenda. By the time the paper came out, a much more radical paper had appeared in New York, called the East Village Other. It actively covered the use of drugs, talked about sex in an uninhibited manner (their printers in Chinatown did not speak English so there was no censorship) and, most importantly for us, they used off-set litho in a radical new way, reproducing collages, running typefaces upside down, sometimes even handwriting on the boards. With traditional linotype you had to have a copper plate for all illustrations and even for headlines.

A cover of the International Times from March 1972

What made the 60s such a fertile time for a counter cultural movement?
In America the counter-culture was a reaction to the consumer society. People were interested in enlarging their consciousness, through the use of drugs or medication and Eastern religious practices. They believed in free love and sexual freedom, they read a lot of poetry and listened to the type of rock music that was not covered by the ‘straight’ press. In Britain, it was almost the opposite, there was full employment and this this was the first time that young people had any money. They could not afford to buy a car, and the idea of a mortgage did not even occur to people, but they could buy clothes and records and go to concerts and clubs. The biggest cultural change was that young people were, on the whole, much better educated than their parents. Many went to university whereas my parents, for instance, both left school at 14. This meant that for many people, their parents could not be their mentors, their children just knew so much more. Instead of getting information from their family, they turned to a supermarket of ideas and lifestyles: from radical politics to the Beat Generation – Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac et al – and from the pronouncements of rock and roll figures like John Lennon – to literature and radical philosophy and the questioning of almost all traditional attitudes.

Barry Miles pictured in the 60s

What was the importance of the magazines to the counter-culture movement as a whole?
The underground press was how the ideas were spread. At its height International Times was printing 44,000 copies and each copy was often read by four or five people. Oz, in the 60s, was selling about 30,000 and a great deal more during the obscenity trial of 1971. Records also spread the ideas – the Beatles, the Kinks, the Stones, the Who etc. They all sang about the problems of youth and celebrated a lifestyle of sexuality and freedom.

What was the editorial policy of the IT? 
I don’t recall us ever discussing ‘editorial policy’, although we did commission a few pieces. For instance William Burroughs was living in London then and was told that we would run anything he cared to give us. He was in the second, third and fifth issues and more later. We reprinted pieces we liked, mostly from American papers but also by Bertrand Russell and Sartre, and interviewed people we liked: Dick Gregory the black American comedian, the artist Claes Oldenburg, the modern composer Morton Feldman. I interviewed rock people like McCartney, Harrison, Lennon, Jagger, Zappa and Pete Townshend. People sent in material – FAR too much poetry – and we reported on whatever news reached us; we had no reporters but we had a news editor who read the American and continental underground press. Most news stories came from people phoning up or walking in, or from our friends: it was a community newspaper.

A cover of Oz from May 1970

How do you reflect on the troubles the magazines had with the authorities over things that would barely cause a ripple these days?
It was astonishing how threatened the ‘establishment’ felt by a few hundred proto-hippies. We never really got to the bottom of why we were busted in 1967; probably the use of the word ‘motherfucker’ by Dick Gregory. Our policy – again, it just happened, was not planned – was to run all interviews as Q&A in order to be as accurate as possible. We should have realised that you couldn’t say that in Britain. The police arrived with an Obscene Publications warrant and seized every piece of paper in the office, including the telephone books, all the business papers, advertising correspondence, thousands of back issues, individual staff members’ address books, even an un-cashed cheque from one of the staff’s pocket and left the room completely empty. They body searched female members of staff, carefully emptied all the ashtrays and left with everything in a three-ton truck. Three months later, they threw everything back down the stairs without bringing any charges. Had this happened in a third world or communist country there would have been protests but no-one wanted to know except Private Eye. We didn’t expect help, by definition we were an underground paper, but I had expected Fleet Street to at least wonder where the line was drawn. It was a calculated attempt to close us down. We survived because IT was not a commercial operation, it always existed hand-to-mouth and for those three months, even more so.

A cover of Ink from July 1971

How would the internet have on 60s counter culture and what you were doing with the magazines?
Communications. 50 years ago we were unbelievably crude by today’s standards. Not that many people had a phone, so parties or events were announced by postcards, flyers, posters and word of mouth. A phone call overseas had to be booked in advance and done through an operator. Ideas and news reports were spread by the print media and there really was an avant-garde then because news of an event could take months to reach people in another country whereas now, everything is simultaneous and a performance piece by someone can be watched as it happens on line in Sydney or Berlin.

How has the cultural landscape changed since the 60s?
Art has been commoditised, monetised, whereas in the 60s only music was commercial. Now art students leave art school thinking they are entitled to make a living producing ‘art product’ whereas 50 years ago, most artists worked because they were driven to do so for artistic reasons. Someone like Hirst would have been impossible – even Warhol had a hand in everything that the Factory produced. Everything moves ten times as fast now – no wonder young people are stressed and anxious.

Barry Miles, pictured recently

Are there any counter-cultural movements that exist today comparable to what you were part of?
There will always be a bohemia, a dissenting group, a group of people who challenge the status quo, and a good thing, too, because without people testing the rules and pushing for change you have stasis, a dead society that inevitably decays. Without people pushing for change we would still have children down the mines, women would not have the vote, slavery would be legal and the rest. The counter-culture is out there online, still challenging, still getting up people’s noses.

The British Underground Press of the Sixties is on at the A22 Gallery in Clerkenwell until November 4; a book of the same name is published by Rocket 88 – go to britishundergroundpress.com for more information. In the Sixties is available from October 5 – go to www.inthesixties.com


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