Underground (British subculture)
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The UK underground was a countercultural movement in the United Kingdom linked to the counterculture in the United States and associated with the hippy phenomenon. Its primary focus was around Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill in London. It generated its own magazines and newspapers, bands, clubs and alternative lifestyle, associated with cannabis and LSD use and a strong socio-political revolutionary agenda to create an alternative society.
A defining moment was the International Poetry Incarnation.
An example of the cross-over of beatnik poetry and music can be seen when Burroughs appeared at the Phun City festival, organised by Mick Farren with underground community bands including the Pretty Things, the Pink Fairies, The Edgar Broughton Band and, from America, The MC5.
The Underground movement in the UK was focused on the Ladbroke Grove/Notting Hill area of London, which Mick Farren said "was an enclave of freaks, immigrants and bohemians long before the hippies got there" (1). It was depicted in Colin MacInnes' famous novel Absolute Beginners depicting street culture at the time of the Notting Hill Riots in the 1950s.
The Underground paper International Times (IT) started in 1966 and Steve Abrams founder of Soma summarised the underground as a "literary and artistic avant-garde with a large contingent from Oxford and Cambridge. John Hopkins (Hoppy) a member of the editorial board of International Times for example, was trained as a physicist at Cambridge"
Police harassment of members of the underground (often referred to as "freaks", initially by others as an insult, and later by themselves as an act of defiance) became commonplace, particularly against the underground press. According to Farren, "Police harassment, if anything, made the underground press stronger. It focused attention, stiffened resolve, and tended to confirm that what we were doing was considered dangerous to the establishment."
Key Underground (community) bands on the time who often performed at benefit gigs for various worthy causes included Pink Floyd (when they still had Syd Barrett), Hawkwind, Deviants (featuring Mick Farren), Pink Fairies, other key people included, in the late '60s Marc Bolan who would leave 'the Grove' to find fame with T Rex and his partner Steve Peregrin Took who remained in Ladbroke Grove and continued to perform benefit gigs in the 'anti-commercial' ethos of the UK Underground. Sci-Fi writer and sometime Hawkwind member Michael Moorcock remembers:
"everything happened in Ladbroke Grove in the sixties and seventies. I mean it was just nice and I happened to live in Ladbroke Grove and it all happened around me. You couldn’t actually move for bloody Rock and Roll bands." (Reference - personal communication with author Fee Mercury Moon)
Within Portobello Road stood the Mountain Grill greasy spoon (working man's) café which in the late 1960s and early 1970s was frequented by many UK Underground artists such as Hawkwind featuring, at the time, Lemmy. It was of sufficient import to the members of the UK Underground that in 1974 Hawkwind released an album titled Hall Of The Mountain Grill and Steve Peregrin Took wrote Ballad of the Mountain Grill.
Mick Farren said, "My own feeling is that, not just sex, but anger and violence, are part and parcel of rock n' roll. The rock concert can work as an alternative for violence, an outlet for violence. But at that time there were a lot of things that made us really angry. We were outraged! In the U.S. the youth were sent to Vietnam and there was nothing we could do to change the way the government did it. Smoking marijuana and doing things to get thrown in jail were our own way of expressing our anger, and we wanted change - I believed that picking up a guitar, not a gun, would bring about change".
It's like Germaine Greer said about the Underground - it's not just some sort of scruffy club you can join, you're in or you're out... it's like being a criminal.
The Underground Movement was also symbolised by the use of drugs. The types of drugs used were varied and in many cases the names and effects were unknown as Deviants/Pink Fairies member Russell Hunter, working at International Times (part of the Underground press at the time), recalled. "People used to send in all kinds of strange drugs and things, pills and powders, stuff to smoke and that. They'd always give them to me to try to find out what they were! (Laughs)".
Part of the sense of humour of the Underground, no doubt partly induced by the effects of both drugs and radical thinking was an enjoyment at "freakin' out the norms". Mick Farren recalls actions sure to elicit the required response. "The band's baroque House of Usher apartment on London's Shaftesbury Avenue had witnessed pre-Raphaelite hippy scenes, like Sandy the bass player (of the Deviants and Pink Fairies), Tony the now and again keyboard player, and a young David Bowie, fresh from Beckenham Arts Lab, sunbathing on the roof, taking photos of each other and posing coyly as sodomites". (2)
The image of the underground as manifested in magazines such as OZ and newspapers like International Times was dominated by key talented graphic artists, particularly Martin Sharp and the Nigel Waymouth–Michael English team, Hapshash and the Coloured Coat, who fused Alfons Mucha's Art Nouveau arabesques with the higher colour key of psychedelia.
There was a smaller, less widely spread manifestation from the UK Underground termed the "Overground", which referred to an explicitly spiritual, cosmic, quasi-religious intent, though this was an element that had always been present. At least two magazines— Gandalf's Garden (6 issues, 1968–72) and Vishtaroon—adopted this "overground" style. Gandalf's Garden was also a shop/restaurant/meeting place at World's End, Chelsea. The magazines were printed on pastel paper using multi-coloured inks and contained articles about meditation, vegetarianism, mandalas, ethics, poetry, pacifism and other subjects at a distance from the more wild and militant aspects of the underground. The first issue of Gandalf's Garden urged that we should "seek to stimulate our own inner gardens if we are to save our Earth and ourselves from engulfment." It was edited by Muz Murray who is now called Ramana Baba and teaches yoga.
These attitudes were embodied musically in The Incredible String Band, who in 2003 were described as "holy" by Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in a foreword for the book Be Glad: An Incredible String Band Compendium (Helter Skelter Books). He had previously chosen the band's track The Hedgehog's Song as his only piece of popular music on the radio programme Desert Island Discs). The late critic Ian MacDonald's had stated "much that appeared to be profane in Sixties youth culture was quite the opposite".