20.12.15

Let's get high in London


Thanks to Richard for the recommendation on this. "Days in the Life" is a collection of interviews from the movers of the UK underground. Starting off at the tail-end of the beatnik era (American Poetry, Jazz, Notting Hill, Hitch-hiking, CND, Marijuana) it travels chronologically up to the era's hardcore apotheosis (The OZ Trial, Spare Rib, The Angry Brigade, The Isle of Wight Festival, Gay Liberation, Michael X's hanging).

The impression the interviews give is of a close-knit core cadre of institutions driven by a series of key players: the "newspapers" (really magazines aren't they?) Miles' IT and Hoppy's OZ; Joe Boyd at the UFO club and Middle Earth at the Roundhouse; Hoppy's Notting Hill Free school; Caroline Coon's Release, Craig Sam's Seed restaurant; John Peel's Perfumed Garden Radio Show, and The Beatles at Apple. These form the throbbing heart of the Underground at its high point of, ooh, 1967-68. Before reading the book I was aware of all these bodies but not really how they were arranged like stars in a constellation.

The book is, I think, accurate on the subject of music. Its correct emphases partially reflect which people were willing to talk about "the underground" to Green. That would have depended on their degree of investment in it. So for instance Paul McCartney, who was very involved, perhaps even more so than Lennon, talks eloquently and at length to Green. However Yoko Ono, who would have been approached, must have decided she didn't want to be associated with such a parochial affair.

The Stones abandoned ideas of Englishness (in disgust) with "Beggars Banquet" in 1968. They had explored it in depth with "Between the Buttons" (January 1967) a paean to the aristocracy of swinging London. Then again with the underground-inspired "Their Satanic Majesties Request" (December 1967). Likewise, and tellingly, no Stone spoke to Green. By and large The Beatles and Stones were above the whole thing, certainly in scale.

The Deviants, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Incredible String Band, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Soft Machine and Pink Floyd: According to "Days In The Life" these were the key underground groups and at this stage many were to some degree protean. Few would question the superiority of "Rock Bottom" or 'Electric Warrior" over earlier offerings. Barring "Piper at the Gates of Dawn", "The Hangman's Beautiful Daughter" and crown-prince Jimi's "Are You Experienced" it's probably a tale told best in an armada of singles.

In many ways the book is beyond criticism. How can one fault a thorough transcription of interesting, well-chosen interviews with historical key-players? One could question the emphasis on the underground press. The tale of Frendz and especially that of INK gets a bit boring, but that was Jonathon Green's original part in the affair so he's entitled to that.

-

Last year I had been toying with the idea of pitching the story of posh people in the underground to a few publishers. I even had a working title: "Poor Boy" (based on Nick Drake's song). There's many people one might talk to: Ormsby-Gores, Elliots, Guinnesses. And there were many key posh players, heirs and Old Etonians: the likes of Tara Browne, Robert Fraser. I was imagining it would be a sufficiently annoying thing to many people to be worth doing.

My view of posh people getting involved in Pop culture is less self-flagellatory than it might once have been. If a "posh" young person is crazy and stupid enough to want to get involved in music, as opposed to taking the well-worn paths into law or finance, then frankly good for them. There's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and it's unquestionably a good motor for social mobility when desire transects the class spectrum. A working class boy like Bryan Ferry wanting to become a Lord or on the other hand a public schoolboy like Joe Strummer wanting to be a street rat - what's the problem? I don't like 'em but frankly I couldn't give two shits about Mumford and Sons background.

But it's an area swirling with arguments and counter-arguments. I'm also strongly inclined to think that, as a symbol of its validity, any culture which is not generating money (not paying its own way in any form) is of lesser significance. The same applies to artistic enterprise sustained by government grants. And that cuts against the self-funded culture of the rich which couldn't exist without undisclosed investment; people who can afford to slum it. On the other hand one of the wonderful things about the culture of the underground was its abandonment of the money principle. It's always cool when people make interesting things without necessarily figuring how how they'll fit into the money matrix. Difficult.

However, certain passages in "Days in the life" acutely lay bare the elitism of the underground. Andrea Adam, former Time magazine editor, comments in the book on the Canute-like attitude of the underground to real life:
"...by '74/'75 [it had] pretty much dispersed. We all disappeared. Suddenly one day we weren't talking to each other on the telephone, suddenly everybody had gone their own way. Suddenly everybody was knee-deep in mortgages and scrabbling for a half-decent job. Everyone woke up one day and realised that they were nearly 30, without a job and that jobs were getting very scarce and that they were broke and there was no money coming in from anywhere. Living from hand to mouth was no longer possible."
This is essentially the same dichotomy between the haves and the have-nots that existed between Dominic Sandbrook in "White Heat" and his critic Charles Shaar Murray. Sandrook maintains that the sixties of hagiography holds only for a tiny London élite and was a mere blip, an illusory fantasy in the dying days of a collapsing empire. Shaar Murray, dreamer, believer, the countercultural journalist and author who is quoted extensively in "Days of the life" contends that Sandbrook is "the hoodie historian":
"...slouching into shot while throwing whatever passes for gang signs in the history department of the University of Sheffield, and announcing to Arthur Marwick, Jonathon Green et al that "You is all mi bitches nuh"
With this characterisation of the defiantly middle-of-the road and wearyingly bourgeois Sandbrook Shaar Murray missed his target. For Sandbrook to deny that the dream was real is to fail to grasp that dreams ARE real. Certainly in the last decade what we have witnessed with the fantasy economics of international finance and the digitisation of daily life is that dreams and the dreamers now control what was once called reality. Dreamers like the late Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett. Equally that isn't to deny that the underground was at the very least in defiance of the socio-economic reality.

While there could be an argument in favour of the upper and upper-middle classes and their role in the counter-culture for precisely these reasons I don't think it's one I would be comfortable to make. There's another passage which complements Andrea Adam's which crystallises the critique. The artist Cheryl Park remarks:
"...elitism took the whole movement over and the people who could afford to carry on living like that did and the rest dwindled away. There was no working class in the underground because nobody did any work. And the working class people who did join the movement, if there even was a movement, found their own little slot and they found that some people were still in control because they had the money."
How vibrant can this underground have been if its solid core were only those rich enough to keep faith in the new lifestyle? The best you could argue for the rich themselves would be that at least they tried to break the chain - even if the reality was that they lived very narcissistic lives. 

I'm not nearly so sceptical when it comes to the magnates that came out of the sixties. Robert Wyatt was recently chastising Richard Branson and his "train sets" and it seemed like sour grapes. Perhaps even an insecure clamouring for significance? In terms of a legacy of real human significance I'd place Wyatt's above Branson's - but it's a close call.

I travelled up here to Glasgow for christmas on a Virgin train. It was a beautiful experience - speedy, on time and kind of magical in and of itself. The toilets have slightly silly jokes written in them which, in the context do have the faintest counter-cultural resonance - even so far as prompting Branson himself to comment on them in his own blog.
Please do not flush nappies, sanitary towels, old mobile phones, unpaid bills, your ex's jumper, hopes, dreams or goldfish down the toilet.
That's a peculiar denouement for the English counter-culture! But Branson made an impact and I'd happily call it a positive one. There are other traces too. Craig Sams of Seed was the man behind the ecstatic Green & Blacks chocolate (sadly now owned by Cadburys in turn owned by the monstrous Kraft Foods) but was also a key figure in the Soil Association. His is a undeniable legacy. Time Out's Tony Elliott is still in the business of promoting other people's events and seeing punters are entertained and enlightened. These three and the late Felix Dennis, who started as a street seller for OZ and whose flagship The Week retains a currency, all made a fortune whilst staying true to themselves. Frankly it's a shame that there weren't more sixties visionaries equipped to capitalise on their inclinations. The world would be a better place.