This week sees the opening of the exhibition The British Underground Press of the Sixties, at A22 Gallery, Clerkenwell, featuring the covers of every countercultural publication from the 1960s. The show is curated by Barry Miles and James Birch. Miles along with John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins were the founders of International Times, the underground magazine that initiated the counterculture media revolution that is celebrated in the exhibition. The show also coincides with the publication of an illustrated limited edition of Miles’s memoir of this period, In the Sixties.
Friends with Paul McCartney and Allen Ginsberg, and many other famous figures of the sixties, Miles was a major force in the UK’s nascent counterculture, and active in every significant underground event of that decade. After the evening of the show, I sat down for a drink with Miles to talk about the Summer of Love, Mick Jagger at the Grosvenor Square riots and what he thinks about today’s millennials.
They say, ‘if you remember the 60s you weren’t there.’ When you were revising this book, did you find yourself remembering things you hadn’t when you originally wrote it? I am thinking particularly about the famous people who you knew and were your friends, such as Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
There were a few stories that people were surprised I had not included, so I’ve added about 3000 words to the In The Sixties book to include them but no great stories emerged from the unconscious when I was revising it, I’m afraid. That’s the stupid thing. When you are doing things, you don’t think, ‘I’d better write this down, it might be important’, so I never made any notes after Beatles recording sessions or things like that, and now, without the aid of reference books and my own diaries, I can’t remember half the time which songs they were doing when I visited Abbey Road. (Usually because they were just laying down backing tracks or mixing, nothing really exciting.) Some things stuck out, of course, but they are already in the book. The point is, of course, that the sixties was like any other time most of the time. It was just getting from A to B, going to work, posting letters, hanging out with friends who were not famous creative geniuses as well as sometimes hanging out with ones that were. A lot of the time, an evening with Paul McCartney would be spent entirely in playing records.
I did remember a few instances that I’d forgotten, but they were fragmentary: being in night clubs with Lennon or McCartney, dinner at particular restaurants with them, nothing worth publishing.
There’s been a huge amount of nostalgia about the Summer of Love anniversary, what in your mind were the landmark events of that year and what made them so important?
It really did seem that things were changing. But then, I was living in the West End and right in the middle of things. I attended a dozen or so Beatles recording sessions, so that was wonderful. In general, there were lots of significant events. The homosexual reform bill made it legal for men over 21 to have sex. I had many gay friends who had been forced to hide their sexual orientation, or at least be very careful whom they told so it was a great weight off their shoulders and did lead, of course, to parity with heterosexuals. It was a warm dry summer so there were a lot of events in the parks. Allen Ginsberg was in London and I went with him to many events, including the Pot Rally in Hyde Park. The Dialectics of Liberation Congress at the Roundhouse was very significant for me because it introduced so many new ideas and talking points. Mostly, when I look back on that whole period, I feel privileged. I was privileged to know William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, privileged to know Paul McCartney and John Lennon (and George), privileged to run a bookshop, disseminating the ideas of the period, and to be involved with my friend Hoppy and in running and writing for International Times. I had an editorial role: bookshops and underground papers were how the ideas of the period got around as the straight press would not report them. Mostly I’m privileged to still be alive when so many of my friends have passed.
Do you feel that the Summer of Love was a one-off moment in time that can never be repeated? Or do you think the so-called hippie experiment could experience a renaissance?
I always understood that 1988 was the second summer of love, when everyone was taking ecstasy and dancing and loving each other, so in that sense it has already been repeated. I wasn’t part of it so I don’t know how widespread it was, but the hippie thing was only a few thousand people, at most, in Britain. But more seriously, I think the swing to the right has been so extreme that there will inevitably be a movement seeking to return to humanistic values so I do think that the hippie, or beat generation, or underground ethos will be repeated but it won’t be in that exact same form.
Do you feel that the millennials have anything to offer society? There is a lot of talk about tech entrepreneurs wanting to make a difference but some might say that what they’re doing is more of a fig leaf for rampant capitalism.
I think they are misguided in thinking that by writing code they are automatically changing the world for the better, but I think some of them do do good work. Wikipedia is an absolutely fantastic achievement, for instance, that is used as an information source by millions of people whereas before you needed access to a library or had to buy an expensive encyclopedia. I know young people who are actively engaged in projects with refugees, with avant-garde art, with community work. It’s just the press is so right wing these days that you hardly ever hear of these activities. I guess Bill Gates is doing a lot with the foundation that he and his wife run. One might question how he got his money in the first place, but the foundation is helping people in a real way, and has encouraged other super rich people to help out too.
Do you think that publications like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed are natural successors of IT and Oz in that their editorial policy is brave and unflinching?
I don’t know them I’m afraid (too old, I’m 74). But I think that there is a lot of brave journalism out there, mostly on the net, including Wikileaks (despite what has been happening recently with Assange). The fact that the police feel it is necessary to have undercover agents in the students’ movement, in the animal rights movement, and presumably in any left wing radical groups, shows that there is still a spirit of dissent in Britain (I don’t follow the USA closely enough any more to say what’s happening there). Not everyone in Britain has become a mindless consumer and I think there is only so far that you can push people, even if they are being brainwashed by the right-wing press. Maybe we will see the return of the legendary ‘London Mob’ and people will carry Gove and Hunt and Johnson’s heads through the streets on pikes. After Trump getting in and Britain voting to leave Europe anything can happen, even the most unlikely. I am pleased to see that IT is, in fact, still publishing. There was even a paper edition a few months ago, so 50 years on the old underground is still putting out roots.
Is it true that you went to the Grosvenor Square riots with Mick Jagger and is it true that Mick Jagger ran away as soon as things got a little bit nasty and went home to write Street Fighting Man?
I ran into Mick Jagger at the Grosvenor Square demonstration against the Vietnam war and he was in the thick of it. We spoke a bit but I wasn’t there ‘with’ him. I interviewed him a few days later for International Times – more of a conversation than an interview, he came to my place – and he felt quite frustrated at not being able to influence events. It was his frustration at the impossibility of the peace movement to stop the war that led to ‘Street Fighting Man’. All he could do was ‘play in a rock n roll band.’
Did you introduce John Lennon to Yoko Ono at the Indica Gallery and if so, do you claim responsibility for splitting up The Beatles?
I was there when John met Yoko. It was the day before the private view of her show and about eight of us were in the gallery, hanging the work. Myself, my wife Sue, John Dunbar, two gallery assistants and an art student who Yoko brought along and Tony Cox, Yoko’s husband. John showed up, hoping to take drugs with John Dunbar. Something he often did. (He was invited to the p.v. but that was the next day). I saw them meet but it was John Dunbar who introduced them. Yoko tried to leave with him even though Tony Cox was there but John said he was tired and had been up all night. He was in a chauffeur-driven Mini.
I think the Beatles had reached a point then when the power within the group was shifting from John as ‘leader’ to Paul as leader. But this was still 1966, the Beatles went on to make Sgt Pepper and loads of other fine material before the breakup. It was another two years before John & Yoko got together as a couple, though she pursued him mercilessly (apparently). John was going through a very bad period and taking far too much LSD. When he got together with Yoko she turned him onto heroin, which stopped the LSD. He could have become an LSD casualty, and not come back, like Syd Barrett, whereas, bad as it is, you can get off heroin – as they did. In that respect I think Yoko, far from breaking up the Beatles, saved John’s life, albeit through extreme means.
By Amani Iqbal
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