Early Days of the London Underground Scene
by Barry Miles
In this previously unpublished text from 2002, Barry Miles surveys some of the activities in London’s counterculture at the time that the LFMC was formed. Further reflections on this period can be found in his memoir “In the Sixties” (Pimlico, 2003.) Miles was a founder of Indica Books and Gallery, and of the underground newspaper International Times (I.T.). His many books include biographies of Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Paul McCartney and Frank Zappa. This is the second of four essays published on the occasion of the publication of the book Shoot Shoot Shoot: The First Decade of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative 1966-76 edited by Mark Webber (LUX, October 2016).
The sixties are as far away now as the twenties were to the generation that came of age in the sixties. These were the days before colour television, before mobile phones, CDs, video or the internet. A fridge was a luxury most people could not afford and the lavatory was often in the back yard. A telephone took months to be installed, long distance calls went through the operator, and computers didn’t yet have screens. Very few people had cars and those on the empty roads were often very old. Yet they were surprisingly modern times too: man landed on the moon, class barriers were shattered, young people began to have money, teenage girls stopped dressing like 35 year-olds and the pill gave women control over their sex lives for the first time. There were overlaps all the time: most people still had 78s in their record collections as people still have LPs now; bowler-hatted, umbrella-carrying businessmen were still ubiquitous but so, also, was the mini-skirt and Biba eye shadow. It was about pushing the boundaries: pop art and op art, the cut-up technique in literature, multi-tracking and manipulated tapes in pop music, superimpositions and jump cuts in film. Suddenly everything went much, much faster.
Allen Ginsberg at The International Poetry Incarnation, 1965. Photo by David Larcher
A young Blake scholar and poet, Michael Horovitz, primed the pump for much of the 1960s artistic activity. His New Departures magazine, begun in 1959 when he was still at Oxford, was responsible for introducing Samuel Beckett, William Burroughs, John Cage, Piero Heliczer, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and the Beats to Britain. Cornelius Cardew wrote on La Monte Young, Langston Hughes on jazz, there were lyrics by Dizzy Gillespie and collages by Kurt Schwitters. In 1961 Horovitz and Pete Brown began their Live New Departures travelling show with poetry, experimental jazz, fragments from plays, or someone painting onstage, introducing the new avant-garde to art colleges and arts festivals across Britain. Oxford was a major centre for experimental events: there were performances of tapes by Artaud, Brion Gysin’s ‘permutated poems’, and a concert with Paul Pond crooning to an electronic music backing (he later changed his name to Paul Jones, had hits with Manfred Mann, and starred in Peter Watkins’ 1967 film Privilege).
In Oxford I met John Hopkins, known as Hoppy, a reactor scientist at Harwell Atomic Research Lab, with whom I published literary magazines, a spoken word album, and eventually, in 1966, International Times (IT), Europe’s first underground newspaper. Hoppy was to be at the centre of London underground activity, the energetic central switchboard leading out to IT, the Spontaneous Underground, the Arts Lab, UFO Club, London Free School, the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream, Osiris posters, and other manifestations such as BIT, the underground information centre. When I moved to London in 1963, I took a room in Hoppy’s communal flat and together we started Lovebooks Limited to publish poetry and radical literature.
In January 1965 I took over as manager of the paperback section of Better Books on the Charing Cross Road from the American poet Bill Butler who was moving to Brighton to start his own shop, the Unicorn. Better Books was owned by Tony Godwin, the innovative editor-in-chief of Penguin Books. It was Godwin who replaced the customary orange covers with illustrations and film stills, a decision which almost got him fired. Better Books held poetry readings, events and happenings: Jeff Nuttall’s sTigma installation was in the basement when I took over, and one of my first acts as manager was to persuade Jeff that the rotting fish in the lavatory pan on the dentist’s chair should be changed each day as the staff and customers were complaining. The only way out of the maze-like installation was by crawling on hands and knees through a long plastic tube filled with feathers, which attached themselves to their hair and clothes and drifted around the shop like tumbleweed. It was just about possible to return to the start and avoid the feathers by pushing through a rather tight airlock made from telephone books.
Nuttall had a long time connection with Better Books and it was there, in 1966, that he held the first performance by the People Show, an edgy, experimental theatre group, owing much to the Living Theatre, which broke the traditional barriers between audience and players, insisting on audience participation and often dealing with uncomfortable or controversial issues. Better Books consisted of four rooms: one on Charing Cross Road and three on New Compton Street, one of which Tony Godwin had set aside for readings and events. It had a small stage, wobbly tables and chairs for browsing and a coin operated drinks machine, rather like large bookstores today but with undrinkable coffee. (Coffee, tea and hot soup were made with powder and all dispensed through the same nozzle.) There were readings by Basil Bunting, Stevie Smith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg and Diana Rigg (who read from McGonnagall).
We also had film screenings, organised by the concrete poet and independent publisher Bob Cobbing who worked at the shop and took over as manager after me. He somehow hired copies of Ian Hugo’s The Bells of Atlantis, starring Anaïs Nin (then Hugo’s wife), and Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, Eaux d’Artifice and Fireworks. There was some anxiety involved because we were informed that the films were technically banned so the shop door was locked before the screening began. Cobbing also screened classics such as Renoir’s La Grande Illusion or Une Partie de Campagne, sometimes without subtitles, like Henri Laglois at the Cinematheque Francaise.
There were also screenings at the American Embassy. In the early 1960s the United States Information Service had a lending library and art gallery that presented exhibitions of abstract expressionist paintings and where poets such as John Ashbery read their work with a cocktail party afterwards. That all ended with the escalation of the Vietnam War when marines holding automatic weapons stood either side of the front door.
People like The Beatles had screenings at home, renting whatever film they fancied seeing from a distributor and often inviting a few friends over. Robert Fraser, the art dealer, liked the idea and began to show American independent films at his flat on Mount Street. I saw Stan Brakhage’s Dog Star Man and A Movie by Bruce Connor there. The Beatles did see a lot of these films, and when Andy Warhol came to London there was a screening at Paul McCartney’s house in Cavendish Avenue. McCartney had been warned that the film needed two projectors which had to be carefully synchronised but Andy just turned on one projector and then the other. Paul: “He was just showing ’em any old way. It was daring, but it was laborious to watch, very, very boring.”[i]
When Chelsea Girls came out some time later, Robert Fraser showed it privately in his living room for a group of friends. The film lasts three hours fifteen minutes, on two projectors: six and a half hours of footage. Chelsea Girls appeared before the British Board of Film Censors several times before it was screened here at the New Cinema Club, provided that five hours of footage was cut from it, which made it quite a snappy little movie.
Poster for early screenings of Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls at the Arts Lab. Courtesy the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection.
The International Poetry Incarnation
Allen Ginsberg made Better Books his headquarters when he visited London in the summer of 1965 and it was there that the famous Albert Hall Poetry reading was planned in the wake of his overcrowded, unadvertised solo reading at the shop. One of the people who was around a lot of the time to see him was Barbara Rubin, an on-and-off girlfriend introduced to him by Jonas Mekas. She had taken Allen to the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op to see her film Christmas On Earth which Ginsberg described as “a lot of porn, beauty, in which she made an art object out of her vagina.[ii] I thought that was in the right spirit … We ended up screwing on the floor that very night. She was really young and pretty and I liked her.” Lawrence Ferlinghetti was on his way to London and Gregory Corso was over in Paris. There had never been a large scale Beat Generation reading in Britain but it seemed a great idea. It was obvious that a big venue was required. Barbara asked, “What’s the biggest place in town?” Sue Miles replied, “The Albert Hall.” Barbara ran to the sales desk, called the Albert Hall and booked an evening two weeks hence.
The original plan was to only have the internationally known poets read, but the British demanded to be on the bill and soon an ad-hoc committee of poets took over the organisation. The list grew alarmingly to finally reach 18, many of whom had not before read in anything larger than the upstairs room of a pub. The featured poets were Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Corso. Andrei Voznesensky was in the audience but did not perform. Alexander Trocchi “compered the proceedings with schoolmasterly firmness” (as the New Statesman put it); his apparent disregard for the poets’ sensitivities provoked by an extra large shot of heroin before the show; Trocchi was a long term addict. Red wine and chillums were passed around, and incense and pot-smoke wafted into the dome, a dozen or so bemused schizophrenics brought along by ‘anti-psychiatrist’ R. D. Laing blew bubbles from pipes and danced to music heard only in their own heads. Prof. Bruce Lacey’s strange robots wandered into the auditorium from the Green Room but a happening planned by John Latham and Jeff Nuttall came to nothing when Latham passed out because he was covered in green paint and his skin could not breathe. Backstage, Nuttall put him in Sir John Barbirolli’s bath and tried to wash the paint off. An elderly guard discovered them – two naked men in a bath of green paint – and feared the worst.
As a reading it was not that good: Ginsberg was drunk, Corso read a long introspective poem seated in a chair, and Harry Fainlight froze with anxiety mid-way into “The Spider”, a poem about LSD. Adrian Mitchell, Lawrence Ferlingetti and Ernst Jandl, the Austrian sound poet, were the only ones to take advantage of the huge venue and perform their work accordingly. But there was a party atmosphere that had little to do with the poetry, and more to do with shared ideas. 7,000 people recognised each other for what they were: a new community, not yet identifiable by looks, but a community of spirit that was soon to manifest as the so-called ‘underground’ or counter-culture. The evening was documented in Wholly Communion by Peter Whitehead, and the book of the film contains photographs by David Larcher which capture the heady atmosphere of the event.[iii]
Barbara Rubin stayed in London with her English friend Kate Heliczer, who had recently broken up with her husband, Piero Heliczer, the filmmaker and poet. Piero was in and out of London throughout the 1960s and 1970s; though claiming to be broke, he always seemed to have enough money to flit between London, Paris, New York and Tangier. When he and Kate broke up she returned to London bringing with her stories of Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable show at the Dom on St. Marks Place, and a live tape of the Velvet Underground playing there. Sterling Morrison of the Velvets lived at Piero’s apartment on Broad Street, so there was a close connection between the Heliczers and the band. Barbara and Kate were very involved with the planning of the Albert Hall poetry reading and as the audience arrived, they were greeted by Kate, Barbara and friends, wearing long flowing dresses, their faces painted with paisley patterns, who handed them flowers salvaged that afternoon when Covent Garden flower market closed. (They were London’s first flower-children.)
Hoppy organised the publicity for the reading, and photographed the poets at the Albert Memorial across from the Albert Hall. He and Kate Heliczer were often in each other’s company and soon moved in together. The Velvet Underground tapes that Kate brought from New York were often playing in the flat and Peter Jenner, one of the organisers, with Hoppy, of the London Free School, heard them there. Jenner, Hoppy and Joe Boyd, the American record producer and concert promoter, and several others, had a production company called DNA and had already released an AMM record with Elektra, that was hardly a commercial success. They needed to combine experimentation with something more accessible. When Jenner heard the Velvets tape he telephoned Lou Reed asking to manage the band, but it was too late, they had already signed to Warhol. Jenner kept looking.
Burroughs was in New York at the time of the Albert Hall reading and was represented by a tape recording played during the interval. Towards the end of the year he moved to London and took rooms at 8 Duke Street St. James, just off Piccadilly, in the small apartment building where Antony Balch lived. Burroughs and Balch had worked together on film projects since 1963, when Burroughs was living at the Beat Hotel in Paris. Their first collaboration was Towers Open Fire, a film partly distinguished by the fact that colour is introduced into an otherwise monochromatic film by the application of ink directly on the film strip. Balch painstakingly painted each frame of about half a dozen prints to produce a cloud of coloured bubbles descending from the sky. The film was due to be premiered at the ICA on Dover Street in 1965, but as it was not ready by the first scheduled date a multi-media evening was presented instead: Brion Gysin painted a huge, 2 x 4 meter calligraphic painting on a roll of paper, while Burroughs sat on a chair on a small dais, wearing his famous hat, and stared unblinking at the audience. An intense purple spotlight made it difficult to concentrate on him. The effect was most unnerving, as he appeared to vibrate in and out of focus. Above his head was a screen onto which stills from Towers Open Fire were projected and one of Burroughs’ cut-up tapes of Moroccan drumming, radio static, pneumatic drills and fragments of radio newscasters reading disaster reports, was played at ear-splitting volume. Most of the audience left after 20 minutes leaving a hard-core of fans, people too stoned to move and a few characters who were waiting the chance to steal something from the ICA library, which in those days was temptingly arrayed along a wall. This was the same evening when drummer Ginger Baker hung up the wall phone after a conversation then ripped the phone off the wall as he walked away, forgetting to let go.
I first corresponded with Burroughs when he was living in Tangier in 1964, to get manuscripts for Darazt, an anthology that Hoppy and I published in 1965. I only knew Antony from his journalism; he wrote for Continental Film Review, usually reporting from Paris on the latest new wave films. He was very knowledgeable about European films, though less so about American independent film until the 1970s when he went regularly to San Francisco to see a boyfriend and returned very enthusiastic about the early porn films which were so markedly different from the low budget porn of earlier times: professionally filmed and lit and with attractive actors: what Jonas Mekas described as, “The beautiful golden Californian bodies.”[iv]
Burroughs subsequently became very involved with the underground scene, contributing regularly to International Times. He would often visit the Indica bookshop but rarely attended events. His was an invisible presence, someone behind the scenes, an eminence grise.
The Spontaneous Underground was started by Steven Stollman, the younger brother of Bernard Stollman, owner of ESP Records that released the Fugs and Sun Ra. ESP was an important early outlet for free jazz, and released the Albert Ayler album New York Eye and Ear Control that had been recorded by Michael Snow for his film of the same name. It was Steven’s belief that if you provided the space for people to get together and perform, then things would happen spontaneously, there was no need to advertise the acts. He hired the Marquee Club, at 90 Wardour Street, on a Sunday afternoon and charged enough admission to pay the rental; he made no profit. He didn’t advertise but invitations were sent out to key people, promising “Costume, masque, ethnic, space, Edwardian, Victorian and hipness generally … face and body makeup – certainly.” He was right and it was a great success; something to do on a Sunday afternoon after getting up late and reading the papers. The garment district was just north of Oxford Street and in those days the streets were littered with end rolls of fabric and trimmings, perfect for dressing up.
Spike Hawkins and Johnny Byrne put on an amateur theatrical act as Poison Bellows. They arrived pushing a wind-up gramophone in an old pram, wearing long overcoats and mufflers, and did anti-conjuring tricks, pulling broken eggshells from Pete Brown’s father’s collapsible silk top hat, setting things on fire and throwing buckets of water about. It was very British slapstick comedy, closer to music hall than psychedelia.[v] Donovan performed wearing amazing red and black make-up, each eye carefully drawn with an Egyptian Eye of Horus. He sat cross-legged on the stage accompanied by six sitar players and a conga drummer but couldn’t remember a thing about it the next day. Graham Bond dragged his battered, heavily modified Hammond organ onstage, which he shoved and tilted to obtain the most extraordinary effects, while he frightened the audience with black magic gestures and bulging Crowleyite eye-balling.
The Spontaneous Underground immediately became the village pump of the underground with something of the party atmosphere of the Albert Hall reading. There was no alcohol but plenty of pot and acid. It was the forerunner of the UFO Club with much the same audience and even the same music. The second week a classical pianist played her way through a Bach prelude surrounded by Ginger Johnson and his African Drummers who pounded out cross rhythms all around her, with occasional trumpet reveilles and concluding by bringing out ‘the Big Log’ a hollowed out tree trunk covered in a fishing net.
On March 13th one of Soft Machine’s ever changing line-ups played, featuring Robert Wyatt on drums, the illustrator Mal Dean (whose cartoons later enlivened International Times,) on trumpet and lavatory plunger; Rab Spall on amplified violin, John Surman on alto saxophone as well as two conga drummers and several sets of spoons. A young woman sat on stage having her long red Rapunzel hair cut by a friend – the light was better there – further emphasising the lack of division between audience and performers. This was possibly the first time that Biddy Peppin presented one of her enormous jellies. A large heap of pink jelly became a regular feature of early underground events and someone inevitably stripped off and rolled in it.
The most musically memorable Spontaneous Underground was in June 1966 and featured performances by AMM and the Pink Floyd Sound. AMM consisted of Cornelius Cardew on piano, cello and radio, Lou Gare on tenor saxophone and violin, Eddie Provost on drums, xylophone and percussion, Keith Rowe on electric guitar and radio and Lawrence Sheaff on cello, accordion, clarinet and radio. Cardew, professor of composition at the Royal College of Music, had worked with John Cage and David Tudor and spent two years as Karlheinz Stockhausen’s assistant. He later attacked his teacher in a forcefully argued book, Stockhausen Serves Imperialism, and took to performing revolutionary Chinese workers songs, singing “We all Love the Three Old Articles of Chairman Mao” in his plummy upper class accent. At the Spontaneous Underground they used whistles and sirens, tapes and electric toys which were allowed to run loose or to vibrate on a steel tray. All sounds, including those made by the audience, constituted part of the piece being performed.
Syd Barrett watched Keith Rowe’s electric guitar playing techniques very carefully and later used some of them himself, such as running steel ball bearings up and down the strings. Movies were projected onto the Pink Floyd Sound as they played, and red and blue pulsating lights made it hard to see their faces; anonymity was an element of the Pink Floyd’s show which stayed with them. They took questions from the audience after the set, like the good architectural students that they were.
Roger Waters: “The whole mixed media thing started happening in 1966. We had a Sunday afternoon at the Marquee with film going and us banging and crashing away. John Hopkins and his merry men were there.” It was at this gig that the band met their future manager Pete Jenner, who told them, “You’ll be bigger than the Beatles!” Roger Waters remembered their cautious response: “Yes, well we’ll see you when we get back from our hols’, because we were all shooting off for some sun on the Continent.”[vi]
Jenner and his partner Andrew King established Blackhill Enterprises, dividing the shares into six equal parts with the band, true to the spirit of the day. With Jenner in charge, the Floyd were drawn further into the London underground scene. He immediately booked them into the London Free School in Notting Hill.
“We went off on holiday and then came back and played in Powis Gardens at All Saint’s Hall. There were about twenty people there when we first played, the second week one hundred and then three to four hundred and after that you couldn’t get in …”
“There were elements of the underground that we did tune into. The main one was mixed media. We may not have been into acid but we certainly understood the idea of a Happening. We supplied the music while people did creative dance, painted their faces, or bathed in the giant jelly.”[vii]
The London Free School
Hoppy and Rhaunie Laslett began the London Free School in Notting Hill in March 1966 to help with housing problems, race relations, establish a street nursery, and provide classes for the community. Among the activists were photographer Graham Keen (who later ran International Times), Peter Jenner (then still a teacher), and Black community leader Michael de Freitas (who was later known as Michael X or Michael Abdul Malik). Michael had a large empty basement room he had previously used as an illegal gambling club at 26 Powis Terrace which he gave the LFS free of charge. He improved relations between the West Indian and white communities by bringing Muhammad Ali to visit the children in Rhaunie Laslett’s Free School play group.
The LFS decided to revive the Notting Hill Fair and Pageant which had not taken place for over a hundred years. In July 1966 they held a week-long street fair ending in a parade: a Caribbean steel band led the floats followed by children in fancy dress and jazz bands. People of all races filled the streets. From this humble beginning, the Notting Hill Festival has grown to become the largest festival in Europe, attracting over a million people to the streets of Notting Hill every August Bank Holiday weekend.
Better Books was bought by Hatchards of Piccadilly and I resigned to start my own bookshop/art gallery with John Dunbar. Peter Asher, of the pop group Peter and Gordon was the third member of the team and we formed a company called MAD, Miles Asher & Dunbar, to run the enterprise. Indica began at 6 Mason’s Yard, off Duke Street St. James’s. It was a good location for an art gallery but terrible for bookselling so within six months the bookshop moved out to larger premises at 102 Southampton Row. Paul McCartney helped put up shelves and paint the original shop/gallery and later kept Indica afloat financially. When Yoko Ono arrived in Britain to participate in the Destruction In Art Symposium (DIAS), John Dunbar gave her her first European solo exhibition and it was here that she first met John Lennon who dropped in while the show was being hung. Yoko rapidly became a vital member of the underground scene and most weeks were enlivened by one of her public events: kite flying on Parliament Hill, wrapping the lions in Trafalgar Square, or a performance at a theatre or club.
Barry Miles at Indica
Hoppy and I had discussed publishing a British equivalent of New York’s Village Voice for months, and in October 1966, after including Jim Haynes and Jack Henry Moore as directors of Lovebooks Limited, we launched International Times with Tom McGrath being brought in from Peace News as editor. By then I was the UK correspondent for East Village Other in New York and had written for several other US underground newspapers so our models were very much American. In fact at one point IT was going to be the London Other, published jointly with EVO. The idea was to publish things you would never see in Fleet Street papers, from debates on drugs and sex, to essays by the likes of Norman Mailer, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. The paper was housed in the basement of Indica Bookshop on Southampton Row which quickly became the centre of ‘The Underground’ – as opposed to ‘Swinging London’ – activity. At first Tom McGrath had to share the use of my typewriter, then Sonia Orwell gave us a portable which was supposed to have belonged to her husband George. Offset litho had not yet caught on in Britain so the paper was typeset in hot metal, which meant that headlines and any illustrations had to have copper plates made for them. It took us ten issues to find an offset press willing to print us.
IT was launched at the Roundhouse, an old engine shed which had stood empty for 15 years. There were only two toilets and as it was freezing cold people were inclined to dance. A large bowl of sugar cubes greeted everyone at the entrance – they were not spiked but plenty of people behaved as if they were. Some people brought their own. Guests wore silver-foil head-dresses and masks, refraction lenses, eighteenth century military uniforms, bondage equipment and glitter dust. 2,500 people turned up including Paul McCartney (dressed as an Arab), Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti. Marianne Faithfull, wearing a nun’s habit that did not quite cover her bottom, won the prize for the shortest/barest costume. Biddy Peppin made another huge jelly but Syd Barrett and Pink Floyd’s roadie Po accidentally destroyed it by removing a piece of wood that was holding the whole structure in place. Gallons of jelly splashed all over their Kings Road clothes, but there was still plenty left for people to roll in. Mike Lessor painted his naked body with it and crawled along a roll of paper to create an Yves Klein artwork, watched mostly by curious children. There were stalls and vendors and in another part of the Roundhouse, Bob Cobbing and the London Film Coop gave an all night film show featuring underground favourites like Anger’s Scorpio Rising, and Balch’s Towers Open Fire, under the most difficult of conditions. The audience stood in front of the projectors and tripped over the cables, yet the films went on.
This was the Soft Machine’s first big concert. Daevid Allen: “That was our first gig as a quartet. Yoko Ono came on stage and created a giant happening by getting everybody to touch each other in the dark, right in the middle of the set. We also had a motorcycle brought onto stage and would put a microphone against the cylinder head for a good noise.”[viii]
The Floyd’s appearance was reported in International Times: “The Pink Floyd, psychedelic pop group, did weird things to the feel of the event with their scary feedback sounds, slide projections playing on their skin (drops of paint ran riot on the slides to produce outer-space/prehistoric textures on the skin), spotlights flashing in time with the drums.”
It was the first time most of the people in the audience had seen a light show and many stood staring open-mouthed. The Floyd did an inspired version of “Interstellar Overdrive,” bringing their set to a dramatic climax by blowing out the fuses, plunging the building into darkness. The Soft Machine received £12.10.0 and the Pink Floyd got £15.0.0 because they had a light show to pay for, though at this early stage it was quite primitive.
Inevitably, IT ran into financial difficulties. The London Free School’s concerts at All Saint’s Hall had solved many of their financial problems so Hoppy decided that IT could run a similar operation, staffed by the people who brought out the paper. Joe Boyd found an Irish dance hall called The Blarney Club in a basement at 31 Tottenham Court Road. Joe booked the bands and Hoppy did everything else. They called it UFO (Unlimited Freak Out) and initially rented two evenings, one either side of Christmas on the 23rd and 30th of December 1966, only intending to continue it as a regular event if those were a success. Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were the house bands.
The Blarney had a large polished wooden dance floor, complete with mirror ball, and a smaller area to the side for food (no alcohol). It ran all night because public transport stopped at midnight and the club didn’t really get going until after 10pm. In addition to live bands there were poetry readings, records, jugglers and each week David Mairowitz acted out the latest part of his interminable erotic drama The Flight of the Erogenous. Bob Cobbing showed avant-garde films, a job taken over by David Curtis, and there were non-stop light shows flickering over the walls, ceilings and floors as well as the special effects directed at the stage.
The main light show was controlled by Mark Boyle who had been presenting them as art events since 1963. His shows had themes such as bodily liquids: one utilised saliva, blood, semen, urine and for which he had even managed to spit up a spot of green bile. In one corner of the room, Jack Braceland, who ran a psychedelic nudist colony in Watford, played his Five Acre Lights all night. Acid was available from Manfred, the fat German dealer, and macrobiotic rice rissoles were served at the food counter.
Regulars included Paul McCartney and Pete Townshend, who had both become closely involved with the underground scene. Pete’s girlfriend, Karen Astley was featured on the very first UFO poster: a close-up of her face with the words ‘Nite Tripper’ painted across it by Michael English. It was at UFO that Pete first saw Arthur Brown whom he signed to Track Records. Arthur was an amazing dancer with a tall skeletal frame, a skull face accentuated by face paint and a thin beard. He did what was known in music hall as ‘Egyptian Dancing’ (a jerky sideways move with all limbs at right-angles) and frequently wore a long robe or dress. For his theme tune, “Fire”, he made an entrance with his head-dress in flames. Most of all UFO was a club where everyone knew each other. It was an extension of the Spontaneous Underground, a psychedelic local where you could make your appointments for the week, order some clothes from Granny Takes a Trip or Hung On You, and catch up on the gossip.
The British underground scene thrived on an inspired amateurism, the mentality that enabled the British to invent radar in the potting shed. The Pink Floyd’s earliest light show consisted of bare coloured light bulbs turned on and off with household light switches and it developed from there. Sgt. Pepper was recorded on a four-track. The use of illegal drugs naturally created a close-knit community against the police and by extension ‘against the suits’ but there was a crazy humour and sense of community that went way beyond that; everyone was in it together, a conspiracy to ‘turn on the world’ (as IT put it). The communality dissipated as the scene grew larger and by the summer of 1967 – the so-called ‘Summer of Love’ – it had grown out of control and taken on a new meaning. The new manifestations of the counter-culture: UFO at the Roundhouse, the 14-Hour Technicolor Dream, the Arts Lab, Oz magazine, and a larger better distributed IT, reached a larger more varied audience and spread the ideas across the land so that within a year or two there were dozens of Arts Labs and scores of underground papers, from Aberdeen to Penzance. Marking another change, Better Books closed in 1967, leaving the film enthusiasts that first established the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative without a base. The Arts Lab, recently founded in Covent Garden by Jim Haynes, provided a meeting point for a younger generation of filmmakers and it was here that the future direction of the Co-op began to be decided.
Barry Miles, 2002
[i] In conversation with author, 1991.
[ii] Barbara Rubin had not filmed herself, though Ginsberg understood that she was the star of the film.
[iii] The event was not called Wholly Communion, this title was invented for the film.
[iv] Mekas in conversation with the author and Harry Smith, Hotel Chelsea, 1971.
[v] The Alberts (featuring Bruce Lacey) did a very similar act and performed throughout London during this period. They had a close connection to the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and released an album together with them. This strain of British humour, originating with the Goons, culminated in the Monty Python Flying Circus which reached millions of people throughout the world.
[vi] From a 1973 interview quoted by Nicholas Schaffner in Saucerful of Secrets, Harmony Books, 1991.
[vii] Interview by Phil Sutcliffe in Mojo Magazine, July 1995.
[viii] Michael King, Wrong Movements, a Robert Wyatt History, SAF Publishing, 1994.