The strangest underground newspaper office Barry Miles ever saw was home to the weekly broadsheet Open City in Los Angeles. ‘I went there in 1969,’ Miles recalls over the phone, ‘and there was a huge psychedelic mural on the wall. I thought, this looks just weird somehow.’ At first, he couldn’t put his finger on quite what was wrong about it. After all, murals were not such a strange sight in the offices of underground newspapers.
The headquarters of the East Village Other, above music venue, Filmore East, in downtown Manhattan, had its walls decorated with a vast painting jointly created by comic artists Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Spain Rodriguez depicting their iconic characters Mr Natural, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, and Trashman (who featured in the Zap Comix they contributed to) all sharing a joint. But there was something about the image at Open City that felt wrong, just a bit too on point.
It transpired that the paper was housed in a former Hollywood film set, from a movie about a radical underground newspaper. After the film wrapped, a real underground paper moved in. ‘It was so unreal,’ Miles tells me, ‘and very typically LA.’
The offices of International Times, the London-based paper Miles himself founded in 1966 with his friend and flatmate John ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins, were, by contrast, far more prosaic. Whether talking about the first offices in the basement of the Indica Bookshop on Southampton Row, or subsequent digs on Betterton Street in Covent Garden, around the corner on Endell Street, Wardour Mews in Soho, or in the paper’s final home (of its first incarnation) in Notting Hill, Miles remembers, ‘the usual cramped underground press office: piles of unsold papers, posters everywhere very crudely stuck on the wall, IBM compositing machine, endless people on the phone, lots and lots of telephones and people talking, talking all the time.’
But those inauspicious surroundings were the source of a quiet revolution in British publishing. ‘Back in the ’60s, everything had to be totally unionized,’ Miles explains. ‘You had to do two years apprenticeship on a regional paper before you could work on Fleet Street as a journalist. We leapfrogged over all that stuff. Our street sellers were the only way we distributed things. WH Smith wouldn’t distribute us. None of the straight distributors would touch the underground press. So we had to more or less establish our little counterculture: our own bookshops, our own clothes shops. It was almost like some kind of utopian fantasy for a couple of years.’
From a graphic standpoint, IT also stood out from the mainstream British papers of its day. Fleet Street then was still using letterpress printing. Boiling lead and copperplates. ‘We turned to offset litho as soon as we possibly could,’ Miles says. ‘That gave us the freedom to let graphic designers do what they wanted.’ The results of that freedom – full colour, swirling psychedelic typefaces, lavish illustrations, delirious graphics – are now to be displayed, alongside copies of Oz, Friends, Gandalf's Garden, and Black Dwarf, at an exhibition dedicated to the British underground press of the ’60s at A22 Gallery in London. The only paper, Miles believes, that bettered the British ones in design terms was a radical publication from Milan called Pianeta Fresco which published only two editions between 1967 and ’68. But that paper had the distinct advantage of being designed by Ettore Sottsass.
Born a bus driver’s son in rural Cirencester, Miles’s first taste of the world of radical publishing came when he was still a student at Gloucestershire College of Art. On his days off he would hitchhike to London. One day, a friend of Hoppy’s took him to Better Books on the Charing Cross Road. ‘He would show me all these wonderful American imports that they had.’ Enchanted, Miles wrote to the publisher, City Lights Books in San Francisco, and asked for a catalogue.
‘Their catalogue was actually a postcard with about five items on it and three or four others typed on – literally hand-typed on – which included things like [Jack Kerouac’s] Dharma Bums and On The Road. Paperback editions. Fifty cents each.’ Miles promptly trekked to the post office for some US currency and ordered the lot. Having received his bounty, he went on the road himself: hitchhiked around the south coast of England with Kerouac in his back pocket, eager to reproduce something of his new hero’s escapades. ‘Very naive, looking back on it,’ he says now. ‘But it was pretty cool.’ Still, he admits with a chuckle, ‘Eastbourne is not quite like going through Detroit.’
It was the American Beats that indirectly brought about the foundation of IT, some five years later. By 1965, Miles was the manager of Better Books and the place was becoming something of an epicentre for the burgeoning counterculture of swinging London. There were regular poetry readings, art exhibitions, and film screenings. One day, Allen Ginsberg walked in and offered to read, sowing the seed for the International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall in May of that year, when Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and others, read to a crowd of 7,000. ‘Hoppy and I were just looking around,’ Miles recalls. ‘And we just realized that these people had no means of communication. There was a huge constituency of poets and artists and theatre people and students and young people, but no-one was giving them a voice.’ IT would become that voice, the mouthpiece for a generation: ‘a supermarket of ideas,’ as Miles puts it, ‘and new ways of looking at life.’
And it never really came to an end. ‘We just put it out there, copyright free’ Miles explains of the paper's fate after its original editors gave up on the title in the mid-’70s. ‘It was just a logo and a name. And anyone could do what they wanted with it.’ Over the next decades, IT became the banner under which a motley assortment successively sailed. First Sid Rawle and the bearded mystics of his free festival movement; later others took it on. ‘There were some quite angry issues in ’77, ’78 when the punks had it,’ Miles notes.
‘Did you keep an eye on it?’ I ask.
‘No, not in the slightest. It was out there. It was free.’
It would emerge in fits and starts, disappearing for a few years and then starting up again under some new stewardship. In 2011, the paper finally moved online. Miles himself has started showing an interest again. ‘Apparently,’ he tells me, ‘there’s a new print issue out now. I haven’t seen it yet. Whoever the editor is has sent me one so it will be waiting for me in London. I don’t think I ever did write anything for [the online edition] in the end. Maybe I still will. I don’t know. Yeah, maybe I’ll start writing for IT again. Something to do in one’s old age.’
Barry Miles is launching his new illustrated memoir In the Sixties at A22 gallery in London, 6-8pm 12 October. ‘The British Underground Press of the Sixties’ runs at A22 gallery until 4 November 2017.
Main image: Barry Miles, Indica Bookshop, Masons Yard, 1966. Courtesy: Barry Miles