Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2016
Images from the Internet
Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter-culture
Written and directed by Tom O’Dell
Narrated by Thomas Arnold
Pride Films / Chrome Dreams Media
153 minutes, 2013
There were many counter-cultures (aka the peace movement and hippies) in the 1960s, and in fact, more than one in the United States. The one in San Francisco was different than the one in Los Angeles, and both were dissimilar to those in New York or Chicago. Up north, Vancouver was the Canadian center (or in this case centre), but there was also one in Toronto and Montreal. Every major city had their own, yet ironically, many people left to find someone else’s, moving across the country to the other centers, especially SF and NYC.
What most of the scenes had in common, though, were LSD and the Beatles, especially after Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Their effect was so extreme, that I posit that the later album killed rock and roll as a driving musical force (until the Ramones), and became, rather, secondary to the emergence of Rock. But I digress...
But even the Beatles had to be influenced by it somewhere; it certainly didn’t emerge out of Bluebird Way. This documentary starts in the 1950s, examining the roots of the counter-culture movement, beginning with the anti-nuclear proliferation (dis)organization, which was also focused on peace / end of war / end of nuclear armament.
Step-by-step, and in great detail, as this British film lasts for 2-1/2 hours, posits that jazz (e.g., Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor) and then beat poetry made their way from the States and were adopted – then adapted – by the British, leading to a bookstore that would become the locus of the avant-garde music scene. Its name was Indica, named after a form of cannabis plant. No surprise there, eh wot? The store was owned, in part, by Peter Asher. In 1966, it would have its own newspaper / newsletter / fanzine called the International Times (aka IT, or sometimes it)
Where the Beatles come into it is essentially through the bastions of rebellion in England, the Art Schools. Radical art leads to radical thoughts, and vice-versa. This is not a tradition followed in the West, where art in schools is somewhere behind Sports, English, and Study Hall. For Paul McCartney, he was heavily influenced in things underground by his girlfriend’s family. Jane Asher’s brother was the same Peter who co-founded Indica, and who was also in the duo Peter and Gordon, whose song “World Without Love” was both written and produced by McCartney.
The Ashers also introduced Paulie to the music of John Cage, which would later influence his song, “A Day in the Life.” Further, it was his producer George Martin who would call Paul’s attention to electronic music and atonal sounds, such as those by Karl Stockhausen (who, is my guess, also had an influential hand in the Velvet Underground’s sounds, such as with “European Son”).
The final bit to the puzzle of Paul, who would become a de facto silent partner to the movement, was Timothy Leary and his introduction of LSD to the world. No, he didn’t invent the stuff, but he promoted it brilliantly (“turn on, tune in, drop out”). John Lennon, of course, was also right behind, and with the help of reading Nietzsche, and the addition of the psychotropic drug, Lennon would write one of the first psychedelic songs, “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Hooking up with Yoko certainly had its influence, as well, as they posit here.
While all this was going on in the UK, the documentary wisely points out that they were not the only ones producing these sounds, as there were also bands like the Byrds in the States, releasing “Eight Miles High” just three weeks earlier (I would add the Count IV’s “Psychotic Reaction” and the burgeoning Garage scene). In England, there were also other simultaneous bands cropping up with the sound at the same time, such AMMmusic, a UK-based improvisational group. Their influence would be strong on the likes of Syd Barrett and his group Pink Floyd, and the Soft Machine. AMMmusic didn’t last long, but both of these other musical collectives would become identified with the movement, especially Syd Barret (d. 2006). Even on this DVD, there are periods where these other bands get more time than the Beatles around the counter-culture for using sonic techniques, but the Beatles were on top because they had the most widespread influence.
Over time, the scene spawned a central hub club in 1966, when the UFO opened (pronounced You-Foh, not U-F-O; oh, those crazy Brits!), where Pink Floyd (specifically Barrett) and Soft Machine became the musical figureheads of the movement.
An interesting argument given is that at first McCartney was shy about being associated with the UFO and IT, and would show up in disguise (including as a sheik), but in 1966, started arriving as himself. What amusingly crossed my mind is perhaps the real Paul was wary, but after his rumored death in ‘66, the Paul replacement (whom George would amusingly call Fauxl) was not as leery being associated with it..
Over a relatively short time, Paul would lose interest and John would stay involved. This film concludes that it was that incident that broke up the Beatles, rather than Yoko or business dealings, or the whole craziness about who would be their manager. To me that seems a stretch, though it could have been all of it, rather than just the one thing. Anyway, between police raids and times they were a-changin’, the scene would peter out eventually, as all scenes must.
I’ve only touched on what goes on in this documentary, so it’s still worth a view. The counter-culture in England was definitely different than it was in the States. One thing that seems clear though, is that just like in North America, it was run by men (other than Yoko, I don’t remember a single woman even mentioned here). I remember reading a book about the 1960s Canadian counter-culture called Underground Times by Ron Verzuh (1989), and he makes similar claims about gender politics, not addressed here, but obvious to me seeing who is represented in interviews and discussions.
While there is less music expressed here in recordings than other Chrome Dream docs (and none complete, as is usual), there still is plenty. However, this film has definitely stepped up on getting movers and shakers to the scene, such as a frail and shell-shocked-looking John “Hoppy” Hopkins (d. 2015, who founded IT and organized UFO), a toothless Mick Farren (d. 2013; musician and IT journalist), Robert Wyatt (drummer for Soft Machine), Joe Boyd (founder of UFO and producer of Pink Floyd), and Eddie Provost (drummer of AMMmusic), among others. Journalists are kept at a minimum, so most of the stories are first hand.
The extras include a seven-minute short about the differences between the counter-culture scenes in North America (specifically San Francisco) and the UK titled “Other Side of the Mirror: UK and US Psychedelia,” a list of those interviewed and their accomplishments, and a link to find out more online.
Honestly, I did not know a lot of the British counter-culture history, though more familiar with its North American cousins, so this kept me interested throughout.