I am not referring to the tube but to the cultural movement that began in the late 1960s. It was (to begin with at least) restricted to the capital of England, Swinging London. However it had none of the jolly inclusiveness of that fashionable time. The Underground was the esoteric underbelly of the Swinging Sixties, dark, intellectual and middle class (although they would never have admitted that). In the early days I was as involved in all this as anyone could be who was living outside London. I read Oz and the International Times and listened to Radio One. The only DJ who was remotely interested in the Underground was John Peel, and his programme, which came on late at night, was my daily fare. I lapped it all up.
I was an enthusiast of the late David Bowie when he was part of the Underground; this preceded his first album which came out in 1967. It was before most of his fans were even born, and several years before he became a main stream pop star. With a school friend of similar tastes I also followed the avant-garde poets of the day, although that French term was not used either of or by them. William Blake was the historical figure all these poets looked up to, but browsing their names fifty years later there is no one among them who approaches him in stature. The Underground even permeated my painting, as you can see above. Drugs were an essential part of the Underground, and I joined in by smoking banana skins which (I was reliably informed) were a sure way to psychedelia. It was certainly a revolting experience. I know what I am talking about when I refer to the Underground.
I became disillusioned with the Underground well before 1970. The first rift came with John Peel himself. On 20th August 1968 Russian tanks rolled into Prague. It was a city I felt deeply about, having been there myself three years earlier. I listened intently to John Peel, desperately waiting for him to mention the outrage. Nothing other than his vapid sayings on incompetent guitar bands passed his lips. I gave up listening to John Peel in disgust. Compared to the awful things that were happening in Europe the self-regarding activities of a bunch of mediocre artists and musicians seemed irrelevant.
I was very young and I soon grew out of my infatuation with the Underground. What puzzles me is that so much of today’s culture still looks back to many of the trends that began in the febrile atmosphere of the Chalk Farm Roundhouse. Pop Music acquired an elevated status that it never merited and performers like David Bowie even have arrangements of their banal songs played on Classic FM. The popular music of the 1930s had no such pretentions, but (in my opinion) is much more listenable than Ziggy Stardust. What we now call Post Modern Art can be traced back to the 1960s and the Underground. In much the same way that many elderly men and women have never abandoned their youthful politics, their cultural aspirations have been preserved in aspic.
Not everything that came out of the Underground can be classified as bad, though I cannot point to any great masterpieces either. The real advances in art and entertainment have occurred elsewhere; compare the fuzzy black and white images of television in 1967 with today’s digital flat screens. The technologists have been advancing by great leaps while the art establishment seem stuck in the past. But maybe I am just being an old fogey and there really is art among the winners of the Turner Prize that is comparable with that of J. M. W. Turner. Or perhaps not.
THE BLOG FOR THE HISTORY OF THE UNDERGROUND