The underground press were the independently published and distributed underground papers associated with the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and other western nations.
The term “underground press” is also used to refer to illegal publications produced against the wishes of oppressive regimes. In German occupied Europe, for example, or the samizdat and bibuła in the Soviet Union and Poland respectively.
This movement borrowed the name from previous “underground presses” such as the Dutch underground press during the Nazi occupations of the 1940s. The French resistance published a large and active underground press that printed over 2 million newspapers a month; the leading titles were Combat, Libération, Défense de la France, and Le Franc-Tireur. Each paper was the organ of a separate resistance network, and funds were provided from Allied headquarters in London and distributed to the different papers by resistance leader Jean Moulin. Allied prisoners of war (POWs) published an underground newspaper called Pow wow. In Eastern Europe, also since approximately the 1940, underground publications were known by the name samizdat. Those predecessors were truly “underground,” meaning they were illegal, thus published and distributed covertly. While the countercultural “underground” papers frequently battled with governmental authorities, for the most part they were distributed openly through a network of street vendors, newsstands and head shops, and thus reached a wide audience.
The underground press in the 1960s and 1970s existed in most countries with high GDP per capita and freedom of the press; similar publications existed in some developing countries and as part of the samizdat movement in the communist states, notably Czechoslovakia. Published as weeklies, monthlies, or “occasionals”, and usually associated with left-wing politics, they evolved on the one hand into today’s alternative weeklies and on the other into zines.
The underground press offered a platform to the socially impotent and mirrored the changing way of life in the UK underground.
Police harassment of the British underground in general became commonplace, to the point that in 1967 the police seemed to focus in particular on the apparent source of agitation: the underground press. The police campaign may have had an effect contrary to that which was presumably intended. If anything, according to one or two who were there at the time, it actually made the underground press stronger. “It focused attention, stiffened resolve, and tended to confirm that what we were doing was considered dangerous to the establishment”, remembered Mick Farren. From April 1967, and for some while later, the police raided the offices of International Times to try, it was alleged, to force the paper out of business. In order to raise money for IT a benefit event was put together, “The 14 Hour Technicolor Dream” Alexandra Palace on 29 April 1967.
On one occasion – in the wake of yet another raid on IT – London’s alternative press, somewhat astonishingly, succeeded in pulling off what was billed as a ‘reprisal attack’ on the police. The paper Black Dwarf published a detailed floor-by-floor ‘Guide to Scotland Yard,’ complete with diagrams, descriptions of locks on particular doors, and snippets of overheard conversation. The anonymous author, or ‘blue dwarf,’ as he styled himself,’ claimed to have perused archive files, and even to have sampled one or two brands of scotch in the Commissioner’s office. The London Evening Standard headlined the incident as “Raid on the Yard”. A day or two later The Daily Telegraph announced that the prank had resulted in all security passes to the police headquarters having to be withdrawn and then re-issued.
By the end of the decade, community artists and bands such as Pink Floyd, (before they “went commercial”), the The Deviants, Pink Fairies, Hawkwind, Michael Moorcock and Steve Peregrin Took would arise in a symbiotic co-operation with the underground press. The underground press publicised these bands and this made it possible for them to tour and get record deals. The band members travelled around spreading the ethos and the demand for the newspapers and magazines grew and flourished for a while.
The flaunting of sexuality within the underground press provoked prosecution. IT was taken to court for publishing small ads for homosexuals; despite the 1967 legalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults in private importuning remained subject to prosecution. The Oz “School Kids” issue, brought charges against the three Oz editors who were convicted and given jail sentences. This was the first time the Obscene Publications Act 1959 was combined with a moral conspiracy charge. The convictions were, however, overturned on appeal.
A 1980 review identified some 70 such publications around the United Kingdom but estimated that the true number could well have run into hundreds. Such papers were usually published anonymously, for fear of the UK’s draconian libel laws. They followed a broad anarchist, libertarian, left-wing of the Labour Party, socialist approach but the philosophy of a paper was usually flexible as those responsible for its production came and went. Most papers were run on collective principles.
In the U.S. the term underground newspaper generally refers to an independent (and typically smaller) newspaper focusing on unpopular themes or counterculture issues. Typically, these tend to be politically to the left or far left.
More narrowly, in the US the term “underground newspaper” most often refers to publications of the period 1965-1973, when a sort of boom or craze for local tabloid underground newspapers swept the country in the wake of court decisions making prosecution for obscenity far more difficult. These publications became the voice of the rising New Left and the hippie/psychedelic/rock and roll counterculture of the 1960s in America, and a focal point of opposition to the Vietnam War and the draft.
In the period 1969-1970 a number of these papers grew more militant and began to openly discuss armed revolution against the state, printing manuals for bombing and urging readers to buy guns; but this new trend of the pacifistic underground press toward violent confrontation soon fell silent after the rise and fall of the Weatherman Underground and the tragic shootings at Kent State. By the end of 1972, with the end of the draft and the winding down of the Vietnam War there was increasingly little reason for the underground press to exist. A number of papers passed out of existence during this time; among the survivors a newer and less polemical view toward middle-class values and working within the system emerged. The underground press began to evolve into the socially conscious, life-style oriented alternative press that predominates this form of weekly print media in 2013 in North America.
A 1971 roster, published in Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, listed 271 UPS-affiliated papers; 11 were in Canada, 23 in Europe, and the remainder in the United States. According to historian John McMillian, writing in his 2010 book Smoking Typewriters, the underground press’ combined readership eventually reached into the millions.
Many of the papers faced official harassment on a regular basis; local police repeatedly raided and busted up the offices of Dallas Notes and jailed editor Stoney Burns on drug charges, charged Atlanta’s Great Speckled Bird and others with obscenity, arrested street vendors, and pressured local printers not to print underground papers. In Austin, the regents at the University of Texas sued The Rag to prevent circulation on campus but the ACLU successfully defended the paper’s First Amendment rights before the U.S. Supreme Court. In an apparent attempt to shut down The Spectator in Bloomington, Indiana, editor James Retherford was briefly imprisoned for alleged violations of the Selective Service laws; his conviction was overturned and the prosecutors were rebuked by a federal judge. The offices of Houston’s Space City! were bombed and its windows repeatedly shot out; similar drive-by shootings, firebombings, break-ins and trashings were carried out on the offices of many underground papers around the country, fortunately without causing any fatalities. In Houston as in many other cities the attackers, never identified, were suspected of being off-duty military or police personnel, or members of the Ku Klux Klan or Minuteman organizations. Some of the most violent attacks were carried out against the underground press in San Diego. In 1976 the San Diego Union reported that the attacks in 1971 and 1972 had been carried out by a right-wing paramilitary group calling itself the Secret Army Organization, which had ties to the local office of the FBI.
During this period there was also a widespread high school underground press movement circulating unauthorized student-published tabloids and mimeographed sheets at hundreds of high schools around the US. Most of these papers put out only a few issues, running off a few hundred copies of each and circulating them only at one local school, although there was one system-wide antiwar high school underground paper produced in New York in 1969 with a 10,000 copy press run. And Houston’s Little Red Schoolhouse, a city-wide underground paper published by high school students, was founded in 1970.
Most papers operated on a shoestring budget, pasting up camera-ready copy on layout sheets on the editor’s kitchen table, with labor performed by unpaid, non-union volunteers. Typesetting costs, which at the time were wiping out many established big city papers, were avoided by typing up copy on a rented or borrowed IBM Selectric typewriter to be pasted up by hand. As one observer commented with only slight hyperbole, students were financing the publication of these papers out of their lunch money.
During the 1960s and 1970s, there were also a number of left political periodicals with some of the same concerns of the underground press. Some of these periodicals joined the Underground Press Syndicate to gain services such as microfilming, advertising, and the free exchange of articles and newspapers. Examples include The Black Panther (the paper of the Black Panther Party, Oakland, California), and The Guardian, New York City; both of which had national distribution.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) conducted surveillance and disruption activities on the underground press in the United States, including a campaign to destroy the alternative agency Liberation News Service. As part of its COINTELPRO designed to discredit and infiltrate radical New Left groups, the FBI also launched phony underground newspapers such as the Armageddon News at Indiana University Bloomington, The Longhorn Tale at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Rational Observer at American University in Washington, D.C. The FBI also ran the Pacific International News Service in San Francisco, the Chicago Midwest News, and the New York Press Service. Many of these organizations consisted of little more than a post office box and a letterhead, designed to enable the FBI to receive exchange copies of underground press publications and send undercover observers to underground press gatherings.
The Georgia Straight outlived the underground movement, evolving into an alternative weekly still published today; Fifth Estate survives as an anarchist magazine. The Rag—which published for 11 years in Austin (1966–1977) — was revived in 2006 as an online publication, The Rag Blog, which now has a wide following in the progressive blogosphere and whose contributors include many veterans of the original underground press.
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