London underground

Nearly forty years ago, an explosion of surreally subversive magazines brought sex, drugs, gay liber

The prosecuting counsel held the publication up disdainfully. "It deals with homosexuality," he told the jury. "It deals with lesbianism - on the front cover! It deals with sadism; it deals with perverted sexual practices; and, finally, it deals with drug taking. You will, having read the magazine through, ask yourself: 'Does such a magazine in fact tend to deprave and corrupt a person in whom those sort of practices are latent?'"

The date was 1971, the place the Old Bailey and the trial that of three editors. Nearly 40 years later, the media and an editor have been in the dock again over the coverage of sexual practices but the issues are as far apart as the intervening years. That earlier case, brought under the Obscene Publications Act, was the trial of the three editors of Oz - Richard Neville, Felix Dennis and Jim Anderson - who were convicted and jailed briefly, before the Court of Appeal freed them, for producing what was seen then as a subversive, not to say perverted, magazine.

The trial judge, Justice Argyle, famously inquired of one expert witness, George Melly: "For those of us who don't have the benefit of a classical education, what do you mean by the word 'cunnilinctus'?"

Soon those days will be recaptured in a film, by the director Beeban Kidron, based on Neville's later book Hippie Hippie Shake, which was published in 1994. I have been revisiting that period for a novel set in the same year as the trial, a time when the underground press, as it was called, was at its peak. But what legacy did those publications - Oz, IT, Ink, Frendz and the rest - bequeath us?

The first and longest-lived was International Times or IT, which arrived on the scene in 1966. "Even within the wonderful museum of British subversive publishing, International Times had no logical antecedence," wrote Roger Hutchinson in his book High Sixties. "It was not a piece of scurrilous pamphleteering and it was not a Fabian tract." While Private Eye had already donned the mantle of Claud Cockburn's Thirties subversive publication The Week, IT addressed a different, stranger audience.

Hutchinson credits the litho presses of the Sixties with the making of the underground press: they circumvented hot metal and made production of a publication available to all. "Suddenly, all you needed was a typewriter and a few hundred quid," said Hutchinson. And here is the first obvious connection to today. Just as litho allowed anyone to publish, so does the internet. While much of what was published then may have been ephemeral, it allowed hundreds of would-be writers and designers who had not found their way into the mainstream press, or did not want to be there anyway, to express themselves, as the blogosphere does today.

Full-colour and full-on

Having edited IT, Hutchinson headed to Skye and the West Highland Free Press, which had also been founded in the early Seventies, although it was "alternative" rather than "underground" and, unlike all the others, continues to this day. One of its founders, Brian Wilson, who went on to become an MP and a Labour minister, realised that one way a radical weekly could survive was by making itself essential reading for the community it served, which meant covering shinty results and marriages as well as local politics. Hutch inson, whose own book, Calum's Road, is soon to be filmed, also worked for the Australian upstart that arrived in London at the end of the Sixties.

Oz was visually unlike anything we had ever seen before, although it had its critics, not least among its own editors. "The early Ozes were an uncomfortable hybrid of satire, Sunday journalism and pirated titbits from the underground," said Neville later. But it packed a punch.

When the still youthful San Francisco-based Rolling Stone made a brief and doomed attempt to launch a British edition, it stressed that it, at least, was not trying to be "underground". "Poor baby," retorted Germaine Greer in Oz. "It's awful to be misunderstood. You just want to talk about music and fucking and dope and that's all. We know you have no intention of overthrowing the Vichy government." Rolling Stone's wounded reply was a classic of the period. "Revolution is a happening thing. I hope you won't be stuck in your bag of defending the underground; like the man said, let's make it for the hell of it."

While Oz was brash, full-on and full-colour, in keeping with the days when the skies were marmalade, Ink, which was launched in 1971 and for which I wrote a few times, described itself as "The Other Newspaper". It took a more serious approach.

John Lloyd, later editor of the New Statesman and now director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in Oxford, was one of Ink's editors. What legacy does he now believe those papers left us?

"I would argue that you had issues taken up, often quite intemperately, which have passed now into normal, liberal practice. There was a lot about the gay liberation movement in the United States, a lot about feminism and both have passed into liberal discourse, although they were then still way out. At their best, they were good-hearted and opened up a whole series of things.

"Frendz and IT were very druggy and the staff there were famously stoned, while Ink was more lefty in a non-denominational way. It was a vehicle for stuff that was happening much more loudly in the US and it was backing liberation movements in Latin America and Africa, which were then regarded as very outré."

Critics of the underground press at the time saw many of the publications as self-indulgent, unpolitical and misogynistic. Anna Coote was a young reporter on Ink who covered the Oz trial.

"We saw it as defying the Establishment," says Coote, who had come from the Observer. "By comparison to Ink, the Observer was seen as very stuffy. Ink was much freer. It was certainly male-dominated, no doubt about it, but the boys at Ink were very careful not to call us 'chicks' or get us to make the tea. Spare Rib and Red Rag [which were both soon to follow] were seen very much as a riposte to the male-dominated ethos."

At its peak, IT was selling 50,000 copies and its admirers found articles there about drugs, sex and music that appeared nowhere else and were unremittingly anti-Establishment. The Establishment fought back. Police raids were frequent. Apart from the Oz editors, staff at IT, Nasty Tales and the early Time Out all found themselves in court charged with offences ranging from conspiracy, via corrupting the public morals - by running gay small ads - to breaches of the Official Secrets Act.

Some musicians of the time, already distrustful of the mainstream media, would only talk openly to IT and its sister papers. The early editions are a treasure trove. "We're playing and we're pretending to be Beatles," George Harrison said in one interview with Barry Miles for IT, "like Harold Wilson's pretending to be prime minister and you're pretending to be the interview on IT."

Intellectual compost

The underground press also offered the only honest information available at the time on drugs and encouraged much of the most interesting music and theatre. There was always a tension between the organised and increasingly factional political left and the "Groucho Marxists" who worked on the underground press, although there was much overlapping, exemplified by the late David Widgery, who combined his international socialism with technicolour prose in Oz.

One of the great joys - and drawbacks, on occasion - of the old underground press was that anyone could wander in off the street, as they often did, with their manuscripts, their cartoons and their crazy ideas and stumble into the, usually, basement offices of the paper concerned. So far the internet has not quite found a way of recreating that communality, except electronically.

So what survived? In his book Underground: the London Alternative Press 1966-74, Nigel Fountain noted that the right saw the baleful effect of the "revolting students" of the Sixties in the "revolting teachers" of the Eighties. He added that "the issues raised by the underground press in all its forms, IT, Mole Express, Frendz, Grass Eye, Black Dwarf, Ink, Oz, 7 Days, even Gandalf's Garden, were never resolved. The arguments about self-activity, about the failures of reform, the limitation of conventional politics, the need to step outside an alienated system, were never refuted. History filed them for future reference."

He quoted Richard Neville's reflections on his former colleagues: "Some grew rich. Some grew wiser. Some have fallen dead as junkies. Some have suffered. But it was a period of intellectual ferment. It was a compost heap."

Now that we are in an environmentally conscious age, it is only fitting that we should value this compost.

Duncan Campbell's novel "The Paradise Trail" is published by Headline (£7.99 paperback)