Notes from underground

Daniel Trilling is delighted that the alternative press is booming - even in the age of the internet

I've always preferred the feel of paper between my fingers to the unforgiving glare of a computer screen. I know we are supposed to be living in the digital age, in which computers choose music on our behalf, tell us what films to watch and cook our breakfast for us, but you just can't beat the pristine folds of a freshly printed magazine. This might explain why I have spent the past couple of years wrecking my social life and narrowly avoiding the sack from my day job to help put out the independent music magazine Plan B.

But I'm not alone in my print fetish. Walk into any decent newsagent and you will see that the alternative press is booming. Nestling among the copies of Heat and NME are magazines made by small groups of enthusiasts, holed up in bedrooms or ramshackle offices, who produce irreverent and lively takes on popular culture.

The titles on offer include Marmalade, which advocates a do-it-yourself approach to fashion; Strange Attractor, a journal of the paranormal and "unpopular culture"; and Diplo, which jazzes up international affairs with cutting-edge graphics. Strangest of all is Karen - a lifestyle magazine devoted entirely to the mundane, with photos of takeaway cartons, shopping lists and features about sell-by dates. Unlike fanzines, these magazines have high production values and place as much emphasis on photography and design as they do on the writing.

It is fascinating to compare and contrast the indie publications of today with those featured in Jean-François Bizot's Two Hundred Trips from the Counterculture, a new compendium of the Sixties underground press. The book is a riot of colour, politics and pop art, ranging from psychedelic illustrations and comic strips, through anti-Vietnam-war polemic and collage, and on to even some primitive attempts at computer art.

These magazines and newspapers, almost all of which were put together on a shoestring, were a breeding ground for literary and artistic talent: Hunter S Thompson, Ken Kesey and Allen Ginsberg were among the leading literary lights, while the cartoonist Robert Crumb later praised the underground press, saying it "didn't pay nothing, but you just felt so glad that somebody would print your stuff with no censorship at all". It gave a voice to the emerging feminist and Black Power movements, and allowed contributors to extol the mind-expanding properties of LSD and marijuana.

The publications featured in Two Hundred Trips from the Counterculture were all part of the Underground Press Syndicate, a transatlantic association of magazines and newspapers that was founded in 1965 by Allan Katzman of the New York-based East Village Other. UPS played a crucial role in propagating Sixties counter-culture, as the publications republished each other's content freely. So it was that articles from the East Village Other or the Berkeley Barb, published in San Francisco, were reprinted in London's International Times (which marks its 40th anniversary this month) or the Paris-based Actuel, spreading the ideals of the hippie movement.

Again, the design of these magazines was often as adventurous as the written content. A spread from Oz features a notorious nude photomontage of the feminist critic Germaine Greer - a surreal commentary on the relationship between pornography and female identity. Other publications got their political message across by using striking photography and montage techniques: in one example from Bizot's book, an anti-Vietnam-war poster juxtaposes an army recruitment ad with a photo of a dead soldier and an injured child. There are echoes of the same technique in the modern-day Canadian magazine Adbusters, which subverts advertising images to promote an anti-capitalist agenda.

The Sixties underground press tapped into cultural currents that existed outside the mainstream, according to Barry Miles, co-founder of the International Times. "We identified an underground youth community in Britain, one that wasn't being catered for by Fleet Street." As is still true today, this community centred around the arts, only later getting caught up in the politics of the time. The new-wave independent magazines also tap into an underground culture: Plan B is a rallying point for music lovers disillusioned with the bland cynicism of the entertainment industry, while the film magazine Little White Lies prides itself on providing a space for discussion and debate around cinema, rather than a system of reviews and ratings.

Perhaps the true inheritor of the utopian ideals of the Sixties underground press is the internet, where bloggers and the open-source movement are pursuing the dream of free information for all. The new wave of indie print mags is actually a reaction to the increasingly conservative print media, which have squeezed out intelligent titles such as The Face in favour of papers that push a relentless consumerism and worship an aristocratic class of celebrity.

In the same way as the Sixties underground press eventually fell prey to the big money of the rock'n'roll industry, today's indie publications have not escaped the attention of advertisers. Vice magazine, which features scatological humour that seems designed to offend, describes itself as a "multi-channel brand" and features as many adverts for trainers as straightforward articles. The leading PR consultant Julian Henry has described such new magazines as "a valuable piece of real estate for any commercial entity which wants to reach young people".

But to view them solely in terms of their commercial potential is to miss the point. While the internet has siphoned off most of the political activism (and with good reason; who needs to trek down to the shop when you can get a missive from Brighton's SchNews delivered straight to your email inbox, free of charge?), these magazines are not apolitical. By and large, they reject the commercial concerns of the mainstream, choosing to take advertising only when it suits the content, and encouraging their readers to shake off the straitjacket of consumerism and take an active role in their culture.

"Two Hundred Trips from the Counterculture: graphics and stories from the Underground Press Syndicate" by Jean-François Bizot is published by Thames & Hudson (£19.95)

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Emergency: How only carbon rationing can save the world