Going underground

The underground, counterculture graphics of the past four decades have remained a source of inspiration for those wishing to escape the mainstream, as Lawrence Zeegen discovers.

Why do you do what you do? Go on: think back - what was it that got you fired up to get involved in graphic art and design in the first place? Chances are that a poster, a record sleeve, magazine or book cover first introduced you to this wonderful world of graphic design. Now, if you're honest with yourself, you'll probably find that whatever that piece of print or on-screen graphic was, it probably wasn't exactly mainstream.

Swimming against the overflowing floodtide of the mainstream, it's far more likely that something seeping from the subculture was your initial inspiration. Think free press, fanzines and flyers; think youth culture, street culture and club culture; think anti-establishment, anti-globalisation, anti-consumerism and anti-capitalism; think 'peace and love' and Hate and War; think Oz, Zap, RAW, Viz; think Furry Freak Brothers and Fat Freddy's Cat; think Sniffin' Glue; think "Turn on, tune in and drop out", "Question authority" and "Never trust a hippy". Finally, think about the mavericks, the obsessive and idiosyncratic designers that have trail-blazed, free from the constraints of mainstream agendas, across four decades of the underground.

Freedom of speech
"The mainstream comes to you, but you have to go to the underground," said Frank Zappa, that extraordinary songwriter, singer and guitarist whose music spanned three decades and who was known for despising organised religion, was passionate about freedom of speech and advocated the abolition of censorship. Zappa understood that if you wanted to avoid the mainstream, the ordinary and the mundane, then going underground was where it was at.

If Zappa represented the free expression of the 1960s and early 1970s then it was Paul Weller, of The Jam, who became the spokesman for a generation of disillusioned youth of the 1970s and early 1980s. Weller, echoing Zappa before him, sounded a rally-call at the dawn of the 80s when he sang, "And the public gets what the public wants. But I want nothing that society's got - I'm going underground€¦" As well as being far more creatively rewarding than being part of the mainstream, submerging yourself into subcultures and courting the counterculture sends the cool count rising too.

From 'rebel yell' to 'rebel sell'
Having celebrated over 40 years in existence, the underground isn't exactly a recent fad - in fact, some argue that counterculture has now become consumer culture, as 'cool' brands and corporations have hijacked the underground, have adopted the look and sold it back to consumers hungry for a slice of culture-jamming action.

But back before the rebel yell became the rebel sell, radical political, economic and cultural thinking was the hard-line for the front-line in the underground movement. The main protagonists, the leading characters and who's who of the counterculture are a wide-ranging bunch.

In the US, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Allen Ginsberg's cut-up poetry and William Burrough's drug-inspired writings are seen as instrumental in kick-starting the radical free press. With magazines rising up, a global revolution was born. Village Voice, The East Village Other, International Times, Fifth Estate, Los Angeles Free Press, Inner-City Voice, Ink, Ace, Zap, Oz - the list goes on - all played their part in ensuring that alternative voices of their times were heard and seen.

The Times They Are A-Changin'
In the 60s a new graphic language was born, inspired by a radical LSD and mescaline drug culture booming out of San Francisco, and psychedelic art was to influence many counterculture publications: artists and designers such as Martin Sharp of Oz and Rick Griffin of Zap would become synonymous with the genre. A new band of cartoonists too would emerge through the underground press - Robert Crumb, creator of Mr Natural and Fritz the Cat; Gilbert Shelton, the artist behind Wonder Warthog and the Furry Freak Brothers as well as Spain Rodriguez, the originator of Trashman arrived in the scene. It was a time for experimentation, freedom and anything goes.

The voice of the underground grew louder, first as a backlash against the conservatism of the 1950s, the decade before, and then as a reaction against the Cold War and Vietnam, all fuelled by massive changes socially and politically. Drugs, music, the civil rights movement, feminism, the sexual revolution, the birth of environmentalism all aided and abetted the cultural revolution of the 60s. Life would never be the same again and Bob Dylan summed it up in early 1964 with his seminal album The Times They Are A-Changin'. The title track became a generation's call-toarms as Dylan's lyrics testify: "Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, and don't criticise what you can't understand, your sons and daughters are beyond your command€¦"

No future
But by the end of the decade the optimism and hedonism of the 60s would soon turn sour. The reality, once the drugs had worn off, was of a counterculture in decline. The underground press had almost ceased to exist, with most alternative journalists, artists and designers moving on to work in mainstream corporate media. The underground had sold itself down the river. Far from creating a subversive alternative, it had been bought up, packaged, branded and sold back to the youth - the first example of a marketing culture marketing subcultures taking hold. The party was over.

The bleak realism of the 70s was quick to take a stranglehold. If the hippies of the US west coast had signified all that was good, bad and ugly about the previous decade, then it was the UK's mass unemployment, three-day weeks, power-cuts and general apathy of a down-trodden nation that would ignite the next decade of youth-led subculture.

"Make no mistake, the 70s sucked," admitted Jello Biafra of US punk band Dead Kennedys. "Only a bonehead would want to bring back any part of it in any form. When we were coming of age, we weren't dazed and confused, we were disgusted. We missed the 60s! All that fire, all that promise, all that fun - mellowed out, paved over, sold back to us as what we now call yuppie culture."

Smash 'n' grab
Where the underground and free press of the 60s had left off, the punk fanzines of the 70s took over. The cut-and-paste, smash-and-grab, hit-and-run graphic sensibility owed much to Jamie Reid's design for Never Mind The Bollocks, the Sex Pistols' groundbreaking album. However, a new Do It Yourself energy and aesthetic had already taken hold. Fanzines - low-cost, photocopied and generally freely circulated publications - offered an alternative to the mainstream media. Sniffin' Glue, a live-fast-die-young affair put together by Mark Perry, represented the genre perfectly. "This thing isn't meant to be read," stated issue 01, "it's for soaking in glue and sniffin'." A rag-tail collection of reviews, interviews, comments and photos that chronicled the early days of a speed-fuelled punk scene, Sniffin' Glue stood as a graphic representation of the movement.

Punk may have died in early 1978, the night when Johnny Rotten walked off stage at San Francisco's Winterland and departed the Sex Pistols for good, but the impact that punk, and the hippies before them, had is of long-lasting legacy. Without the counterculture and underground of the 60s and 70s, independent music and independent publishing could never have existed.

The underground had spawned imitators throughout the 80s and 90s, with the early style press - The Face, Blitz and i-D magazines being the most visually eloquent - but with musical genres rapidly overshadowed by dance music and an Ecstasy drug culture, it was the club flyer that soon epitomised 80s and 90s counterculture. Warehouse parties and raves weren't politically motivated, but that still didn't stop the mainstream from attempting to stamp out the culture: laws were passed that stopped gatherings in public places and the authorities closed down raves faster than 20,000 teenagers could congregate in a field in Hampshire. The counterculture might well have been pronounced dead as rave music lost its subculture status and became popularised, it seemed like there was no place to go and nowhere to hide - the underground had become the overground.

Where next?
So, where do you turn when you don't want to take your place in the world of straight corporate and commercial design? Without political agendas to push a movement underground, what choices are available to those wishing to buck the system? Of course, the internet has been the obvious choice for many - Barry Miles, a central figure in 60s counterculture and author of many books including The Beat Hotel, Ginsberg: A Biography and The Beatles Diary reasoned as such in his introduction to the recent book 200 Trips from the Counter-Culture. "The internet, with its great unsorted jumble of facts, lies and misreporting, is in many ways like the underground press, and the advent of personal blogs means that everyone can now publish their own paper," he wrote in the book's introduction.

However, despite the allure of the screen, there is still something special about print. MEAT magazine is one such mag that takes pride in self-publishing. Dedicated to publishing the work of up-and-coming artists and writers, MEAT "gets hot-under-the-collar about new talent" and each beautifully executed issue appears under the mantra 'Publish or Perish', a witty play on the term 'Publish or Be Damned'. James Pallister, a Cambridge University politics graduate, along with Nick Hayes, another of MEAT's founding editors, explains the magazine's philosophy: "We're reacting against consumerism. That might sound like lazy short-hand sometimes, but there are loads of magazines out there - they're too glossy, too beautiful - and we're just not interested in them."

Open the cover of the current issue of MEAT and you're greeted with a message in beautifully set type, printed in black, across a carefully designed spread: "Look in one direction and it seems like we've never had it so good. Look in another and we are more screwed than ever before!" the statement reads. Could it be that an underground political agenda is taking shape? With issue 06 reading like a call-to-arms ("Artists - Justify Your Existence" running down the spine and "Art! What is it Good For? Why we need a new manifesto?" across the James Dawe-designed cover) MEAT is cranking up a gear. "We're completely obsessed with independent publishing," admits an excited Pallister, who keeps it all together while maintaining his day-job as an editorial assistant on a magazine for architects. "It's really exciting and empowering, we've always been about taking the good stuff that is around us and getting it out there, but doing it in a stylish way - if you're doing something that looks decent, people will take it on!

Ape shall not kill Ape!
The Illustrated Ape, founded on similar principles to MEAT, first arrived on the scene a decade ago in 1997 and was the brainchild of its three founding editors, Mike Sims, Christian Pattison and Jim Anderson, all English graduates. "We were, we reckoned, writers and artists who were fed up with the conventional publishing world and thought we had better ideas!" admits Sims. "We wanted to create a magazine that was like a band - I wanted our contributors to be as unselfconscious about making and enjoying art as someone at a gig. Our idea was to produce a magazine that was dark, funny, scabrous, splenetic and knockabout and to liberate starving artists from their garrets and bedrooms and put them into print, for the first time if possible."

Just as MEAT's strong design and high production values have been crucial to the vision instilled by Pallister and Hayes, Ape too recognised the need for good design as to how the mag was perceived. "How Ape looked was very important to us," recalls Sims. "Initially it was published as a tabloid newspaper on newsprint, but in 2001 Daren Ellis came aboard as art director and totally redesigned the magazine. We became a pretty lavish 64-page magazine on good paper that was the same size as the Sunday Times magazine, on which Daren had worked!"

Ape has continued to mutate as the readership has developed - its bold, graphic approach showcases some of the best illustration globally. "Lots of our readers are illustrators, we only publish illustrations now - no photographs. Ape has really benefited from the rise in interest in illustration and hand-drawn techniques," admits Sims. Sims is a busy guy, his day-job sees him working as an editor for a magazine aimed at art galleries, and as deputy editor on another: Printmaking Today. Ape remains a passion for Sims - a labour-of-love but one that is now on sale in the Tate and Serpentine galleries in London, in Magma and Borders across the UK and over 15 countries abroad.

Hands-up
Where MEAT and Ape have constantly showcased new and emerging talent - often work by students yet to see the light of day - Le Gun is a publication that was actually initiated by students. The Royal College of Art, London, in 2003 saw a meeting of minds: Robert Greene and Neal Fox were both students with a mission. "We realised that we were into a lot of the same things - counterculture magazines that used drawing and particularly RAW magazine, which came out of New York in the 80s," recalls Fox. "We wanted to make something in the spirit of a fanzine but with the production values of an art book - that was the influence of RAW."

Le Gun describes itself as a "narrative art annual" and as a "veritable smorgasbord of images and words" - the aim, explains Fox, was "to publish something that was a fusion of all the eclectic and eccentric drawing styles we were surrounded by, always with narrative as a focus". Teaming up with student designers Matt Appleton and Alex Wright and student illustrators Chris Bianchi and Bill Bragg, the production was always going to be an ambitious affair. "The whole thing came out of a culture of heavy drinking, but through raising money with parties and selling drawings we managed to make it happen," Fox continues. "Working together as a collective on exhibitions and parties is a big part of Le Gun."

The Le Gun team has moved onwards and upwards - it's set up a printing press in Hackney and a publishing company with Suggs and Chas Smash of Madness. Fox elaborates: "We want to keep producing a unique publication, somewhere between pulp fiction and an artist's edition, something that isn't affected by the commercial concerns that most magazines are controlled by these days." Uncanny, but that sounds just like a statement that could have been uttered over 40 years ago!