Something's Happening

A Short History of Countercultural Goings-On in UK

Thursday 21st January 2016

For as long as we've had industrialised cities, there have been those who choose to live on the fringes; from the English romantic poets to the French bohemians, to the American beatniks, there have always been those who've opted for a life separated from the expectations and the norms of what they perceived to be a shallow and materialistic society.

This rejection of the mainstream view was to rise to prominence in the mid-1960s as young people around the world began coming together and exchanging radical ideas, the reverberations of which shaped much of the world we live in today. Most people appreciate the social significance of the sixties but the influence of the previous decade is often overlooked.

It would be easy to write off the fifties as a bleak, black and white world still recovering from the devastation of war, but then you'd be neglecting to consider the impact the various youth movements formulating at the time would go on to have. With popular culture coming over from the US, philosophical and political ideas from Europe, most specifically France, and spiritual ideas arriving from the East, many young people were exploring different ways of being and began coming together in what would soon become 'Happenings', a place where you could discuss weighty topics and challenge established views.

In its truest sense, a 'Happening' is a spontaneous, unstructured performance art piece, 'they appear to go nowhere and do not make any particular literary point' explained the man who coined the phrase, Allan Kaprow in 'Happenings in the New York Scene'. However, the term 'Happening' soon came to be used to describe any kind of artistic, countercultural gathering that sought to eschew the centre.

In the fifties young people rejecting the norm began to congregate at late night cafes, because they remained open much later than pubs and had record players with the latest jazz and rhythm and blues sounds. In the early part of the decade the Teddy Boy scene emerged in London's East End, whilst Soho's jazz scene gave birth to its own subculture at the end of the decade, the mods.

Oriented around Wardour Street clubs like The Flamingo, the original mods were 'the working class reaction to existentialism', explains Steve Sparks, who notes they valued their philosophy and music more than the aesthetic that the scene later became focussed on. In terms of 'Happenings', gangs like Peter Shertser's 'The Firm' were more concerned with destruction than creation, although there was something somewhat creative about their sophisticated brand of vandalism known as 'wrecking'. Art Schools proved to be hotbeds for new ways of thinking in the late fifties, the places where the most cutting edge and radical ideas were discussed, whilst their dances gave a taste of future 'Happenings'. The 1963 Edinburgh Festival was one of the first times a 'Happening' in the Kaprow sense of the term appeared in the UK. Named, 'In Memory Of Big Ed', the performance was recounted in 'The Edinburgh Festivals':

Gradually one became aware of the low, throbbing sound of an organ and an electronic tape feeding back carefully edited excerpts from the week's discussions. Then a nude on a trolley was pulled across the balcony above the speaker's platform. Carroll Baker, who had been seated on the platform, took this as her cue to descend and begin clambering over the seats as if hypnotized by Allan Kaprow who, Valentino-like, was spooking her from the other end of the hall. By this time a group of strangers had appeared at the windows overhead hollering and a mother ushered her baby across the stage pointing out the celebrities in the crowd. The final beat was when the curtains behind the speaker's platform suddenly tumbled down to reveal rows of shelves containing over a hundred sculpted heads illuminated by footlights. The actions had intended to disperse attention and create a number of different areas of interest, and by this time, they had fully succeeded. No one knew precisely what was happening nor where...

One of the happening's organisers Mark Boyle soon became involved in the London scene, and found himself in the midst of the creative storm brewing around Tony Godwin's Better Books. Then under the management of Barry Miles, who prefers to be known simply as 'Miles', the shop was at the cutting edge of the avant-garde and acted as more than a bookshop, offering a space for poetry recitals and 'Happenings', sometimes referred to as 'Goings-On'.

A prolific writer, Miles helped spread ideas and document what was going on. Despite being an earnest character, he was a real organising force in establishing a movement in the UK, becoming a sort of acolyte and representative of beatniks Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs while they were in the UK. In May 1965, Ginsberg arrived in Better Books and gave a reading, which Andy Warhol happened to be in the crowd of. Before the dust had settled on the memorable reading, plans were already being hatched for something on a much grander scale. The venue for the International Poetry Incarnation was to be the Royal Albert Hall and it would eventually attract somewhere between 7-8000 wide-eyed young people to come get inspired and invigorated by poetry and performance, thanks in some part to a 10-minute segment appearing in the BBC's Nine O'Clock news the night before.

What the event served to do was reveal the underground network that had been growing around the country in isolated pockets and in many ways it marked the beginning of a new era. 'There was a huge excitement because you felt that you were at the vanguard of something', recalled DJ John Peel in 'Days In The Life'. 'I remember reading at school that the Royal Society had seriously debated winding itself down because they felt that everything there was to be discovered, had already been discovered, but since then there'd been this vast technological advance, but no corresponding moral advance, and I think that we felt, or certainly I felt, that what we were going to be responsible for would be the moral advance.'

Inspired by the Incarnation, Miles set up his own Indica bookshop at the beginning of 1966, with John Dunbar and Peter Asher. Paul McCartney helped renovate the shop which would become a hub for 'Happenings' and he was intimately involved from the start - many of the avant-garde ideas he brought to The Beatles were found in these premises, with Miles providing particular inspiration.

Similarly inspired by the Incarnation, John 'Hoppy' Hopkins set up the London Free School in Notting Hill in March, 1966. The brief-lived venture was inspired by American free universities and the Victorian Jewish Free School in Spitalfields and when it did fizzle out of existence, the Notting Hill Carnival, the International Times and the UFO Club all emerged from its ashes.

With the idea of linking London to Paris to New York to Amsterdam and the rest of the world, the International Times was launched by Hoppy and Miles at a Pink Floyd gig at the Roundhouse. The UFO Club was soon set up in the Blarney Club on Tottenham Court Road, acting both as a float for the publication and a way of paying off the debts of the London Free School.

The focus increasingly fell on the music and the spontaneity now came in the form of the interplay between the live music, light shows, avant-garde films, slide shows and dance troupes. Soft Machine and Pink Floyd were booked to play the first couple of shows and soon became the house bands, the Floyd's tenure was short-lived however as the band rapidly rose to fame. Other notable haunts for this new bohemian scene were Middle Earth and Happening 44.

With a lot of the crowd taking psychedelic drugs, the scene had a much more relaxed vibe than the sometimes violent folk-rock scene and almost had an air of naivety to it, 'The 14 Hour Technicolour Dream' was the most ambitious of this new breed of 'Happenings', drawing together the most cutting edge musicians, poets, artists and light technicians. It was documented by Peter Whitehead in 'Tonite Let's All Make Love In London' - which takes its name from Allen Ginsberg's famous declaration at the International Poetry Incarnation.

The end of 1967 saw a long winter and the atmosphere had begun to sour, with some violent skinhead elements moving into the scene and a more heavy handed approach from the police on drug-related crimes. Around the same time the Obscene Publications Squad carted a load of books away from Indica and the International Times was also raided, with the police holding vital paperwork and disrupting their cash flow for over two months.

The establishment was fighting back. However, the mainstream wasn't to defeat the underground with force, the underground waned only when it was appropriated by the mainstream. By the summer of '68, the idea of 'hippies' had saturated the popular culture and like with the mods, people increasingly became concerned with the aesthetic qualities of the scene, meaning the essence was eventually lost. Combining that with the weight of expectation - this was a group that thought they would change the world - the scene was killed off.

The bohemian elements lost their unifying force and began to drift into their own isolated pockets again. The late eighties and early nineties saw this force return as the UK experienced a second 'Summer Of Love' during the rave era but this soon suffered the same fate as the sixties scene and was diluted into a commercialised, superficial form, splitting the underground back into isolated pockets in the form of free parties.

From 2014's 'Cosmic Trigger Weekend' in Liverpool, to Greg's Wilson's 'Super Weird Happenings', taking to various cities and festivals across the country, to Alan Moore's recent 'Under the Austerity, the Beach: A Day of Counter-Culture' in Northampton, the fringe elements of society seem to be coming out of isolation and looking to form a network again and challenge the norm. The ideas of the past can often find new relevance in the present and now seems as good a time as any to, as 'The Cosmic Trigger' implored, 'find the others'.

Written by Josh Ray

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