Summer 2000

Kicking complacency in the ass

Steven Heller
History

In the late 1960s, the underground press was a spontaneous and primitive rebellion against the status quo, with visual and verbal obsecnity as its most potent weapons. Sex stimulated sales, but ultimately sapped its creative radical energy.

‘Underground is a sloppy word and a lot of us are sorry we got stuck with it. Underground is meaningless, ambiguous, irrelevant, wildly imprecise, undefinitive, derivative, uncopyrighted, uncontrollable and used up,’ exclaimed Tom Forcade, co-ordinator of the Underground Press Syndicate, in 1968 when the anarchic publishing movement known as the ‘Underground Press’ had peaked in the United States. Hundreds of tabloid newspapers with names such as Advocate, Alchemist, Avatar, Barb, Bullsheet, Freak, Free Press, Karma, Oracle, Other, Rag, Rat, Revolution, Seed, TET and Underground were published in scores of cities and college towns as alternatives to mainstream media’s ‘mindless, mass journalism.’ Raucous in word and raunchy in appearance, these were the voices of a youth culture whose goal was to topple the values and mores of the previous generation.

But the term ‘underground’, which conjures the image of dank basements where World War II-era partisans surreptitiously cranked out contraband propaganda on dilapidated printing presses despite threats of arrest, torture and execution, was the subject of debate. Some editors preferred using the words ‘radical’, ‘revolutionary’ or ‘alternative’. Paul Krassner, editor / publisher of The Realist, the mother of all undergrounds, argued that the only true underground periodical in America was The Outlaw, produced by inmates of San Quentin Prison.

Nonetheless, the rubric signified the surge of anti-establishment publishing from the early 1960s through to the early 1970s. Initially, it was termed ‘underground’ because it represented an illicit, post-Beat subculture that advocated organised disobedience in opposition to the Vietnam War and in support of the Civil Rights movement. Eventually, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were added to the liturgy. Because these newspapers promulgated illegality, their staffs were viewed as accessories in the eyes of the law: undergrounds were placed on an Armed Forces blacklist that prohibited distribution to soldiers. But were they as dangerous as their wartime namesakes? Was their collective influence a threat to social wellbeing, and did they stimulate political unrest? Or did they merely change the aesthetics and ethos of the popular culture?

Underground publishing was a grassroots groundswell, a rebellion of mostly urban middle-class kids and young adults against a power structure mired in the archaic status quo. The undergrounds challenged propriety through word and picture. Written and visual obscenity was a prime weapon. Accepted notions of design were ignored, which gave the newspapers their collective untutored look. The movement was a hotbed of functional naivety. While historians often compare the undergrounds to Dada, few of those involved in the underground press were familiar with the once-radical art movement. Rather, the editors and artists intuitively appropriated cheap layout and printing technologies to communicate efficiently and immediately. How these ‘rags’ looked was important only in relation their goal: to kick the ass of complacency.

The underground press was an outlet for anyone who felt alienated, but it was not a monolith. Comprised of many factions and editorial points of view, each underground periodical had a distinct character (over 500 titles in the US were accounted for by the Underground Press Syndicate by 1972). The papers were also aimed at different audiences spanning an age range, from 16 to 30*, with contrasting socio-political principles that included the far-, middle-, centre- and neo-left, as well as hippies, Leninists, anarchists, populists, Maoists, occultists, student guerrillas, Black Panthers and rock’n’ rollers. Libertines were attracted to the softcore porn and personal classifieds found in many of the publications. Undergrounds appealed to those who were disillusioned because the mainstream press eschewed stories that affected them. These included tales of FBI and CIA infiltration of social and political opposition groups (which was eventually proven to be true), disinformation coming out of Vietnam (which was also true) and even new trends in art and music.

In the early 1960s, American mass media was tightly controlled by a power elite, so rather than mount a futile struggle to achieve legitimate access, undergrounds rebelled against any prevailing standards. Since journalism was defined as objective and dispassionate, the undergrounds practised the opposite. Since clean and rational graphic design was endemic to overground media, the undergrounds purposefully looked as though they were slapped together in a dark cave.

Although primitive when compared to mainstream newspapers and magazines, the underground press was nonetheless made possible through the advent of new technology. If not for inexpensive web-offset printing, the Varityper headliner and IBM MTST magnetic tape typesetting systems and the Stat King photostat machine, printing and layout processes would be time-consuming and expensive – probably impossible. Because all the pre-press work was produced ‘in-house’ and the printing was done by small proprietorships, the otherwise ‘anti-capitalist’ undergrounds avoided union shops and their costly labour. Typesetting and stat machines (with service contracts included) could be rented for a few dollars a day and the average price for printing a two-colour tabloid was as low as $500 for 3000 copies. Newsprint was cheap and so newsstand cover prices hovered between 15 and 35 cents. When paper costs skyrocketed during the early 1970s, countless small undergrounds went bust.

The underground press was not so completely subterranean that it rejected mass newsstand distribution. While ‘head shops’ and college bookstores accounted for a sizeable number of sales, as the respective papers developed loyal followings they received prominent space on the newsstand racks in major US cities (often pushed by the same professional distributors that handled mainstream periodicals). This, of course, gave the most successful undergrounds wider visibility and larger circulation (the major papers, such as The East Village Other, Los Angeles Free Press, Seattle Helix and Chicago Seed, during their respective heydays, boasted five figure circulations. Yet to maintain a viable presence on the competitive newsstands, undergrounds were compelled to up the volume of their graphics.

Underground ‘staff artists’ (which included anyone with modicum of drawing or paste-up ability) were encouraged to experiment with any materials that could be collaged or photographed. Although the more ideological papers were purposefully ‘un-designed’, which meant that headlines, text and pictures were randomly plonked down, the so-called cultural undergrounds believed that layout was truly an ‘art’. Marshall McLuhan referred to the ‘new’ graphic design when he wrote in The San Francisco Oracle (in 1966, the year it was founded) that ‘the new media is too important to be left to the Peter Pan and Mother Goose executives, [and] can only be trusted to the new artists.’ Of course most of these artists were total neophytes, without a clue as to what type or page design was all about. So they made up their own rules and models.

The Oracle was the short-lived clarion of the psychedelic movement and the vanguard of the underground’s graphic revolution. It was also resolutely ad hoc. The psychedelic style was an amalgam of Victorian, Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau lettering, as well as ethereal, spiritual and romantic drawing styles. It was also extremely colourful. In the early Oracles the graphics were drug-inspired automatic-writing-drawing perpetrated by naïfs. Allen Cohen, one of The Oracle’s founders, asserted that his publication was ‘a graphic expression of man’s highest ideals: music, art, ideas, prophesy, poetry and the expansion of the consciousness through drugs.’ The Oracle did not adhere to a fixed format and each page was designed independently of the ones that came before or after. Typical makeup included a decorative image area and fluid hand-drawn headline that framed or encircled the typeset prose and poetry. Often the text floated on the page inside bubbles or filigrees that spewed rainbow colour on to a page. The Oracle benefited from the web-printing process called split-fountain, which had the ability to print two different colours in one inkwell, which as the rollers turned were mixed together producing many more colours.

The East Village Other, a weekly that premiered in 1965 in New York City as a radical alternative to the already proto-alternative Village Voice (co-founded in 1955 by Norman Mailer), was a wellspring of graphic experimentation, but of a different kind. In contrast to the ethereal Oracle, EVO turned the notion of the newspaper inside out. Since the Voice was visually sombre, EVO was jarring. Its editors, poets Allan Katzman and Walter Bowart, saw their publication as an extension of the Fluxus art movement, but with a broader mandate to address newsworthy issues. Katzman, however, once noted that EVO was not in competition with other newspapers but rather with television. The early issues of EVO took unconventional forms, including one issue as an eight-page accordion fold-out that needed to be cut apart and then reconfigured. But eventually, EVO settled into a traditional tabloid format that employed unconventional layout techniques, such as intersecting vertical and horizontal columns, upside down and sideways headlines, colour surprints and abstract graphic concoctions made from press-down ruling tapes. Photographs were made into halftone veloxes and then cut apart and reconfigured, or shot as chromoliths which eliminated all middle-tones producing a poster-like effect. Photomontage reminiscent of the German satirical artist John Heartfield was a frequent polemical tool. EVO’s layout was an anarchic stew that prefigured the digital typographic feats of two decades later.

In addition, EVO devoted many pages to the phenomenon of underground comix. It even published a tabloid, The Gothic Blimp Works, exclusively devoted to witty ribald narratives by Robert Crumb, Spain Rodrigues, Gilbert Shelton, Kim Deitch and others. These artists lampooned and assaulted the bland mass-market comic books that were sanctioned by the Comics Code Authority, an industry censoring body that emerged during the Red Scare in the mid-1950s. The comix quickly became the soul of the underground press.

The Oracle folded after only one year, so its design never had a chance to evolve, although the psychedelic poster continued to develop into a distinct period style. EVO, on the other hand, lasted for almost a decade and went through many editorial and graphic incarnations as editors and layout staffs changed. Different personnel tried their own quirky approaches. Although there were so-called ‘art directors’ overseeing the layouts, in EVO’s case rarely did they impose rigid design dictates. This was ostensibly the standard procedure for most undergrounds. Since the papers relied on low-paid or volunteer work, freedom to create was the payback. Pages were also produced at a fast pace – often during 24-hour layout sessions fuelled by ample supplies of marijuana. There were limited means and little concern for nuance. Some layout people would dash a page off in minutes, while others who imbibed grass or acid would fuss for hours until time ran out.

Most underground papers were not known for synchronised layout and text, unless a specific photograph or drawing was requested. Even seasoned writers often filed stories at the last minute, so it was hard enough to edit and proofread copy and efficiently typeset it, let alone illustrate it. This accounts for the free-floating cartoons, comics and other unrelated artwork and collages found in most of the early undergrounds. Artists ‘doing their own thing’ was endemic to underground papers until the early 1970s, when a second wave attracted more skilled artists and designers.

Actually the model for this was Rolling Stone, currently the sina qua non of establishment music / culture periodicals. It began in San Francisco as a quarter-folded tabloid on newsprint. Other undergrounds covered the new music scene, but Rolling Stone was dedicated entirely to what was then known as ‘progressive rock’. Its logo, designed by psychedelic poster artist Rick Griffin, suggested that it was underground, but the interior format, initiated by John Williams and followed through by art director Robert Kingsbury, was curiously old fashioned. Its justified columns of Times Roman type were set inside Oxford rule boxes, black and white photographs were silhouetted in the manner of early twentieth-century pulp periodicals. Nonetheless, its visual gestalt was a breath of fresh air.

Rolling Stone was a revelation for those who saw typography as a serious form of communication. Layout did not have to be haphazard and ugly to get the message across. Although the design did not have to be as slick as the mainstream, it could still be clear and expressive. By 1970 the Typositor, a machine that set phototype headlines, and the Compugraphic typesetter, used primarily for body text, enabled designers (at the papers that could afford these machines) an opportunity to use legitimate type to help clean up and professionalise their layouts.

By 1969 the underground press was beginning to experience a widespread loss of readership. The reasons vary: youth culture was getting older; mainstream culture was co-opting it; rock’n’roll was becoming predictable; Vietnam protests were embraced by all social segments and ages. Whatever the cause, the effect was to turn to sex in order lure new readers. Undergrounds in New York like the muckracking New York Free Press and the SDS*-inspired Rat found that covers with semi-nude models sold better than those without. At the same time, the use of frontal (mostly female) nudity, which was always used as a weapon against mainstream mores, increased throughout the undergrounds. In late 1968 when Screw: the Sex Review premiered, it removed any pretence that sex was only a component of the political/cultural press. Screw, with a jaundiced view of morality that assaulted community standards through witty representation of taboo sexual acts, helped launch the sexual revolution in the us. It further prompted other undergrounds, mostly in New York, to found sex papers as a way to augment their dwindling cash flows. The Rat published Pleasure, the EVO published Kiss and The New York Free Press published The New York Review of Sex.

Sex stimulated the underground but sapped its collective energy. Sales increased for the sex papers but the readership was no longer drawn from the politically, culturally or socially minded. Despite the anti-establishment defiance inherent in publishing a sex paper (i.e. all the publishers were arrested on trumped-up pornography charges and endured lengthy trials, which they ultimately won), it was increasingly difficult to maintain a serious political dialectic amid the photos of orgies and reviews of kinky sexual gadgets. Ultimately The Rat was taken over by radical feminists who objected to Pleasure’s sexism. The EVO folded Kiss because its editors didn’t have the stomach for it. The New York Review of Sex, in an attempt to take the high ground, changed its name to New York Review of Sex & Politics and lost most of its readers. Screw, which was both the funniest and most serious of them all, continues to this day.

By the early 1970s, the underground press itself was no longer viable. What few papers remained became local or regional ‘alternative’ or ‘free’ papers produced in more or less traditional ways, dependent on profitable ad sales and supportable circulation. Some of the editors and designers moved to the mainstream press (i.e. the editor of Rat became a mogul of low-powered TV stations and the art director of Rat became an art director of The New York Times and design director of Newsday). Most drifted into other fields. By the late 1970s, a new generation of alternative press emerged, spawned by the punk music scene. The visual vocabulary was similar, but the socio-political content had given way to an emphasis on music and fashion. Punk didn’t last long in the US and gave way to the decidedly design-driven culture tabloids of the early 1980s, such as Details and Paper, which today are glossy ‘hip’ fashion magazines.

Undergrounds today are disintegrating newsprint pages. But for those who lived it, the underground press marks a moment before the advent of the cable tv – and subsequently the Internet – when youth movement took direct control of communication media. The underground represented an entire generation and the many voices within it. The editor of the Avatar once wrote: ‘Who is the Underground? You are, if you think, dream, work and build towards the … expectations of a better existence.’

* Students for a Democratic Society

Steven Heller, Design writer, New York

First published in Eye no. 36 vol. 4 1994

Eye is the world’s most beautiful and collectable graphic design journal, published quarterly for professional designers, students and anyone interested in critical, informed writing about graphic design and visual culture. It is available from all good design bookshops and online at the Eye shop, where you can buy subscriptions, back issues and single copies of the latest issue.


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