In the coming weeks, the Guardian is embarking on a survey of the underground in music – asking if it still exists in a world where everything is visible online, and if so, where.
Fifty years ago this month, the Guardian announced what it called “our autumn promotion for 1967… a ‘roving exploration’ into the Permissive Society”. Chief among its attractions was “a whole page guide to the Underground”, penned by the poet Adrian Mitchell. Mitchell had been a big hit at the 1965 International Poetry Incarnation at the Royal Albert Hall, London, a formative moment in Britain’s hippy subculture, and an event at which “all these people recognised each other and realised they were part of a scene”, as writer Barry Miles later put it. Two years on, “the underground” – as the cutting-edge output of writers, musicians and artists linked to said scene and operating more or less outside the margins of the mainstream arts had come to be known – was considered such a potent force that broadsheet newspapers felt obliged to try and explain what was going on.
With the benefit of hindsight, Mitchell’s piece looks a little curious. We tend to think of 1967’s Summer of Love as revolving around music: kicked off by the vast 14 Hour Technicolor Dream concert at Alexandra Palace, London, soundtracked by Sgt Pepper, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Are You Experienced?, and perhaps symbolically drawn to a conclusion when Engelbert Humperdinck unseated Scott McKenzie’s San Francisco from the top of the charts. But Mitchell barely mentions music at all.
There’s not a word about any of the underground’s house bands – Pink Floyd, the Soft Machine, the Deviants – although elsewhere, a list of “The Priests and Prophets of Permissiveness” finds space for Bob Dylan and the Beatles (“a pop group,” it notes, for the benefit of anyone in 1967 labouring under the misapprehension that the Beatles were a firm of builders). Still, Mitchell’s descriptions of what it meant to be underground might as usefully have been applied to music as anything else: “The mass media are too expensive for the underground artist. There are too many compromises. Too many people telling you how you should be doing things.”
Obviously, underground music scenes had existed in Britain before the hippy subculture came along – the dedicated collectors and performers of the late 50s blues and folk revivals, say, or the soul fans who gathered around Manchester’s Twisted Wheel club in the early 60s, famed for their disdain of anything insufficiently obscure. But the moment in the mid-60s commemorated by the Guardian’s “roving exploration” was undoubtedly the point where the term became codified, commonly used and understood.
It meant music ostensibly too esoteric, or challenging, or new for a mainstream audience; music that – by default or design – existed on the margins, with the bare minimum of exposure in conventional media: “So rarely on TV as to be invisible, never ever in daily newspapers, and not even in the same universe as advertisers,” as the writer and broadcaster Danny Baker once put it.
Of course, the exact definition of what constituted underground music was open to interpretation from the start – did commercial success automatically rob an artist of the right to describe themselves as such? But there seemed to be at least a general, tacit agreement about what the phrase meant. It was accepted that it denoted the difference between the early 70s rock artists exploring the outer limits on the rosters of Vertigo or Harvest or Virgin and the music made by the Eagles, Queen and Wings; between the reggae or hip-hop or soul that existed purely as a phenomenon in specialist clubs and the reggae or hip-hop or soul or house music that got on Top of the Pops; between the independent, pay-no-more-than-99p version of punk touted by Crass or Discharge and the version peddled by bands that clearly had aspirations to traditional rock stardom; between the indie music that remained solely the property of the John Peel show and the indie music that made its way on to daytime Radio 1’s playlists; between the largely anonymous house music and techno that existed solely to serve DJs and dancefloors and the version self-evidently made with one eye on the charts.
But in 2017, the idea of what constitutes underground music is more confused. The internet has changed everything – outlets for exposure, means of distribution, the pace at which music is disseminated and consumed. In the race to keep up, mainstream media covers a far broader spectrum of music than it did 20 years ago: the speed with which an artist can go from recherché hipster sensation to the pages of a national newspaper, or at least its website, has vastly reduced. The old markers that you might reasonably use to denote whether music is “underground” or not – is it on TV? Is it on national radio? Is it featured in the mainstream media? – no longer hold true. YouTube and social media are infinitely more important in promoting music and anyone can upload to them.
In addition, attitudes to what constitutes independence – from major record labels, from brands keen to get a foothold in the youth market – seem to be in constant flux. Who, to paraphrase Adrian Mitchell’s earlier description of what it means to be underground, is making more compromises and being told what to do: an artist who signs to a record label, or an artist who produces and releases their own material, but accepts sponsorship from a drinks company or a sportswear brand in order to fund it? In this confused landscape, beneath the all-seeing eye of the internet, can the underground even be said to exist anymore?
Half a century on from 1967, the Guardian is going to attempt another roving exploration. In the coming weeks, we’re going to run a series of articles examining what, if anything, it means to be an underground artist in 2017. We’ll be exploring whether it’s possible to find a meaningful audience for your music while avoiding the glare of publicity, the complex relationship between art and commerce, how technology assists and impedes artists who want to find new routes of promoting and disseminating their music, what the value of remaining underground is, and whether Britain is host to any thrilling and vibrant music scenes that exist entirely off-grid. At the very least, we’re hoping to find music that’s exciting and out of the ordinary, that we’ve never encountered before, that jolts us in a way that the underground music of 50 years ago might have jolted a reader of the original “whole page guide to the Underground”. We shall see.
Originally posted on THE GUARDIAN