Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture

Tom O'Dell

BY Ralph ElawaniPublished Oct 1, 2013

One of the main problems that arise when discussing the legacy of '60s counter-culture involves having to make sense of the numerous microenvironments that coexisted amidst a given socio-political context without necessarily cross-pollinating. Examples abound, but one only needs to look at '60s and '70s counter-cultural publications from La Belle Province — such as Parti Pris, Mainmise, Chronique, Hobo-Québec and Sexus — in order to realize that radical ecology, Albert Memmi-influenced decolonization theories, Marshall McLuhan-derived discourses, chronicles about communal living and music by L'infonie and Sloche did not cater to the same crowds, although they are often regarded as part of one monolithic cultural phenomenon referred to as "counter-culture."

As Going Underground opens, the question of where mainstream culture ends and counter-culture begins is a debate that quickly shifts to another question, namely: "What influence does one have on the other?" This 153-minute documentary traces back the roots of UK counter-culture to mainly three sources: nuclear disarmament protests of the late '50s; the influence of avant-garde composers and jazz musicians; and the influence of the avant-garde literary scenes and the American underground press (The East Village Other and the likes of it).

Whereas John Lennon is widely remembered as the wildest and most outspoken Beatle, his baby-faced counterpart appears to have been the first to dabble in the avant-garde scene. And although Lennon was officially the first member of the Fab Four to drop acid in 1965, McCartney was the first of them to publicly admit having taken LSD. However, McCartney's interest in the avant-garde did not derive from dropping acid and going gaga with the rest of the band. As the whopping two and a half hour documentary goes on to show, producer George Martin played a crucial role by introducing McCartney to Karlheinz Stockhausen's music and helping the kings of mainstream culture bring avant-garde techniques to the masses (arguably) for the first time in pop music history, with tracks like "Tomorrow Never Knows."

Going Underground underlines thoroughly that the Beatles did not exactly revolutionize sound techniques but rather made people aware that tape manipulations, oscillations, stereo panning and so on existed. In other words, with plenty of time on their hands as of August 1966 — when they retired from touring — the Fab Four ended up concentrating on "art music made for recording only." While McCartney's research on cutting edge sound manipulations preceded his direct involvement with the Indica Bookshop crowd, he did play somewhat of an active role for a certain time in the underground press with a column in the early forerunner of the International Times, the LongHair Times. As one of his contemporaries argues, though he ended up distancing himself from the scene after Brian Epstein's suicide in late 1967, McCartney was "as much part of the scene as a Beatle could be."

In the end, the strength of Going Underground is ironically neither its praise of McCartney's role in giving the scene the kind of confidence it needed, nor the remarkable job it does covering the role played by Pink Floyd, AMM and Soft Machine. Instead, it sheds light on lesser known figures of the underground press and the countercultural scene, such as John "Hoppy" Hopkins, Joe Boyd, John Dunbar and Barry Miles, without whom publications such as the International Times, clubs like UFO, and events like the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream would have never seen the light of day.


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