In 1966, a riotous extravaganza at the Roundhouse brought together the cream of British counterculture – and gave birth to psychedelia. Daniel Spicer looks back
Published: 11 October 2006, The Independent
It sounds like an impossible Sixties dream. Psychedelic oil-projections ooze over the walls and the faces of London’s movers and shakers, crammed into a semi-derelict Victorian building. Paul McCartney is here, disguised in shades and Arab burnous. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull swagger in with a more brazen cool. Pink Floyd, fronted by Syd Barrett, and the original Soft Machine pump out experimental rock’n'roll in the marijuana-scented night. Girls in miniskirts hand out sugar cubes. A 6ft-tall jelly slithers and slides all over the floor as the less inhibited guests strip off and dive into the slippery mess.
It’s not a set piece from some heavy-handed pastiche; this scene unfolded at London’s Roundhouse 40 years ago this weekend – on 15 October 1966 – at the launch party of England’s first underground newspaper, The International Times. This “All-Night Rave Pop Op Costume Masque Ball” has subsequently entered countercultural myth as one of the great parties of the Sixties but, according to some, this was much more than a mere late-night revel. Daevid Allen, guitarist with Soft Machine at the time and later founder of cosmic-proggers Gong, has described the IT launch as “one of the most revolutionary events in the history of English alternative music and thinking”. As the socio-cultural upheavals of the Sixties are subjected to ever more scrutiny, this event is becoming regarded as one of the defining moments of the UK underground. Certainly, it was probably the first time the capital’s burgeoning crowd of mid-Sixties proto-hippie “freaks” had massed on their own turf to put their new imperatives into such bold – and visible – action.
As an organiser of the event, author Barry Miles offers a perspective on where he and other countercultural architects such as John “Hoppy” Hopkins got their inspiration. “We knew a lot about [Andy] Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable because Hoppy’s girlfriend, Kate Heliczer, had been part of that scene. Also Gerard Malanga was around in late 1965 – he was the whip dancer with The Velvet Underground, so we knew about it through him.”
As much as Warhol’s bacchanalias can be credited as a direct influence, the IT launch was clearly the logical culmination of a growing indigenous scene. In June 1965, Miles, Hoppy and others had staged The International Poetry Incarnation at the Albert Hall, putting Beat poets such as Allen Ginsberg onstage for what was billed as Britain’s first “happening”. The Marquee Club on Wardour Street had started Sunday afternoon sessions called Spontaneous Underground in January 1966, featuring live music from Pink Floyd, Donovan, AMM and others. Later the same year, Pink Floyd had played a number of free gigs under the banner of the London Free School – a Portobello Road-based coalition of housing activists and hipsters.
Yet none of this detracts from the fact that the IT launch was a massive boost for the underground – not least because of the newspaper. Author and former International Times contributor Mick Farren remembers the immediate effect of the paper’s launch. “There were a lot of things happening all over the city but they weren’t hooked together. The IT thing was a launch party for a fortnightly tabloid, which provided a network for a lot of people who had previously been working in isolation.”
At a time when this counterculture had yet to acquire the “hippie” label, to a lot of young scene-makers it seemed the party marked the beginning of something entirely new – and unknown. Farren again: “Nobody could quite define it. There were a lot of mods there who immediately went out and dyed their suits funny colours, metaphorically speaking. Everyone was thinking, ‘Yeah, this is it’, if we could just figure out what ‘it’ was.”
Others take a less romantic view of the launch’s cultural significance – including Miles: “We were just having a party. I mean, it was a good one, a really good one, but I don’t think anyone thought it was going to change the world.” Even so, it would be hard to deny that the scene that coalesced around the IT launch had many lasting effects on British culture.
Pink Floyd and Soft Machine were both still unsigned at the time but both went on to become hugely influential outfits. “It was a dance so you had to have live music,” deadpans Miles. “Pink Floyd received £15 because they had a light show, Soft Machine got £12, though they did have a miked-up motorbike.” Robert Wyatt – Soft Machine’s drummer at the time – explains: “In those days there was no seating in the Roundhouse so there was lots of space. A friend of the organist was a motorcyclist and, as another member of the group, his contribution was to ride round the room to add a bit of enjoyable sound. He was very sensitive in the way he drove his motorbike and it fitted in with the tunes perfectly, as I remember.”
At the time of the launch, the Roundhouse was a crumbling husk that had once housed winding gear used to haul Victorian trains up the hill from Euston station. In 1964, it was bought by an organisation called Centre 42, led by the playwright Arnold Wesker and named after the trade union movement Article 42, which states that arts should be for everyone. Centre 42 planned to turn the building into a workers’ arts centre but, due to cost, these plans were shelved and it remained unused.
That it ended up in the hands of the IT crowd is due to the efforts of Jim Haynes – an American who helped to found the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and soon became a leading figure in the London underground. “Arnold Wesker had a large sign up on the outside saying they needed £250,000. We thought that was a little bit crazy. The best thing to do is to start using the facility to generate money and get things happening there. That’s what we did. I knew Arnold, so I called him up and asked if we could borrow the Roundhouse – I told a bit of a lie – I said for a small party.”
This was the first time the Roundhouse was used for live entertainment but it soon became the counterculture’s venue of choice, hosting The Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, and providing an artistic focal point for the scene. The Roundhouse has continued to operate as a venue, off and on, and reopened in June after a £29.7m redevelopment. Miles reckons the Roundhouse had an even bigger impact on London: “The whole wonder that is Camden Market developed. That area was just bleak and dead before the Roundhouse became a venue.”
And, of course, there’s The International Times. Haynes recalls: “We were all aware that the paper was going to be a success and that it was going to speak for a lot of people. The event proved just how big an audience there was.” Miles, too, could sense the importance of what the paper represented: “I certainly felt something new was happening when I held the first copy in my hands, because only Fleet Street was supposed to publish newspapers.” Notwithstanding competition from papers such as OZ and Frendz, IT remained the UK underground’s bible and bulletin-board throughout the Sixties, Seventies and into the Eighties, running a mix of political comment, cultural criticism and underground art that had a massive influence on the mainstream press. When rock writers such as Farren and Charles Shaar Murray moved out of the underground and onto titles like NME in the Seventies, they took with them their irreverent, gun-slinging approach and helped to transform the face of journalism in this country forever.
Forty years on, it’s easy to conclude that the counterculture failed in its attempt to construct a viable alternative to mainstream society, yet its influence can still be felt. If you’re at a gig, a nightclub or a rave this weekend, ask yourself just how much of it you’d be enjoying if it weren’t for that one night 40 years ago that Haynes calls “a modest little launch that went totally over the top”