Going Off Piste: “Going Underground: McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture”

By on May 31, 2018

Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture — now streaming on Night Flight Plus — explores the impact of the mid-to-late ’60s British counterculture scene on the Beatles, and on Paul McCartney in particular.

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According to the DVD cover art, “In the mid-’60s, the often-rigid and colourless British way of life was irrevocably transformed by the emergence of a cultural underground movement. Led by a loose collective of young radicals, they introduced new social, sexual and aesthetic perspectives.”

“Operating out of London, their various activities — from The International Times, a bi-weekly journal that no hipster would be seen without, to the psychedelic nightclub UFO — promoted alternative lifestyles and values, and sparked a social revolution.”

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This two-and-a-half hour documentary, produced in 2013, includes rare archival footage, rarely-seen photographs from private collections, and music from the Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Soft Machine, AMM, and others.

It also features interviews with: Barry Miles (editor of The International Times and McCartney’s official biographer; Joe Boyd (co-founder of the UFO Club and Pink Floyd producer); Robert Wyatt (composer and drummer for Soft Machine); Eddie Prévost (drummer for the short-lived experimental free improvisational collection AMM); John Dunbar (proprietor of the Indica Gallery); Mick Farren (IT journalist and lead singer of the Deviants); Jonathan Greene (author of Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971); John “Hoppy” Hopkins (founder of IT and UFO Club Organizer); Chris Ingham (author of The Rough Guide to the Beatles), and MOJO journalist Mark Paytress.

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London’s evocative, resonating underground art, music and counterculture scene — which flowered to its full form in the mid-’60s — left the previous decade’s prevailing conservative behind as it emerged from the 1950s-era nuclear disarmament protests, and society’s changing views and more liberal attitudes towards sex, politics, art, and music.

There is some effort here to link experimental American jazz of the 1950s and early ’60s — particularly the improvisational playing of Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor — and also Beat poetry, which was adopted and then adapted by the British.

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The talking heads all provide interesting anecdotes about how everything was morphing and changing at this time, much of it being attributed to the use of LSD.

The documentary spends most of its time focusing in on what the Beatles happened to be doing at the time, particularly via Paul McCartney, who frequented the UFO Club (pronounced “You-Faux,” not “You-Eff-Oh”).

John Lennon usually gets most of the lion’s share credit for the Beatles’ dabblings in psychedelica, but it was actually McCartney who delved the deepest into the British rock experimentalism of the mid-’60s.

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It was EMI producer George Martin, in fact, who turned McCartney’s attention towards the electronic music and atonal sounds by composers like Karl Stockhausen.

At the time, McCartney spoke very frankly about using of LSD to expand his horizons, taking his first acid trip at the end of 1965, not with the other Beatles but with Tara Browne, the young British socialite.

His death in December 1966 inspired the opening lines of “A Day In The Life” (which was sonically influenced by contemporary classical composer John Cage).

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McCartney would later end his flirtation with psychedelia shortly after manager Brian Epstein’s death, whereas Lennon would end up returning to experimental recording techniques which led to the creation of “Revolution #9,” which he insisted upon being included on their White Album (a.k.a. The Beatles).

Going Underground also shows how psychedelic figurehead Timothy Leary had inspired “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but one of the more interesting stories you’ll hear here is the story behind their famous unreleased “Carnival of Light,” which is discussed at length.

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Read more about “Carnival of Light” and Going Underground below.

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Images of a Woman (1966)

In late June of 1966, all four Beatles — with a lot of free time on their hands in between concerts at Budokan Hall — collaborated together on a painting in the Presidential Suite at the Tokyo Hilton.

Images of a Woman — later auctioned off for charity — provides a keen insight into the collective mind of the band members who were all expanding their horizons and expressing themselves in increasingly new and interesting ways.

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A little over six months after creating the painting, around or on January 5, 1967, the Beatles were back in England, and during a break in their vocal recording sessions for “Penny Lane,” they recorded an experimental piece of music, “Carnival of Light.”

That free-form instrumental collage, commissioned from McCartney by his friend Barry Miles, was later played at the electronic music festival, the “Million Volt Light and Sound Rave,” organized by the underground newspaper International Times and held at the Roundhouse Theater in North London on January 28th.

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The final mixed track — all 13-minutes and 48-seconds of it, according to Mark Lewisohn in The Beatles Recording Sessions: The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970 — featured heavily-echoed sound effects mixed together with distorted lead guitar, hypnotic drums and church organ, “manic tambourine” and demented-sounding vocals and vocal effects (like a “gargling with water” sound).

Lewisohn writes that McCartney and Lennon scream phrases like “Barcelona!” and “Are you all right?”

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Paul McCartney wanted to include “Carnival of Light” their Anthology 2 collection, but George Harrison nixed the idea, saying the sonic experimentation was “avant-garde a clue.”

In 2017, McCartney, on a BBC Radio Four arts show, said, “I like it because it’s the Beatles free, going off piste.”

Watch Going Underground: Paul McCartney, the Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.