Notes from the underground

Nothing to do with Dostoevsky here, just me musing on the split between chart music and all the underground stuff that was such a big part of the musical landscape in the late 1960s and early-to-mid 70s.

Hoshino Sakura’s Slade post was the inspiration for this ramble through the past and it will be a ramble, because I am not really going to advance a grand theory here.

The 60s really was the golden age of chart music, probably only really equalled by the first part of the 1980s, times when the charts actually reflected what the young, the fashionable and the alternative communities were listening to and buying. I can remember when the charts mattered, because you would hear bands like The Who, The Stones, The Kinks etc, people who were making the thing up as they went along, following in the wake of The Beatles. You also heard a lot of black music courtesy of Tamla Motown. This was when the charts mattered, back when the Sixties were Swinging, or, to paraphrase George Harrison, back When We Were Fab.

I think it all changed after 1967, that was when the music changed, when it all got weird, when things got longer, be they hair, hemlines or pieces of music. You really couldn’t imagine something like Interstellar Overdrive getting much airplay and once people like King Crimson got going, you knew that there were things that wouldn’t be on Top of the Pops ever.

Of course, there were people like John Peel, Annie Nightingale and Bob Harris flying the flag for underground music on late night BBC Radio 1 and, for some of us, those shows were massively important. Where else, I ask, would we have heard Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, Gnidrolog, Gentle Giant, Kevin Coyne, Gong or Kevin Ayers, to name just a few.

There was a huge amount of music coming out, music that was too varied, too long, too experimental or just too weird for the charts and for daytime radio. You just had to be in the know.

Being in the know generally meant having older friends, maybe elder siblings, who listened to The Grateful Dead or The Groundhogs or The Pink Fairies. It was a kind of rite of passage, an initiation, to be admitted to the world of the underground. It was also a kind of admission that you were consciously being different. You had nailed your colours to the groovy, psychedelic mast of the Good Ship Freaky. You were almost duty bound to dismiss the charts as uncool or a sell out.

There were exceptions, a few brave souls who would venture out from the patchouli-scented, dimly-lit fug of the clubs and the souks of Portobello Rd to release a single occasionally, maybe people like Atomic Rooster;

Now, I really like that one, but it is definitely at the poppier end of the Rooster’s output. There are plenty of other bands who wouldn’t have got on daytime Radio One, maybe like The Edgar Broughton Band?

Very Captain Beefheart in places there, I’m sure you’ll agree, and a long way away from Ballroom Blitz or Telegram Sam.

Anyway, not only did you listen to different music, you looked different, you tried, as best as you could, to look alternate. Of course, your Mum and Dad didn’t like it, mine even threatened to burn my Afghan coat because it smelt of goats. It was a sign of who you were, the music, the clothes and certain other things that all basically said Not Mainstream, Not Trendy.

I think that occasionally we all listened to stuff that we didn’t really like, nor understood, but it was part of being apart. If Peel played it, we listened, if TotP played it, mostly we sneered.

17 thoughts on “Notes from the underground

  1. That pretty much sums it up for me too Carole, even down to the Afghan, which I think my mum though probably my dad put on the garden bonfire when I left home.

    Ah, Patchouli, that brings back so many memories as does incense or joss sticks as we called them, though this was often as an excuse to have matches and to cover up the smell of the ‘odd’ roll-up 🙂

    You’re spot on with the length point, that was a key differentiation in the ‘cool’ or credible scale; if it didn’t take up most of the side of an LP then it probably wasn’t worth listening too, well that’s not strictly true but some of the best (and still my favourite) songs are well over five or even ten minutes.

    Even as we left the seventies and epics from Rush, Yes, Zep et al nd entered the eighties we had new bands capable of filling most of a side of a 12″ piece of vinyl with a single song: Marillion

    This article fits nicely with my Friday Night Connection and playing some “classic rock” as I was more a Tommy Vance listener than John Peel; though do you remember the OGWT, now that was something to stay up for to hear and see the acts you wouldn’t find on ToTP.

    This was on TV recently (over Christmas I seem to recall) and epitomises both the type of artist appearing on OGWT but also another fantastic long song;

    Thanks for the great post.

    Happy memories.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it.

    The OGWT was a Must See for me and my friends. My parents hated it, obviously, but somehow I usually managed to see it. Often, I’d go around to a friend’s house to watch it, until I left home, that is.

    As an aside, I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd at Knebworth in 1976, on the Stones bill, before that dreadful plane crash in 1977 which destroyed the band.

  3. Another significant thing that happened between 66 and 68 was the advent of stereo records, which allowed the listener to (literally) get inside the music, and vice-versa, rather than it being something external coming out of a tinny radio/radiogram speaker. Coinciding with all the other experimentation going on, many more roads got explored; but the pop/dance single could carry on unimpeded.
    You’re right about the long track quest: mine went from Interstellar Overdrive, through Sister Ray, to the L/D Dark Star. 23 minutes was about the limit of an LP side’s capacity.

    • Supper’s Ready came in at 22:52 but Yes pushed it with some creeping over 23 minutes.

      Quite a few Dead tracks come in around the 11 1/2 minute mark giving you two per side 🙂

  4. Stereo, yes, it definitely had a head expanding dimension, didn’t it. I think that we have to factor in the use of certain substances in the overall cultural shift too. A 23 minute psychedelic wig out or an exploration of inner space certainly lent atmosphere to a degree of sensory dislocation. Of course, recreational substance use has gone hand in hand with music for a long time, so that in itself is only one factor among many.

    Clearly, the shift away from the charts was something that happened because of a wider cultural transformation. Experimentation in music and the use of different influences helped change the way people related to sound, and there was also the political dimension as well.

    People really thought that music might change the world.

  5. Good post. I remember the fabulous furry freak brothers and Fat Freddy’s cat. “Dope can get you through times of no money better than money can get you through times of no dope”, or something to that effect.

    I had “Death Walks Behind You” by Atomic Rooster and a couple of Pink Fairies albums; I’ve probably said all this before but I used to listen to Radio Caroline and so discovered King Crimson and Pink Floyd and others – late night shows when I should probably have been asleep. I was lucky to live in Bristol where I saw bands like Focus; Caravan; Camel; Gong; also Rory Gallagher, Steve Hillage, Roxy Music – even U2 in a small venue above a cafe.Winter concert season was great because you could get tickets for 50p if you sat in the choir behind the stage – though you only got to see the band from the back! There was also an annual free festival at Ashton Court where I remember seeing Steve Hillage. Clubs like The Granary, Chutes, Dockland Settlement, The Dugout … sigh …

    Lots of memories, some rather fuzzy around the edges; lots of music, lots of cold flats and walking everywhere; lots of pubs.

    • Ah, The Granary, The Dugout etc, I’ve spent many late nights, also fuzzy around the edges in those clubs!

      One of the oddest venues I’ve even been to to see a band was Shoreditch Town Hall, in East London. We saw Curved Air supported by Babe Ruth. The bands played in what was just like a school assembly hall, complete with rows of chairs for the audience.

      There were posters outside for a forthcoming attraction – Faust. Some people apparently thought that Faust were being supported by a lesser-known act called Gounod, because that name was on the poster in smaller letters.

  6. Yeah, Ari’s right, great essay and I still have my Furry Freak Brothers T shirt, though it no longer fits me, must have shrunk, and I remember well that bit about dope, hard times and money. We’ve chatted in the past about specifics, ie Desolation Row vs Like a rolling stone, we differed on that one but they’re both great and significant in terms of your theme. I’ve just started an essay that I think anyone interested in persuing this theme would enjoy/appreciate, it’s by a woman, Ann Margaret Daniel and it’s at;

  7. Thanks Carole.
    I was nine years old in 1971 and I remember it, and still think of it, as a great year for the 45rpm single. My best friend wanted “Devil’s Answer” for his birthday, having seen it on TOTP. His mum went to Woolworths or WH Smith, asked them to play it for her, and decided it wasn’t suitable. But he still got it by saving his pocket money.

    “Won’t Get Fooled Again” was a great single (with a nice long version on Who’s Next); I remember being very impressed with Deep Purple doing “Fireball” and my first sighting of the Stones doing “Brown Sugar” on TOTP. From the clubs, Dave and Ansel Collins were no. 1 for one week with “Double Barrel”. The three T Rex hits that year didn’t seem to compromise too much on mystical, starry-eyed lyricism – “Hot Love”, “Jeepster”, and “Get It On”.

    But it was also the year of Led Zep IV, and Pink Floyd making an album track, “Echoes” last the whole of one side. We got into that when we were a few years older.

    It was about 1974 when I went off chart music and got the distinction between 33 and 45rpm culture. I couldn’t get into Gary Glitter or Mud or the Sweet’s glam incarnation, or even the lovely Suzi Quattro, and I was too young to appreciate Philly soul music and the early disco that I love now.

    • Curved Air – Back Street Luv was a hit single too, I remember it from Top Of The Pops, blissfully unaware at my tender age that they were Prog invaders from the Old Grey Whistle Test.

  8. I’m a little bit younger than all y’all, I’m afraid. But I’ve always – well at least since I figured out how to tune the old radio that was left in my bedroom – had a love affair with the music charts and the songs that were ranked there. This post is long and a bit rambling, but it’s a topic near and dear to me.

    The ‘unofficial’ US Billboard Hot 100 charts have always been based on both sales of singles AND airplay. Of course, in a country so vast, with no nationwide radio programmer like the BBC; where there were still songs that were strictly regional – i.e. big hit in New York or Philly, totally unknown or not even distributed on the West coast – all the way through the 1960s, this metric is going to be skewed by which record shops and which radio stations you sample and which ones you don’t. Supposedly there are several million sellers in niche genres – polkas, imports, Cajun, Tejano – that never appeared on the charts. And of course, songs like Stairway To Heaven, Under My Thumb, and Baba O’Riley were never issued as US 45s and thus never ‘officially’ charted.

    But for the most part, the Billboard Hot 100 provided as accurate as could be expected representation of what was popular in an era when every city and town had several record shops and several radio stations playing popular music. When stations competed to ‘break’ or introduce new singles first, and hit songs had a definite lifespan, a rise and fall in 12 to 20 weeks, rather than lingering around on recurrent status for years. An era when there was a certain synergy: get a lot of airplay, sell a lot of singles, chart high – sell a lot of singles, get lots of airplay, chart high.

    That era couldn’t last of course. Separate country and R&B charts were added in the 1940s, an MOR (adult contemporary) chart was added in 1961. The disco chart was added in 1974 – the first to rank LP tracks as well as 7″ and later 12″ singles. A rock airplay chart was added in 1981, and an alternative rock chart in 1988, and an adult alternative chart in 1996.

    In response to dwindling sales of cassette and CD singles and other music industry mischief – withdrawing the single from sale as the song peaked in order to force purchase of the entire album – the requirement of having a commercially available single was belatedly lifted in the 1990s.

    But if there’s one song, just one song, that signaled that the pop charts were never going to be the same, it was this one. One which climbed the charts entirely on singles sales and almost no airplay. Truly an “underground” sensation. One which the countdown shows either edited down to just a few seconds or skipped over entirely – perhaps wishing it would just go away – it was this one.

    For the next twenty years, while Billboard tinkered with the various chart metrics in the face of a changing radio and technological landscape, the pop charts would be heavily skewed towards rap and hip hop as the physical single – as opposed to the full length LP – remained popular there. For better or for worse, this song marked the end of one era and the beginning of a new one.

  9. Not to argue, but the N in NPR stands for national, National Public Radio, I’ve listened since the inception in 1971. The station in my recent radio post was an NPR station. Did you know that the first letter in a station’s call sign indicates whether it’s east or west of the Mississippi? W for east, K for west, my station was KRCB.

    • @ goneforeign – Re: NPR
      True, but NPR was never much of a popular music outlet. Sirius and XM would probably be the first coast-to-coast US broadcasters, but got there way too late in the game to be much of a pop music kingmaker.

      Some of the big 50kw ‘clear channel’ stations could cover a vast amount of area – but only at night – and none came close to covering all of the lower 48.

      Lately, I’ve reserved a preset on the car radio for ‘Radio Enciclopedia’ out of Havana, Cuba – which is basically all alone on 530 Khz and can send a strong signal throughout the Southern US at night for some old-school, elevator-style, easy listening music. O.o Well…It is kinda relaxing.

  10. when i started listening to the charts it was all about the rivalry between T-Rex and Slade and then a bunch of records hit the charts that made me realise there was some other type of music -this thing called rock
    Free Wishing Well, Sabs Paranoid, Quo’s Paper Plane, even Rods Wear it Well and oddities like East of Eden or Jo Jo Gunne .. but it was seeing a film of Hawkwind on TOTP that made me see it as another world entirely – both band and audience were like nothing that was ever seen on telly … then the OGTW and the doors flew open

    • I think those first few were all 1971 tunes, in addition to the ones I mentioned above. It really was a very good year for 45 and 33rpm. Then Silver Machine was the following year…

  11. I wasn’t alive then, but was thinking along similar lines whilst watching the Brits the other night. When I was at an impressionable age there were definitely “indie” bands and mainstream bands and we didn’t listen to the pop stuff, feels like there isn’t anything like that anymore. Anyway, some great music in the era you were discussing and Phineas is my favourite freak brother.

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