In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture by Barry Miles

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In The Seventies: Adventures in the Counterculture by Barry Miles

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: The memoirs of radical journalist Barry Miles, covering his career in America and Britain between 1970 and 1978.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 256 Date: September 2011
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686900

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The sixties, argues Barry Miles, did not end in 1969. For him, they began as a definable period of cultural history in 1963 and lasted until 1977. During that time he worked on and with various underground and counter-cultural activities in London, among them the founding of 'International Times' and of the Beatles' spoken word label Zapple.

Nevertheless, for convenience he begins this volume of recollections, a continuation of his volume on the sixties, at March 1970. He and his first wife Sue had just moved to New York, where they went 'to recover from sixties London'. Having got there, they were living just a few doors away from a house in Greenwich Village which housed a bomb factory and was torn apart by an explosion which killed three people, one of them a member of the Weathermen , a radical group protesting against the war in Vietnam. So they did the obvious hippy thing, and took for the safety of the hills. For the next four years or so, he and Sue lived on Allen Ginsberg's hippie commune, where he worked on cataloguing his vast spoken word archive, produced an album of poetry readings by Richard Brautigan, and had an affair with Brautigan's girlfriend, something his marriage did not survive. After hanging out in communes and with the likes of William Burroughs, a fellow member of the Beat Generation, and becoming involved with the early punk scene in America via acts like Patti Smith, the New York Dolls and the Ramones, he witnessed the impact of British glam rock on the American underground, and then returned to London to write for the then hugely influential 'New Musical Express'.

I found the first two hundred pages or so of this book rather unfocused, lacking colour and not always over-interesting. All these encounters with somewhat pretentious radicals, their views on drugs and free love for all, grow wearisome after a while, and it was only after his return to London that it really moves up a gear. His insights into the world of music journalism are revealing to a point, even if they do little more than state as bald fact what some of us had guessed for a long time. Those were the days of invitations to dazzling press launches, freebies and backhanders galore. They were also the days when music journalists had to keep their language appropriate for a family readership as well as their desire to expose the world of drugs, payola and corruption within bounds, as their papers were owned and published by the giant conglomerate IPC, which on one hand needed to appeal to a predominantly anti-establishment readership without biting the hands – in other words, the business-hungry advertisers – that helped to keep them on a sound financial footing.

After pursuing an interest in, and writing on, electronic and avant-garde music, he became involved with the Clash, whom he says were basically hippies with short hair, never quite as street as their audience, and quite often a good deal older than they sometimes pretended to be. How much more of a hippy could you get, Miles asks, than casting (or consulting) the I-Ching when deciding whether to join a band or not, as Joe Strummer did with the Clash.

After three years on the paper, he decided to move on. Rock journalism was seen mainly as a job for the very young, and certainly not for a man in his mid-thirties. Co-editorship of 'Time Out', freelance editorial work, and writing books, all beckoned.

As a portrait of its era, it has the occasional illuminating insight. If you were in the right place at the right time, it could be quite a party. But he also saw the decade as a parody of the sixties, with longer hair, weirder clothes and bigger bell-bottoms, or as some would have it, 'the decade that taste forgot' (or did they mean it was the decade that forgot taste?). I came of age during the decade, which saw me through my A-levels, college, unemployment and settling down to a steady job. My memories are of an exciting, colourful time, but that fails to come through in these pages for me.

As a memoir, it certainly fulfils the role more than adequately. I have to admit to being less interested in American social history and counter-culture and more in its British counterpart – and the detail he went into on the American aspects rather left me cold after a few chapters. Overall it's an interesting read in places, but a firmer editorial hand on the text, a little more fun and a little more passion could have made all the difference.

Our thanks to Serpent's Tail for sending Bookbag a review copy.

For further insights into America in the same era, albeit from a very different perspective, may we also recommend Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America by Rick Perlstein; and into that of Britain, When the Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies by Andy Beckett.

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