Thursday, 26 October 2017

Play Power - Richard Neville


If any magazine could be said to be seminal then it would surely be Oz, the hippy Underground publication brought to the attention of a mainstream audience due to it being at the centre of a controversial prosecution case in 1971. Oz was a thing of beauty; its multi-coloured, psychedelic pages incorporating text, photography and innovative graphic design in a genuinely unique and inspiring fashion. Unlike a lot of other Underground papers and magazines of that same period, Oz wormed its way into the hands of an eager readership previously unbothered by such publications, introducing a whole slew of radical ideas and attitudes to virgin minds.
Was it the sex, the drugs and the rock'n'roll that caught the attention of a wider audience? Most probably but these were essentially trojan horses used to smuggle and convey concepts of flower power, black power, gay power and what editor Richard Neville termed 'play power'.

'Revolution must break with the past, and derive all its poetry from the future,' Neville quotes from the International Situationists. And then from John Sinclair, of MC5 and the White Panthers: 'Our programme is cultural revolution through a total assault on culture, which makes use of every tool, every energy and every media we can get our collective hands on... our culture, our art, the music, newspapers, books, posters, our clothing, our homes, the way we walk and talk, the way our hair grows, the way we smoke dope and fuck and eat and sleep - it's all one message - and the message is FREEDOM.'
So Neville takes us by the hand and through his book, Play Power, leads us on a guided tour from the beginnings of hippy culture to the heart of the vision of the new world that Oz was very much a part of.

Pop! Bang! Pow! The words and names come thick and fast, conjuring up images, thoughts and ideas like a grand firework display lighting up the sky. Many of the sayings, words, and ideas he recites are old hat nowadays, of course, and many as might be expected are positively antiquated as viewed from a 2017 perspective. Many others have been forgotten with the passing of the years and come as a joy to exhume:
'Carry on motherfuckers!' - What does that conjure up nowadays? Barbara Windsor with a tommy gun?
'Youthquake' - So that's where Pete Burns of Dead Or Alive got the name for his album.
'The militant poor' - Plebeians on council estates, high on a heady cocktail of Sixties idealism, Eighties radicalism and Noughties existential austerity.
'A gathering of the tribes' - Memories of free festivals before everything turned a little too corporate for a lot of people's liking.
'Growing your own' - Allotments?
'Doing it in the road' - Tarmacadam burn?
And so on and so forth.

It's probably unfair to read and judge Play Power from the vantage point of 2017 but then how else is it meant to be read? It's a bit difficult not to, really. The problem being, is that it highlights a lot of huge clangers of political and social acceptability. For example, at one point Neville writes 'It's time traditional Marxists realised that their textbook revolutionaries - the workers - are inevitably reactionary, conformist and authoritarian because they are sexually repressed.' Which is a bit of a generalization, to put it mildly. Maybe back in the late Sixties and early Seventies there was some evidence to base such a claim on but if so, then surely the same could be said of the middle and upper classes?
For sure, from my personal experience there has always been a swathe of 'workers' who (in public, at least) are indeed sexually repressed. They're fully liberated (and far more liberated than other classes) when it comes to an issue such as violence, for example, or when it comes to speaking their minds but when it comes to something like pan-sexuality, you might as well be talking about something only fit for aliens from another planet. For some, monogamy is the only order of the day and the man should always be on top. Having said that, however, some of the most weirdest and perverse sexual antics I've only ever heard tale of (ahem) on council estates. And I don't mean the kind of things that Richard Neville lets slip about himself in the book regarding fourteen-year-old 'chicks'.

And there's a thing: the word 'chick'. It's a word I've always had a problem with because of its demeaning and sexist connotations but a word fully associated with hippydom just as 'man' is. It's always made me wince and still does whenever I might hear it being used to this day.
Maybe it's due to the time that Play Power was written in but it's interesting when Neville writes about the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park following the death of Brian Jones that he doesn't bat an eyelid when recounting the part about master of ceremonies Sam Cutler ordering the press section down by the stage to be emptied out a bit.
'There isn't enough room for everyone,' Sam Cutler announces 'So chicks will have to leave... Angels (as in Hells Angels), get rid of them.' From a 2017 perspective, of course, such an announcement is staggering in its sexism but for someone as so say liberal as Neville it goes unnoticed. And not because he's unaware of women's issues either, because he's by that time already read the SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas though he admits that what the manifesto asserts is 'hopefully a minority viewpoint'.

For all that and for all its other faults, the hippy vision that Neville describes in Play Power has its positives that actually out-weigh the negatives. In describing Paris '68, for example, he writes 'For thousands, one night behind the barricades proved a more effective political education than fifteen years in the library.' And he's absolutely right. Just as he is when describing Abbie Hoffman's and Jerry Rubin's Youth International Party - better known as 'the Yippies' - and the battle of Chicago in '68: 'A chimera without any political tradition or ostensibly, any coherent philosophy, operating from a dilapidated New York office, without financial resources, without a network or even a branchline of brother organizations, without a master plan or a master - helped mobilize not only the thousands who poured into Mayor Daley's city in August, but indelibly branded the imaginations of millions who experienced Chicago second hand. The secret weapon? Understanding media. Unlike most radical groups, eschewing the press or issuing them with dry facts and pompous resolutions, later wondering why they're not published or complaining of distortion if they are, the Yippies relied upon that distortion, and exploited it; comprehending its myth-making potential and resolutely weaving a seductive spell of fiction and fantasy which, by the very act of publication, gained a compelling credibility.'
It's a lesson that years later groups such as Class War would come to learn and demonstrate and one that any present day revolutionaries - no matter that we now have social media - would do well to learn also.

Richard Neville passed away in September of 2016. Hippydom went on to splinter into a million different ways of life and careered off down a thousand different roads, one of them being Punk that itself subsequently splintered into another thousand different ways of life. Who now might be the holder of the torch and where next it might flare up is anyone's guess but if history teaches us anything it is that the torch will without any doubt flare up at some point again. What potential benefits might be derived from it when it does can only be speculated on but one thing that can be for sure is that if we fail to remember the past... then we will be condemned to repeat it.
John Serpico


  1. Brilliant write up thanks, a flawed but at least a positive outlook- a way forward away from nihilism. Pretty sure I found my copy in an exmouth charity shop years ago, which isn't a surprise given the old hippies around these parts. Does yours have the strange 'letters pages' at the back which are memorable if only for extending pan sexuality to alsatians and suggesting hitherto unthought of uses for drinks straws....

    1. Hello Bel Mondo. Yep, the very same version with the letters talking about straws in sacs, and "fantasies of balling a female gorilla or other large ape". Could this kind of thing ever catch on in Exmouth? Oh how repressed society has become since those halcyon days, eh?