DVD Review: Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture

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John Lennon was always credited as being the "avant-garde" Beatle, which rankled Paul McCartney to no end. McCartney was there first, but he did not publicize his affiliations, and had already moved on by the time Lennon got interested. When Lennon did discover the underground, he jumped in headfirst - and in a very public manner with Yoko Ono. In the new documentary Going Underground: Paul McCartney, The Beatles and the UK Counter-Culture, the full story of this fascinating era is told.

The film begins with a discussion of the early days of the counter-culture in England, and the influence of the American Beats. One element was the jazz music of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and others. Another was the writing of Jack Kerouac, and the poetry of Allen Ginsburg. It was a huge poetry reading in London during 1965 that became the "coming out" party for the UK underground.

These proto-hipsters had no time for the "yeah, yeah, yeah" Beatles, who were considered a silly diversion for pre-teen girls. There was nothing cool about them at all. But Paul McCartney was living with his girlfriend Jane Asher's family in London, and it was a bohemian atmosphere. He began exploring the underground, and listening to the music of such composers as Karlheinz Stockhausen. The three other Beatles were living in the suburbs with their wives. Lennon in particular was bored out of his mind, but still did not "get" what it was his writing partner was discovering in this very creative world.

That would change of course, and about the time that Paul had lost interest, John would become the most influential champion of the avant-garde in the world. Before the release of such Lennon and Yoko Ono collaborations as Two Virgins and Life With the Lions though, Lennon and McCartney would incorporate their discoveries into some of the most memorable songs of The Beatles' career. Both "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "A Day in the Life" use techniques borrowed from the musical underground, while "Revolution 9" is probably the most extreme
piece of avant-garde music ever released on a major artist's album.

Going Underground tells two stories really. There is the story of Paul's early interest in the subterranean arts, and how elements of this world were brought in to the work of The Beatles. But the real story being told is of the British underground itself, which went on to spawn the International Times, the UFO club, and bands such as Pink Floyd and Soft Machine, among others.

This intriguing period is examined through the use of vintage footage, and interviews with such musicians and movers and shakers as Barry Miles, John Dunbar, John "Hoppy" Hopkins, and Robert Wyatt, among many others. The film is firmly focused on the '60s, and ends with the disillusioning end of the decade. The underground did not die with the '60s though, it just changed. While the clothes and attitudes of the punks appeared to be very different, they were in fact influenced by many of the same things. I suppose that aspect of the underground could be fodder for a different movie, but it would have been interesting if they had followed the UK underground past 1970.

That is probably an unfair gripe, as the intent of Going Underground is not to follow the entire history of the British underground. As it is, the movie runs for two and a half-hours, which is a pretty fair amount of time.

The main extra feature is "The Other Side of the Mirror: US and UK Psychedelic (7:10), which compares the two '60s scenes. There are also biographies of the contributors, and extended interviews. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Going Underground is the music. It is a rare treat to hear such major artists as The Beatles and Pink Floyd in these types of documentaries, and the use of the actual music that is being discussed is great.

Although I have read about McCartney's early interest in the avant-garde before, this is the first full-length examination of it that I have come across. Going Underground is really quite good, and tells a very interesting story.