Posted July 13 2017

Was there ever a publication that better defined the spirit of a decade than Oz, the iconic counter culture publication that came to encapsulate that brief period from the end of the Sixties to the beginning of the Seventies? With the recent acquisition of Felix Dennis' Oz Archive by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, we take a closer look at the revolutionary publication.

Dreamed up in Sydney in 1963, by Richard Neville, Martin Sharp and Richard Walsh - it was named not for Australia but for The Wizard of Oz - it was conceived with the aim of creating something for themselves, something satirical, provocative and fun to blow through conservative doldrums that was Australia at the time. The publication achieved a fair amount of attention but it was the decision to take it to London which was in the midst of it’s swinging Sixties heyday that Oz really came into it’s own. Joined by Jim Anderson and Felix Dennis it ran from 1967 - 1973 publishing 48 issues in all.  

The first issue of it’s London incarnation featured on the cover a creepy, almost clownish face, with Oz for the eyes, a toothy grin below and proudly listed the content inside, reading more like a manifesto of intent, “Theological striptease/ turn on, tune in, drop dead/ Why ‘New Statesman’ editor Paul Johnson is so bloody successful”. Issue themes were controversial and attention grabbing, The Gay Issue featured two men embracing on it’s cover, Pussy Power was edited by Germaine Greer, The Pornography of Violence, which was billed as new and easy to read for the over thirties, A Parents Guide to Drug Abuse and the Special Pig Issue. Oink. Designed by Martin Sharp the covers were visually arresting, just like the content was an array of psychedelic masterpieces that looked like what acid must feel like. Bold and uncompromising they demanded that the magazine be paid attention to. The Magic Theatre issue, described as “one of the richest banks of images that has ever appeared in a magazine’, was conceived by Sharp to be purely visual. Setting aside any traditional art direction rules, the issue is a visual trip through weirdly juxtaposed pictures and collages - Robert Crumb cartoons, Rene Magritte paintings, John and Yoko, famine victims, the Queen - with Edward Muybridge’s studies of locomotives running along the bottom of every page in a strip, complete with drawn in speech bubbles. The next issue of Oz simply called it the ‘worst selling most praised Oz ever”.

The most notorious edition though, was the now infamous School Kids issue which led to the longest obscenity trial in a British court. After being told that they were out of touch with the young they decided to invite a group of 20 schoolchildren to edit the magazine, giving them carte blanche to create whatever they wanted which included the head of Rupert the Bear collaged onto a suggestive cartoon by Robert Crumb and a group of nude women on a wrap around cover, one of whom was performing cunnilingus on another, strategically obscured by a picture of one of the school children who had worked on the issue. The issue prompted the longest obscenity trial in the British court system, and Dennis, Neville and Anderson were charged with conspiracy to corrupt public morals. The charge was eventually overturned and made a free speech pioneer of Oz by showing that the written word could not be prosecuted. Ultimately though, the trial was the beginning of the end for the magazine, the costs of defending themselves forcing them to close two years later, £20,000 in debt.

One of, if not the leading magazine of the underground press at the time, Oz has gone on to become a record of one of the most important cultural revolutions in recent history. Many of the topics covered within its pages have, thanks to them and publications like them lost their sheen of controversy and become the norm, they wouldn't even merit a raised eyebrow today.