Oz was first published as a satirical humour magazine between 1963–69 in Sydney, Australia and, in its second and more famous incarnation, became a "psychedelic hippy" magazine from 1967 to 1973 in London. Strongly identified as part of the underground press, it was the subject of two celebrated obscenity trials, one in Australia in 1964 and the other in the UK in 1971. On both occasions the magazine's editors were acquitted on appeal after initially being found guilty and sentenced to harsh jail terms.
The central editor throughout the magazine's life was Richard Neville. Co-editors of the Sydney version were Richard Walsh and Martin Sharp. Co-editors of the London version were Jim Anderson and, later, Felix Dennis.
Influenced by the New Statesman, Private Eye and the radical comedy of Lenny Bruce, Neville and friends decided to found a "magazine of dissent". The first edition, published on April Fool's Day 1963, caused a sensation; it parodied The Sydney Morning Herald (and was even printed on The Herald's own presses, adding to its credibility). The first edition led with a front-page hoax about the collapse of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. In succeeding issues (and in its later London version) Oz also gave pioneering coverage to contentious issues such as censorship, homosexuality, abortion, police brutality, the Australian government's racist White Australia Policy and Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, as well as regularly satirising public figures, up to and including Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies.
Two items in these early issues proved especially controversial. One was a satirical poem by Martin Sharp, about Sydney's youth sub-culture, entitled "The Word Flashed Around The Arms"; the other was the famous Issue #6 cover photograph, which depicted Neville and others pretending to urinate into a wall fountain (created by sculptor Tom Bass) which was mounted in the street facade of the Sydney offices of the P&O shipping line and which had recently been unveiled by Prime Minister Menzies.
Both the first and sixth issues landed the editors in court on obscenity charges. The cases stemmed from a number of published items, particularly the pissoir cover and Sharp's poem. In the first trial, all three men—acting on the advice of their lawyer—pleaded guilty.
When they were charged with obscenity a second time, the fact that they had a previous conviction counted heavily against them, and due to the blatant bias and hostility of the magistrate hearing the case, Mr Gerald Locke, SM, the three were sentenced to prison terms with hard labour.
The case created a storm of controversy, but the convictions were overturned on appeal mainly because, like their subsequent British trial, the magistrate misdirected the jury and made remarks that were later deemed to have been prejudicial to the defence's case.
Sydney Oz made several investigations into the murky realms of Sydney's underworld. One celebrated feature delved into the illegal abortion rackets which were then flourishing in Sydney (and around Australia), because at that time abortion was still illegal for all but the most exceptional cases, and corrupt police were widely believed to be running lucrative protection rackets that netted them substantial sums.
In 1965 Oz editor Richard Neville had a close encounter with Sydney's alleged "Mr Big" of organised crime, Lennie McPherson, a notorious criminal who was at that time well on his way to becoming Sydney's most powerful underworld figure, thanks in part to a systematic program of public assassinations of his rivals.
Late in the year, Oz published a feature called "The Oz Guide to Sydney's Underworld", which was based on information from two local journalists, and which included a "top 20" list of Sydney major criminals. The list deliberately left the #1 spot blank, but at #2 was the name "Len" (i.e. McPherson) who was described as a "fence" and a "fizz-gig" (police informant). Soon after the list was published, McPherson made a visit to Neville's house in Paddington; ostensibly he wanted to find out whether the Oz editors were part of a rival gang, but he also made it clear to Neville that he objected to being described as a "fizz".
The Top 20 list also reportedly played a part in the death of Sydney criminal Jacky Steele, who was shot in Woollahara in November 1965. Steele - who had been trying to take over protection rackets controlled by McPherson -- survived for almost a month before dying from his wounds, but before he died he told police that McPherson had ordered his execution because Steele had bought multiple copies of Oz and had made great play of the fact that McPherson was not #1. Oz revealed this in a subsequent issue, which contained extracts from the minutes of a confidential meeting of Sydney detectives, held on 1 December 1965, which had been leaked to the magazine by an underworld source.
Sharp and Neville left for London in 1966, while Walsh returned to his studies, although he subsequently revived and published a reduced edition of Sydney Oz, which ran until 1969. In the 1970s he edited POL magazine and the Nation Review and later became managing director of leading Australian media company Australian Consolidated Press, owned by Kerry Packer.
In late 1966 Neville and Sharp moved to the UK and in early 1967, with fellow Australian Jim Anderson, they founded the London Oz. Contributors included Germaine Greer, artist and filmmaker Philippe Mora, photographer Robert Whitaker, journalist Lillian Roxon, cartoonist Michael Leunig, Angelo Quattrocchi and David Widgery.
With access to new print stocks, including metallic foils, new fluorescent inks and the greater flexibility of layout offered by the offset printing system, Sharp's artistic skills came to the fore and Oz quickly won renown as one of the most visually exciting publications of its time. Many editions of Oz included dazzling psychedelic wrap-around or pull-out posters by Sharp, London design duo Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and others; these instantly became sought-after collectors' items and now command high prices. The all-graphic "Magic Theatre" edition (Oz #16), overseen by Sharp and Mora, has been described by British author Jonathon Green as "arguably the greatest achievement of the entire British underground press." During this period Sharp also created two famous psychedelic album covers for the group Cream, Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire.
Sharp gradually drifted away from the magazine during 1968, so a young Londoner, Felix Dennis, who had been selling issues on the street, was eventually brought in as Neville and Anderson's new partner. The magazine regularly enraged the British Establishment with a range of left-field stories including heavy critical coverage of the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, discussions of drugs, sex and alternative lifestyles, and contentious political stories, such as the magazine's revelations about the torture of citizens under the rule of the military junta in Greece.
In 1970, reacting to criticism that Oz had lost touch with youth, the editors put a notice in the magazine inviting "school kids" to edit an issue. The opportunity was taken up by around 20 secondary school students (including Charles Shaar Murray and Deyan Sudjic), who were let loose on Oz #28 (May 1970), known as "Schoolkids OZ". This term was widely misunderstood to mean that it was intended for school children, whereas it was a statement that it had been created by them.
One of the resulting articles was a highly sexualised Rupert Bear parody. It was created by 15-year-old schoolboy Vivian Berger by pasting the head of Rupert onto the lead character of an X-rated satirical cartoon by Robert Crumb. The majority of the contributors were from public schools (in the UK sense of the term: elite non-state schools); as a result the humour was mostly an extension of the type of material familiar from undergraduate rag mags.
Oz was one of several 'underground' publications targeted by the Obscene Publications Squad, and their offices had already been raided on several occasions, but the conjunction of schoolchildren and what some viewed as "obscene" material set the scene for the infamous Oz obscenity trial of 1971. In some respects it was a copy of the Australian trial, with evidence and judicial instruction clearly aimed at securing a conviction, but the British trial was given a far more dangerous twist because the prosecution employed an archaic charge against Neville, Dennis and Anderson—"conspiracy to corrupt public morals"—which, in theory, carried a virtually unlimited penalty.
The defence lawyer, John Mortimer QC announced at the opening of the trial in 1971 that “[the] case stands at the crossroads of our liberty, at the boundaries of our freedom to think and draw and write what we please” (The Times: 24 June 1971). For the defence, this specifically concerned the treatment of dissent and dissenters, about the control of ideas and suppressing the messages of social resistance communicated by OZ in issue #28. The charges read out in the central criminal court stated “[that the defendants] conspiring with certain other young persons to produce a magazine containing obscene, lewd, indecent and sexually perverted articles, cartoons and drawings with intent to debauch and corrupt the morals of children and other young persons and to arouse and implant in their minds lustful and perverted ideas” (The Times: 23 June 1971). According to Mr Brian Leary prosecuting “It dealt with homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking” (op. cit.).
Dennis and Anderson were defended by lawyer and playwright John Mortimer (creator of the Rumpole Of The Bailey series) with assistance from Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, while Neville represented himself.
The trial brought the magazine to the attention of the wider public. John Lennon and Yoko Ono joined the protest march against the prosecution and organised the recording of "God Save Us" by the ad hoc group Elastic Oz Band to raise funds and gain publicity. Lennon explained how the song title changed from "God Save Oz" to "God Save Us":
First of all we wrote it as ‘God Save Oz,’ you know, ‘God save Oz from it all,’ but then we decided they wouldn’t really know what we were talking about in America so we changed it back to “Us.”"God Save Us" was first demoed by John Lennon, but the lead singer on the recording was Bill Elliot for contractual reasons. "God Save Us"/"Do The Oz" was released on The Beatles' Apple Records label. Lennon's original demo was issued in 1998 on the John Lennon Anthology and again on Wonsaponatime.
The trial was, at the time, the longest obscenity trial in British legal history. Defence witnesses included comedian Marty Feldman, artist and drugs activist Caroline Coon, DJ John Peel, musician and writer George Melly and academic Edward De Bono. At the conclusion of the trial the "Oz Three" were found guilty and sentenced to prison; although Dennis was given a lesser sentence because the judge, Justice Michael Argyle, considered that Dennis was "very much less intelligent" than Neville and Anderson. Shortly after the verdicts were handed down they were taken to prison and their heads shaved, an act which caused an even greater stir on top of the already considerable outcry surrounding the trial and verdict.
The most famous images of the trial come from the committal hearing, at which Neville, Dennis and Anderson all appeared wearing rented schoolgirl costumes.
At the appeal trial, where the defendants appeared wearing long wigs, it was found that Justice Argyle had grossly misdirected the jury on numerous occasions. During the appeal, it was also alleged that Berger, who was called as a prosecution witness, had been harassed and assaulted by police. The convictions were overturned. Years later, Felix Dennis told author Jonathan Green that on the night before the appeal was heard, the Oz editors were taken to a secret meeting with the Chief Justice, Lord Widgery, who told them that they would be acquitted if they agreed to give up work on Oz, and that MPs Tony Benn and Michael Foot had interceded on their behalf.
The magazine continued in publication with diminishing success until 1973.
Dennis was stung by personal comments made by the trial judge that he was of limited ability and a dupe of the other defendants; since that time, he has become one of Britain's wealthiest and most prominent independent publishers as owner of Dennis Publishing Ltd (publisher of Maxim and other magazines), and in 2004 released a book of original poetry. In 1995 Justice Argyle reiterated allegations about Dennis in The Spectator magazine. As this was outside court privilege, Dennis was able to successfully sue the magazine, which agreed to pay £10,000 to charity. Dennis refrained from suing Argyle personally: "Oh, I don't want to make him a martyr of the Right: there's no glory to be had in suing an 80-year-old man and taking his house away from him. It was just a totally obvious libel.
Neville eventually returned to Australia, where he has become a successful author, commentator and public speaker. His books include a critically praised account in the 1980s of the life of French/Vietnamese serial killer Charles Sobraj, who preyed on Western tourists travelling on Asia's so-called "hippie trail" in the 1970s; the book was later adapted for a successful TV mini-series starring Art Malik. He also wrote a memoir of Oz magazine, Hippie Hippie Shake. Director Beeban Kidron shot the film adaptation in 2007; it will be released in 2008. The film stars Cillian Murphy as Neville, Chris O'Dowd as Dennis, Max Minghella as Martin Sharp, Emma Booth as Germaine Greer, and Sienna Miller as Neville's girlfriend, Louise Ferrier.