Great lost pop papers #2: World Countdown

'The Royal’s World Countdown advocates that MUSIC is a strong emotional unifying force for good, and if promoted and expanded will unite peoples of all tribes, languages, colors, countries and circumstances in peace and love. Hence the predominant purpose of this newspaper'
Charles Royal, editor and publisher, January 1968

This enigmatic publication might well have been the first music-focused underground paper to emerge from California in the 1960s, and was aptly described by Rolling Stone (after its demise) as ‘a peculiar collage of photographs, publicity handouts and occasional ads’. Founded by English expat and wheeler-dealer Charles Royal (left), assisted by his brother Mark, and other family members including Ellinor and Annette Royal, early issues billed it as ‘The First Worldwide Big Beat Newspaper’, then ‘This Earth’s Leading Newspaper’, with a stated circulation of 500,000 a fortnight. Despite such grandiose claims (and some pretty hip contributors), its distribution seems to have been limited, and copies rarely surface. The paper was initially called 'The Royal’s World Countdown', later shortened to World Countdown, and its contents tended to be a collage of PR-styled puff pieces about bands both well-known and obscure, syndicated articles from the British underground press (notably International Times), ads for records and hippie accoutrements, and full-page psychedelic artwork and photo-montages. Though it gave consistent attention to heroes like The Beatles and the Stones, it also found room for features on acts like The Common People and The Lollipop Shoppe, who were ignored by everyone else (as far as I'm aware), and is a joy to read if you get your kicks from pop trivia.


Its name is rather strange, but makes some sort of sense when you learn that Royal had promoted a nationwide Battle of the Bands named 'Countdown 65' in 1965. Its finals were televised, and he may well have been cashing in on whatever renown that had earned. In the late, great Derek Taylor's autobiography he describes World Countdown as 'a cheerfully apolitical underground newspaper owned and edited by a gigantic red-haired Englishman named Charles Royal, who gave away far more copies than he sold.’ Royal appears to have been quite a character. Peter Pilafian, one of the organisers of the Monterey Festival, has stated: "I was dealing with a constant stream of sort-of hippie entrepreneurs, who all wanted booths at the festival. I remember one fellow named Charles Royal who came in, and we could not get rid of him. He insisted on publishing a newspaper - he wanted to publish the official Monterey Pop Festival newspaper, and distribute it around the fairgrounds. Then he wanted to drive his fleet of Cadillac limousines in, because he said that he loved parades, and so on! So I kept telling him, 'No, we don't want to do that...' He showed up anyway, and by then, what could you do?"

How or why Royal first came to the West Coast is unknown, but he started his paper in August 1966, assisted by his brother Mark. Attempts to establish its publication history are hampered by the fact that most editions are undated, but the first issue is billed as a ‘Beatles Souvenir Issue’, and coincided with the quartet’s final show at Candlestick Park on August 29th. Printing initially occured in SF, then moved to Hollywood, with sales via street corners, newsstands and head shops such as The Psychedelic Shop on Haight Street. An issue dating from July 1968 claims that ‘we started publishing in May 1965’, but this is almost certainly inaccurate, and August 1966 seems likely to have been its regular starting date (though one-offs might have appeared earlier). Thereafter publication appears to have been more or less fortnightly until it fizzled out in the summer of 1969. Anne Moore, one of its longstanding contributors, tells me: "The paper was supposed to appear twice monthly, but the schedule really depended on when they got enough advertising money to print the thing. That was done by some company in Tujunga (out in the east San Fernando Valley), who printed a lot of local, mostly weekly papers. I think they also ran a few as well. I just remember that the printers and the people involved were typically very straight, and it was rather jarring for them to have these 'hippy' nuts coming into the printing plant. But money is money." 

In its sixth issue (February 24th 1968), Rolling Stone reported some controversy concerning a proposed follow-up Monterey festival to be held at the same site – Charles Royal had applied for a licence, as had the original organisers, but local officials were only willing to allow one event to go ahead. In the event, neither happened.


World Countdown belonged to the Underground Press Syndicate, whose main condition for joining was that members could freely reproduce each other’s material. This meant that counter-cultural news and information was widely disseminated, but also that much of World Countdown’s content was not unique. Original articles and interviews were not its strength, then, though it included work by well-known writers (such as Derek Taylor, Danny Fields, Jerry Hopkins and Ralph J. Gleason), as well as ones I've never heard of elsewhere (Ravi Dovard, Sparkie Seawell, Dodie Smith). There are fascinating odds and ends scattered throughout the copies I own, it's consistently visually striking, and conveys a stronger sense of the immediacy of the SF hippie experience than any other publication I’ve seen. As Beat Books puts it: ‘During the summer of 1967, in its loose and playfully psychedelic visual style, Royal's World Countdown embodied the West Coast vibe. Thereafter it inevitably lost some of its impetus, and by its final year it resembled a considerably more conventional music journal.’

Seeds collage, February 1967
Anne Moore continues: "You know more about Charles Royal than I do or did. I think I was introduced to him at a party once. My contact was through different people who acted as editors - 'acting' being the big word, since they mostly gathered copy and let us all know when a deadline might be." One of these editors was Martin Cerf, whom Anne remembers well. "Marty was interested in all of it," she says, "from the writing to the layout and final printing. He would even play delivery man at times, going down to the printers and picking up big stacks of copies to deliver around town - to the writers, shops, radio stations and clubs. I remember it was a long, hot drive out to Tujunga to pick up the papers with Marty! He ended up knowing everyone, which helped him land a great job as Director of Creative Services at UA / Libery Records in 1970. However, he had got so interested in how World Countdown was put together that he eventually decided to do his own paper. And he did. He started Phonograph Record." In conclusion, Anne says "I'm surprised anyone knows about or is even interested in World Countdown today. It only gets mentioned now and again, and has faded into the realms of obscurity and very brittle paper. But it's amazing how receptive people were with it back at the time, and it opened a lot of doors for other writing. No one got paid, not even the so-called editors, but we got into any concert, club or party we wanted to. In those days, that was worth everything."

What became of Charles Royal is something of a mystery. This article appeared in Rolling Stone on February 21st 1970, explaining that he had got God and moved to Tahiti with his family. 


Charles Royal was clearly an interesting guy, and it's a shame that he vanished so soon after his venture into music publishing foundered. Having returned from Tahiti, Royal apparently went on to run the Cadillac Club International (CCI) and publish its magazine, Cadillac Connoisseur. I'm told he passed away in October 2010. If anyone has any clearer idea what became of him – or has any copies of the paper – I’d love to hear from them. Issue #1 contains photos of two blond little boys named Bruce Royal and Vince Royal - perhaps they're out there somewhere? Any leads welcomed! 


The Royal family
Anyway - onto the magazine itself:


1.1 (August 1966)

1.2 (September 1966)

1.7 (November 1966)

1.8 (November 1966)

1.9 (December 1966)

2.1 (December 1966)

2.2 (January 1967)

2.3 (January 1967)

2.4 (February 1967)

2.5 (March 1967)

2.6 (March 1967)

2.7 (April 1967)

2.8 (May 1967)

2.9 (May 1967)

2.10 (June 1967)


2.11 (July 1967)


3.1 (July 1967)

3.2 (July 1967)

 
3.3 (July 1967)

3.4 (August 1967)

3.5 (September 1967)

3.6 (November 1967)

3.7 (December 1967)

3.8 (December 1967)


3.9 (January 1968)


3.10 (January 1968)

3.11 (February 1968)


3.12 (March 1968)


4.1 (March 1968)


4.2 (April 1968)

4.3 (May 1968)

4.8 (August 1968)

4.10 (September 1968)

4.11 (September 1968)

4.12 (October 1968)

5.1 (November 1968)

5.3 (December 1968)

5.4 (December 1968)

5.5 (January 1969)

5.6 (February 1969)

5.7 (February 1969)

5.8 (March 1969)

5.9 (March 1969)

5.10 (April 1969)

5.11 (April 1969)

5.12 (May 1969)

6.1 (May 1969)

6.2 (June 1969)

6.3 (June 1969)

6.4 (July 1969)

6.5 (July 1969)