Oz was first published as a satirical humour magazine between 1963 and 1969 in Sydney, Australia and, in its second and better known 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 United Kingdom 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.
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 English 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 Oz obscenity trial of 1971. In one key respect it was a virtual re-run of the second Australian trial—the prosecution evidence and judicial instruction was clearly aimed at securing a conviction, and like Gerald Locke in Sydney, the judge hearing the London case, Justice Argyle, exhibited clear signs of bias against the defendants. However the British trial was given a far more dangerous edge 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.
After being turned down by several leading lawyers, Dennis and Anderson secured the services of lawyer and writer John Mortimer (creator of the Rumpole of the Bailey series) who was assisted by Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson; Neville chose to represent himself. At the opening of the trial in 1971 Mortimer stated 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." 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". According to Mr Brian Leary prosecuting "It dealt with homosexuality, lesbianism, sadism, perverted sexual practices and drug taking".
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, and it was the first time that an obscenity charge was combined with the charge of conspiring to corrupt public morals. Defence witnesses included artist Feliks Topolski, 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 not guilty on the conspiracy charge, but were convicted of two lesser offences and sentenced to imprisonment; 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 best known 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 and the defence 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 Jonathon 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 reportedly said that Argyle had made a "fat mess" of the trial, and informed them that they would be acquitted, but insisted that they had to agree to give up work on Oz. Dennis also stated that, in his opinion, MPs Tony Benn and Michael Foot had interceded with Widgery on their behalf.
Despite their supposed undertaking to Lord Widgery, Oz continued after the trial, and thanks to the intense public interest the trial generated, its circulation briefly rose to 80,000,.] However its popularity faded over the next two years and by the time the last issue (Oz #48) was published in November 1973 Oz Publications was £20,000 in debt and the magazine had "no readership worth the name.