CREEM Magazine How A Rebellious Magazine From Detroit Changed The Face of Rock 'n' Roll

1 Feb 2020

Detroit city, 1969, two years after the city had burned during one of the most destructive riots in American history. Down in Cass Corridor – a dangerous neighbourhood known for drugs, prostitution and violent crime – a group of wandering creative souls rented some dirt cheap office space and began a rock ‘n’ roll magazine that would forever change the way America saw its rockstars. Image credit: Charlie Auringer

“This was a band of misfits who really had no business writing or running a rock ‘n’ roll magazine,” says the documentary maker, JJ Kramer, “and yet there they were… willing something into existence.” Kramer knows this story from the inside out for good reason: his dad, Barry Kramer, was Creem’s original publisher and head honcho. Last year he, along with Director Scott Crawford and Producer Jaan Uhelszki (an original CREEM alum) premiered the film ‘CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll Magazine’ which finally told the full story of this fierce and outrageous magazine, via archival footage, interviews with marquee artists and stories from staffers.

During its 20 year heydey from 1969-1989, CREEM became notorious for its provocative editorial style, in-office fights, and cover stars that included Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Paul McCartney and Frank Zappa. It went from a local culture paper, to the biggest underground magazine in the Midwest, to one of the sharpest and most rebellious publications in America. They chastised Lou Reed, championed Alice Cooper and terrified most rockstars. The tagline on the front read, “America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine” – a direct attack on its more upscale rivals like Rolling Stone.

Image Credit: CREEM Magazine

But this was a magazine forged in the embers of anarchy. In those early days in the Cass Corridor, the CREEM office was as gritty as you can get. The building they were in was falling apart, and had its fair share of stray dogs. The offices were a place of work, yes, but they also doubled up as a place for bands to rehearse and somewhere for people to sleep. “On one floor you had people typing away, on the floor above you had live music, and then you had mattresses on the floor and people sleeping on the couches, plus rockstars and local bands passing through all the time,” says Kramer. “From my understanding it was this beautiful chaos.”

The big name editors and writers in the Creem office included Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszski and the inimitable Lester Bangs, who quickly became one of the most distinctive voices in rock journalism. “Rolling Stone liked being friends with rockstars, but the folks at CREEM were much more iconoclastic,” explains Kramer. “It didn't matter who you were, if your album was shit you were gonna hear (and read) about it. Kind of a ‘kill your idols’ approach to things. At CREEM you were either in on the joke or you were the joke.”

Image Credit: Charlie Auringer and Geeks of Doom

After getting into a debate with The J. Geils Band about the merit of live reviews, Bangs decided to take his typewriter and sit up on stage with them during a show, writing his article there and then. In photos of the show, you can see Bangs bashing away at his keyboard as the band performs. At the end, he was introduced to the audience and honoured the moment by destroying his typewriter onstage. “Obviously the crowd went nuts,” says Kramer. When the magazine decided to cover glam metal superstars, KISS, Uhelszski insisted that the only way she was doing it was if the band allowed her to literally become one of them. Cut to Uhelszski onstage between Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, wearing full costume and make-up and swinging a bass guitar.

Image Credit: CREEM Magazine

But this kind of frenetic journalism didn’t come without its quarrels. The writers and editors were constantly falling out with each other over their beliefs. While some felt CREEM’s role was to support the counterculture revolution, others felt it should be the joker in the room. And if a band got on the cover, it was usually after barneys, black eyes and bruised egos.
“My dad and editor Dave Marsh got into it over a cover layout and my dad ended up kicking him to the floor,” says Kramer. “Dave grabbed a broom and started swinging at my dad, and then my dad took a typewriter and threw it out a three storey window. Stuff like that was not uncommon. That's how passionate they were about the music. They would kiss and make up and then do it all over again. That volatility and that energy is really what made CREEM, CREEM during that heydey.”

Image Credit: CREEM Magazine

When Kramer’s father passed away in 1981, he left the magazine to his son. “So at 4 years old I became chairman of my own rock ‘n’ roll magazine,” he laughs, “it was pretty fun to mention at show-and-tell at school.” His mother took over and ran the magazine for a further 9 years, increasing its readership as she went, but the landscape began to change. The rise of MTV saw circulation drop and eventually the magazine disappeared (but for a brief revival in the 90s).
But the legacy lives on, through every memory and myth. Kramer’s documentary has rekindled a global interest in this brave and forward thinking publication, that captured the working class spirit of America’s most diverse music scenes. “The legacy of CREEM is its underdog DIY spirit,” concludes Kramer. “It's about rolling up your sleeves and doing things on your own terms. These days, you see a lot of bullshit out there, nobody is prepared to take a stand or have a legitimate opinion, because everything is driven by ads and clicks. I feel pretty strongly that music and culture needs something like CREEM now more than ever.”