CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine
by Robert Matheu & Brian J. Bowe
Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
Rock ‘n’ roll journalism really only became “legitimate,” “serious” and “professional” when the music it covered became “legitimate,” “serious” and “professional,” hence providing a soundtrack to a generation, Boomers, many of whom made professions out of getting serious about the legitimacy of their youth culture. One such young urban professional was Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, the New York-via-San Francisco magazine whose focus seemed to be a desire to be the official journal of the counterculture’s revolution. Rolling Stone lionized artists like Paul Simon or John Lennon as Voices of Their Generation, while in the process lambasting millions-selling “people’s bands” like Led Zeppelin (to whom revisionist music history has been kind) or Grand Funk Railroad (still laughable). Rock ‘n’ roll was not only an art form; it became the stuff of serious culture.
Soon enough, Rolling Stone would be the kind of magazine assigning classic status to a culturally imperialistic record like Simon’s Graceland; a record that demands we pay it homage, as though it were the first to discover music south of the equator. Wenner would also play an instrumental role in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a wholly unnecessary antiques roadshow that assigns a sort of bizarre and discomforting religiosity to the three-chord nostalgia of generations past.
Meanwhile, in 1969 Detroit, Barry Kramer and Tony Reay founded Creem, a magazine that could not help but veer away from the sort of reverence Rolling Stone would ascribe to its pet artists and by being isolated in the Midwest, far from any entertainment Illuminati, would carry on a tone that was shot from the hip and never seemed to lose sight of the fact that rock ‘n’ roll was, first and foremost, designed to get kids’ asses moving. If it changed the world in the process, well, that would be cool too.
Compiled by one-time Creem photographer Robert Matheu and the younger Brian J. Bowe, CREEM: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine is a hefty coffee table book brimming with nuggets from the early days of rock journalism. Among the contents here are photos taken by photogs whose names have been lost to time but whose images, while not iconic, are refreshing snapshots of artists all those years ago. In fact, Iggy Pop is quoted in the book as saying: “The pictures of all the rock stars looked more real in Creem than anywhere else…you really saw everyone sweating and Tina Turner, she looked like a black lady. Everything looked a little more real.” Mr. Osterberg is dead-on; these shots are very much candid, not doing anyone any real favors. Turner is one of many Star’s Cars features, leaning up against a gray sports car; later in the book is a photo of a late ’70s Devo climbing onto a mass transit bus.
As far as writing goes, well that’s where Creem was at its best. Herein is compiled the classic Lester Bangs freak-out essay “Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung” where he creates an alternate history of ’60s garage band Count Five. You’ll find a collection of early pieces done on the mighty MC5 by Dave Marsh and even John Sinclair. A feature by Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter bars no holds in its discussion of fellow rock stars on tour and especially great is the Bangs profile of the James Williamson-era Stooges after the release of Raw Power; without the benefit of historical hindsight, you’d think this band was destined to release a fourth or fifth atom bomb of a record.
Though my interest in the book waned a bit upon its entry into the ’80s, where portraits of the Knack sent shivers down my spine and interviews with the obnoxious Sex Pistols and Clash seemed unnecessarily confrontational than candid and celebratory, what surprised me were the unearthed pieces on artists Rolling Stone wouldn’t dare give more than two inches to in an obit column. Here are profiles of Mitch Ryder and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, long past their prime and a piece that makes the J. Geils Band sound like the best ’70s band this side of the New York Dolls. It’s great to read a curious rock journalist cast an eye toward the emerging popularity of Grand Funk, as well as a humorous take-down of Pink Floyd’s mid-’80s ego meltdown.
While it would’ve been fun to see the writing ensconced in the actual layouts of the original publications (maybe even with accompanying advertisements), Creem’s lasting value is that it’s a snapshot of a hip rock mag that incorporated both Midwestern amiability with the attitude that it was only rock ‘n’ roll but they liked it. The magazine, and particularly its ’70s coverage, captured candidly a period of time that many would argue was dominated by rock’s best artists at the peak of their abilities. Creem was a magazine that understood that no one need be assigned to any sort of hall of fame status but rather that a loud, fast, rockin’ single, no matter how trashy or forgettable, might do more for the kids in three short minutes than oft-repeating reunion tours would for the world in 30 years and counting.