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Creem: So.. What Was It All About, Alfie?

Having spent a solid year, with breaks for naps and pizza, evaluating the history of Creem magazine issue by issue, it feels like an overview/summary is needed. Well, either that or a few truckloads of psychiatric help.  

Creem was Detroit’s feisty little magazine that could. A perennial underdog, Creem got your attention by either being smarter than you or smashing a pie in your face or doing both simultaneously. Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs played the lead roles in the magazine’s early to mid 1970’s incarnation. Marsh was respected by the readership and by his first generation rock critic peers. Bangs was different. He wore his heart on his sleeves, resulting in being completely loved or dismissed. Lester had a tremendous intellect, but his reaction to music and his writing about music was as much about emotion as it was analysis (which was almost always spot on, as the kids say). Lester processed from a personal level how a band or live show or album made him feel, whether joyous, sad, angry, or confused, and then translated those emotions through his love of language in the most effective way possible. Lester was so important to the Creem aesthetic that he won the  “Rock Critic of the Year” award for several consecutive years after he left the magazine. 

Creem continued to do good work after Bangs left, but as the 1980s progressed, there was a continuous battle between how pop music and pop culture had evolved and where, if at all, Creem fit into that evolution. During the 1970s, guitar driven rock ‘n’ roll, most often of the arena rock variety, was at Creem’s foundation. With constant coverage of big selling acts like the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, the magazine could then cover niche artists, other genres, or rotating rock stars as needed to stay fresh and relevant. As I’ve said before, the idea that the quality of Creem took a severe nosedive after the original editorial team left is simply untrue. Susan Whitall pulled together an outstanding group of contributors (Patrick Goldstein, Rick Johnson, Nick Tosches, Richard Riegel, Sylvie Simmons, and many others) giving Creem the latitude to explore roots music, punk rock, and new wave in a consistently entertaining and enlightening fashion. 

The writing was good to excellent throughout the 1980s (it was most often excellent when pieces were written by one of the handsome editors), but there were too many obstacles to overcome. First, pugnacious founder Barry Kramer died, requiring a change in leadership. Externally, and more importantly, were changes in the media and popular culture. Guitar oriented rock ‘n’ roll became less prevalent in popular music and was more directed to AOR stations. Instead of writing about Alice Cooper or Kiss or Cheap Trick, the magazine was writing about Duran Duran and the Culture Club and Madonna. The guitar-based bands that some of the editors championed the most, such as the Smiths, R.E.M., and the Replacements, weren’t clogging the top of the album charts. Huey Lewis and Dire Straits enjoyed multi-platinum success at the time, but they weren’t the type of acts that teenage rock ‘n’ roll dreams were made of. Synth pop and hip hop may have been covered, but they weren’t really part of the magazine’s DNA. 

Cable television took more than one bite out of Creem. MTV made it impossible for a monthly publication to break any news of importance to a mass audience. Also, the exposure that artists could get on MTV made musicians less likely to cooperate with magazines. Why risk an interview with an outlet that could make an entire band look like drooling simpletons when you can control your image, if you weren’t Billy Squier, via a video. Furthermore, conservatives were learning how to use cable television as their weapon of choice during the ‘80s. Jimmy Swaggert, before he was caught paying for sex, was able to stop Wal-Mart from selling rock magazines by labelling them as “pornography.” The leading experts on pornography always seem to come from the pulpit. 

So, Creem struggled financially throughout the ‘80s, being sold in 1985, moving to Los Angeles and spending its hospice in New York. However, those commercial considerations didn’t mean a consistent downturn in aesthetic quality. While the late 1980s version of Creem was markedly different from early iterations, I can easily find articles I love from any era. In fact, the final two issues of the magazine are as good as most random issues from the 1970s, although times do inevitably change. (Having Chuck Eddy and Richard C. Walls contributing to the bitter end certainly helped). 

As for me, I grew up in a small town in Arkansas which was as much as a cultural desert/wasteland that one could possibly find. There was nothing in my world anything like Creem’s merger of intellect and irreverence, mirth and power. Creem laughed at the world of rock ‘n’ roll and celebrated the music’s spirit at the same time. I am forever indebted to the Boy Howdy! staff for helping me think, laugh, and grow for decades. Not a bad deal at all for a few bucks an issue. 

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