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Photography Charles Auringer

Chronicling Detroit’s seminal music magazine Creem

This documentary unpacks the rocking rollercoaster ride of a platform that got right up in the face of punk rock, new wave, metal and beyond, changing its course forever

The 60s was a swinging cultural pendulum. The nuclear family unit was dictated by the previous decades’ conservatism; the country was reeling from civil rights conflict, Nixon’s imposing administration and the horrific death toll of Vietnam, while co-opted soft rock pulsated on primetime TV alongside home shopping adverts for motorized facemasks. American counterculture was largely artistic, championing sexual revolution, socially accepted drug use and rights for minorities, and it was at odds with its leader’s aggressive foreign policy and the mainstream’s obsessive materialism. The spirit of the era’s youth was firmly anti-establishment, but on the cusp of the 70s it was plateauing. What was next?

Creem magazine came along the spring of 1969, birthed in Detroit, Michigan. Founded by Barry Kramer and founding editor Tony Reay, the initially small magazine felt its way around the local scene. The entertainment industry was firmly on opposing coasts, but the Motor City was home to the fiery subcultures of Motown, Blues and Creem’s focus: rock. Far away from the cultural microcosms of Hollywood and New York, its biting humour and irreverence saw it gain a huge following beyond its geographical limits.

Scott Crawford, a filmmaker and journalist, seeks to tell the bold story of the musician’s gospel, chronicling everything from new wave, to punk rock and heavy metal in a voice that spoke to a rebellious generation. Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine smashed its recent Kickstarter, with hopes to fund more filming and interviews with its esteemed rock writers, as well as the musicians, artists and poets that graced its pages. Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Thurston Moore and Debbie Harry are all to be involved in the project, and never-before-seen archival material will be delved into.

The DIY spirit of Creem is close to Crawford’s own heart: in his 2014 documentary Salad Days, he chronicled Washington DC’s punk scene as it revolted against the Republican administration of the 80s. As a kid in that decade, fanzines were his art, and the mag was a relic from a previous scene. “I ran a lot of fanzines back then, and was always reading about this guy Lester Bangs, who then led me to Creem,” Crawford explains. Lester Bangs was one of its most notorious products: a writer, for both Creem and Rolling Stone, he became editor in 1971. He wrote extensively on Lou Reed and noise music, while also creating his own music right in the Creem offices. As a writer, he was known for his radical tone and critical approach to the music he loved, illustrating the Creem’s style, and he even garnered personal references in tracks by the Ramones and R.E.M.

Crawford continues: “I was always reading about Creem and Detroit, where Iggy Pop, and The MC5 happened. There was a newsstand up my street from my house, and they sold tons of back issues of it from the 70s. It was like a history lesson.”

Reading Creem led Crawford to the likes of Patti Smith and the Stooges. With its brutally honest featurettes and arresting covers from Blondie and KISS to Joan Jett, it was second only to Rolling Stone – a triumph given that its popularity spread only from the musicians it interviewed and word of mouth among local magazine racks.

“This paper is devoted to media with the emphasis on music and the people that live it – you” – Barry Kramer

And though it's so steeped in Detroit’s culture, Creem’s reach went international. Crawford explains: “I think they were very proud of their Detroit roots, it’s obvious when you read it as its attitude is different from anything else. They weren't LA, they weren't a media centre, and yet they were living in one of the greatest, and important music cities of the time. Between what was happening with Motown and what was happening with the garage scene, and punk rock – there was so much happening. I think that was part of their success, they took a certain pleasure in knocking rock stars off of their pedestals. I think there was honesty and truth in that that resonated with people.”

The self-styled ‘America's Only Rock 'n' Roll Magazine’, helped launch the careers of Detroit acts like Alice Cooper, The MC5 and Iggy Pop. It was also one of the first publications to cover The Smiths and The Cure, while giving in-depth analysis of acts like David Bowie and Lou Reed. Crawford says that getting trashed by the publication was like “a badge of honour”. Rock journalism was “in its infancy”, says Crawford, so people were hungry for it. What was also pretty unusual about Creem was the crossover between its media and the acts it focused on: Patti Smith wrote here and there while she first found her footing over in New York, reviewing a 1969 Velvet Underground show, but then found herself on the cover in 1976.

“I think Patti is a good example of someone that is so passionate about music, wanting the world to know about it, and that need to express herself in some way. Creem was that outlet, not like Rolling Stone or anything else,” says Crawford.

Barry Kramer, the mag’s founder, put it even better. He once said: “This paper is devoted to media with the emphasis on music and the people that live it – you.” And his mission was very clear: “Detroit is home to many creative artists... there are those who would like to exploit this market. Sell its soul. We won't let this happen. Creem will help build a more cohesive community”.

Partnering with Barry Kramer’s son J.J, Crawford focuses on the heyday of the magazine. For J.J Kramer, it’s a chance to get a perspective on his father and a life he never knew – Barry Kramer died of a drug overdose in 1981 when J.J was young, and it’s an opportunity to share his legacy. Using archival footage and unseen photographs from the Kramer’s estate, they put together a vibrant narrative. Crawford describes some of the unseen footage of the original offices in the Cat’s Quarter, by a local TV station in the 70s, showing various famous faces.

Delving into the magazine’s archives, Crawford describes the likes of writer Jaan Uhelszki’s piece about getting on stage with KISS. “It’s actually a hugely important piece, seeing behind-the-scenes of those iconic moments, and to see women involved at a time when they were excluded elsewhere. Creem was freewheeling, and it was so open. That speaks volumes,” he says. It's incredible now, looking back, to see the talent it exposed and the seminal writers that it nurtured, but the publication was at the forefront of its contemporary counter culture, and was optimistic about the future of alternative music: shaping the industry, and letting the industry shape it.

Over the next six months the team plan to continue shooting and conducting more interviews, with plans for release next year. Despite the decades that have passed, Creem still remains unique, and relics of its peak still remain with us today: its credited – although divisively so – with coining the terms punk rock and heavy metal. Crawford observes: “It came about with a very unusual context, with some very special people with their finger on the pulse. I don’t think it could exist now, or if we could see something similar ever again.”

Find out more about Boy Howdy! here