CREEM at 50: How Gonzo Rock Magazine Spurred Heavy Metal's Popularity | Revolver

CREEM at 50: How Gonzo Rock Magazine Spurred Heavy Metal's Popularity

Former editor Jaan Uhelszki: "We lived in Detroit. It's a hard place to live and it requires hard music."
creem magazine staff, New Rose Films
courtesy of New Rose Films

"I lived and breathed by what was printed in CREEM magazine, and I believed everything."

That's Metallica's Kirk Hammett, speaking in the recently released documentary, CREEM: America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine. The film, along with a forthcoming limited-edition commemorative issue, is part of CREEM's 50th anniversary celebrations and shines a light on the legacy of the storied Detroit-based magazine.

During its original 20-year print run, from 1969 to 1989, the national monthly lived its tagline of "America's Only Rock 'N' Roll Magazine" with a unique, gonzo style of journalism that brought the reader along for the ride — and offered one hell of a soundtrack for the trip. The approach didn't just distinguish CREEM from its competitors, it also helped bring heavy, weird, outsider music to the masses. For Hammett, and a generation of young like-minded U.S. rock fans, CREEM magazine was the truth.

While San Francisco–based Rolling Stone (which CREEM was second to in distribution at its peak) aspired to loftier pursuits with political thinkpieces and Hollywood coverage, CREEM conjured a much different energy from its Motor City headquarters. Its scrappy staff channeled the region's working-class grit, independent spirit and subversive sense of humor into their work: fervently hailing the music they loved, brashly (often crassly) calling out its shortcomings and partying like rock stars while they were doing it.

"In New York it would have been more sophisticated. In L.A. it would have been a lot slicker," said Alice Cooper. "Detroit was the perfect place for it, because it was somewhere between a teen magazine and Mad magazine and a hard-rock magazine."

CREEM's outsider perspective — and singular devotion to rock & roll — informed their unpretentious take on the medium and culture. It also gave them the latitude to cover mainstream rock acts like Grand Funk Railroad, Led Zeppelin and Van Halen as well as grassroots subgenres that embodied the same rebellious spirit — like punk and metal — at a time when other magazines dismissed these new movements. CREEM were early champions of many seminal heavy acts, from the Stooges, Sex Pistols and MC5 to Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Motörhead and Judas Priest.

"Honestly it's a no-brainer," former CREEM editor Jaan Uhelszki tells Revolver of their attraction to the gnarlier end of the musical spectrum. "We lived in Detroit, in one of the cradles of metal civilization. The birthplace of the MC5 and the Stooges. It's a hard place to live and it requires hard music."

The first issue of CREEM was published in March 1969 by editor Tony Reay and publisher/record store owner Barry Kramer. Reay jumped ship soon after, but Kramer pushed on and built a team around editor Dave Marsh and a stacked roster of young, forward-thinking creatives including Lester Bangs, Uhelszki, Roberta Cruger, Ben Edmonds, Robert Christgau, Nick Tosches, Patti Smith and more. (Even CREEM's Boy Howdy logo was created by ultimate outsider comic artist R. Crumb.)

"We really wrote about what we listened to. What we were over the moon about. And sometimes what we were disgusted about," says Uhelszki. "Everything we wrote was done with some kind of high emotion. … The reason we all worked at CREEM is we wanted to share what we found with the tribe."


CREEM's editorial staff kept their ears to the ground and built a rep as a trusted source for readers to discover new bands — and sometimes entire new genres. The mag is widely credited with coining the genre names "heavy metal" and "punk rock" in 1971, in Mike Saunders' review of Sir Lord Baltimore and Marsh's description of Question Mark and the Mysterians, respectively.

CREEM's June 1972 issue featured Lester Bangs' essay on Black Sabbath, which is now regarded by many as one of the best pieces of music criticism ever written. Sabbath had just released Vol. 4, and at that time Ozzy and Co. were still nearly universally panned by the major music outlets. (Bangs himself dismissed the band's debut as "... like Cream! But worse" years earlier in Rolling Stone.) In the essay, he argues that Sabbath weren't just redundant blues-rockers spewing occult clichés, but in fact were the latest in a line of artists — in the tradition of counterculture storytellers like Bob Dylan and William Burroughs — that were offering up a fresh take on the "darkness" of the human condition.

"We have seen the Stooges take on the night ferociously and go tumbling into its maw, and Alice Cooper is currently exploiting it for all it's worth, turning it into a circus," Bangs wrote. "But there is only one band that has dealt with it honestly on terms meaningful to vast portions of the audience, not only grappling with it in a mythic structure that's both personal and universal, but actually managing to prosper as well. That band is Black Sabbath."

Along with insightful, probing musical commentary, CREEM also embraced what Uhelszki describes as a "contact sport" brand of participatory journalism. "[The] writer had license to put themselves into the story almost as a character," she says. "But really, we were just [a] stand-in for our readers. We went into the war zone, or behind backstage doors, tour buses, bedrooms and the bathroom of [Led Zeppelin's] Starship — to bring back stories and factoids that we figured that fans really wanted to know."

Uhelszki put this approach to good use in 1975, when she sold the idea that she should join KISS onstage in full "Hotter Than Hell" makeup. She turned her experience into the wildly entertaining feature "I Dreamed I Was Onstage with KISS in My Maidenform Bra." No journalist had ever done this with KISS before (or since), and rock fans took notice.

"I'll never forget opening up this one CREEM magazine and it had the band, who I was obsessed with at the time, KISS … they took one of the writers from CREEM and dressed her up and put her onstage," Hammett recalls in the documentary, "and I just thought, How fantastic is that!"

CREEM's creative storytelling and trusted tastemakers also attracted other budding musicians, including the Melvins' Buzz Osbourne. In the late Seventies Osbourne was an isolated teen growing up in the Pacific Northwest, and the mag provided a welcomed gateway into the new and fascinating punk-rock scene. "I was ordering Sex Pistols records out of the back of CREEM magazine back in '77-8," Osbourne told Arthur magazine. "CREEM always had weird-looking bands. I saw a picture of the Sex Pistols, I thought, This looks interesting. That was it. Same with the Clash, the Damned ..."

Osbourne's childhood friend Kurt Cobain also looked to its pages for his early punk inspiration. "I was about 12. But I did follow [punk rock] through CREEM magazine, wishing I could be there," Cobain told Billboard in 1991.

"I think that the musicians who read CREEM when they were young found a home," says Uhelszki. "A place where you didn't have turn down the volume … and feeling misunderstood was actually a good thing. It was as if the bands we covered from KISS to Grand Funk to Black Sabbath were executing their own brand of revolution, putting music back in the hands of the ordinary people and turning it back into a populist manifesto…"

The Eighties brought a sea change to CREEM. Its core editorial staff had moved on to other gigs or met tragic ends (Kramer succumbed to an overdose in 1981, and Bangs, who had left the mag in 1976, died of an OD in 1982), but the magazine carried on with the same spirit established by its founders.

In October 1980, exactly one year after they asked "Is Heavy Metal Dead?," CREEM issued a bold statement that reflected the genre's rebirth in the hands of a new class of heavy acts that would go on to dominant the decade. "Heavy Metal: Back From the Dead" read the headline next to cover star Rob Halford, of Judas Priest, who sported a leather-clad crop-wielding look to pound the point home.

Throughout the Eighties, until CREEM ceased monthly production in 1989, the mag continued to honor the genre with one-off issues dedicated entirely to the headbanging crowd, turning a new generation on to everyone from Maiden, Testament, Voivod, King Diamond, Venom, Megadeth and Metallica to the "New Glam" of Mötley Crüe, W.A.S.P. Stryper, Poison, Whitesnake and more.

"I have always thought … hard music blocks out some of the indignities, bad weather, low economic opportunities, and small-minded beliefs that lurk in that city," says Uhelszki, of the mag's Detroit roots and how it connects to CREEM's legacy of championing heavy music. "The louder the better. … We're a confrontational bunch with chips on our shoulders. Rebellious, mouthy and we require the kind of music that mirrors that."

Learn more about CREEM's iconic heavy-music coverage, and read the work of Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Jaan Uhelszki and more, in their 100-page 50th Anniversary Commemorative Magazine.