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Boy Howdy! An Interview with the Director of the upcoming CREEM Documentary

We spoke to filmmaker Scott Crawford about how ‘CREEM Magazine’ changed music criticism and his plans for his doc about the legendary publication.

by Derek Scancarelli
01 August 2016, 2:09pm

When journalist and filmmaker Scott Crawford released his first film in 2014, Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington DC, he told the story of how a tight-knit music community was able to make an impact on the entire world. Two years later, he plans to do the same with Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine. The film, which is closing out the final days on its recently funded Kickstarter campaign, will focus on the growth and reach of the Detroit-based publication between 1969-1981.

Crawford, who spent his childhood making fanzines and adult life editing magazines, will continue to use his DIY attitude to document the publication that was instrumental in his development as a music fan. J.J. Kramer, son of the magazine’s deceased publisher Barry Kramer, is working closely with Crawford as producer of the film. He sees this as an opportunity to learn more about his father, who passed away from a drug overdose at the age of 37.

CREEM Magazine wasn’t only influential to DC punks like Crawford, who cited it as a rock ’n’ roll history book. In fact, the magazine was responsible for launching and covering the careers of artists like KISS, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, New York Dolls, Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and countless more artists ranging from new wave to heavy metal. As far as its implications on the world of music journalism and criticism, quite simply: it was one of the originals, one of the greats. It helped create an entire genre. The roster of CREEM’s writers has the reputation as some of the most distinct voices in the arts: Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, Cameron Crowe, Patti Smith, and Noisey’s own Robert Christgau, to name a handful.

We spoke to director Scott Crawford about the upcoming film and how he plans to use a combination discovered photographs, archival footage, and newly filmed interviews to tell the story of one of the biggest and brattiest hometown magazines in the trajectory of American culture.

Noisey: It’s astonishing how so many fans of music tend to overlook how influential CREEM was. What drew you into it personally?
Scott Crawford:
I was too young to read it when it came out initially in the 70s, I discovered CREEM as a punk rock kid. I started going to punk shows in the early 80s. I was one of those kids that would just devour everything I can find about a particular subject. I was reading tons of fanzines back then and everything I could get my hands on about punk rock. A lot of those zines mentioned Lester Bangs, Iggy Pop, the whole Detroit scene. Going back and buying CREEM back-issues was sort of like a history lesson for me. It had a pretty profound effect pretty early on because I was such a fan of Lester’s writing. That aesthetic ran throughout the magazine. That was their editorial sensibility. It was very anti-establishment, which is of course something that resonated with my pretty early on.

I’m guessing the anti-establishment tone clicked because of your punk roots, right?
I was a DC punk rock kid. In my film Salad Days, I’m actually in it for two seconds as a kid. I did this fanzine, Metrozine, for years. I interviewed all kinds of people, a lot in the DC hardcore scene, but also people like Bob Mould and Jello Biafra and folks like that when they came through town. This was in ’84, ’85. A lot of people discover classic rock and punk rock later on, as a sort of reaction, that’s the evolution, right? I didn’t really. I just started listening to new wave and cheesy stuff like Heaven 17. Then I went right into punk rock, so I had to go backward and discover Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. CREEM was part of that. I had an unusual trajectory.

What bands would you go see growing up?
I was really into the Bad Brains. I missed Minor Threat, but I saw bands like Void, Black Market Baby, Scream, Marginal Man, Rites of Spring, and Fugazi. That was my scene. And I’ve always been writing and reading about music. So CREEM was really it for me, as well as Trouser Press Magazine.The writers and editors of CREEMLester Bangs

All black and white photos by Charles Auringer

CREEM played a massive role in the explosion of rock in the 70s, but in your trailer, you have it framed as this hometown Detroit magazine. What is it about CREEM that made it so successful on a national scale and become a developmental staple of music criticism?
That is a great question. And that is the ultimate question we’ll be answering in the film. But I think there are a lot of factors. I think Detroit is different than New York or Los Angeles; it’s not a media center. So there was a certain chip on their shoulder, which some Detroiters have said they had back then. They were going to make their own thing, in their own community, and make it come alive. There’s a lot of pride in that. That was part of the initial ambition of the team that started CREEM.

It became the number two music magazine to Rolling Stone. I think it was that homegrown bit of stubbornness. It was, “We’re Detroit. We’re not gonna be something we’re not.” They were always honest. You knew where they stood. That really resonated with musicians too. They were really a musician’s magazine, in addition to just being a consumer magazine. Musicians that I’ve spoken to have expressed how much it meant when CREEM gave them a thumbs up.

Just to clarify the scope of the magazine’s success, if it was second-in-line to Rolling Stone, are we talking street credibility, profits, or distribution?
That’s in terms of distribution. As far as newsstand sales and subscriptions, it was number two to Rolling Stone.

I think it’s important to realize how hard it was to reach mass audiences in the 70s, too. Back then, getting your magazine on the rack was not an easy thing to do, much less across the country.
You also have to put it in the proper context as well; at that point rock ’n’ roll journalism was really in its infancy. There had only been a few years worth by 1970. You had Crawdaddy!, Rolling Stone, and CREEM. It wasn’t really talked about. You take it for granted now, you want to know what somebody thinks about an album, you can look it up online and see three million opinions about it. But back then, there were really only three sources that you could go to. Knowing that, the fact that they were able to be as successful as they were really speaks volumes about their credibility. They were tastemakers too. Now Pitchfork is sorta like the taste-making website. CREEM really were the tastemaker magazine of the 70s. That also drove sales I’m sure.

In clips that I’ve seen, Wayne Kramer of MC5 describes the CREEM writers as “snot-nose.” Alice Cooper said that being trashed by the magazine was a badge of honor. It’s weird how that works, isn’t it?
It’s funny because Lester Bangs and Alice Cooper ended up being really close later. I think Lester Bangs ended up really liking a lot of Alice’s music. I think that CREEM is like the brattier younger brother of Rolling Stone.

It’s interesting that CREEM could and would shit on artists if they wanted to, but it wasn’t perceived like, let’s say, the way some perceive the more notable “elitist” source of criticism.The way I always look at it is like; it came from a place of real passion and love for the music. It wasn’t just to be an asshole. It was because they wanted more, they expected more, or better. A coach would push the best players to be better. That’s the way I see it. I don’t think they were necessarily going out of their way to destroy or knock someone down. In the case of a lot of these bands, Alice Cooper is a good example, it was like, “Come on, you can do better.”

At least in some cases with CREEM, they would actually practice what they preached. I mean, these were voices who would go on to be lifelong voices in music criticism. And take Patti Smith, was a writer and critic before she was even a musician!
Oh yeah. Absolutely. And Cameron Crowe wrote for CREEM. We’re about to introduce some new rewards into the campaign, some of which are cancelled checks for some of the writers back in the day. One of them is Patti Smith, Cameron Crowe, Lester Bangs, these are cancelled checks that were paid out to them. It’s pretty amazing. I think the CREEM check to Patti was like $25 in 1973.

Lester and Bruce Springsteen
Slade

Why do you think it was such a breeding ground for these iconic writers? It’s odd and romantic to have all of these names. We’re lucky to have Robert Christgau write a column here at Noisey.
Again, you have to look at the time period. There really weren’t that many outlets. The name CREEM sort of refers to, the cream rises to the top, right? So they were really good at picking talented writers. And talented writers want to be in a magazine with other talented writers. So, they attracted this pool of incredibly gifted writers. It was hard to be jaded in 1971. You didn’t have 40 years of rock music to reference. It was just one of these white-hot periods that happened culturally, this moment in time, you have to also consider in that period, late 60s Detroit, there were riots happening. Culturally there was a lot happening in terms of cultural awareness, and they were really at the epicenter of all that. CREEM covered some that in the magazine. If you go back and look you’ll see that it was even loosely associated with the White Panther Movement, which is a pretty radical leftist movement spearheaded by a guy name John Sinclair, which the MC5 were a part of. But that’s a whole different movie. So, they were really there. They were at the epicenter of a lot of that stuff; it was one of those moments in time. I think it also speaks to, like you were mentioning, to the dedication and just the fact that these writers, they still, they may not be writing about music, although some of them are, but Patti Smith went on to obviously do amazing things. Cameron Crowe went on to create a large volume of work. The list goes on. I think the publisher, Barry Kramer, was smart enough to surround himself with really gifted writers and photographers.

Do you think CREEM really coined the term “punk rock?”
I think that it’s definitely going to be explored in the film. It’s a subject that’s up for debate among certain folks and I hope to get them all on film talking about it. Dave Marsh is credited for coining that phrase, so it’ll be interesting to dig a little deeper on that. I think most people tend to credit CREEM with coining that phrase. If you’re a geek like me, it can be a very spirited debate.

What are you favorite CREEM articles?

1) Lester Bangs on Black Sabbath

2) Lester Bangs on Lou Reed

3) Jaan Uhelszki on KISS

Boy Howdy! The Story of CREEM Magazine is still funding on Kickstarter.

Derek Scancarelli studied documentary filmmaking in New York. Nerd-out with him on Twitter.