Review: ‘Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York,’ starring Scott Shannon

February 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Scott Shannon in “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

“Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York”

Directed by Mitchell Stuart

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Secaucus, New Jersey, the documentary film “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” features a nearly all-white group of people (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy and discussing the first decade of pop radio station Z100 New York, which launched in 1983.

Culture Clash: Z100 started off in last place in New York City’s radio ratings, but in just two-and-a-half months, it became the top-rated station in the area, largely due to radio personality Scott Shannon and his then-unorthodox methods of increasing an audience.

Culture Audience: “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in radio success stories, but the documentary leaves out a lot of truths about the radio business and the music industry.

A 1980s archival photo of Scott Shannon in “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” (Photo courtesy of Gunpowder & Sky)

WHTZ, the New York City pop music radio station better known as Z100, is arguably the most influential pop-music radio station in the United States. (It can be heard on the FM frequency at 100.3 in the New York City metro era.) “Worst to First: The True Story of Z100 New York” is a documentary that takes a look at back at the origins of Z100 and how it went from “worst to first” in the radio ratings for the New York City metro area. “Worst to First” is really a tribute to Scott Shannon and his Z100 reign in the 1980s, rather than a comprehensive look at all of Z100’s history. The movie has flawed editing and diversity problems, but ultimately it’s lightweight nostalgia with entertaining stories.

“Worst to First” director Mitchell Stuart has a history with Z100, since he has directed footage for some of the radio station’s star-studded Z100 Jingle Ball concert events. (Stuart occasionally appears on camera in this documentary when he’s talking to Shannon.) Elvis Duran, who is currently the most famous on-air personality at Z100, is a producer of this documentary. Duran is also interviewed in “Worst to First.” If you know that information when watching this Z100 lovefest, you’ll have a better understanding of why this movie looks very biased in talking about things that only make Z100 look good, and not anything dirty or sordid that went on behind the scenes.

Still, “Worst to First” (which has a brisk total running time of 64 minutes) capably achieves its intent to show fondness for Z100 and how the radio station started off as an underdog that many people thought would never reach the heights that Z100 reached. One of the main reasons why the documentary is watchable is because of Shannon, who is a very engaging raconteur with a sense of comedic wit that can be a little cocky and rebellious. Shannon is clearly intended to be the star of the movie, because he gets the most credit for bringing Z100 to the top of the ratings in 1983, the year that the station launched. He left Z100 in 1989, and he has continued to work as a radio DJ.

Shannon, who was one of Z100’s original staffers, was the leader of the radio station’s morning-show team. Born in St. Louis in 1947, and raised near Indianapolis, Shannon came from a military family (his father was in the U.S. Army), so all the moving around that a military family has to do helped prepare him for his career in radio. Almost all radio DJs who are serious about making radio a long-term career have to frequently move from job to job and city to city to pay their dues and try to advance to larger radio markets.

Shannon was no different, and he eventually landed at WRBQ (Q105) in Tampa, Florida, where he and co-host Cleveland Wheeler led “The Q Morning Zoo” show. This “morning zoo” concept (one to three hosts who lead a team of sidekicks for a morning show) has been copied by hundreds of radio stations, but WRBQ is credited with being the first to have this concept. In “Worst to First,” Shannon says that he quit WRBQ around the same time that Milton Maltz, CEO of Malrite Communications, recruited Shannon to be part of the start-up team at a new radio station called WHTZ, nicknamed Z100.

At the time, Z100 was headquartered in Secaucus, New Jersey, which was considered a suburban void (compared to New York City) for the media and music industries. However, Z100’s radio signal (just like other radio stations in the New York City area) came from New York City’s Empire State Building, for a reach that extended from New York City to Long Island to parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. Not only was Secaucus considered out of the way for people in the entertainment industry, but Z100’s first office space was also drab and less-than-impressive, according the former Z100 staffers in the documentary.

Shannon says that he almost didn’t take the job because the unnamed executive who interviewed him was very condescending when asking Shannon during the interview: “What makes you think that you’re ready for the biggest [radio] market in the country?” Shannon’s response? “I got up, I threw my little booklet at him, and I walked out.”

According to Shannon, just as he was about to leave in the elevator, Malrite Communications CEO Maltz saw Shannon, who told him why he was leaving. However, Maltz persuaded Shannon to take the job. Shannon quips in the documentary: “Then, I realized I didn’t know anything about New York.” (Maltz is not interviewed in “Worst to First,” but the documentary has an interview with Malrite Communications vice president of programming Jim Wood, who essentially confirms this story.)

Duran comments on Shannon’s arrival as a DJ in the New York City metro area: “Scott came in not knowing anything about New York City, and I think that gave him the edge. He wasn’t scared by the city. You could tell he wasn’t from around these parts. I think that’s what made him stand out. He surrounded himself with a lot of caring, trusting people who not only communicated well with the audience, but they elevated him.”

Among the former Z100 staffers interviewed in the film are original “Z Morning Zoo” cast members Prof. Jonathan B. Bell, Ross Brittan, Claire Stevens, Anita Bonita and Cathy Donovan. Bell comments on the first time he heard about Shannon: “He had been described to me as a nutcase from Tampa, Florida, who walked around wearing shorts all the time. And somehow, he was going to revolutionize New York radio.”

Also interviewed are former Z100 DJs/hosts/personalities Sean “Hollywood” Hamilton, Patty Steele and “Magic” Matt Alan. And these former Z100 DJ/hosts/personalities are mentioned, although they are not interviewed in the documentary: Mr. Leonard (the alias of John Rio), J.R. Nelson, Jack the Wack, Janet From Another Planet and Dr. Christopher Reed. Mr. Leonard and his high-pitched voice persona had the reputation of being an eccentric who rarely went to the studio and called into the station instead when he was on the air.

Former Z100 employees who are interviewed in the documentary include Gary Fisher (Z100 director of sales from 1983 to 1987 and Z100 vice president/general manager from 1987 to 1992); Fank Foti (Z100 head engineer from 1983 to 1987); Michael Ellis (Z100 music director from 1983 to 1984); Ken Lane (Z100 promotion director from 1983 to 1989); Steve Kingston (Z100 program director from 1989 to 1996); and Tom Poleman (Z100 program director from 1997 to 2005 and currently iHeartMedia president of national programming).

Nile Rodgers (Chic co-founder, Grammy-winning producer and New York City native) says that radio in the early 1980s underwent this transition in a post-punk and post-disco world: “Basically, what was happening at radio, the way I saw it, was they could extract one lane that they thought was really working, and they would just format a whole show or station like that.” In other words, radio formats were becoming increasingly fragmented.

John Sykes, iHeart Media president of entertainment enterprises and a co-founder of MTV, comments on the state of New York City radio at the time that Shannon arrived on the scene: “There was a segment of New York radio that had gotten lazy.” Some of the heavy-hitters in the New York City market at the time include WPLJ (which changed from rock to pop/Top 40 in 1983); news/talk station WOR; WNBC, which had star hosts Don Imus and Howard Stern; WBLS, a longtime R&B/urban music powerhouse; and WKTU, whose specialty was dance music.

Z100’s biggest competitor at the time was obviously WPLJ. Shannon came out swinging in this fight. One of the first things he did to shake things up was announce to the audience that Z100 was in last place and that they needed help in getting to the top of the ratings. It was unheard of at the time for any radio station to publicly admit how bad its ratings were. Shannon encouraged listeners to make Z100 posters and other merchandise and to tell their friends about Z100.

Audience members were given incentives and rewards if they gave Z100 the names and contact information of people whom they told about Z100 and who pledged to listen to the station. It’s exactly the type of viral marketing that’s commonplace today on the Internet and social media. But, of course, the Internet and social media didn’t exist in 1983. Z100 also used some tried-and-true promotional gimmicks, such as giving away cash to listeners in sweepstakes and contests.

Shannon also did what was considered taboo in radio back then: He began personally insulting Z100’s radio rivals on the air. Perhaps the biggest target was WPLJ program director Larry Berger, whom Shannon began to call Larry Booger. Ironically, Shannon later worked at WPLJ, from 1991 to 2014. Berger, who left WPLJ in 1988, died in 2018.

Former Z100 VP/GM Fisher comments on Shannon’s tactics to get to the top of the ratings: “Scott is the best radio attack dog. He does his best work when he had a target.” The Z100 irreverence didn’t just come from Shannon. Kingston says that as, a prank, he went to the WPLJ studios with boxes of bumper stickers that said, “I Brake for Larry Berger.” He put several of these bumper stickers all over WPLJ vehicles and inside the WPLJ offices.

Even though people might think Shannon had a somewhat rude approach to surpassing his rivals, some of his past and present colleagues say that this brashness was all part of his radio persona and that his real personality was much more laid-back. Donnie Ienner, former CEO of Sony Music, remembers that he first met Shannon in 1972, when Shannon was DJ at WMAK in Nashville. At the time, Shannon was going by the DJ name Supershan and had his hair styled to look like early 1970s Elvis Presley. Ienner adds, “Privately, Scott is very demure and very quiet. And as soon as that microphone goes on, he’s on.”

Shannon is also praised in the documentary for his genuine passion for music. (What the documentary doesn’t mention is Shannon’s short-lived stint in a pop/rock duo called Wildfire, which had a minor hit song called “Here Comes the Summer” on Casablanca Records in 1977.) Shannon says he got into rock music when he was in his mid-teens, and he was hooked ever since. He also mentions in the documentary that he also grew to appreciate pop, R&B and other music genres.

Sony Music Entertainment chief creative officer Clive Davis says that Shannon’s genuine love of music set him apart from many other DJs who seemed to care more about crafting comedy personas: “Love of music allows you to be different, to not be totally predictable, and for that contagious spirit to come through.” In the documentary, Jon Bon Jovi also says that he appreciated the Z100 team for being true music fans, and for not making him feel like “a cog in the wheel” when it came to promoting his music at radio.

Shannon and other people talk about how Madonna (before she was famous) kept pestering Z100 to play her 1983 single “Holiday.” She would frequently call the station and would sometimes show up unannounced, in an effort to get Z100 to play her music. One day, she demanded to speak to Shannon on the phone. Shannon remembers that Madonna told him in that conversation that if Z100 played “Holiday,” she promised to do something special for Z100 when she became famous.

Z100 then played “Holiday,” and the rest is history. Madonna kept her promise, by giving Z100 exclusive radio access to the Times Square premiere of her 1987 movie “Who’s That Girl,” where Z100 did a live show. Shannon calls it one of the “greatest days” in his time at Z100. No one in the documentary mentions that “Who’s That Girl” was a huge flop at the box office, although Madonna did have some hit songs from the soundtrack.

Because of Z100’s headquarters location in Secaucus (which Z100 hosts cheekily tried to underplay, by saying they were broadcasting from the top of New York City’s Empire State Building), Z100 initially had a hard time convincing celebrities to go to the station for in-person interviews. Tony Orlando, who’s interviewed in the documentary, was Z100’s first celebrity guest, who was booked almost by a fluke, because a junior Z100 employee just happened to be a volunteer at a charity event hosted by Orlando. In the documentary, Geraldo Rivera and Joe Piscopo also weigh in with their thoughts on Z100.

The antics of the Z100 team and the free promotion and publicity that Z100 was getting from its rapidly growing fan base led to Z100 going from “worst to first” in the ratings in just 74 days. It was an unprecedented feat in New York City radio. Jim Kerr, who was a WPLJ morning DJ from 1974 to 1989, remembers after WPLJ switched to a pop/Top 40 format in 1983: “We were ready for our climb right to the top. And then, out of nowhere, came Scott Shannon.”

Shannon soon became a national celebrity. In 1984, he began hosting the nationally syndicated weekly series “Scott Shannon’s Rockin’ America: The Top 30 Countdown” on Westwood One. (This series was on the air until 1992.) National TV shows such as “Good Morning America” and “Entertainment Tonight” began featuring the “Z Morning Zoo” team in stories about why Z100 had such a meteoric rise to the top.

It’s undoubtedly an inspirational story, but it’s told from a very calculatedly safe bubble designed to shut out some harsh realities about problems in the radio industry and the music industry. There’s no mention of radio payola scandals in the 1980s. There’s no mention of racism and sexism. There’s no mention of rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol. In addition, “Worst to First” has some editing and sound mixing that are rough around the edges and a little bit amateurish.

An example of an edit that does this documentary a disservice is a disjointed interview segment with manager/producer/Blackheart Records co-founder Kenny Laguna, who’s best known for his association with rocker Joan Jett. (Jett is interviewed in the documentary too, but she doesn’t say much except generic comments about how happy she was to hear her music on the radio.) Laguna tells a story about a botched promotion for one of Jett’s 1980s singles, which he does not name. Laguna says that he hired a plane to fly outside the Z100 studios with banner that read: “Dear Scott, Please play Joan Jett. Love, Ken.”

The problem was that the pilot “flew the plane over the wrong part of Secaucus. And Scott didn’t see the plane,” says Laguna. And then that’s the end of the story. Why put that story in the documentary if there’s no follow-up answers to these questions: “Did Laguna do another plane stunt to correct the mistake? And if so, did Shannon see the message, and what did he think?” The story is just left to dangle with no follow-through or conclusion.

Another out-of-place edit is having Gavin DeGraw as one of the artists interviewed in the documentary. DeGraw was a child in the 1980s, he didn’t grow up in the New York City metro area, and he didn’t become a famous artist until his 2003 debut album “Chariot.” What is he doing commenting about Z100 in a documentary about Z100’s 1980s history? It makes no sense. The documentary even shows DeGraw expressing surprise when he says says that he didn’t know that Shannon was one of the original members of the Z100 team. It’s an irrelevant interview that should have been left out of the documentary.

In addition to some questionable editing decisions for content, some of the technical editing decisions don’t flow smoothly at all, with a few cringeworthy jump cuts. And considering that “Worst to First” director Stuart has experience in directing music shows, it’s disappointing that the sound mixing is uneven, with the volume on some interviews jarringly louder than others. It’s not too much of a distraction, but it’s noticeable.

However, one of the best things about “Worst to First” is the archival footage, much of which hasn’t been seen in years. In addition, the filmmakers interviewed people from various aspects of the media and the music industry outside of Z100. Other people interviewed include author/former New York Daily columnist David Hinckley; journalist/historian Jimi LaLumia, Columbia Records senior vice president of adult radio promotion Pete Cosenza; and Scott Shannon’s wife, Trish Shannon.

A significant flaw in the documentary is how it completely erases women of color. No women of color are interviewed in the documentary. That’s partially because no women of color were on the Z100 decision-making team. But former Z100 staffers aren’t the only ones interviewed in the documentary. Artists and music executives were interviewed for this documentary too, but the filmmakers chose not to include any women of color from these parts of the industry either.

In an era when Grammy-winning music superstars Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Gloria Estefan were riding high on the pop charts and on Z100’s playlists, these women of color are not even mentioned in the documentary. The filmmakers probably wouldn’t be able to get Turner, Jackson or Estefan for interviews, just like Madonna (who’s mentioned quite a bit in the documentary) wouldn’t be available. But if the filmmakers bothered to include faded pop stars such as Debbie Gibson and Taylor Dayne for the documentary interviews, then they could’ve interviewed some women of color who were pop stars in the 1980s too. The filmmakers probably didn’t even make the attempt.

Surely, the filmmakers could’ve gotten at least one of these women of color artists for interviews: Salt-N-Pepa, Jody Watley, Jeanette Jurado from Exposé, Ruth Pointer from the Pointer Sisters, Lisa Lisa, or sisters Kathi Wolfgramm, Elizabeth Wolfgramm and Moana Wolfgramm from The Jets. Surely, the filmmakers could’ve interviewed women of color who’ve been influential music executives in the 1980s and beyond, such as Suzanne de Passe (formerly of Motown) or Sylvia Rhone, who’s been the president or chair/CEO of several record companies in her illustrious career, including Epic, Motown/Universal Motown, Elektra Entertainment Group and EastWest Records. The bottom line is that women of color were excluded from this documentary. When people talk about women of color being overlooked or sidelined, this documentary is an example of how it happens.

The documentary also completely ignores the obvious prejudices that women overall have to deal with in radio. Male radio hosts are allowed to be overweight, have gray and white hair and/or a lot of face wrinkles and jowls, but female radio hosts usually are not given this leeway in their physical appearance. Just look at the lineups of commercial radio station talent if you don’t believe this sexist double standard exists. (Non-commercial radio, which isn’t a slave to advertisers, tends to be more inclusive regarding what female radio hosts look like, but non-commercial radio has bigotry issues too.) Some people might say that when it comes to hiring people as radio hosts, audiences aren’t supposed to care what radio hosts look like. In reality, this belief only applies to male radio hosts, who benefit the most from this double standard.

The one token African American on the original “Z Morning Zoo” team was Bell, a light-skinned man, who had a “sidekick” job and was never put in charge of making the programming and hiring decisions. Because no one wants to admit on camera that they’ve been racist and sexist in employee decisions, these uncomfortable and truthful topics are kept out of a documentary designed to be a tribute. People who benefit the most from these prejudices are also the ones who tend to ignore this bigotry, condone this bigotry, and/or practice this bigotry the most. It’s not the 1980s anymore, when these issues were more likely to be swept under the rug.

It’s why “Worst to First,” for all of its jovial stories, looks like a whitewashed film made from a fan-worship perspective, instead of a documentary made by people with journalistic or truth-seeking standards. “Worst to First” is entertaining enough if people want a relatively short and fluffy breeze-through of 1980s nostalgia. However, there’s a lot more to the story that braver and more honest documentaries would have mentioned or included.

Gunpowder & Sky released “Worst to First: The True of Z100 New York” on digital and VOD on February 11, 2022.

Review: ‘Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine,’ starring Dave Marsh, Connie Kramer, Jaan Uhelszki, Alice Cooper, Chad Smith, Kirk Hammett and Cameron Crowe

August 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer) in “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

“Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine”

Directed by Scott Crawford

Culture Representation: The documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” features an almost entirely white group of entertainers and journalists (with one Asian and one African American) discussing the history of Creem, a Michigan-based rock magazine that was published monthly in print format from 1969 to 1989.

Culture Clash:  Creem, which was considered the “edgier” alternative to Rolling Stone magazine, prided itself on being disrespectful of many artists; there were serious internal conflicts among Creem staffers; and Creem often had a lot of content that would be considered politically incorrect today.

Culture Audience: “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” will appeal mostly to people who are interested in rock music or the magazine industry from the 1970s and 1980s.

Barry Kramer, Dave Marsh and Lester Bangs in “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The documentary “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” gets its subtitle from the slogan of Creem magazine, which had a raucous ride in monthly print circulation from 1969 to 1989. The movie includes interviews with numerous people who either worked for the magazine and/or considered themselves to be regular readers of Creem. It’s a nostalgic look at a bygone era when print magazines had more clout than they do now, when it comes to influencing music artist’s careers and shaping pop culture.

The documentary (originally titled “Boy Howdy! The Story of Creem Magazine”) doesn’t gloss over the dark side of Creem’s history, but the overall tone of the movie is one that’s similar to how someone would look back on their rebellious youth. Almost everyone interviewed in the documentary was born before 1970.

One of the main reasons why the “Creem” documentary (directed by Scott Crawford) has an overall fondness for the magazine is because some of Creem’s former staffers were involved in making the movie and are interviewed in the documentary. Jaan Uhelszki, a former Creem senior editor, is one of the documentary’s producers, and she co-wrote the movie with Crawford. Connie Kramer, who used to be Creem’s associate publisher and was married to Creem co-founder Barry Kramer, is one of the documentary’s executive producers.

Another producer of the documentary is JJ Kramer, Barry and Connie Kramer’s son who inherited partial ownership of the magazine after Barry passed away in 1981. (Barry Kramer was not related to MC5 co-founder Wayne Kramer, who wrote this documentary’s original music score.) Susan Whitall, who was a Creem editor from 1978 to 1983, is an associate producer of the documentary.

It’s pretty obvious that the documentary was filmed over several years, because some of the artists look different now, compared to how they look in the documentary. However, their commentaries are insightful and offer the additional perspectives of people who were not only in the magazine but who also were fans of Creem. (Only a few of the artists interviewed in the documentary became famous after Creem’s publication ended in 1989.)

There’s an overabundance of people interviewed in the documentary, but the film editing is good enough where the soundbites aren’t too repetitive and each has something unique to say. The types of people interviewed for the documentary essentially fall into two categories: entertainers (usually music artists) and former Creem employees/other journalists.

The music artists interviewed include Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent, Kiss singer/bassist Gene Simmons, Kiss singer/guitarist Paul Stanley, Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett, former R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament, the Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney, music producer Don Was, Suzi Quatro, Destroy All Monsters singer Niagra Detroit, former J. Geils Band singer Peter Wolf, Lenny Kaye, Mitch Ryder, Lamar Sorrento, Johnny “Bee” Bandanjek, Patti Quatro Ericson, Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore, Blondie guitarist Chris Stein, Joan Jett, Michael Des Barres, Scott Richardson, Keith Morris (founding member of the bands Black Flag and the Circle Jerks), and Redd Kross co-founding brothers Jeff and Steve McDonald.

In addition to Uhelszki, Connie Kramer and Whitall, the former Creem staffers interviewed in the documentary include Dave Marsh, who was Creem’s editor-in-chief from 1969 to 1973; Dave DiMartino, who was an editor from 1978 to 1986; Wayne Robins and Robert Duncan, who were editor-in-chief and managing editor, respectively, from 1975 to 1976; Ed Ward, who was West Coast editor from 1971 to 1977; Bill Holdship, who was a senior editor from 1980 to 1986; and Billy Altman, a reviews editor who worked for Creem from 1975 to 1985.

Creem alumni who were also interviewed include former staff writer Roberta “Robbie” Cruger, former editorial assistant Resa Jarrett, former staff photographer Michael N. Marks, former circulation manager Jack Kronk, former contributing writer Craig Karpel, former assistant to the publisher Sandra Stretke and former manager Toby Mamis. Other assorted journalists offering their comments in the documentary are Ann Powers, Legs McNeil, Scott Sterling, Ben Fong-Torres, Greil Marcus, John Holstrom, Josh Bassett, radio personality Dan Carlisle (who worked for Detroit’s WABX-FM during Creem’s early years) and photographers Bob Gruen and Neal Preston.

And there are some people from the worlds of art, movies or fashion who are included in the documentary, including artist Shepard Fairey, actor Jeff Daniels, former model Bebe Buell, fashion mogul John Varvatos and filmmaker Cameron Crowe, who started his writing career as a teenage music journalist in the 1970s for magazines such as Creem and Rolling Stone. Crowe’s real-life experiences as a beginner teenage journalist in the early 1970s became the inspiration for his Oscar-winning 2000 comedy/drama movie “Almost Famous,” which includes Philip Seymour Hoffman portraying Lester Bangs, Creem’s most influential writer.

Creem’s roots began in Detroit in 1969, when Barry Kramer (who owned shops in the area that sold music and drug paraphernalia) joined forces with a Brit named Tony Reay to co-found Creem magazine, with Kramer as publisher and Reay as editor. Rolling Stone magazine, which launched in 1967, was named after the Rolling Stones, the favorite band of Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner. In a cheeky nod to that idea, Creem was named after Reay’s favorite band Cream, the British blues-rock trio led by Eric Clapton.

Robert Crumb, also known as underground cartoonist R. Crumb, was recruited to come up with Creem’s original artwork, which included the magazine’s famous Boy Howdy mascot resembling a bottle of milk cream. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Creem offered to pay Crumb’s medical bills in exchange for his art services. Crumb’s illustrations and Creem’s irreverent humor often resulted in people describing Creem as the Mad magazine of rock’n’roll.

Reay’s stint as Creem’s founding editor didn’t last long, because he and Barry Kramer didn’t see eye-to-eye in the direction of the magazine. According to former staffers interviewed in the documentary, Reay wanted Creem to be a niche publication for blues-rock enthusiasts, while Barry Kramer wanted Creem to be a slick magazine that reached a wider rock audience. Reay parted ways with Creem, which hired Marsh as the next editor-in-chief in 1969, when Marsh was just 19 years old and had no previous experience editing a magazine. Marsh certainly didn’t take the job for the money, since he says that his Creem salary at the time was only $5 a week.

Marsh comments in the documentary “I had a vision for what the magazine could do for kids who were out there being ridiculed and beat up … The idea I had about Creem was that even in rock’n’roll, it had come to pass that there were stuffy ways of dealing with people. And I thought part of your job as a human being was to oppose that.”

Several artists interviewed about Creem in the documentary make comments essentially saying that Creem’s primary appeal was that it was a magazine made by and for rebels and misfits. Creem and Rolling Stone both considered themselves to be counterculture magazines when they first launched. However, Rolling Stone (which was originally based in San Francisco before moving its headquarters New York City in 1977) had aspirations that were more highbrow and more glamorous than Creem had.

It’s noted in the documentary that Rolling Stone co-founder Wenner (the magazine’s longtime editor-in-chief/publisher) loved hanging out with rock stars and other celebrities, which had an effect on the type of coverage that Rolling Stone gave to certain artists who were considered Wenner’s friends. Creem was the type of magazine that identified more with the fans who paid for albums and concert tickets. Bangs famously advised other music journalists to never make friends with rock stars in order to keep journalistic integrity, but it’s mentioned in the documentary that Bangs sometimes broke that rule himself.

Bangs, who was a freelancer for most of his career as a music writer/editor, is described by many in the documentary as a brilliant but fickle writer who was addicted to meth. Marcus says that when Bangs started writing for Creem in 1970, Bangs “turned [Creem] into a playground [with] … a wonderful sense of mocking everything.”

Crowe comments on the frequent conflicts between Bangs and Marsh: “Lester Bangs and Dave Marsh were like the two people that, within their collaboration, what they got to argue about is why and how to love the thing they loved. And what came out of that was desperate, reckless, raw, unforgettable coverage of this thing they were both in love with.”

Several people in the documentary comment that Creem’s “outsider” attitude had a lot to do with the fact that the magazine was based in the Midwest state of Michigan for most of its existence, instead of a big city on the East Coast or West Coast. The documentary gives a great overview of the Detroit music scene in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, to provide necessary context of why Creem’s Detroit origins were crucial to the magazine’s original tone and outlook. Creem embraced subgenres of rock that Rolling Stone tended to dislike in the 1970s, such as punk and heavy metal.

Although Creem was known for championing a lot of artists who were ignored or bashed by other rock magazines, Creem was notorious for its vicious insults directed at artists and other celebrities. Sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic and body-shaming comments were not unusual in Creem. And the magazine probably would’ve had a lot of racist comments too if not for the fact that white artists got almost all of the coverage in this rock-oriented magazine. Creem was also known for having female artists and models pose in sexually provocative pinup photos, while nude (but not pornographic) photos of women and men were not unusual in Creem.

Uhelszki admits that much of Creem’s content would be considered problematic or offensive enough that people could get fired it for today. “Everybody was politically incorrect,” she says of Creem’s staff at the time. Uhelszki remembers that back in Creem’s 1970s heyday, the inflammatory comments in the magazine were all part of Creem’s rebellious image.

Uhelszki also says that it wasn’t just the men on the male-dominated staff who wrote the misogynistic comments, because she wrote a lot of sexist content for the magazine too. “It was a boys’ magazine. It was meant for teenage boys,” Uhelszki comments in the documentary. “Did girls read it? Sure, they did. It was only sexually provocative when it was funny.”

While Creem was stirring up enough controversy where it was considered an inappropriate magazine for very young children, several former Creem staffers say in the documentary that there was chaos behind the scenes too, as Creem employees partied like the rock stars they gave coverage to in the magazine. In other words, drug-fueled behavior was part of the craziness. Creem’s original headquarters on Cass Avenue in Detroit was also in a run-down building in a crime-infested area, where it was not unusual for the female employees to be sexually groped on the streets on the way to and from the office.

People would also use the office as a “crash pad” to sleep and bring their personal lives to work with them, since the office would often be a battleground for arguments between employees and their significant others who didn’t work for Creem. And several of the employees mention that the staff had a love-hate relationship with Barry Kramer. Whitall comments, “Barry was an explosive editor … but he also had a sense of fun.”

The increasingly unsafe urban environment of Detroit became too much for the head honchos at Creem, so they decided to move to a completely different work environment. Creem’s headquarters relocated to a rural farm commune in Walled Lake, Michigan, where the magazine was based from 1971 to 1973. Creem’s crucial staff members lived and worked on the commune.

At the commune, the lines between personal and professional lives continued to blur for some staffers. In addition to Dave and Connie Kramer being a couple, some of the staffers were inevitably involved in co-worker romances. Marsh and Cruger were a couple, while Uhelszki was dating Charlie Auringer, who was Creem’s art director at the time.

Connie Kramer says in the documentary: “The women in the house … were much more monogamous than any of the men.” Uhelszki says of Creem’s Walled Lake headquarters, “It was a horrible place to be. And we were there for two years.”

Creem then relocated again in 1973. This time, it was to the Michigan suburban city of Birmingham, where the magazine experienced what many people consider to be the peak years of Creem. Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Smith, who grew up in the nearby city of Bloomfield Hills, remembers that when he was a kid, he was so excited to find out that Creem’s head office was close to where he lived, that he rode his bike to the office, and one of the first people he saw come out of the building was Alice Cooper. Smith says he was naturally star-struck.

The documentary includes some archival 1970s film footage of Creem staffers at headquarters, as well as many great photos from past issues of Creem. There’s a short segment on Uhelszki’s article “I Dreamed I Was Onstage With Kiss in My Maidenform Bra,” from Creem’s August 1975 issue. The article documented Uhelszki’s experience of getting to put on stage makeup with Kiss and joining the band on stage for a concert. It’s the type of article Rolling Stone magazine would never do, since Rolling Stone despised Kiss at the time. Kiss members Simmons and Stanley remember how the band argued about which member of Kiss would be the one Uhelszki would portray when she got her stage makeup done for the article.

The Boy Howdy mascot was such a part of Creem’s identity that the magazine got rock stars and other celebrities to pose for photos with fictional Boy Howdy beer cans. (A Boy Howdy sticker would be placed over real beer cans to make it look like Boy Howdy beer was real.) Not everyone was a fan of these promotional stunt photos. Longtime rock photographer Preston comments on the Boy Howdy beer cans: “The whole Boy Howdy thing was completely cheeseball, and I was mortified anytime I had to ask anybody to shoot with them.”

Another popular Creem photo feature was Star Cars, with each issue having a different celebrity posed with one of the celebrity’s vehicles. In 1977, Aerosmith lead guitarist Joe Perry notoriously posed for Creem with his mangled 1967 blue Corvette that he crashed in a car accident. Also included is a documentary segment on Creem’s Profiles, a one-page feature inspired by Dewar’s Profiles. Creem’s Profiles weren’t full-length interviews but were lists of artists’ likes, dislikes and other thoughts on various subjects.

The documentary also includes a segment about Creem’s famous section for reader mail, in which reader comments would be published next to sarcastic responses from Creem editors. Uhelszki says that the most famous reader letter they got was from Jett, the co-founder of the Runaways, who reacted to Creem’s extremely misogynistic review of the Runaways’ 1976 self-titled first album. In the review, Creem writer Rick Johnson said of the all-female Runaways: “These bitches suck … Girls are just sissies after all.”

In the documentary, Jett remembers her reaction to the review: “I was infuriated.” She says she was so angry that she showed up at Creem headquarters looking for Johnson, but he wasn’t there. “I bet he ran out the back door,” Jett quips in the documentary, which includes her voiceover reading of her letter that was published in Creem. The letter, which is directed at critic Johnson, says in part: “Since you seem to know that girls are sissies, come and see us sometime, and we’ll kick your fucking ass in.”

Just like what happens to a turbulent but successful rock band, the more popular Creem became, the more there was turmoil behind the scenes. The documentary details the main feuds that would eventually tear apart Creem’s original “dream team” senior-level staff. There was Barry Kramer vs. Marsh, who disagreed over editorial coverage and had fist fights over it. There was Marsh vs. Bangs, who also had physical altercations with each other and clashed over the direction in which the magazine should go. And there was Barry Kramer vs. Connie Kramer, who says that their marriage was ruined by cocaine addiction.

According to Uhelszki, Bangs wanted Creem to have more of a satirical edge, while Marsh wanted Creem to have more serious political content. Both Marsh and Bangs would eventually leave Creem: Marsh in 1973, and Bangs in 1976. Marsh went on to write for Newsday, Rolling Stone and other publications, while Bangs continued his freelance career and died of a Darvon overdose in 1982, at the age of 33. Even though Bangs was a known hardcore drug addict, several people in the documentary remember how shocked they were to hear about his death, because he had recently completely a stint in rehab.

Connie went to rehab and left Barry, because she says that he did not want to stop doing cocaine. They divorced in 1980. Barry tragically committed suicide by nitrous oxide suffocation in 1981, at the age of 37. Connie still seems to be experiencing denial and shame over his death because she says in the documentary that Barry “didn’t commit suicide” but “he wanted to end his life.”

Connie Kramer eventually sold Creem to Arnold Levitt in 1986. The magazine relocated to Los Angeles in 1987 and then ceased its monthly publication in 1989. Because this documentary is meant to showcase Creem before it was sold to Levitt, there’s hardly anything in the movie about the last few years of Creem. The magazine, licensed to a group of investors, was revived as a New York City-based bimonthly publication from 1990 to 1993, but that revival ultimately failed. The movie doesn’t include the legal disputes during the 2000s and 2010s over the Creem name and archives.

“Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” gives the impression that its candid look at the good, bad and ugly aspects of this magazine’s history is precisely because the magazine is no longer in business and former employees can speak more freely about people who are no longer their co-workers. It’s a much grittier and more honest portrayal of the wild and wooly days of 20th century rock journalism than, for example, HBO’s “Rolling Stone: Stories From the Edge,” a glossy 2017 documentary celebrating Rolling Stone’s 50th anniversary. Although the artists in the “Creem” documentary have important perspectives, the magazine’s former staffers are the ones whose behind-the-scenes stories resonate the most.

Greenwich Entertainment released “Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine” in select U.S. cinemas on August 7, 2020.

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