In the winter of 1969, Barry Kramer owned the Detroit record store Full Circle as well as Mixed Media, a head shop/bookstore and was an unsuccessful concert promoter and band manager. In a fit of pique at the local alternative paper rejecting his concert review, he decided to publish his own paper. Tony Reay, a clerk at the record store, became the first editor, naming the publication after his favorite band, Cream. Charlie Auringer became the photo editor and designer, and Dave Marsh joined soon after at age 19. The first issue was distributed only in Detroit as a tabloid-sized newspaper. A deal was struck with a distributor, but many copies were ordered by porn shops who were confused by the faintly suggestive title, who displayed it next to the similarly sized Screw magazine. Richard Siegel became circulation director and within two years CREEM had become a glossy color magazine, sized for newsstand distribution, and secured a national distribution deal.
The original offices were at 3729 Cass Avenue in Detroit for the first two years. An armed robbery of the offices convinced Kramer to move the operation to a 120-acre farm in Walled Lake, Michigan at 13 Mile and Haggerty Road. Just before the move, Lester Bangs was hired, originally to write a feature on Alice Cooper. He had been fired from rival music magazine Rolling Stone by publisher Jann Wenner for "disrespecting musicians" after a particularly harsh review of the group Canned Heat. Bangs fell in love with Detroit, calling it "rock's only hope", and remained there for five years.
Many of the staff members lived in the Walled Lake farmhouse, with occasional physical altercations between writers. Marsh had objected to Bangs' poorly housebroken dog, and placed the dog's dung on Bangs' typewriter. This resulted in a fistfight that gave Marsh a gash on his head. Eventually, the magazine was successful enough to move to professional editorial offices in downtown Birmingham, Michigan. After becoming editor in 1971, Bangs left the magazine in 1976 and never wrote for it again. On January 29, 1981, Kramer died of an overdose of nitrous oxide, and Bangs died a year later on April 30, 1982 in New York City of an accidental Darvon overdose.
This geographical separation from the majority of the entertainment industry in the United States, then focused primarily in Hollywood and New York City, along with the British upbringing of original editor Reay, resulted in a certain irreverence, a deprecatory and humorous tone that permeated the magazine throughout its existence. The magazine became famous for its comical photo captions, which poked fun at rock stars, the industry, and even the magazine itself. Every year, the tall Plexiglas pyramid presented as the American Music Award was dubbed "The Object From Space", and was attributed with the power to force celebrities to look ridiculous while holding it. The location also meant CREEM was among the first national publications with in-depth coverage of many popular Detroit-area artists, such as Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder, Alice Cooper, The MC5, The Stooges, Iggy Pop, and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as other Midwestern acts such as Raspberries and Cheap Trick.
CREEM picked up on punk rock (which many claim the magazine, and especially Bangs, helped to conceptualize, if not invent) and new wave movements early on. CREEM gave massive exposure to artists like Lou Reed, David Bowie, Roxy Music, Blondie, and The New York Dolls years before the mainstream press. In the 1980s, it also led the pack on coverage of such upcoming rock icons as R.E.M., The Replacements, The Smiths, The Go-Go's and The Cure, among numerous others. It was also among the first to sing the praises of metal acts like Motörhead, Kiss, Judas Priest, and Van Halen. Melvins guitarist Roger "Buzz" Osborne taught Kurt Cobain about punk by loaning him records and old copies of CREEM.
Alice Cooper referenced the magazine in his song "Detroit City" – "But the Riff kept a Rockin', the Creem kept a-talkin', and the streets still smokin' today". Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth said: "Having a certain sense of humor in the rock'n'roll culture – CREEM nailed it in a way that nobody else was. It informed a lot of people's sensibilities."
Publishers, editors and writers for CREEM included Barry (and, later, his wife Connie) Kramer, Lester Bangs, formative early editor Dave Marsh, Billy Altman, Bob Fleck, John Morthland, Ben Edmonds, Ed Ward, Richard Riegel, Ric Siegel, Robert Christgau, Richard Meltzer, Nick Tosches, Greil Marcus, Jeffrey Morgan, Richard C. Walls, Rob Tyner, Patti Smith, Peter Laughner, Cameron Crowe, Craig Karpel, Linda Barber, Charlie Auringer, Todd Weinstein photographer 1970, Laura Levine, Judy Adams, Jaan Uhelszki, Penny Valentine, Susan Whitall, John "The Mad" Peck, Robot A. Hull, Edward Kelleher (aka, Edouard Dauphin), Rick Johnson, Bruce Malamut, Lotta D. Blooz, John Mendelsohn, Jon Young, Lisa Robinson, Vicki Arkoff, Deborah Frost, Cynthia Rose, Mike Gormley, Sylvie Simmons, Gregg Turner, Chuck Eddy, Mark J. Norton, Alan Niester, Robert Duncan, Alan Madlane (as Alan Madeleine), Judy Wieder, Colman Andrews, Jim Esposito, Dave DiMartino, Bill Holdship and John Kordosh. These last three edited the final versions of CREEM in the 1980s.
The magazine moved its base of operations to Los Angeles in January 1987 shortly before it ceased publication. Holdship and Kordosh were both involved in CREEM's move to Los Angeles after it was purchased by Arnold Levitt, but both had already left the magazine before its move to New York City after Levitt licensed the name to a publisher there, and its ultimate demise. Before licensing CREEM, Levitt made Judy Wieder editor-in-chief of a heavy metal version of CREEM, called CREEM METAL, which performed well. A female audience-targeted spinoff, CREEM ROCK-SHOTS, was also published. Former William Morris agent, musician and journalist Mark J. Petracca (aka Dusty Wright) became the editor during its New York residence over 1992–93. Chris Nadler was the last editor before the magazine was shut down. Steve Peters and David Sprague were the final members remaining in the original editorial chain that reached back to 1969.
The CREEM logo was designed by Bob Wilson, who also wrote a regular comic strip, "Mike and Barney". The "Mr. Dreamwhip" and "Boy Howdy" icons were designed by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, reportedly for $50. Both appeared on the cover of the second issue as a black and white drawing titled Detroit 1969. For the December 1971 issue, Wilson colored the drawing, which appeared in every following issue in a Creem's Profiles, a parody of the then-popular Dewar's Profiles, featuring musicians and bands holding cans of "Boy Howdy" beer.
Ownership of the magazine, trademark and intellectual property has changed hands numerous times since the death of publisher Barry Kramer in 1981, and the magazine's subsequent bankruptcy.
Arnold Levitt bought the rights to the magazine in 1986 from Connie Kramer, and added titles including one devoted exclusively to metal along with numerous monthly special editions, before shutting it down in 1988. In 1990, he licensed it to a group of Florida investors who published a bimonthly glossy tabloid version, but it was not successful either.
The release of writer and director Cameron Crowe's semi-autobiographical film Almost Famous in 2000, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's portrayal of editor Lester Bangs, resurrected interest in CREEM and rock journalism of the era. Former CREEM photographer Robert Matheu formed Creem Media in 2001 with his cousin Jason Turner and Michigan businessman Ken Kulpa. They negotiated a five-year licensing deal with Levitt, with the option to purchase the magazine's intellectual property rights for $100,000. They launched a website and generated new content, primarily to maintain the brand.
As the five-year deadline of the licensing deal approached, Matheu sought investors, and got a $52,500 investment from Los Angeles disk jockey Chris Carter and Barry Kramer's son J.J. Kramer. Matheu provided the balance of the $100,000.Carter and Kramer claim that they were verbally promised one-third of Creem Media for their investment by Matheu.
Turner and Kulpa claim they were never consulted about the deal, and never approved it.
Matheu claims he never promised Carter and Kramer such a large share for their investment.
In 2007, Kramer sued in New York County and won, as the Court ruled that Creem Media could take no action without the approval of Carter and Kramer.
Matheu tired of the legal battle, and resigned from the board of Creem Media in 2009. As of 2011, Creem Media, Inc. is defunct.
Kramer now owns eight CREEM and BOY HOWDY! trademarks and is currently producing a documentary on CREEM Magazine in collaboration with New Rose Films, LLC and Director Scott Crawford.