Running Away With The CIRCUS #5

John Swenson

John Swenson is a music writer that has written for all the big music mags--Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy!, and, for a brief period of time, CIRCUS. Below, Swenson remembers his time at CIRCUS as a rock critic in the late '70s and early '80s.


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"I edited the record section of the magazine for less than two years, taking over from Paul Nelson, who moved on to edit the record review section at Rolling Stone in February 1978. After I left in 1979 the record section as such died and was replaced by a record column in which new releases were reviewed by a single writer. Shel Kagen assumed this duty when I left. Jim Farber wrote the section for a while, then I was rehired by the boss in 1981 to write a record review column, which I continued to write until late 1983 or early 1984, I forget. I finally left when I assumed similar duties at Saturday Review.


"The publication was a bi-weekly when I was hired, and soon moved to an ill-considered weekly format that nearly killed it and led directly to my departure. The attempt to coin a newsstand alternative to People was overt; in fact the first issue of CIRCUS Weekly bore the subhead 'For Young People,' a feeble concept that was quickly abandoned. For the first time in the magazine's history non-music celebrities were regularly featured on the cover. Looking back over this period I find it peculiar that the cover of New York Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent proudly displaying a chubbie looked so much like the leering facade of Freddie Mercury from another issue in the same era. At the time the similarities between the two covers evaded me.


"The boss was the best kind of publisher an editor in my position could ever ask for. He hired me to edit a record section which we both tacitly understood would undercut the editorial content of the magazine's feature section. Not only did he never interfere with the editorial content of the section, which typically ridiculed his bread-and-butter feature pinup stars, he actually paid me and my writers in a timely fashion. The record section was completely independent from the rest of the magazine. I chose the records which would be covered, assigned the reviews to the writers of my choice, and (for a time) was able to pay them competitive rates for their work.


"The section I edited in 1978 and 1979 was what mattered. CIRCUS was one of the last traditional rock magazine record sections still going at the time, and creativity was still encouraged. The writers who appeared in the section closely matched those who wrote for me at Crawdaddy! in the mid '70s, as well as the first Rolling Stone Record Guide, which I co-edited with Dave Marsh.


"During my tenure at CIRCUS I was able to write whatever I wanted, as well as use a strong list of writers, critics, and drinking buddies including Marsh, Lester Bangs, Nick Tosches, Fred Schruers, Bart Testa, Susan Shapiro, Peter Stampfel, Daisann McLain, Bruce Malamut, Kurt Loder, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Nancy Naglin, George Arthur, Jim Cusimano, Bud Scoppa, Charley Walters, Gary Kenton, Bon Sheridan, Tom Carson, Robert Smith, Wesley Strick, Richard Hogan and Stan Soocher.


"On Feb. 16, 1978, I began my tenure with a section led off by a pair of reviews savaging the life blood of CIRCUS editorial content at the time, Kiss. 'Isn't this decadent humor getting played?' lamented Bruce Malamut, whose patience in this matter was soon to be tested beyond comprehension. Bart Testa argued that Kiss was a rite of passage for rock fans. 'Very few go to the CIRCUS for very long,' he concluded. 'Fewer yet run away with it.' We had a lot of fun. That was supposed to be a big part of the reason to do it in the first place."

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