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Decade-Defining Brands: Rolling Stone


Elevating rock 'n roll to high art and birthing gonzo journalism was all in a day's work for famous glossy.


Rolling Stone magazine was started in 1967 with a $7500 loan by one Jann Wenner, a UC Berkeley dropout, and Ralph Gleason, a jazz critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Together we came up with the idea of a rock 'n' roll magazine," Wenner said. "There was nothing around in the US like it."

Jon Pareles, writing in the New York Times, agrees:

"Rolling Stone is an artifact of the late 1960s, when baby boomers began to insist that their music was not mere entertainment. Songwriters were moving beyond boy-meets-girl into abstruse, visionary and sometimes pretentious realms; listeners argued to their English teachers that rock was every bit as profound as classical music and poetry. In the press, popular music had long been covered as a business and a frivolous teen-age diversion, but boomers believed in it as an art form."

This feeling grew even stronger as Rolling Stone entered the 1970s and continued to mature.

Again, in the words of Jon Pareles:

"Ralph Gleason…wanted the magazine to do with musicians what Paris Review interviews did with authors: to talk to them about their professional and artistic lives and ideas. Nobody's taking them seriously. We can become the magazine of record for this."

And Gleason was right. Today, Rolling Stone generates approximately $25 million in yearly profit on about $120 million in revenues - a far cry from the glossy's bumpy beginnings. The first issue -- featuring John Lennon on the cover -- had a print run of just 40,000 copies. 34,000 were returned unsold.

In the hopes of increasing readership, Wenner decided to offer a free roach clip with each subscription. "Act now before this offer is made illegal!" read the ad.

It worked. The Rolling Stone empire is now worth, in the Wall Street Journal's estimation, somewhere between $600 million and $900 million. Not bad for a magazine that found its niche in being "hipper than the 'straight' [press] but not as raunchy or radical as the 'underground' press."

In 1970, Hunter S. Thompson arrived on Jann Wenner's doorstep in sunglasses and a wig, with 2 6-packs of beer and a story idea that revolved around his campaign for sheriff of Aspen, Colorado on the "Freak Power" ticket. He lost, but in 1971, he wrote a piece about a trip to Las Vegas to cover a motorcycle race and district attorneys convention.

The opening line?

"We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold."

And, just like that, "gonzo" journalism was born.

Soon, Rolling Stone's writing staff boasted names like Joe Eszterhas, Timothy Crouse, Howard Kohn, Tom Wolfe, Joe Klein, Cameron Crowe and P.J. O'Rourke. Plus, photographers like Annie Leibovitz and Robert Altman. As one writer put it, "The magazine's influence in shaping culture in the 1970s was such that a song about its iconic status for musicians, "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" by Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show (written by Shel Silverstein), became a hit single. Dr. Hook subsequently had their fictional wish come true, appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone."

Perhaps legendary contributor Ben Fong-Torres summed up Rolling Stone best:

"Along comes Rolling Stone and it just says to you, 'This is the place to be.' Now your fellow writers and editors are your peers, your age or even younger. You can remove that tie or sports coat or business suit - freedom. Once you read Rolling Stone, you knew how important it was, and to be part of it was just an amazing thing."
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