cover story Features November 21, 2019

Bragging Rights: The uncensored history of Rolling Stone Australia

Bragging Rights: The uncensored history of Rolling Stone Australia

This week’s news revealing a return of Rolling Stone Australia through The Brag Media is the latest in the brand’s long history in Australia.

The magazine was set up in San Francisco by 21-year-old college dropout Jann Wenner and jazz critic Ralph. J. Gleason.

Its first edition, in the US, appeared on newsstands on November 9, 1967.

John Lennon was on the cover, the main feature was Monterey Pop, the first of the great music festivals and where Jimi Hendrix became an overnight US sensation after setting his guitar on fire. The cover price was 25 cents (roughly $2 in today’s money).

The magazine’s editorial mix, covering rock music’s language about a cultural shift that covered radical politics, the sexual revolution and a drug lifestyle, mirrored what was happening here.

Some of the writings by Gleason and Hunter S. Thompson were too compelling to miss out on.

Subscribers who sent away for it occasionally had editions confiscated by customs for offensive language and topical content.

Within three years, the Rolling Stone brand was officially in Australia.

Philip Frazer was a young publisher, whose main publications included the successful teen magazine Go-Set (at its peak with a circulation of 90,000 a week and full-time staff of 25) which was trying to grow up with its audience, and Revolution which fell foul of censors and newsagents because of its name and, a year later, became High Times.

Frazer journeyed to San Francisco for two weeks to set up a deal with Wenner. He was invited to the Wenner’s home for dinner. The other guest was counter-culture icon Tom Wolfe of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test fame.

In Australia, Rolling Stone content initially ran within the pages of Go-Set and Revolution.

In 1972, Frazer launched Rolling Stone Australia as a stand-alone, with Alistair Jones co-editing out of a share-house in Glebe, Sydney.

The Australian edition was mostly a reprint of the US magazine, with a page of local content and ads.

It arrived in a baptism of fire when the Murdoch-owned Southdown Press in Melbourne, which agreed to print and distribute, had second thoughts.

It printed 20,000 copies. Then its managing director read an issue and refused to distribute it.

While the copies were pulped, Frazer managed to find another printer in 24 hours and distributors in each state.

By 1973, Go-Set was in debt to its printer who bought out a majority share and moved it to Sydney, where after watching it for six months, binned it and set up Rock Australia Magazine (RAM).

In 1976, after another of his counter-culture titles, Digger, went belly-up from legal and political hassles, Frazer moved to New York to follow his journalism.

Stone rolls on

The rights to Rolling Stone Australia went to a consortium made up of finance writer Paul Gardiner, adman Paul Comrie-Thompson and journalist Jane Matheson.

Gardiner and Comrie-Thompson flipped a coin: the former became the editor and the latter chased up ads.

Together, they turned the Australian edition around.

They paid high freelance rates to draw top writing and photography talent to create strong Australian music, politics and culture stories.

A run of Australian front covers, beginning with Skyhooks, followed.

In America Wenner allowed the editorial slant to “grow old” with its Baby Boomer readership and leave the new indie discoveries to the likes of Spin and Pitchfork.

This meant some alienating decisions, as putting ‘60s folk singer Joan Baez on the cover or vetoing his staff to make Fleetwood Mac and not the Sex Pistols band of the year.

But as a result of this strategy, US circulation held at 800,000 and Stone could draw 80% of its ads from non-music sources to ensure no interference in features and reviews from the music industry.

It was different with the Australian edition, which reflected the flow of the post-punk and electro scenes.

Gardiner, Comrie-Thompson and Mathieson were avid fans of the new music.

So much so that they gained the local licensing of UK labels Rough Trade and Factory, and ensured editorial covered their acts The Smiths, Happy Mondays and Joy Division.

In terms of immediacy, Stone’s monthly deadline made it play behind the weekly Juke and fortnightly RAM.

But stories were compelling and readership sat at 35,000.

The reviews could be savage: one made Marcia Hines burst into tears on a plane, and another saw Sherbet drummer Alan Sandow throw coffee over the offending issue.

The upsurge of Australian content continued when Toby Creswell took over as editor in 1986 from Ed St. John, who left the magazine to became a record executive.

When Gardiner, Comrie-Thompson and Mathieson pulled up stakes in 1987 as debts grew, Creswell took over ownership with former school friend Philip Keir, and Keir’s wife Lesa-Belle Furhagen.

It was arguably the golden days for Rolling Stone Australia. It even bought its own building in Redfern.

However, tensions between the partners saw a dramatic split in September 1992, with Creswell escorted out of the building.

He and Furhagen set up Juice, aimed at the younger Big Day Out crowd, but it ran out of puff a decade later.

New editors

Rolling Stone continued under the accomplished Kathy Bail (who had sat in the editor’s chair at the Australian Financial Review Magazine, The Bulletin and HQ Magazine) and former Juke lynchpin Dino Scatena.

Around Rolling Stone Australia’s 25th anniversary circulation was said to be 40,000.

Keir’s company Next Media was sold in 2008 to Worsley Media, which went to ACP Magazines and then to Bauer Media Group in 2012.

Circulation and ad sales went south (reports at the time had readership at 18,000), and it had an uncertain future under Bauer.

Matthew Coyte, its editor since 2008, set up the company Paper Riot to take over ownership and Rolling Stone Australia became independent again.

Under Coyte and final editor Rod Yates, it widened its pop culture boundaries, paid high freelance fees, looked good with top quality paper stock, and strengthened the brand with its own awards.

Rolling Stone remained compelling reading but it was a casualty of the internet’s disruptions – or at least two instances of it.

It attacked record companies’ profits and narrowed their advertising budgets, and fragmented the readership into many sub-tribes.

In January 2018, Paper Riot went into liquidation with debts totalling a reported $500,000, and the license reverted back to Rolling Stone International.

Until then, the Australian edition was the longest-running of all of Rolling Stone’s 20+ international operations.

In 2020, two years after the collapse of Rolling Stone Australia, the masthead will return to market in digital form. It’s new owners, Penske Media, have licenced the brand to The Brag Media.

Editor’s Note: Christie Eliezer was Contributing Editor of Rolling Stone Australia from 1976 to 1978.

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