The term “fake news” has become a regular part of our modern-day vocabulary, taking its place with the “yellow journalism” of the late 19th century. But possibly the most curious incident of intentional misinformation occurred just over 50 years ago in the pages of the still nascent Rolling Stone magazine. It was a moment of fakery that subsequently managed to de-falsify itself to some degree.
On the heels of the release of Super Session, a 1968 album featuring Al Kooper, Michael Bloomfield and Stephen Stills, a flurry of similar records followed. Among them was an eponymous two-LP bootleg set by a collective known as the Masked Marauders that was reviewed in Rolling Stone in its issue cover-dated October 18, 1969, which was probably on newsstands at the end of September.
“The unmistakable vocals make it clear that this is indeed what it appears to be: John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Bob Dylan, backed by George Harrison and a drummer yet unnamed—the ‘Masked Marauders.’ ” It was reported that the album, the production of which is credited to Kooper, was recorded “in a small town near the site of the original Hudson Bay Colony in Canada.”
But the recording was actually concocted in the Rolling Stone offices in San Francisco, “an innocent hoax dreamed up by Greil Marcus and Bruce Miroff,” the 1971 Pocket Book collection The Rolling Stone Record Review revealed. The review was published under the collaborative pseudonym “T.M. Christian,” a reference to Terry Southern’s novel The Magic Christian, which had been recently adapted as a film featuring Ringo Starr.
“The response to the review was enormous,” The Rolling Stone Record Review noted. “Thousands believed it.”
According to various online sources, a few weeks later, on Wednesday, October 18, 1969, Ralph J. Gleason, a writer for The San Francisco Chronicle, broke the news in his ‘On the Town’ column that the whole thing was a joke, calling the review “a delightful bit of instant mythology.”
Rex Sorgatz’s The Encyclopedia of Misinformation reports that “Marcus took an unusual next step. Rather than admit to the hoax, he created the band to personify it. (‘This is stupid, let’s make it stupider,’ Marcus later explained.) He recruited a real skiffle band from Berkeley to record the fake album, with each song painfully matching its description in the review.”
The group hired to fill in for the musicians reputedly on the album was called The Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band. Once the band recorded the first three songs of the album, the tapes were played on radio stations in Los Angeles and San Francisco to whet the appetite of the public and record labels.
Soon, Warner Bros., Sorgatz writes, “signed the band for $15,000.” Unlike the two-record set reviewed in Rolling Stone, the real album was reduced to a single LP on the newly created Warner subsidiary Deity Records, the same label name as that of the fictional album. It was released in November 1969 sporting liner notes credited to T.M. Christian.
Sorgatz explains that “the record spent twelve weeks on the Billboard charts, eventually selling more than 100,000 copies” at a list price of $4.98 each.
Just as it appeared the preposterous prank couldn’t be stretched any further, Roy Dean Burch, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, entered the mix, declaring that the track selected as the album’s first single was “obscene” and plunging the record into notoriety of a different sort.
Rolling Stone eventually conceded it was all a hoax and warned music fans not to be misled if they saw such an album in record stores: “The persons who made such a record—musicians and manufacturers alike—are merely masquerading as the Marauders, a double negative if you like…”