How we all got Loaded

It was the bible of male misbehaviour, the scourge of political correctness. Ten years on, Martin Deeson relives the early years of the first lad-mag
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The Independent Online

They say that if you can remember Loaded, then you never worked there. To look back over the past 10 years to 1994 is like looking down one of those long tubes that marine biologists use to inspect the ocean floor - things seem very, very far away and very strange indeed.

It was a time when political correctness was coming apart at the seams under the pressure of its own repression. Trevor Beattie had unveiled his "Hello, boys!" Wonderbra ads; Simon Nye was writing Men Behaving Badly; Oasis were a few months from their meteoric rise; cool Britannia and New Labour were just around the corner; and meanwhile, in a room with no windows, in the shadow of IPC's King's Reach Tower in south-east London, James Brown was assembling the team who would make up the staff for the first issue of Loaded.

In addition to the two established writers Mick Bunnage (of Dr Mick's problem page) and Jon Wilde (the lewdest interviewer ever), what made Loaded was the team of previously unknown talent that Brown pulled from the nation's fanzines, pubs and dole queues. There was Michael Holden (who, after interviewing the woefully monosyllabic German supermodel, insisted that we use the killer headline: "Schiffer brains").

There was Trevor Ward, the Roger Melly of Janet Street-Porter's Network 7, who singlehandedly reintroduced the word "bird" into British culture - as in "some bird off the telly". And Tim Southwell, who came from Smash Hits and injected a much-needed sense of surrealism into the magazine (it was he who hired a team of chimps to edit the 10th issue).

At the time, it was hard to get published in Britain if your journalistic influences included Hunter S Thompson, Tom Wolfe and Charles Bukowski. What James Brown said was that Loaded should be "dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of sex, drink, football and less serious matters". The abiding maxim was that if we in the office found something funny, so would thousands of other people. Luckily, we were right. It was the quality of the comic writing that set Loaded apart - that and the industrial quantities of drugs and booze ingested by the staff and boasted about in their copy.

Contrary to popular belief, it was not known for putting half-naked TV presenters on every cover. That was a tactic adopted a couple of years later by FHM and Maxim, at a time when Loaded's cover stars were still Roland Rivron, Paul Weller and Prince Naseem. What made Loaded special was that the writers and readers seemed part of a club dedicated to seeing just how far you could push life. It was about young male energy and coming out the other side of Thatcherism and all the grimness that had been the 1980s. It was, in the words of the title of one of the magazine's longest-running sections, about "Getting Away With It".

The first time I realised that working at Loaded was not going to be like any other magazine was when, as we were preparing the second issue, I noticed that the Cannes Film Festival was on. With one eye on the blag, I suggested to James that he send me to cover it. "OK," came the instant reply, "but you have to give me a pauper's view of paradise. You can go, but you only get two hundred quid and no accreditation."

And so, 48 hours later, I arrived in the northern French fishing port of Caen, because someone had booked me the wrong ticket. When I did get to Cannes, I spent four days of gut-wrenching anxiety pacing up and down the Croisette fuelled only by caffeine tablets and cheap wine, desperate to get a story - any story. There was nothing. And I could see my new job on this new magazine slipping through my fingers on my first-ever journalistic assignment abroad. On the fifth day I met Lloyd Kaufman, of Troma Films, the producer of such schlock horror as Surf Nazis Must Die. Taking sympathy on my predicament, he gave me his invitation to the William Morris party. Ten minutes later I was necking the free booze with Clint Eastwood and Bruce Willis.

When I got back to the magazine I was in despair at my lack of a "proper" story. So, with a Friday afternoon deadline looming, I just wrote exactly what had happened (the cockups, the lack of money, the drunkenness, the stars) and went home for the weekend convinced I had lost my job.

When I came in on Monday morning James was like a chocoholic at Easter. He loved the story, immediately promoted me from sub-editor to staff writer, and insisted that the readers would love it. They did, and it was even eventually made into a cartoon strip for the Loaded annual. When we realised that the readers (and the editor) loved stories of international debauchery, the magazine became a licence to print plane tickets.

After three and a half years (by which time we were selling more than half a million copies a month and had won magazine of the year two years in a row, the second time with the editorial staff accepting the award while on acid), the sheer physical and mental cost of working at Loaded was starting to take its toll. Addictions were rife on the magazine, psychiatric treatment was being sought by several members of staff, and it became clear to some of us that a lifestyle that combined bi-monthly travel with an office full of erratic comic geniuses and drug addicts could not go on. There was no home life. It was like being in a band, and the only interviews I read were with Oasis, who were constantly fighting and falling over as well.

After 42 issues, pressure was being exerted by the management to put women - or "birds" - on every cover so that FHM's come-lately success could be chased. It seemed like times were changing: we wanted to slow down (a bit), and after three years our interests were not the same as the readers'. You couldn't, for instance, write as we did at the start about how exciting it was to be in a free hotel room in New Orleans, when you'd been in a hundred hotel rooms that year. Loaded was built on complete honesty between writer and reader.

I remember being presented with the ultimate choice by the publisher, Alan Lewis, in our fourth year: we could either allow the magazine to change and mature as we, the staff and the readers, matured together (got mortgages, went into recovery, relapsed, etc) or we could chase a younger and younger readership, as others were doing, and stay locked into the post-adolescent advertising dollar. IPC decided to take the latter path. James Brown and I ran gratefully into the arms of Condé Nast.

Looking back, Loaded was for men who wanted to celebrate themselves, instead of how they should have been. It was about self-esteem, if you will, for a generation of men who had grown up skint during the recession, stoned during the boom, slagged off by feminists but egalitarian by inclination, and horny as goats. It was punk and acid house and football when everyone (me included) hated football. Anti-consumerist, but very pro-hotel rooms and adventure, antagonistic toward authority but fondly nostalgic for the Seventies and Eighties. It was about a shared sense of humour.

When I look at the racks of men's mags now, all with identical digitally enhanced cleavages at optimum eye level, including the two much-vaunted new weeklies, Zoo Weekly and Nuts, I think that if you want to find the legacy of the early Loaded years, don't look there. Look instead at AA Gill writing in The Sunday Times about going bar-hopping in Reykjavik, or just in the general loosening of Britain's uptight shackles.

Loaded was "for men who should know better". And Suzanne Moore, writing in The Guardian during that first year, may have had a point when she said: "Yes, they bloody well should."