A decade of decadence

Happy birthday, Loaded! The men’s glossy is 10 years old this month.

Only a couple of times a decade does a newcomer storm in with such force that a whole market is forced to reconfigure.

Bella in the late Eighties brought true life to the complacent IPC weeklies, Sugar introduced gloss and glam to the dreary teen titles, Glamour sent format fears through the women’s monthlies and Heat (after a shaky start) reinvented modern celebrity journalism.

Loaded gave a voice to male domains that had long existed – the lock-in, the stag weekend, the lapdance club, the terraces – but had hitherto no publishing organ, except, in part, The Sun under Kelvin McKenzie.

Much copied, Loaded was nonetheless, as Felix Dennis would put it, the first beer truck in the desert. It reproduced a uniquely male pub voice, bursting with odd enthusiasms, dares, stupid stunts and eclectic facts, yet always underpinned by a brilliant, anarchic humour.

Laughs were what made Loaded walk off the shelves. And, if you agree with Julie Burchill that only intelligent people are truly funny, Loaded had a stellar IQ under the fug of 1,000 hangovers.

It was, of course, James Brown who had the arrogance and vision to persuade IPC, the play-it-safe Ministry of Magazines, to go with his hunch that the spirit of a wild footballing weekend in Stuttgart could be translated onto the printed page.

As a woman it was fascinating to observe the strange things men keep in their heads: nostalgia for coats worn in The Sweeney, unlikely heroes such as Bob Monkhouse or cockney criminals and a passionate allegiance to a particular brand of biscuit.

Loaded exposed all these veins, which have since been mined to exhaustion by nostalgia TV shows such as Britain’s Greatest Top 100 TV Comedians, Guy Ritchie movies and Pot Noodle ads.

Thanks to Loaded, men could once again say “birds” and admit they liked porn – but in an acceptable, postmodern way.

Yet the old Loaded wasn’t predictable: a poster of a page-three hottie had a picture of a succulent bacon butty on the back. It exposed the baseness of male appetites so blatantly that all you could do was laugh.

Perhaps it was too much coke or belief in its own publicity, but around 1998 Loaded started to forget about its reader. Gonzo journalism is a deceptively difficult form to pull off, with a fine line between a self-indulgent, drug-addled rambling and uproarious, insightful adventures.

The Loaded reader ceased to be part of the good time or in on the joke. He could watch the Loaded team test ladyboy prostitutes or dive with sharks.

But he wasn’t invited along.

That is where Emap’s FHM swept up. With its fact boxes, its “10 places to do this” or “10 greatest thats”, the reader was not a bystander but a participant.

Looking at the Loaded 10th anniversary issue, which shows pages from issues through the years, what strikes me most is how far downmarket it has descended. Personalities who appeared on its earlier covers – Paul Weller, Vic Reeves, Michael Caine, the Gallaghers, Kathy Burke, Dennis Hopper and David Beckham – would not be seen dead in Loaded now.

The post-modern winking naughtiness has tipped into a hard, full-on crudeness that puts it only a wrist flick away from soft porn. In the current issue, young women talk about giving “tit wanks”, men send in pictures of their girlfriends’ “massive melons” and there are 20 pages of sexline/porn video classifieds with scant few big brand ads.

Moreover, as a sexy female celeb has become a prerequisite for every men’s mag, from GQ downwards, Loaded’s status at the absolute pit of the publicist pecking order is apparent. While Esquire might bag Nicole, GQ pull in La Hurley and FHM woo Beyoncé, gone are the days when Loaded could court Kylie. I suspect today it couldn’t even pull Jordan. Today’s Loaded ladies are from late night cable channels or desperate clingers to fame such as Big Brother’s Kate Lawler.

I really wonder – and I don’t say this glibly or with ill will -why any man buys Loaded any more. (And with its latest ABC down 9 per cent, fewer and fewer are. Loaded now sells almost half of its 500,000 heyday.) Why not buy porn if you want T&A? Or if you want gags, disgusterama pictures or crazy stag wheezes, get slicker FHM.

Zoo and Nuts have plenty of girls and gross-outs – topical ones too, with a bluff male take on Heat-esque gossip.

And TV pages! Nuts is much improved since its launch issue, with greater wit and pace and less lurid design.

Moreover, it has not made Zoo’s grave error of sacrificing the weekend sports coverage for an earlier on-sale day.

With Nuts selling more than 200,000 and Zoo more than 150,000, insiders say it is Loaded, more than any other men’s titles, that will reveal a heavy kicking in July.

Meanwhile Loaded editor Martin Daubney is gamely trying to recreate the mad old James Brown days when staff erected a shed on the office roof (wild!) or fed paintball pellets to cleaners (crayzee!).

Daubney’s staff, he claims, go drinking, return to work at 11.30pm, then kip in the office in sleeping bags.

Isn’t that trying way too hard? Shouldn’t Loaded represent the lifestyle young guys actually lead, not some forced and fevered journo fantasy? Stunts and daring are a big part of Daubney’s manifesto to attract readers.

This month two guys give themselves enemas with strong lager and another bungee jumps into flaming napalm.

But frankly I don’t believe either of these picture stories and I doubt readers will either. Anyway, you can watch MTV’s Jackass crew eat vomit omelettes or cover themselves in jellyfish for real.

Stunts are easy to fake, but intelligence cannot be feigned. That moment in publishing history when the men’s market lay open for the taking is long gone. And Daubney is no Brown. Though it would take more than the acumen of even Mr IFG at the height of his powers to turn around his creation now.

Happy birthday, Loaded. You were once the handsome bar-room wag that everyone wanted to drink with. When did you become so sour and dull and sleazy? 

Janice Turner is a columnist for The Times and former editor of That’s Life! and Real.

She’ll be back in four weeks Next week: Chris Shaw

by Janice Turner

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