Loaded magazine: the pride of Fleet Street. (Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

March 8, 2024   5 mins

“We hired a helicopter, we got hold of a sniper rifle, we shot radioactive wolves…” Writers at loaded magazine used to pride themselves on their wild gonzo journalism and madcap antics. It was, as founding editor James Brown described it, Arena edited by Hunter S. Thompson. The lines between the reporter and the reported were deliberately blurred, with the writer’s stimulant-fuelled mishaps often being the main event.

But that was 30 years ago. As a relaunch is prepared, the publicity makes it sound more Women’s Weekly than Fear and Loathing. Apparently the all-new online loaded will “give members an edge, helping them live their best lives, keeping them connected to interesting stuff, fun people and awesome experiences”.

Back in the heady mid-Nineties, no one connected to loaded would have been seen dead trying to live his best life — not unless that life involved hijacking a passing army tank under the influence of class As. In fact, antics at the magazine would have been too ludicrous even for Raoul Duke. One regular correspondent would roll dice to determine what self-destructive act to commit next, and then to write about. Actions of his while on the payroll included buying and consuming five speedballs from a “filthy bloke in a filthy pub in Hastings” and cruising for gay sex, all because the dice told him to.

Another writer related how, in search of a story, he had “streaked at a women’s football match, been blown up in a car, set on fire by stuntmen and starred as a circus knife-thrower’s assistant”. Elsewhere, the same bloke described how a “top-heavy blonde” called Moira once performed a consensual sex act on him as he reported on an orgiastic Scottish Association of Young Farmers disco in Perth Town Hall. (A spokeswoman for the association later pronounced herself happy with the piece, noting  — with no pun presumably intended — that the public image of young farmers “used to be all tractors, wellies and checked shirts”, and that she was “pleased” that the article “has blown this out the water”.)

Perhaps needless to say, feminists absolutely hated loaded at the time. Their still-canonical history of the title says that, once upon a time, there was a backlash against the progressive gains made for women in the Seventies and Eighties. The dashing young blade of the Nineties was fed up with being expected to be a sensitive “new man”, and was looking for an outlet for his aggression, stupidity, misogyny, and lust. Along came loaded to fill the niche, its virulent sexism barely suppressed under a clever veneer of jokes and approachable blokeyness. The lads’ mag was born, along with its concomitant social construction, the “new lad”; and from then on, it was a race to the bottom, both metaphorically and literally.

In the decade that followed, the market became flooded with improbably pneumatic babes in g-strings talking about how much they did or did not actually enjoy sex on the beach. Rival titles FHM, Maxim, Zoo, and Nuts took a cue from loaded and grabbed their own handfuls of silicon-enhanced flesh. Pithily summarising what was assumed to go on in the brain of the average male reader, industry insiders variously described the emerging business model in the 2000s as “birds not words” and “tits and lists”. Having ushered in this brave new era of woman-hating, loaded eventually threw off its ironic fake moustache and became the visual fleshpit it had secretly longed to be all along, occasionally interspersing images of naked women in patent leather handcuffs with football banter or aspirational stories of Mexican drug cartels.

Eventually third-wave feminists arrived, accusing lads’ mags en masse of fuelling violence against women. In 2013, they managed to get the magazine sold by some retailers in “modesty sleeves” on the top shelf. An incoming editor promised under pressure that there would be no more nipples; and since the copy had only ever been the pretext for soft-porn consumption, already dwindling sales slowed to a trickle. By then, more hardcore stuff online was all the rage anyway. The gateway drug of the lads’ mag had served its sinister purpose.

“An incoming editor promised under pressure that there would be no more nipples”

Or so the well-known story goes. Recently though, there are signs of a thawing in progressive attitudes towards loaded in particular, as commentators look back with something like nostalgia for the title’s comparative moderation, cleverness, and wit in its early years, relative to the humourless internet depravity we see now. This month, the Guardian of all things did a largely affectionate piece on “the legacy of lads’ mags”, with Nineties loaded featuring heavily, and described by former female employees as a “brilliantly supportive environment” and “mind-blowingly fun”.

Much tends to be made of the quality of the writing at that point, before it later went tits up, quite literally. One enthusiastic blogger describes it as “swashbuckling, provocative, exciting writing … aimed at men, but not in a patronising, lowest common denominator way”.  (Inspired by loaded, he also describes himself as having gone on “to create the gonzo school of property journalism during my time at Estates Gazette”.) A defiant Brown, meanwhile, stresses that for the first few years, it was mostly male stars on his covers and not half-naked females: “We could sell a third of a million copies with Harry Hill sitting on a stuffed badger.”

The main appeal of early loaded, viewed retrospectively, was its construction of masculinity — at least, in comparison with some of the awful options we see now. For a good while, for instance, we have been stuck with the wheyfaced, ponderously self-regarding backlash to the new lad — the new new man — whose current iteration lectures women about what a woman is, organises teetotal vegan supper clubs in Hackney, and possesses a moustache like that of a zookeeper. Faced with this horror, was the Nineties loaded lad so very awful? You wouldn’t catch him waffling on about the importance of intimacy or the prioritisation of self-care — all his anecdotes involved being lost for five days after a bender on the way to Malaga airport.

A different contemporary totem of masculinity is the Andrew Tate type, and again here, in comparison with Tate’s bombast and prickish posturing, the Nineties loaded lad looks preferable. There was an emotional vulnerability about him that was under-appreciated at the time. He admitted when he was frightened, made jokes at his own expense, and presented himself as a sometimes unwitting and confused passenger in his own life. And he also could see the funny side of failure.

Despite or even because of the smutty winks, references to bashing one out after failing to chat up a bird, and so on, arguably the magazine bestowed a lightness and fun upon sex talk that has gone from the public domain, possibly forever. What pop star these days could say in an interview, as Damon Albarn did in 1994 just after the release of Blur’s Parklife, that his favourite sexual position was “the French Maid” — involving “for the benefit of the uninitiated, a fair bit of bending down and picking up imaginary feather dusters”?

Irreverent jokes and banter are what both pious and macho male types tend to lack. And contrary to the original feminist analysis, the use of humour, irony, and silliness in early loaded was not there in order to cunningly disguise darker violence and misogyny; it was a sign that such forces were mostly absent. Mockery of the opposite sex is not toxic in itself. In fact, it was only after the writing stopped being funny that things got really ugly, and that’s not a coincidence.

In getting rid of the Nineties loaded lad, we did not get anything much better in his place. The arc of masculinity, it turns out, does not always bend towards justice. Instead, the pendulum swings erratically; or if you prefer, what we end up with is determined by a roll of the dice. If the new editors of the revamp have real ambition, they’ll try to load the dice by hiring bright young things fed up of current masculine archetypes, giving them freedom to be outrageously rude and anarchic in creating something new. But — a bit like Moira of Scottish Young Farmers fame, perhaps — I won’t be holding my breath.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.