‘Where do you want to start?” says James Brown, gesturing towards his hearing aids. “I can’t hear anything from all the gigs, my eyes have gone from screens, my teeth are fucked, I’ve got arthritis in my hands, I’m overweight, my knees are knackered, the X-rays of my legs look like a broken bottle … ” He trails off for a second, then smiles. “But apart from that, I’m all right!”
He genuinely means that last bit: a life in magazines might have left Brown feeling like a “beaten up old car”, but he seems to be doing pretty great at the moment. We meet at his beach house near Rye. When I arrive, his girlfriend and youngest son are just off for a spot of blackberry picking – what could be more idyllic?
The sense of peace is a far cry from the mania of the 90s, when Brown was the enfant terrible of UK publishing and founding editor of Loaded, the lads’ mag so notorious that Brown became a celebrity in his own right – a mouthy media presence with a trademark head of curls, fond of bigging himself and his magazine up, and with a reputation for partying hard.
Nobody knew I was having serious emotional pressures ... The Loaded staff might be surprised, because my mood swings then were like a sail in a squall
From the off, Loaded was a phenomenon: detractors complained about its non-PC tone (that was mainly the Guardian, says Brown), but readers loved the gonzo writing style (crashing the Cannes film festival with no press pass!), the stoopid feature ideas (the World Cup of Crisps!) and the way it made them feel like they were part of an exclusive gang (even if said gang ran to 300,000-odd readers each month). If Brown’s Loaded could be brash and offensive, it could also be funny, inventive and smart (not many magazines featuring scantily clad women were also hanging out with former Manson family members and joining anti-nuclear protests in Germany). It was also extremely naughty. The strapline, “For men who should know better”, reflected the sex, booze and drug-fuelled lives of the editorial team, and their debauched lifestyle spilt gleefully on to the pages. On one occasion, Brown says, the references to narcotics became so overt that the publisher at IPC became worried the drug squad might be about to turn up. He says he was asked by management to find the team in the pub and tell any staff members who had drugs in the office to return and remove them: apparently, every single person got up. “It was an ‘I’m Spartacus’ moment,” writes Brown in his new book, Animal House: Music, Magazines Mayhem. “The look on the publisher’s face was priceless.”
Animal House contains an abundance of these men-behaving-badly tales. It traces Brown’s life from being a cocky kid in Leeds with a passion for football and fanzines to a media wunderkind who was appointed features editor of the NME at just 22 and helped define the 90s with Loaded before he’d hit 30. Reading it is a bit like being strapped into the passenger seat of a speeding sports car – you can feel the G-force of that decade’s optimism and indulgence, and there isn’t always much time for reflection along the way.
But there is a deeper thread running through the book, too: Brown opens up about his mother’s longstanding mental illness and her eventual death in 1992. Throughout his childhood, she suffered mental health episodes that landed her in High Royds psychiatric hospital in Leeds. Cockiness was one of his self-defence mechanisms (“Don Revie once said attack is the best form of defence, and a lot of his Leeds team is reflected in my personality”); controlling his food intake was another. “I couldn’t eat, I puked if I tried. My knees were bulging out I was so skinny. When I told my therapist about it she said, ‘That’s anorexia nervosa.’ I didn’t realise that at the time.”
I created this thing that exploded, and all the things about me that annoyed people – my ego, my voice and opinions – got fuelled
Has he talked about this before?
“No. I only told her last year,” he says, puncturing the weight of the topic with a big laugh.
When Brown was at the NME, flying to gigs in helicopters or going on benders with Happy Mondays, he would be jolted back to reality by phone calls “saying that mum had gone out of a window and thrown herself off the roof of the house”. While Loaded’s sales boomed and he was supposedly enjoying his imperial phase, the truth was that Brown was also self-destructing, blotting out his inner pain with absurd amounts of booze and cocaine.
“Nobody knew what was going on in my life,” he says today. “I was having serious emotional pressures.”
Was it hard to revisit in the book?
“Yeah. I felt nervous about people reading about it. And I think the Loaded staff might be quite surprised to read this, because my mood swings back then were like a sail in a squall.” Indeed, when Brown departed Loaded in 1997, some of his staff offered less than rosy assessments of his tenure to the press: accounts of bullying juniors, trashing hotel rooms and even hitting a photographer with a stick were mentioned in one profile alone. It seems he could be as tyrannical as he was charming back then.
“I was really mercurial,” Brown says. “One minute I would be happy and planning something fun, and the next I’d be chewing somebody out. Quite often that was because something else had happened in my life in between and, instead of being able to understand how to process that, I would take it out on the next person.”
Brown notes that he was younger than pretty much all of his staff, and that his mum had died only months before the opportunity to do Loaded arose. “So there was no structure or sense of recuperation. And then – boom! – I create this thing that explodes, and all of the things about me that annoyed people – my ego and my voice and opinions – got fuelled.”
I always thought it was like bands when the key member leaves. The songwriter or lead singer. It was my magazine … which everybody else made great
Loaded was originally conceived as a magazine that combined music and football. Brown had been interviewed for the NME editor’s job, but ended up being offered the chance to make his own magazine instead. Under the mentorship of IPC’s Alan Lewis, he brought together a small team to create a rough sketch of the mag. It tested appallingly in focus groups, but legend has it that Lewis altered the figures, and so the project was greenlighted.
Animal House is great at conveying the social changes of the 90s and the buzz at the time: Conservatism was on its last legs, while the public got to experience cheap flights, the ecstasy boom, the Premier League and the early days of the internet. Loaded reflected this sense of optimism – in contrast to the NME, negativity didn’t feature on its pages. Brown is generous in the book when it comes to the staff whose talents made the mag what it was: Jon Wilde’s interview skills, say, or Rowan Chernin’s loved-up club reports. It wasn’t just a boys’ club, either – Brown enthuses over Barbara Ellen’s spiky commentary and the contributions of writers such as Miranda Sawyer and Mary Anne Hobbs. He realised Loaded could include the kind of writing inspired by his journalistic heroes: Tom Wolfe, Hunter S Thompson, George Plimpton. The industry approved and showered the team with awards, including one ceremony when Brown was so convinced they couldn’t win again that he persuaded the entire team to share a sheet of acid beforehand.
Brown’s claims that he was “trying to create a magazine that competed with Rolling Stone” are a contrast to the way Loaded was often portrayed at the time: as sexist and moronic. The former charge is a particular bugbear of Brown’s; he was only there for 36 issues, and 26 of those featured men on the cover. The women they did put on the cover, such as Kylie, were there because of their talents, he says. “And we were the only people to photograph Kathy Lloyd and Jo Guest in clothes … and actually interview them.” Besides, he says, including women in swimwear and underwear was all Alan Lewis’s idea. “The Face had been fronted at the time by Kate Moss, and there was a backlash against wafer-thin models. Alan said, ‘Let’s just put curvaceous women in,’ and I was fine with that.”
Loaded as a beacon of body positivity? Perhaps that is rewriting history a little. Coverlines during Brown’s tenure included “Suck it!” and “You give me the horn”, although these look pretty tame compared with what followed in the men’s mag sector, when imitators such as FHM and Maxim entered the market and began competing over “nipple counts”. “They just had girls in bras and bikinis on the covers … then you got Nuts and Zoo – these were so far away from what we were doing.”
When Brown left Loaded after just three years at the helm: there were money disputes and a complaint of editorial interference – Brown claims IPC pulled a joke feature announcing that he and staff writer Martin Deeson were to stand for parliament. But more concerning for Brown was the sense that living the Loaded lifestyle 24/7 was putting his life in danger. During a trip to Brazil, a driver for the editorial team had turned to the passengers, as if Brown wasn’t in the car, with the warning: “I like James, he has been very kind to me. However, if he behaves in Rio like he has behaved in São Paulo he will be raped and murdered.”
“Being told that when you know you’ve got no control over yourself was a real wake-up moment,” he says. It helped that Condé Nast were waving heaps of money at Brown for him to edit the upmarket fashion magazine GQ, believing it had got stuffy and needed an injection of fun. Still, leaving Loaded was like splitting up with someone, and he didn’t open a copy for a while.
There was not much fun in media before we came along. Older editors said we did things they wish they could have done, but anyone could have done it
Brown isn’t afraid of a brag or two in his book, and he believes Loaded’s decline came swiftly after his exit. “I always thought it was like those bands where the key member leaves,” he says with a mischievous grin. “The songwriter or lead singer. It was my magazine … which everybody else made great.” By 2007, the magazine was taking its staff on a straight pride march around London under the editorship of Martin Daubney, now deputy leader of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim party. It had become everything its original detractors had once claimed it was.
Life at Condé Nast was a culture shock for Brown – suddenly he was expected to schmooze at fashion events and shake hands with advertisers. He knew he had to clear out the dead wood on the staff, but his method for going about it – leaving his post-bender buckets of puke in the writer’s area until they got the message – probably wasn’t learned on any management course. Another early drunken incident at the company involved him throwing a champagne bottle through the office window and on to a waiting minivan. Rather than sack him, the company offered him something he’d never had before: support, and an introduction to an addiction therapist. “They were fantastic,” says Brown. He believes their intervention might have saved his life.
This might be true, but they couldn’t truly tame the impulsive and occasionally reckless editor they hired. Brown left after a couple of years following a murky incident in which Erwin Rommel and the Nazis were included in a feature about the most stylish men of the 20th century. The last two decades have seen him as a figure somewhat on the periphery of the media: he’s become a parent (his oldest, Marlais, is 21 and living in Leeds), started the website Sabotage Times, and taken on consultancy work for big brands such as JD Sports. Did his reputation precede him? Maybe. In 2019, he returned to editing at Four Four Two, but his tenure lasted just six months. Afterwards, his former deputy alleged that he had discussed the idea of photographing South Korean footballer Son Heung-min eating a dog, although both the magazine and Brown say these allegations were not connected to his departure and that he left on mutually good terms. The Son discussion, says Brown, was in the context of covers that would shock or surprise people. “I was explaining you’d have to do something really bad like that, and there’s no point moving into controversial territory.”
Trouble does seem to follow Brown – and he freely admits that at Loaded he was making the publishers so much money he was allowed to get away with it. Looking back, he describes Loaded as an Icarus story. “We flew so close to the sun that our trainers melted,” is how he puts it. He’s not the only former staff member to have been through rehab. But asked if he has regrets about any of the stuff they published – even the glorification of the drugs that nearly killed him – Brown pauses, laughs and says no.
In the book there’s a brief mention of Loaded’s similarity to Jackass and Jeremy Clarkson’s Top Gear, but not much pause for thought on the wider impact of what they did. Today, though, Brown sees it more clearly: “There was not much fun in media before we came along,” he says. “We said, ‘It’s OK to fuck around a bit and be as you really are.’ Older editors said we did things they wish they could have done … but anyone could have done it.”
In many ways publishing is a less exciting place these days, but Brown says that’s only if you look at magazines rather than the abundance of creativity on social media platforms such as Twitter and TikTok. “What we did would be lost now, because everyone is having so much fun on the internet. I’m not saying we influenced that, just that when we did it nobody else was. I mean, we once got Olympic athletes and sports stars to comment on the technique of the stick men on Fox’s Sports biscuits!”
Brown might be a calmer presence now than the manic character described in his book. But he still buzzes with energy and ideas, and I get the sense that there are only so many blackberries he can pick before he gets the publishing itch again, and a company will have to decide whether or not he’s worth the risk. “Yeah, I’d love to edit a magazine again,” he admits. “But I’m not sure I’d be able to be in the office. I’ve never had a proper job – I don’t know how to behave in one.”
• Animal House by James Brown is published by Quercus at £20. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.