Animal House by James Brown — the pie-eyed piper of Loaded


James Brown and Tim Southwell, the co-founder of Loaded, with a mock-up of the first magazine in 1994 © Getty Images

James Brown had two childhoods. The first happened in Leeds, as a frightened, anorexic boy hiding under the table while his parents fought, seeing his mother carted off to an asylum for electroshock therapy, the result of a mental illness that culminated in her suicide. The second came when he was the editor of Loaded magazine in the 1990s.

Although inconceivable as a publishing venture today, Loaded was a runaway success. It was a laddish, recklessly funny reaction to the staid content of conventional men’s magazines, the ones which focused on “how to cook an aubergine while wearing an expensive watch”. Its own recipe was simple: football, music, hell-raisers, having-a-go-at-dangerous-sports, with a sprinkling of fashion and pretty girls on top. Sometimes it had the shoddiness of a fanzine, but its errors — such as when a writer sent to the Cannes film festival went to Caen by mistake — were gleefully incorporated into the stories.

Unsurprisingly, given that the staff saw themselves as a rock’n’roll band rather than mere writers, it was an adventure fueled by drugs. Brown recounts the stimulants on offer in the workplace. “From my desk, which is covered in vodka bottles. . . I make my way across my office. On the wall is a large Scarface film poster: freshly used poppers bottles are scattered across the floor. Elsewhere. . . someone is emptying a cellophane cash bag of cocaine wraps.” Coupled with at least 50 pages of anecdotes about famous people he partied with, recalling what drugs were taken, who was punched, and where they puked up afterwards, these revelations give Animal House a distinctly actuarial tone: the Domesday Book of Bad Behaviour.

Brown writes very well about day-to-day life on the magazine, and the machinations at boardroom level that stopped him being properly rewarded “for making other people millions”. He is not exaggerating: this was perhaps the final Klondike in magazine publishing before the internet democratised and impoverished the business, a Bizarro world where the things that would invite censure in today’s more probing political culture — such as alcohol abuse and open, cheery sexism — were spun into shareholders’ gold.

Resentful at not getting his fair share, he switched to become the editor of GQ. It was never a good fit. One of the few people at Condé Nast who had ever been eligible for free school dinners, and baffled by the sudden lurch in sensibilities from Loaded, he sank further into a whirlpool of booze and drugs. Behavior that would get most people sacked on the spot, even back then, was warily tolerated, such as an incident when he threw a champagne bottle through a windowpane at Vogue House on to the crowded street below.

His eventual downfall (coming after the misguided decision to include the Nazis in a list of the best-dressed “movers and shakers”) leads to the best section of the book. Finally clean of his addictions, he comes to realize that the hell-raisers he worshiped, men like the footballer George Best and actor Oliver Reed, had actually squandered their talents with debauchery, and deserved pity as well as praise. On drugs, he admits he was “the most tetchy, narky little shitbag going”, and he reflects how many of his Loaded staff members had also come to grief (heroin abuse, breakdowns, accidents), goaded on by his example as “Citizen Cocaine”. This extended mea culpa only stops short of the insight that their loutish antics were ridiculous from the very start — all that throwing bread rolls, tipping cars over and trying too hard making them seem more like the toffish Bullingdon Club than their hero, the genuinely gifted Hunter S Thompson.

Overall, Animal House is a boisterous and often touching autobiography. What shines through most of all is that Brown really did love the trade of journalism, a sort of Harry Evans with a habit. And however regrettable that “lad’s culture” may seem to people now, he was there to shape it and record it, and it wouldn’t have been the same without him.

Animal House: Music, Magazines, Mayhem by James Brown, Quercus £20, 400 pages

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