Lad Mags and Dangerous, You Know: The Risk That Rolling Stone Takes

The recent news that Jann Wenner has lost patience with the performance of his fortnightly print stalwart, not to say media legend, Rolling Stone, and recruited a young-ish British editorial star called Ed Needham to revive the fortunes of the magazine is charged with paradox. The move, while quite remarkable in many ways, also has the air of the near inevitable about it. No one really thought that a radical journal born in 1967 in San Francisco could continue to plough the same earnest furrow in its coverage of matters musical, political and cultural, but few expected that Wenner would make such a radical gesture in his bid to rouse the slumbering giant of the American news-stand back to past glories.

Rolling Stone might have survived the death of hippie, the rise of punk, the ascendancy of black music and the swelling tide of dance culture, but it seems that a publishing revolution rather than a rock revolution, a social shift rather than a sub-cultural swing, a sea-change in what we read and why we read it, has finally prompted the one-time wunderkind of America magdom to say “enough’s enough”, and recruit a true representative of the early 21st century rather than rely on the instincts of the generation that remembered what the 1960s stood for.

Needham is a bright, slightly geeky 37-year-old who is little known in Britain unless you follow the media industry with an avid interest. His achievement, nonetheless, is not small in the circles where magazines are made, advertising revenues are counted, and fortunes appear to be there for the taking, as long as you devise the right formula to catch the mood of the moment.

In the early 1990s, For Him Magazine was a lumpen, laboured, ad-driven glossy which lived in the shadow of classy men’s publications with élan-like Arena and GQ. While Arena, emerging out of The Face empire in the late 1980s, pursued aspirational style, For Him Magazine had no such pretensions: its downmarket fashion spreads were more likely to be spotted in the barber’s shop rack rather than on the passenger seat of a Porsche Carrera.

Yet publishing is nothing if not volatile. In 1994, a former NME maverick called James Brown unveiled a new form of magazine for men. Loaded, which eschewed the grainy black and white portraiture of GQ and Esquire. It had the cult of repressed cool that Arena preached, and returned to more primeval male appetites: under-clothed (in both senses of the term) women, intoxicants (largely alcoholic and legal), and football.

Within a year or two, Loaded was surfing an unstoppable breaker; the battalions of style were left stranded on the beach. The lad mag, as the phenomenon became dubbed, had arrived, and the consensus of political correctness that had taken hold during the 1980s was largely overturned. The publication restored the female form to its pre-feminist function — sex object — and editor Brown revelled in this return to an older code. Some argued that this was a more honest position to take on the subject and, for a time, there was talk not only of the new lad but also the ladette — the woman who wanted to roister with similar abandon, and a mag called Minx which aimed to mirror the excesses of boydom for its girl readers.

Other editors took note. Mike Soutar re-modelled the For Him Magazine as FHM and, before the century was out, initially under Soutar’s stewardship then, from 1997, under Needham’s, the re-vamped product, taking the best of Loaded and aiming it fractionally up-market, had stormed the barricades itself, selling, at its height, an extraordinary three-quarters of a million copies a month — up to ten times the circulation of its shrinking rivals. Even Loaded was left wondering how its apparently unbeatable recipe had been superseded.

Considering that Rolling Stone has held a very solid $1.25 million in sales in the US — a land with a 250 million plus population, five times that of the UK, FHM‘s circulation numbers were impressive, indeed. In short, there was barely a British young man aged 20 to 30 who wasn’t buying or catching a glance at the re-born magazine. Needham was quickly head-hunted to launch an American version of the publication and the original UK sales surge has been speedily replicated. The US FHM, relying on a similar mixture of sex, sport and gadgets, has become a publishing sensation and brought the laddie mag, as the genre has been re-named, Stateside to a fresh, and evidently hungry, audience.

Now Needham has been commissioned to bring a parallel miracle to Rolling Stone, a move prompted as much, it seems, by the rise of Blender, Felix Dennis’ rock mag with an edge, which threatens most to sabotage Wenner’s precious and prestigious organ. But where can the new Brit on the block take the grand-daddy of alternative reportage? A string of imported UK movers and shakers — Soutar himself, once at Maxim, now returned to British publishing giant IPC Media, and several high profile women, from Tina Brown (The New Yorker) to Mandi Norwood (Mademoiselle) — have been and gone. Needham believes he has a blueprint that will buck the trend and keep himself at the head of the race. He told MediaGuardian that he wants articles with fewer words, busier design, and more entry points on each page: he doesn’t want the contemporary readership scared away by banks of black text.

But Needham’s success and the whole lad mag eruption have been fuelled by values that are really quite alien to Wenner’s flagship. Rolling Stone has regarded the political as something real — the politics of culture, the politics of society, the politics of politics — and a cornerstone of its manifesto. In the hands of the new breed of editors, style and gloss, surface and glamour, beat everything: bigger, deeper, harder, harsher matters cower in the shadow of the flash, the superficial, the vacuous, the ephemerally amusing.

Rock is an ideal metaphor. To Wenner, all the baggage of his personal politics, his readers’ personal politics, were framed in the bands and songwriters who shaped the end of the 1960s and the start of the 1970s. In rock ‘n’ roll, issues as wide-ranging as racism and pacifism, integrity and corruption, repression and freedom, could be aired and addressed, given shape in the concert halls and festival grounds of the high hippie moment.

In 2002, rock music is as much an arm of the entertainment industry, of show business, as television and the movies; its gestures reduced to the cartoon capers of a video clip, its platforms few and far between, its social value subsumed by commercial considerations. Maybe the tide is unstoppable and Wenner, the maverick pragmatist, is merely acknowledging that. Rolling Stone for its first dozen years made a difference; for the next two decades it still made its presence felt; now it needs to make sure it survives the voracious new marketplace. With a laddie mag make-over it no doubt will, but be sure of one thing: the ghosts of the counter-culture won’t be rushing to take out a subscription.