A discographic review of the golden era of Guns N' Roses
By Sergio Ariza
Guns N' Roses emerged in Los Angeles in 1985 when members of Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns decided to form a new band. In spite of these origins, which gave them their name, their definitive formation was formed only by members of the former, the two founders, the singer Axl Rose and the guitarist Izzy Stradlin, in addition to three others who had passed through Hollywood Rose: the guitarist Slash, the bassist Duff McKagan and the drummer Steven Adler. These five would be responsible for the band's incredible debut, Appetite For Destruction, and its follow-up, Lies. In 1990 this first line-up broke up with the firing of Adler, who was replaced by Matt Sorum. With this came the colossal swan song of the classic line-up, the two volumes of Use Your Illusion, followed by the departure, of his own will, of Stradlin; and this led the band into a destructive spiral that ended with the unnecessary The Spaghetti Incident, released in 1993. It also resulted in the departure of Slash and Duff in 1997 and, finally, the appearance of Chinese Democracy in 2008, an album that is more Axl Rose than Guns N' Roses.
From Guitars Exchange we wish to remember- taking advantage of Slash's birthday- one of the last great rock & roll bands through its fundamental period; the one that goes from its formation in 1985 until the appearance of the two volume Use Your Illusion.
Appetite For Destruction (1987)
In 1987 the L.A. 'Glam Metal' scene was at its peak, but it was already looking totally hollow, with bands more concerned with make-up and 'girls, girls, girls' than doing anything really invigorating to regenerate rock & roll. And then some guys came along talking about the less glamorous side of the city… listening to their music you could see the broken bottles, syringes and used condoms on the floor. Rock & roll took a deep breath and sounded dangerous and dirty again. All thanks to the debut album of this band of wretches who had changed their names to nicknames like Axl, Slash, Izzy or Duff.
Appetite For Destruction was the best pure rock & roll album of the 80's - here there was room for Led Zeppelin and the Stones, but also the Sex Pistols and Motörhead. Theirs was pure rock, with Slash being the bastard son of Jimmy Page, with his replica '59 Les Paul made by Kris Derrig; and Izzy Stradlin that of Keith Richards, with his 1987 Gibson ES-175D.
The album opened with an amazing riff, courtesy of Slash, that seemed to announce the arrival of Armageddon and seemed to be played backwards, while Axl Rose's booming voice warned you that you had just arrived in the big city, "do you know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby, you're gonna die!"; and closed with a song in which you could hear the singer having sex with the drummer's girlfriend. In between there were songs about heroin, guys being chased by the cops and lots of sex. Further, Appetite was an explosive album in which there were hardly any slow tunes or love songs, with Sweet Child O' Mine being the only moment in which they showed that they also had a little heart. By that time Don't Cry and November Rain were already written, but the band decided that the ‘ballads quota’ was already taken, and preferred brutalities like Welcome To The Jungle, Rocket Queen, Paradise City, Nightrain, Mr. Brownstone and It's So Easy. Guns N' Roses didn't invent anything, the "sex, drugs and rock & roll" thing had been going on for years, but they took it to the highest level, thanks to explosive songs and guys who not only sang and played about them, but who lived them. It is their undisputed masterpiece.
Lies came at the perfect time to take advantage of the mega wave of success of Appetite For Destruction (nothing more and nothing less than the best selling debut album in history). At that time Guns N' Roses were the most successful rock band in the world and would continue to be so until 1992 when grunge and alternative music exploded, with Nirvana at its head. But in 1989 the band was the latest reincarnation of the original Stones, the bad boys who were going to lead your kids astray.
You could say that Lies are really two EP's put together to take advantage of the pull of: one, a ‘fake live set’ of the band, recorded in 1985, and already released; and two, a sort of antecedent of famous Unpluggeds by the MTV, but with mostly new songs, including one of the band's great songs, Patience. The first part shows us what one of their mythical concerts at the Troubador or at the Roxy in Los Angeles must have been like, with which they earned the title of "most dangerous band on the planet". Firstly, there are two covers that say a lot about their tastes, one by the Australians’ Rose Tattoo and another by their beloved Aerosmith, Mama Kin; a song that they had been playing live the year of its release with its original authors when they went on tour with them.
But the most interesting part is the second, with the unplugged version of the group, wielding their acoustics, demonstrating the versatility of a band that was pure rock but did equally well in acoustic format, something few bands in the LA glam scene could boast. Of course, a song like One In A Million made it clear why with the arrival of a new sensibility Guns N' Roses were going to become lyrically obsolete, and in this song, Axl Rose gets carried away with his bad boy image and fools around with homophobia and racism, despite the fact that Slash was a ‘mulatto’. Evidently these comments can be seen as bravado and not what they really meant, but it came out at around the time when Kurt Cobain appeared as the champion of a new sensibility, and shouting ‘faggot’ in a song sounded very stale. Three years later Axl and the rest of the band tried to compensate for it by inviting Elton John to play with them on November Rain.
Use Your Illusion I / II (1991)
The two volumes of Use Your Illusion were the swan song of the band; a baroque and huge work by a group that knew they were on top of the world. Two double albums released at the same time, more than two and a half hours in total, that made them number 1 and 2 in the charts of half the world, but that also buried the band among the dreams of greatness of an Axl who had lost touch with reality and wanted to be, at the same time, Mick Jagger, Freddy Mercury, Johnny Rotten, Elton John and Todd Rundgren.
But despite all the bombast, the overall level is surprisingly high, bearing in mind that Izzy Stradlin, who left a month after its release, was still in their ranks, as he was the second most important songwriter in the band after Rose. Of course, this level of creativity was reflected in the future of the band that did not see a new composition released again until 2008 - with Axl Rose as the only original member - with the uneven Chinese Democracy.
The two volumes are similar, but I prefer the first one, as it is the most bluesy and hard rock, thanks to the greater participation of Stradlin, who wrote, alone or with others, Right Next Door to Hell, Don't Cry', You Ain't the First, Double Talkin' Jive and Bad Obsession. The two most famous members also have their moments of brilliance as composers, Slash in the 10 minute plus Coma, and Axl with two of his best songs, Dead Horse and November Rain (with Slash's famous solo). The fact that they performed the latter with Elton John at the 1992 MTV awards, gave the impression that Axl wanted to become a kind of ‘hard rock John’ - but the direction was other, in fact the singer had pointed out two years before its release that his favorite album at that time was Todd Rundgren's Something/Anything. It is not surprising, therefore, that they found inspiration in a cover of Paul McCartney's Wings, Live And Let Die.
Although these new changes were much more evident on the second volume - a much more varied but also much more opulent album, in which they may have overdone it with ambition -, it is the most ‘Axl Rose album of the band’ to that date and you can appreciate some of the perfectionism that would lead to the endless chaos of Chinese Democracy, although the best moments come in those Axl moments, in those 'power ballads' on the piano, like Estranged, or in the multiple changes of Civil War, the only song in which Adler participated. But he is also responsible for some of the worst moments of this great band, like the horrible ending with My World. This is evident proof that to release two and a half hours of music at the same time, was maybe not such a good idea. And what happened with these albums is that every fan of the band ‘found their own perfect Use Your Illusion’ by taking their favorite songs from both volumes and making their own personal continuation of Appetite For Destruction. It seems clear that a scissor would have led to a better final result… but of course knowing that it was going to be the last thing they were going to record together, it's better to have it all.