Duff McKagan: 8 songs that changed my life

(Image credit: Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Duff McKagan has a world of stories to tell. The 57-year-old, Seattle-born musician is best known for his time as the bassist in Guns N' Roses, but his roots are in hardcore punk. He's also played with everyone from Velvet Revolver to Hollywood Vampires, released solo albums – the most recent the country-tinged, socially-conscious Tenderness in 2019 – and guested on many more, from the Manic Street Preachers to Macy Gray to Ozzy Osbourne's Ordinary Man last year. 

“One thing I learned is that the world isn’t as bad as the TV news or Twitter makes it out to be,” he says. “When you go out and actually talk to people, you recognise that there’s way more that binds us together than what separates us. That gave me a lot of hope.”

Here are eight songs that set the bassist on the path to enlightenment.

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Sex Pistols – Bodies (Never Mind The Bollocks, 1977) 

When I was a kid I had a paper route and mowed lawns to earn money, and the first records I bought with that money were Kiss' Alive and Pat Travers’ Puttin’ It Straight. The Kiss record really made my ears tune into three chord rock songs, and then this cool girl I knew, who was about four years older than me, and in a band, turned me on to the Sex Pistols. Steve Jones’ guitar sound was like nothing I’d ever heard and Paul Cook’s drumming taught me how to play. I recognised immediately that this could be a band of my own, rather than one handed down from my brothers and sisters. Bodies hasn’t aged at all.

The Heartbreakers – Pirate Love (L.A.M.F., 1977)

Scott McCaughey, who had a band called The Young Fresh Fellows and who later joined REM, was our fucking cool local record store guy, and he knew what would blow our minds. This might have been one of his recommendations. If you look at a photo of Guns N’ Roses around 1985, or me at least, the way we dressed was directly lifted from the cover of The Heartbreakers' album. Pirate Love in particular just spoke to me, with that fucking slinky drum beat and those raw guitars. My early bands didn’t directly copy from The Heartbreakers, but they definitely influenced how we played and looked.

The Stooges – Gimme Some Skin (B-side, I Got A Right, 1977)

After the Pistols and the Heartbreakers I discovered The Stooges; I did it a little bit backwards. I bought the I Got A Right/Gimme Some Skin single, which I still have somewhere, when I was maybe 14, and Gimme Some Skin just seemed like the most hardcore, aggressive song. It was a lesson in how to play rock’n’roll. It used to rain a lot in Seattle, so everybody would be in their garage playing music, because playing outside in the sunshine wasn’t an option. Everybody learned by playing The Stooges and The Sonics, because everybody’s mom or dad or big sister had the first Sonics record in their house. I got to play on a record [1990’s Brick By Brick] with Iggy and I was talking about The Sonics and he said, “Man, that was the first real garage rock band, that band influenced The Stooges.”

Led Zeppelin – Immigrant Song (Led Zeppelin III, 1970)

I had older siblings, so I heard Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and the James Gang and Sly and The Family Stone at home before I really knew music. As a kid, the playing on Immigrant Song is unimaginable, you knew you couldn’t possibly play like that, but everyone could sing along to that amazing opening Robert Plant scream. Immigrant Song opened up Led Zeppelin III to me, and when I got to see Zeppelin in 1977 at the King Dome in Seattle, they were astonishing.

The Damned – New Rose (Damned Damned Damned, 1977)

This is just pure reckless abandon. The first couple of Damned records just blew my mind. Every song on this record is just kick-ass, and New Rose, which obviously Guns N’ Roses later covered, drew me in because of Rat Scabies’ drumming, and the way Brian James played guitar. I was sat next to Rat Scabies at an awards ceremony once and he is the funniest guy in the fucking world. He was giving this running commentary on everyone who came up on stage and it made the whole night for me.

Motorhead – Ace Of Spades (Ace Of Spades, 1980)

I was a Seattle punker, and we all listened to AC/DC and Cheap Trick and The Sweet and Montrose, anything that rocked we were down with. But when Ace Of Spades came out on seven inch it was like, “Holy fuck!” It showed us that there was a whole new direction we could go in. I don’t know any rocker for whom this song didn’t change their trajectory and perspective. My band Loaded toured Europe with Motorhead and I got to play guitar onstage with them every night which was amazing. Lemmy is God-like. I remember being at an awards show in London with my wife Susan, who’s super-hot, and she wore this dress that was super-revealing, to the point that she had to wear a coat over it. But Lemmy was there, and I was like, “Honey, we have to go and show Lemmy your dress.” He was the only guy who got to see her in full, and you could see everything, because y’know, he’s Lemmy and you have to pay respects to the godfather.

Prince – Something In The Water (Does Not Compute) (1999, 1982)

This record was huge to me. At that time I was still living in Seattle and heroin had decimated my whole scene – my girlfriend, my room-mate, guys in my band – and this record was an escape for me. Everyone has that one record that "saved their life", and 1999 made me realise that I had to leave Seattle if I wanted to be a musician and gave me the courage to do it. I went to see Prince once in Germany on a night off during the Use Your Illusion tour, and one of his security guards said, “Prince would like to say 'Hi'”, and right at that moment I realised I was far too drunk, I literally couldn’t form a sentence. He was so nice, but I was a mess. But years later, in a tour programme, he used something that I wrote about him, so the fact that he knew I existed was cool.

Ice-T – 6 In The Mornin’ (Rhyme Pays, 1987)

I went to see the first rap show in Seattle, around 1982, which was Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and it was fucking cool. Ice-T’s Power album came out around the time we were making Appetite… and it was one of our soundtracks at the time. 6 In The Mornin' came out before that, and it’s just great story-telling. These days I like Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, but hip-hop has also gone in some directions I didn’t follow, so I tend to stick with the O.G. stuff. We can do better than just ‘get dollars, fuck bitches!’

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.