Duff McKagan: the 12 Records That Changed My Life

Duff McKagan
(Image credit: Scott Dudelson)

"I left out Jimi Hendrix. I left out Marvin Gaye. I left out so much stuff. Mother fucker!"

Duff McKagan is talking about the records that changed his life, and the usual 10 isn't enough. We've settled on 12, and even then he's not satisfied. He could carry on, but we're out of time. 

The Guns N' Roses bassist is nothing if not enthusiastic. Whether it's other peoples' music, or politics, or history, or the mountains of books he consumes, or his solo album Tenderness, he can talk with the kind of adrenalin-fuelled excitement you don't normally expect from someone who's been in the business so long and (barely) lived to tell the tale. 

But then McKagan isn't the sort to retreat to his hotel room and hide away from the world. "I get out and do things and talk to people," he says, "from Kuala Lumpur to Texas to South Africa to Minnesota."

It's the kind of enthusiasm for life that's driven him from his early days in Seattle to his current status anchoring the world's biggest-grossing live act. And it's the kind of enthusiasm that informs his taste in music, which runs the gamut from garage rock to punk, funk and beyond. 

Below, Duff McKagan picks the 12 records that changed his life. Tenderness is out now. 

The Sonics - The Witch

"I grew up in Seattle with seven older siblings, so I grew listening to their records, and the first record I learned to play was The Witch by The Sonics, a band from Tacoma, Washington. If you were from Seattle and you loved rock you had to have a Sonics record.  

"I thought it was a song about a real witch - I didn't know it was a song about some guy's bad girlfriend. But the record did change things for me. It was just screaming all the way through, and it left its imprint. It was garage rock, although I didn't know that at the time."  

Sly And The Family Stone - Greatest Hits

"We listened to Sly & The Family Stone on a reel-to-reel, which we had before we had a turntable. Greatest Hits came out in about 1970, and all of that different instrumentation and all those fucking great backbeats were like magic to me. I was just a kid!" 

Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin III

"Immigrant Song really kicked my ass. Every part of it. I couldn't play along with it - I was only 10 – but I could sing along with the 'Ah-ah-aaaaah-ah!' part.

"Every Led Zeppelin record had an impact on me, but Led Zeppelin III probably affected my thoughts on music the most." 

The Sex Pistols - Never Mind The Bollocks

"I'd been listening to Kiss's Alive! a lot. Great three-chord rock - Strutter and Firehouse and all of that - and then somebody turned me on to The Pistols. Kiss were a great introduction into The Pistols. 

"I'm the last of eight kids, and really wanted something of my own. No one in my family knew who the Sex Pistols were, so they became mine. I was too young to know what some of it meant, but it really had an impact. And it led me on to my next record."

Johnny Thunders And The Heartbreakers - L.A.M.F.

"I went to see Walter Lure [Heartbreakers guitarist] play L.A.M.F. a couple of weeks ago. I went to this by myself in downtown LA. There's five dollar parking across the street, and I parked my car. I went in and saw Pirate Love, Born To Lose, Chinese Rocks. That's all I needed. It was great. This record made a huge impact on me.

"Johnny Thunders' playing and Jonsey's [Sex Pistols' Steve Jones] playing: I've played guitar ever since, and that's who I fashion my guitar playing after. I got to play in a band with Steve in the 90s [Neurotic Outsiders], and it was like a dream come true. I started playing guitar and he immediately recognised where I got all my riffs from!"

The Germs - GI

"I had the Nervous Breakdown/Wasted EP by Black Flag, but they didn't have an album out. And then I heard GI by The Germs and I had to decipher it. I was like, "what the fuck is going on here?!?', and then it became the soundtrack to my life."  

The Stooges - Fun House

"Of course I discovered The Stooges course after I'd discovered The Pistols and Thunders, so I went backwards. But Fun House wasn't too different from The Sonics, you know? Loose, TV Eye, Down On The Street. How sleazy is that?" 

Prince - 1999

"I was turned on to Prince sometime around 1980. I really love For You and Prince and Controversy and Dirty Mind, but there was something about 1999

"A lot of heroin was going through Seattle, and while I wasn't using, a lot of people were getting strung out: my friends, my roommate, my girlfriend, my band. We had just signed to Jello Biafra's record label and were going to be the next big thing, but a couple of the guys got strung out and it was the end of the band. 

"It was 10 Minute Warning, who were a precursor to Soundgarden and Green River and all of that. I was heartbroken, man, seeing all this stuff going on around me, and I knew I had to make a decision. Then 1999 came out in 1982, and I just dove into the record.

"I loved Little Red Corvette. It may be the most perfect three-chord song ever written. But it was the deeper tracks that I loved most. I would get off work and come home and just play the record and it was my escape. 

"Everybody has that record that 'saved their life', and 1999 gave me the courage to stand on my own two feet. It gave me the courage to leave. I knew my car wouldn't make it to New York, but I knew it could get me to LA. Somehow it encouraged me to do that on my own, and it was scary, but I knew music was going to be my thing."

Mark Lanegan - Whiskey for the Holy Ghost

"It's a record that keeps affecting me. The simplicity of it. The beautiful tapestry that guy creates with his words and his voice. It should be in everybody's record collection, I think."

The Dead Boys - Young Loud and Snotty / Generation X - Generation X

"I'm going to group these next two record together because they had a huge effect on me. The Dead Boys' Sonic Reducer was one of the first songs I learned to play"

"And Generation X were impossibly good. They had the best drummer. The best bass player. The best guitar player. The best singer. And the best songs. Kiss Me Deadly was like a ballad, and when I heard them sing about a 'tube to Piccadilly' I was like, 'What is a tube?' 'What are these stations?' 

"Back then punk rockers in my town would get beaten up for looking different. So yeah, I really identified with that song."

Refused - The Shape Of Punk To Come

"This record kind of saved rock'n'roll when it came out in 1998. I have a lot of respect for that band, and I went and saw them when they regrouped. Another show I went to by myself. You don't take  somebody who doesn't know the band. In Seattle, they played the Showbox, and I drove down and just sat there and watched their whole set without distraction.

"That record was really fucking amazing in so many different aspects. Hardcore to jazz to electronic disco, but it's a really great body of work. It's an album."

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.