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False starts and a whole lotta cash: how Appetite For Destruction was made

GunsN' Roses posing backstage
(Image credit: MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

June 5, 1986. At Sound City studios in Los Angeles, Guns N’ Roses are recording demos for their debut album. The most talked about band on the LA rock scene have recently signed to Geffen Records following a furious bidding war between major labels. To oversee this recording session, Geffen have brought in a man who has seen and done it all – Manny Charlton, the guitarist with Nazareth, one of the great rock bands of the 70s. 

For the first couple of hours, the cool air in the studio fills with cigarette smoke as the band blast through a succession of mean rock’n’roll songs. Charlton likes what he hears. As he recalls now: “They were like Aerosmith and the Stones – especially with the image they had.” 

And then, halfway through the session, the group’s singer, Axl Rose, does something unexpected. 

“He just sat down at a piano when we were having a break,” Charlton says, “and played this song to the band.” 

The song Rose performed solo was titled November Rain. It was a piece he had written three years earlier, before Guns N’ Roses had formed, and it was unlike anything else in the band’s repertoire – a beautiful, epic love song played out over 10 minutes, with shades of Queen and Elton John

As Rose sang it, his voice raw with emotion, Charlton was transfixed. When it was done, Charlton was convinced that November Rain would be the most important song on Guns N’ Roses’ first album. But the singer was already thinking ahead. 

“It’s for the second album,” Axl told him. 

At the end of the session they had 25 tracks on tape. There was a raw energy in ones such as Nightrain and Out Ta Get Me – the band sounding, as lead guitarist Slash later put it, “like angry dogs cornered”. There was a bigger reach, a classic-rock feel, in two numbers: Paradise City and Rocket Queen. The most powerful of all, Charlton thought, was a song in which Rose sang of the danger on the LA streets – Welcome To The Jungle. But for Guns N’ Roses, there was still a long way to go. 

It would take another nine months, and another producer, before their debut record, Appetite For Destruction, was completed. And while Charlton’s instincts told him that this was a great band in the making, he, like so many others, didn’t sense the true potential of Guns N’ Roses. 

“They were just a bunch of young guys living their rock’n’roll dreams and having the time of their lives,” Charlton says. “I never foresaw that they would become one of the biggest bands in rock history.”

Alt

Thirty-two years down the line, in June 2018, the best-selling debut album of all time was repacked and reissued in a deluxe edition, in which the fabled Sound City session – previously heard only in extracts on low-grade bootlegs – was finally presented for the first time in full, and in high-definition sound. 

It revealed a classic album as a work in progress, the band rising towards a peak, and Rose reaching for something deeper with November Rain. Nine of the songs recorded in that one-day session were included, in reworked form, on Appetite For Destruction. What Manny Charlton hears in these tracks now is, in his words, “a great, raw young band”. But at the time these recordings were made, there was a general consensus among music industry insiders that this band, signed to a six-album deal, would be lucky to make one. 

Guns N’ Roses had a heavy reputation as the as the wildest and druggiest band out of LA since Mötley Crüe. As Slash later recalled: “In the early days the most famous quote about Guns N’ Roses was: ‘They’re gonna self-destruct and kill themselves before they even have a record out.’ That was something that was probably sort of true.”

It was Tom Zutaut, the A&R man who took the band to Geffen, who did most to get Appetite For Destruction made. In his previous role at Elektra Records, Zutaut had signed Mötley Crüe, and his first choice as producer for Guns N’ Roses was Tom Werman, a hardened veteran who had worked with the Crüe on their hit albums Shout At The Devil and Theatre Of Pain

Zutaut figured that if Werman could control Mötley Crüe in a studio environment, then he could handle Guns N’ Roses. In the end it never came to that. When Werman attended a Guns N’ Roses rehearsal, they were playing the song Mr. Brownstone so loud that he simply walked out, never to return. 

Zutaut’s next approach was to Paul Stanley of Kiss, a band idolised by Guns N’ Roses drummer Steven Adler. But in Stanley’s first meeting with the band, his suggestion that they should work on a new arrangement for Welcome To The Jungle was rejected flat-out. As Guns bassist Duff McKagan said later: “We weren’t going to rewrite a song for anybody.” 

It was left to Zutaut to inform Stanley that his services were not required. And it was Rose who led Zutaut to Manny Charlton when he said: “Get me the guy who produced Hair Of The Dog.” That album, from 1975, was the biggest of Nazareth’s career, and the first of many to be produced by the guitarist. It had also been a major influence on Rose as a teenager growing up in Lafayette, Indiana – not least in the way that his style of singing, high and gritty, mirrored that of Nazareth’s frontman Dan McCafferty. 

In the mid-80s, Charlton had produced two gold albums for Canadian rock group Streetheart. But it was the earthy sound of classic Nazareth that Rose wanted for Guns N’ Roses. Zutaut travelled to Charlton’s home in Scotland with a handful of GN’R’s live recordings.

“A couple of board mixes on cassette that weren’t too great,” Charlton says. “But I heard enough to be interested.” A loose arrangement was made for Charlton to produce the band in LA. “In hindsight,” he says, “it was some kind of audition for me.” Ahead of the recording session, Charlton had only one meeting with Axl and Slash, at the Sunset Marquis hotel in Hollywood. His first impression was telling. “Axl was obviously the leader,” he says.

At Sound City, he had the band set up as if they were playing a gig, “with Axl between the two entry doors to the studio, so he could see everyone and still be isolated from the studio live room”.

His whole approach was simple. “I just asked them to play all the songs in their current set with no overdubs. I just wanted a handle on the songs.” And despite the reputation that preceded them, the band didn’t bring any alcohol into the studio, let alone drugs.

“Everyone was stone-cold straight,” Charlton says. In the 25 tracks recorded, the outline of Appetite For Destruction was traced in formative versions of key songs such as Welcome To The Jungle, Paradise City, Nightrain and Rocket Queen. There were rough takes of the four tracks – Reckless Life, Move To The City and covers of Aerosmith’s Mama Kin and Rose Tattoo’s Nice Boys – that would feature on the band’s debut EP Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, released ahead of the album. 

The remainder included versions of the Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash and, more surprisingly, the Elvis Presley classic Heartbreak Hotel; a nasty little tune named Back Off Bitch that would eventually be released in 1991 along with the more sensitive November Rain; and Shadow Of Your Love, a punk-rock blaster originally written and performed in Hollywood Rose, the band led by Axl and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin before they formed Guns N’ Roses. 

A few days after this session, Charlton returned to Scotland to resume work on the Nazareth album Cinema

“I told Tom Zutaut that I’d love to produce the Guns N’ Roses record if we could get our schedules together,” he says. But the call never came. “Later, I heard they had auditioned nine other people for the gig,” says Charlton.

Tom Zutaut moved fast to keep the project on track. Within a month he had set Guns N’ Roses to work with Spencer Proffer, the producer of Quiet Riot’s Metal Health, an album that hit No.1 in the US in 1983 and lit the fuse for the LA hair-metal explosion that followed. 

Soon after, Zutaut also found a new manager, Alan Niven, for the band, a replacement for Vicky Hamilton who was dismissed shortly after the Geffen deal was finalised. Niven, born in New Zealand and raised in England, had become friends with Zutaut when promoting Mötley Crüe’s debut album Too Fast For Love

In 1986, Niven was focused on managing another LA rock band, Great White, for whom he was also co-songwriter and producer. He was not looking for new clients, but took on Guns N’ Roses due to Zutaut’s persistence. When Niven heard the Sound City session, he was underwhelmed. As he recalls: “It was very punk, and Axl sounded like he had overdosed on helium at certain points.” 

Niven was also not convinced that Proffer was the right fit for Guns N’ Roses. While Axl and drummer Steven Adler had the big hair that was de rigueur on the Sunset Strip, Stradlin spoke for the whole band when he dismissed Mötley Crüe as “teen metal” and stated: “We go for a more roots-oriented sound than most other bands around here.” 

Niven made an equally damning assessment of Quiet Riot and their signature anthem Metal Health (Bang Your Head). “I was definitely not a fan of Quiet Riot,” he says. “Bang Your Head was ridiculous to me. Can you imagine Axl singing that lyric?” 

As it turned out, Niven did not have to bang heads with Proffer. “Zutaut was expecting Proffer to produce,” he explains, “but when I asked to meet Spencer he sent his assistant instead. That was a bad move. Spencer made it easy for me to tell Tom that we needed to look for someone else.”

In the end it was a relative unknown who got the job. Mike Clink, a young guy from Maryland, near Baltimore, was just starting out as a producer, having previously worked as engineer on major rock albums by Heart, Survivor and UFO

“Zutaut suggested Clink, and I thought it a brilliant idea,” Niven recalls. He was a great guitar engineer – his work with UFO and Michael Schenker was terrific. And Schenker was notoriously difficult to work with, but Clink had managed. That indicated to me he might be able to deal with Axl. I knew he’d be great with Slash.” 

Clink was aware of the band’s reputation. “It was a little disconcerting,” he said, “that whole demeanour they had. They really were living that reckless life. But when I heard the songs I was blown away. And the beauty in it was that no two songs sounded the same.” 

It was in late August that the band began work with Clink at Rumbo Recorders, a studio in Canoga Park on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The first track recorded was Shadow Of Your Love, and it was exactly how Guns N’ Roses sounded in Axl’s head. 

“We cut the song over one weekend,” Clink said, “and a few days later Axl called and said: ‘I just heard it and it’s amazing!’” 

With Clink guiding them, Guns N’ Roses raised their game. As Niven recalls: “A concern I had when listening to the Sound City demos was that one of the songs, which had a weak performance, be concentrated on and brought up to another level. I thought it might prove to be a big song on the record, and I loved the social sarcasm in it, because LA was beginning to lose its glitter and gloss to me. That was Welcome To The Jungle.” 

Clink got so much power and intensity out of the band on this track that it became the album’s electrifying opening statement. And with Paradise City, a new intro, beautifully played by Slash, lifted a great song even higher.

Equally significant were three songs that had not been recorded in the Sound City session. Mr. Brownstone was a funky number named after a notorious LA drug dealer and reminiscent of Aerosmith at their hedonistic peak. It’s So Easy, brutal and borderline-misogynist, with a riff evoking the Sex Pistols. In both of those, Axl sang in a lower register, adding a new dimension to the sound. And in the third of these songs, Appetite For Destruction had its secret weapon. 

Sweet Child O’ Mine, a ballad loosely inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd, its lyrics written by Axl for his then-girlfriend Erin Everly, sounded to Tom Zutaut like a hit waiting to happen. As Niven puts it, indelicately: “Tom was real high on Sweet Child, and I had a major boner for Paradise City. And because we had Sweet Child we didn’t need November Rain. Axl was convinced that November Rain was his masterstroke, and that it needed even more time and attention. So it qualified as a brilliant hold-over.” 

As Alan Niven saw it, the band “matured into the Clink sessions and gained a deeper and broader power. Better performances, better tones, better textures, greater confidence, more imagination, more gravitas.” And as the album took shape, the Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP was put together from the recordings the band had made with Spencer Proffer. 

Four studio tracks – Reckless Life, Move To The City, Nice Boys and Mama Kin – were overdubbed with audience noise taken from the Texxas Jam, a 1978 festival headlined by Aerosmith. In another sleight of hand, the EP was marketed as an independent release on the band’s own label, Uzi Suicide, without Geffen’s branding. Issued on December 16, it gave the band a profile outside of LA, with Kerrang! writer Xavier Russell proclaiming Guns N’ Roses “the sleaziest band in Smog Angeles”. 

The recording of the album was eventually completed in March 1987, at which point Niven was, by his own admission, a worried man. 

“A lot of time and money had been spent,” he says. “The recording of Appetite cost 365,000 dollars. It was an outrageous amount to spend on a debut, and I wondered if we would ever dig out of that hole and see any meaningful income.” 

Niven was not alone in feeling the pressure. As he bluntly recounts: “Clink was completely out of gas come the mixing sessions. He couldn’t get a mix done, and Zutaut was scared shitless that all that time and money was wasted.” 

Niven’s solution was to mix one track with Michael Lardie, the keyboard player and rhythm guitarist in Great White. “It was my way of proving Clink had the performances on tape,” he explains. 

At Total Access studio in LA, where the Great White album Once Bitten was being recorded, Niven and Lardie went to work fast. “We stripped the board and set up for a mix and told Zutaut to choose a roll of tape.” 

In four hours they had a mix of Mr. Brownstone. “The band were waiting at Tom’s office to hear what we thought,” Niven says. “Had Clink got it on tape or not? ‘You’d better come down,’ I said. Only Izzy had the courage to show up. We hit ‘Play’, and by the chorus he was up off the sofa and pumping his fist in the air – a very un-Izzy-like action.” 

The final mix of the album was by the team of Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero. The remit, Thompson remembers, was to make the record sound “as loud as possible”. Niven believes they did that and more. “They utterly connected to the energy of the tracks,” he says. “I was blown away.”

It took a long time and so many changes to get there, but what Guns N’ Roses created with Appetite For Destruction was a record that shook the world. It has now sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. In October 2018 Classic Rock readers voted it the greatest debut album of all time. In the end, Alan Niven’s fears proved unfounded. He – and a lot of other people – made a lot of money out of Appetite For Destruction

Manny Charlton was not among them. “Geffen paid for my flights but they still owe me for the hotel bill,” he says now. But there was a reward for Charlton a little later on, when GN’R recorded a Nazareth song, the title track from Hair Of The Dog, on their 1993 covers album “The Spaghetti Incident?” 

And Charlton was right about November Rain. When he heard Axl play it on that day in 1986, he knew it was an important song. Thirty-two years later, the video for November Rain became the first from the 20th century to receive one billion views.

Freelance writer for Classic Rock since 2005, Paul Elliott has worked for leading music titles since 1985, including Sounds, Kerrang!, MOJO and Q. He is the author of several books including the first biography of Guns N’ Roses and the autobiography of bodyguard-to-the-stars Danny Francis. He has written liner notes for classic album reissues by artists such as Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy and Kiss, and currently works as content editor for Total Guitar. He lives in Bath - of which David Coverdale recently said: “How very Roman of you!”