What happened when Guns N' Roses played their first ever UK gig

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Axl Rose was pissed off. Not for the first time, or the last, the Guns N’ Roses singer was spoiling for a fight.

The guy he wanted to punch out was a writer for Sounds, and Axl had gone looking for him, to the Sounds office in north London, near Camden Town.

It was early afternoon on June 24, 1987. Five days earlier, Guns N’ Roses, on their first trip outside Los Angeles, had played their debut UK gig at the famous Marquee club in Soho. Playing songs from their as-yet-unreleased debut album Appetite For Destruction, it had been a great show, a hard-won victory amid a hostile atmosphere. But in the review of the gig, published in Sounds on that Wednesday, there was a comment that caused Axl to blow a fuse. The writer, Andy Ross, using his pseudonym Andy Hurt, stated that the band were good, but that their singer sounded like a hamster with its balls trapped in a door. “Squeak, squeak, squeak…”

Axl walked into the Sounds office in full rock-star regalia: leather trousers, ripped T-shirt, cowboy boots, cigarette in hand. Behind him were the other four members of the band: guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. Slash carried a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

As they looked around the room, wondering who it was that Axl was about to lay into, it was Izzy Stradlin who saw me sitting at a desk in one corner. I was the one Sounds writer they knew. Three months earlier I had interviewed the band in LA for a Sounds feature. I’d also been with them a few days before at one of the apartments they’d rented in Kensington. Izzy came over to talk. The others followed. We spoke about their gig at the Marquee, and the second one on June 22. Then Axl leaned in close and said to me in a low voice: “Where’s the guy that wrote the review?”

“Andy Hurt?”

“Yeah. And he fucking will be.”

When I told him that Andy Hurt wasn’t here, Axl just sighed and shook his head. There was an uncomfortable silence. Sounds editor Tony Stewart called me over and I explained why the band were here. “Get rid of them,” he said. I told them to come with me to the local pub. Before we left, Axl took a pen and a piece of paper and scrawled out a note for Andy Hurt. He handed it to Sounds’ secretary. It read simply: “You’re a dead man.”

It was only once inside the pub, on Camden High Street, that Axl’s mood lightened. He was aghast at one item on the pub’s food menu. Laughing, he said: “I can’t believe you guys eat this thing called spotted dick…”

Guns N’ Roses spent three weeks in London during that summer. For Slash it was a homecoming – born in Hampstead, the guitarist lived in Stoke-on-Trent until his family moved to LA when he was five. For the others, on their first visit to the UK, it was at times a culture shock: the weirdly named puddings; the warm beer; the polite cops that didn’t carry guns; the funny way that the tabloid press wrote about these wild young rock’n’rollers from LA. They were excited to be in the country that was home to so many of their favourite bands: Led Zeppelin, Queen, the Sex Pistols. More than anything, they wanted to make a name for themselves outside of LA. Their three gigs at the Marquee were about creating a buzz that could be translated to the US.

Along the way there would be trouble. The first Marquee gig almost descended into a mass brawl when a bunch of drunken assholes in the audience spat at the band and threw plastic beer glasses at them. Axl was close to being arrested after being thrown out of the Tower Records shop in Piccadilly. One of their apartments in Kensington would end up trashed after a party got out of hand.

But Guns N’ Roses would leave London at the end of June victorious. And when they returned, four months later, they would be hailed as the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world. What nobody knew was just how big this band were destined to become.

Just for starters: at Canter's Deli, Hollywood 1987

Just for starters: at Canter's Deli, Hollywood 1987 (Image credit: Atlasicons)

The first time I met Guns N’ Roses, Slash told me: “The thought of the LA scene just makes me sick.” It was March 18, 1987. The night before, the band had played at the famous Whisky A Go Go club The gig was billed as a launch party for Appetite For Destruction, even though the album’s release was months away.

We were sitting in late-afternoon sunshine in the al-fresco restaurant of the Hyatt hotel on Sunset Boulevard. Around the table were all five members of the band, plus their manager, Alan Niven. Everyone was drinking beer and chain-smoking. The conversation was mostly about London. They wanted to know who the best bands were, the best clubs. Slash wanted to know where he could find Lemmy. It was during the interview that followed, in my room at a low-grade, rundown hotel right across the street from the Hyatt, that they voiced their disgust of other LA bands, specifically, the big-haired glam rockers that had come along in the wake of Mötley Crüe. For Axl, the worst offenders were the prettiest of the pretty boys. “Poison fucked it up for all of us,” he complained. “They said everybody was following their trend.”

Even then, Guns N’ Roses’ reputation preceded them. They were reportedly the most fucked-up band in Los Angeles since Mötley Crüe. They had been nicknamed Lines N’ Noses, and it was widely rumoured that at least three of the five band members were heroin addicts. “They’ll make it,” someone at the record company told me at the time. “If they live.”

They had already released an EP, Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide (actually recorded in a studio, with audience noise dubbed on), which would finance their trip to the UK. And while Appetite For Destruction hadn’t yet been released officially, advance word had crept through that it was a classic-in-the-making, and a world away from the paperweight glam metal their Sunset Strip contemporaries were peddling.

Their UK shows were all part of a strategy by their manager, Alan Niven, to break GN’R. A New Zealander by birth, Niven had spent his formative years in an English boarding school. He understood the value of the British music press in breaking new bands.

“They were just too raw for US radio,” says Niven. “So breaking the band in the US looked like being dependent on long support slogs – not a hopeful prospect for a casual mob of smackheads and carousers. It made sense to get attention in America and elsewhere by making waves in London first.”

Jo Cosbert was label manager at Geffen UK at this time. She says that the UK company always took its lead from the US, but with Guns N’ Roses the reverse was true, and she credits Niven with the foresight to make it happen. “Alan thought GN’R could break the UK first,” she says. “He had the vision.” The band, however, were not convinced. “We all had doubts,” Niven says. “Axl asked: ‘Do you really think we can do this?’ But you never get anywhere if you allow doubt to derail your actions.”

In the event, Axl might not have made it to the UK. Just weeks before the flight from LA to London, he was involved in an altercation with LA cops which left him hospitalised. “I got hit on the head by a cop and I guess I just blacked out,” he said. “Two days later I woke up in hospital, tied to the bed, with electrodes over me. I guess they had to give me electroshock.”

That incident became news in the UK when it was reported in the Daily Star. In true tabloid style, they ramped up the outrage further with a reference to a tongue-in-cheek comment that Axl had made about hating poodles: “Everything about them makes me want to kill them.” The Star ran with it in classically sensationalist style: “A rock band even nastier than the Beastie Boys is heading for Britain. Los Angeles-based Guns N’ Roses are led by the outrageous Axl Rose, who has an endearing habit of butchering dogs…” The paper continued: “The other members of the group are as sleazy as their crackpot leader. Guitarist Slash and bass player Duff McKagan claim they have been on a boozing binge for TWO YEARS. Says Slash: ‘When we get up in the afternoon we can’t play because our hands are shaking like windmills.’”

In fairness, the band were living up to their reputation before they even touched down. On the plane, Slash was so drunk that he dropped a lit cigarette down the side of his seat and almost started a fire. He was still plastered when manager Alan Niven led the entourage – band and crew – though customs at Heathrow. Jo Cosbert was there to greet them. “They looked so cool as they shambled through,” she says.

What Niven remembers of their arrival was the sense of anticipation among the group. “The guys were excited,” he says. “Slash was visiting his homeland. They were in the land of the Sex Pistols and Nazareth, the home of Motörhead – pretty fucking cool for Izzy and Axl, a couple of guys from small-town Indiana. They were going to play the Marquee, where everyone from the Stones to AC/DC had played – pretty fucking cool for everyone. And they all wanted to soak up London.”

They were delivered to two adjoining apartments in Allen Street in Kensington. In one were Axl, Izzy and Alan Niven; in the other, Slash, Duff and Steven. They quickly realised that upscale Kensington was not the happening place in London. “Not at all a rock’n’roll neighbourhood,” as Slash put it. They were soon holed up in a pub, and stayed till closing time, around 11pm.

For Axl, however, the first night in London did not end quietly. He, Niven and Tom Zutaut, the A&R exec who signed the band to Geffen, made a late-night visit to Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus. Years earlier, before GN’R formed, Axl had worked at Tower’s store on Sunset Boulevard.

“Ax, Zutaut and I went to Tower and were cruising the racks,” Niven recalls. “At one point Ax sat on a step. We had just flown in and he was beat. Immediately, three big dudes started in on him. None of them had badges or uniforms that indicated they were Tower security. So Tom and I went to Ax’s defence and there was a certain amount of discussion. Tower called the Old Bill. Ax was surprised at how I talked to them…”

“The cops are kinda different in London,” Axl later recalled. “When they turned up at Tower, Alan said: ‘Take your hands off me!’ And they did! Back in LA they won’t take any of that shit. You’d be slung straight across the front of a squad car with a gun to your head.”

In the subsequent days, ahead of the first Marquee gig, band members went out to explore the city. “Once we ventured to Soho,” Slash said, “we found our peers.” Mostly this involved drinking in pubs such as the Ship in Wardour Street, close to the Marquee. But it wasn’t all rock’n’roll debauchery 247. Some days they would go to Soho to see Jo Cosbert at her office in the Warners building. “I’d buy them fish and chips in Berwick Street and they’d sit eating on the floor in my office,” she says. “They were always pretty quiet. The only time it got noisy was when Steven Adler got on an office chair and was spinning round till he came off and he crashed on the floor.”

Niven says there were two camps within the band: “Slash and Duff could bust it up. And Steven, being in London, was like a puppy running free in Disneyland.” The wisest head in the band was Izzy. “Iz was cool and reserved.” As for the enigmatic singer, always the one to take special care over, Niven says Axl “did his best to deal with change and movement”.

The scene at Allen Street was one of late nights, lots of booze and noise. “There were always loads of people at Allen Street,” Jo Cosbert says. “A stream of girls.” Niven remembers it as “a little rambunctious of an evening, but a fun vibe”. Cosbert fielded numerous complaints from nearby residents in Allen Street, but in the many times she visited the band there she never witnessed any drug taking. “They never did drugs around me,” she says. “In a way they were quite protective of me, this straight English girl.” She also recalls the band as a tight unit. “Axl was the exciting frontman,” she says, “but there were no histrionics, no prima donna stuff. He was not the leader – I thought of them as a team.”

By his own admission, Slash was the biggest drinker in the band. “In London, my guitar tech Johnny took me to a really nice guitar store,” he said. “While he was schmoozing the owner, I lay down on the floor to get comfortable, and passed out cold. They had to carry me out. Apparently that incident made a big impression on the English press. It established my ‘legendary’ reputation there.”

The shock for Slash was when he went to the Marquee the night before Guns’ first gig there. The band he saw that night was Tigertailz, who were based in Cardiff but looked and sounded like they’d walked straight off the Strip, with hair and make-up like Poison’s. “Slash turned up at our show,” Tigertailz drummer Ace Finchum recalls. “And later he made the comment that he had left LA to get away from shitty glam bands, and the first venue he goes into in London has a shitty glam band playing – us!”

The following night there was another nasty surprise in store…

Debuting at the Marquee, June 1987.

Debuting at the Marquee, June 1987. (Image credit: Rex)

“It’s good to be in fucking England finally,” Axl said as Guns N’ Roses walked out on the Marquee stage. And as soon as they started into the first song, Reckless Life, it kicked off. From the tightly packed audience, a hail of plastic beer glasses rained down on the stage. Worse, there were some people near the stage who were spitting at the band. You could see where it landed – right in Izzy’s hair, and Axl’s. It stuck in their hair and dripped down. It seemed as if some people had decided these swinging dicks from LA should be taught a lesson, should be challenged.

The band headed into the second song, Out Ta Get Me from the album. The bottles and the gob kept coming. They finished the song and Axl yelled: “Hey! If you wanna keep throwing things, we’re gonna fuckin’ leave. Whaddaya think?” Another glass arced out over the audience and clattered into Adler’s cymbals. “Hey!” Axl said. “Fuck you, pussy!”

According to Alan Niven, it was at that point that Duff and Axl were ready to jump in there and go at it with the guys. But after they played a third song, Anything Goes, there was no more shit thrown, no more spitting. The band had battled through and earned the right to be there.

Axl was still pissed off at Tower, and made his feelings clear from the Marquee stage. “Y’know, we just got here, right?” he said. “I got to Tower Records, I sit down, and the security throw me out. And then they call the local constables – ain’t that what they call ’em? And they were a couple of dickheads.” But he was having fun too. Smiling, he said: “D’ya like my shirt? It says ‘Fuck Dancing, Let’s Fuck’. I think that gets to the point.”

That night, the band blasted through eight of the 12 tracks on Appetite For Destruction, three off Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, and, for the first time, they played a cover of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door. In the end, they won out. The Marquee audience loved them. “It was rough and physical,” Alan Niven recalls. “I had warned the band about UK audiences. Since the days of Johnny Rotten there had developed an attitude of: ‘Prove it to me, ya pussies.’ I anticipated a certain attitude to a new band from LA, so they were prepared for the gobbing and the fuck-you attitude. When it got intense, Duff and Axl threatened to come off the stage and mix it up. Of course, it was true love from that point on.”

Around 30 minutes after the band had finished, with the Marquee bar still full of various freeloaders, I was in the toilet, standing next to Steven Adler at the urinal. He was as high as kite. “What did you think, man?” he asked. “Stop pissing on my shoes and I’ll tell you,” I replied.

A couple of days later, Axl spoke about that gig as a trial by fire. “Shit, it was hot in there,” he said, “real hard to breathe. When we started it was like, man, we’re in hell! The crowd were so fucking into it, so much energy. They threw some shit to start with but they cooled it after a while.”

The second gig, on June 22, had all the intensity of the first, minus the aggro. The opening act that night was a young band from Scarborough, Little Angels. It was an experience that left an indelible impression on their singer, Toby Jepson.

“Doing that gig with Guns N’ Roses completely changed my opinion about what music should be and what a band should be,” Jepson says. “We walked into the Marquee in the afternoon when they were soundchecking, and it was so fucking loud it was unbelievable. Slash was wearing his top hat, Axl had a fur coat – they looked like aliens. And they all stank really badly. They were a proper rock’n’roll band. The real deal.”

The performance that Guns delivered that night blew Jepson’s mind.

“It was the greatest rock show I’ve ever seen,” he continues. “There was this electricity in the room. Axl had this unbridled energy. It felt dangerous. And they had such great songs. At the end of the night we walked out of there saying ‘We’re shit’. We drove back to Scarborough in total silence, and all I kept thinking was that that band is going to be huge – they’re going to change music.”

For Guns N’ Roses, playing at the Marquee was a thrill. “That famous little sweatbox,” as Slash called it, “where everyone from The Who to the Sex Pistols had played.” Due to the amount of booze he was putting away, each and every day, his recollections of those three weeks in London are somewhat hazy. But as he said: “What I remember, I remember fondly. On show days, Duff and I spent the evening drinking outside on the street with the curious locals. I managed to land myself a girlfriend named Sally, who was a hot Page 3 girl. I also hung out with my hero, Lemmy Kilmister.”

On June 27, the day before the last of those Marquee gigs, I spent a couple of hours with the band at the apartment in Allen Street shared by Slash, Duff and Steven. The place was a mess – empty bottles everywhere, ashtrays overflowing. During the course of that long, boozy afternoon, they played me a demo-tape version of a song that hadn’t made the cut for the album. There were no vocals on the demo, so the whole band sang it: ‘With your bitch slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue you get nothin’ done.’ The song, You Could Be Mine, would eventually be released four years later on the Use Your Illusion II album.

Forty-eight hours later, following the final, triumphant Marquee gig, that apartment was in a state of ruin. “Slash, Duff and Jack Daniel’s totally totalled their room,” Alan Niven says. “It was a pile of matchsticks. Expensive.”

Slash, for one, couldn’t have cared less. All that mattered, he said, was this: “Those shows went over well enough that, from the start, we were never even considered part of that same league of LA hair metal bands who had come through England. We were seen as something else, which was what we’d been saying all along. Finally, it felt like we’d been justified.”

A warm welcome from Axl at the Marquee.

A warm welcome from Axl at the Marquee. (Image credit: Rex)

Appetite For Destruction was released on July 21, 1987. The band’s profile was still so low in the US that the album was not reviewed in Rolling Stone magazine. But in the UK, in Sounds and Kerrang!, it was hailed as a true classic.

Even so, that bad reputation stuck. Doubts remained as to whether the band could hold it together when they began a 22-date North American tour opening for The Cult on August 14. “The betting in Hollywood was that the band would not last more than ten days on the road,” Alan Niven remembers.

Word had spread about what had happened right after the band had returned to the US from London. Slash had gone to New York for meetings about the album artwork and merchandise, and had been joined there by his friend Todd Crew, who had recently been the bassist with fellow LA band Jetboy. They scored some heroin. And in Slash’s hotel room, Todd Crew overdosed. Slash later recalled: “Todd had done heroin but he wasn’t that experienced. His breathing stopped. I called 911. I threw water on him. Nothing worked. I couldn’t save him. Todd – all of twenty-one years old – died in my arms.”

Slash has described that moment as the worst experience of his life. In addition to losing his friend, he also had to contend with Todd Crew’s family thinking that he was to blame. Crew’s death, Slash said, was “a hell of a wake-up call”. And yet it didn’t stop him from doing drugs. His response was simply to cut down on heroin and ramp up the boozing. “I ditched heroin as a daily habit,” he said, “and made the smooth transition into full-tilt drinking.”

Touring with The Cult was a perfect fit for Guns N’ Roses. The Cult had ditched goth for gonzoid hard rock on their 1987 album Electric. And their singer Ian Astbury had invited GN’R to tour with them after seeing that first Marquee gig. As Axl said: “Ian Astbury came to our show, the one that we got such a slagging for, and liked it so much he offered us the tour. So fuck those journalists who wrote those bad things.”

Slash felt that The Cult shared the belief that GN’R were out of control. “I imagine that they looked at us like a volatile piece of equipment,” he said. “We had a unique timbre, but we were a machine that might crap out at any moment. We were like an M80 in a Coke can.” But in the end they got through all 22 dates without any major disasters. “Given that the tour was completed,” Niven says, “it was a success.”

What followed was not what Niven had originally planned. GN’R had been booked to return to the UK opening for Aerosmith, who were also signed to Geffen, and were then on the comeback trail with the hit album_ Permanent Vacation_. Tickets were sold for that tour, but at the last moment Aerosmith cancelled after Geffen demanded the band focus on the US market. Niven was left with a hard decision: stay home, or go for broke and tour as headliners. He chose the latter. “It was a huge fucking risk,” he says. “We had only sold about seven thousand records at that point. But the strategy of breaking the UK first was critical.”

Guns N’ Roses played five theatre shows as headliners, beginning in Newcastle on October 4 and ending at London’s Hammersmith Odeon on October 8. Before those were three European dates in Hamburg, Düsseldorf and Amsterdam. The support act was Faster Pussycat, a rival band from LA, whose singer Taime Downe ran the famous Hollywood rock club the Cathouse, where Guns N’ Roses would sometimes play and hang out. But there was no love between the two bands. As Slash saw it, Faster Pussycat were no better than Poison. “They were,” he said, “the kind of people we tried to avoid.”

In Hamburg, that animosity came to a head when Faster Pussycat’s drummer, Mark Michals, tagged along with GN’R on a cruise around the Reeperbahn – the heart of the city’s red-light district. When they all returned to their hotel, drunk and stoned, Michals passed out in Duff McKagan’s bed. He was promptly bound head to toe in gaffer tape and carried out to the elevator – “squealing like a stuck pig”, as Slash recalled.

When GN’R reached the UK, the Newcastle City Hall show was far from sold out. The same was true at Manchester Apollo on October 6, a show I reviewed for Sounds. The stalls were half-full, the balcony empty. But from the opening song, the punk rock blast of It’s So Easy, it was a brilliant performance, with Axl a mesmeric presence.

Two days later, on their return to London, Guns N’ Roses were triumphant. Playing to a full house at Hammersmith Odeon – the place that had inspired the title of Motörhead’s legendary 1981 live album No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith – was a dream come true. “It was amazing,” Slash said. “The band was really coming into its own. We’d had enough road time then to know what we were doing. The Hammersmith show was explosive. It was just great energy – we’d throw it out at the crowd and they’d throw it right back at us. It couldn’t have happened in a better venue: it’s where Bowie did his final gig as Ziggy Stardust in 1973.” They dedicated Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door to the memory of Todd Crew.

Alan Niven remembers that night at Hammersmith as a moment of vindication. When he became manager of Guns N’ Roses in 1986, he was facing what many in the LA music business considered an impossible task: managing the unmanageable. “[Geffen president] Ed Rosenblatt was about to drop the band,” he says. “And he’d told Tom Zutaut I had three months to make it look viable. But we proved ourselves in Britain. That was the moment when the record company began to take us more seriously. And then MTV blew the album into higher space orbit.”

By early January, Appetite For Destruction had sold a quarter of a million copies in the US; in July it was at No.1 on the Billboard chart. But, as Niven says, “it was in Britain that we first generated a buzz”.

When Guns N’ Roses had first arrived in London, in June 1987, they had everything to prove. Four months later, when they walked off the stage at Hammersmith Odeon, they were unstoppable: the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world.

Paul Elliott

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!”