Guns N' Roses, Metallica and the Greatest Rock Show on Earth

(Image credit: Peter Still \/ Getty)

As with almost everything Metallica have ever done, the idea to tour stadiums with Guns N’ Roses originated with Lars Ulrich. The two bands had first met in 1987, and bonded during Metallica’s five month residency in Los Angeles recording the …And Justice For All album.

Five years on, the phenomenal success of ‘The Black Album’ and Guns’ Use Your Illusion double-set, released just one month apart in 1991, had firmly established the Californian collectives as leaders of their respective genres, and Ulrich envisaged the creation of a historic touring package akin to a Rolling Stones/The Who bill in the 1960s.

The two bands had actually shared a stage before, on the occasion of a birthday party for (now long defunct) US metal magazine RIP. In the early hours of November 10, 1990, Lars Ulrich, Slash, Duff McKagan and guest vocalist Sebastian Bach from Skid Row ambled drunkenly onto the stage of LA’s Hollywood Palladium and introduced themselves as ‘Gak’ – Hollywood slang for cocaine – before launching into a messy version of Guns N’ Roses’ You’re Crazy

The Fucked-Up Four then attempted Metallica’s For Whom The Bell Tolls before Axl Rose took over on vocals for run through Skid Row’s Piece Of Me, and stayed onstage to trade lyrics with Bach on a version of Nazareth’s Hair Of The Dog. This all-star jam session closed out with a shambolic stumble through Metallica’s Whiplash, featuring James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett, at the close of which Axl Rose stage-dived into the crowd.

Such boozy camaraderie counted for little, however, when the two band’s managers sat down in LA restaurant Le Dome in the earliest days of 1992 to thrash out the idea for a joint tour. Guns N’ Roses were adamant that they should close the show each night, a demand to which Metallica happily acquiesced. 

The bands were guaranteed equal time on stage and a 50:50 split of the gate receipts – projected ticket sales suggested a gross of between 1 and 1.8 million dollars per night – and by mutual consent, Faith No More were nominated to open the show, though only after a similar offer to Nirvana had been rebuffed by the Seattle band.

Following a convivial bro-down at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at London’s Wembley Stadium in April, on May 12, Lars Ulrich and Slash co-hosted a press conference at the Gaslight in Hollywood to announce the tour, which Ulrich revealed, would kick off in Washington DC’s RFK stadium on July 17, and close, on October 6, at the Kingdome in Seattle.

“I’ve always wanted to play with these guys, ever since we met them in 1987,” said hype man Ulrich. “I’m the one who had all the late night conversations with the various members of Guns. 

Back in ’87, we were the bigger band, then they became the biggest band in the universe. Now, in the hard rock scene of 1992, we’re the two biggest bands. Taking the two biggest bands from one genre of music and putting them together is unprecedented.”

When it came time to unveil posters for the tour, the strapline above the two band names told its own story: it read ‘They Said It Would Never Happen’.

Anticipation for what lay ahead was sky high when the package rolled in to the nation’s capital. Metallica took to the stage as the sun dipped behind the Washington Monument, kicking off their set with Ride The Lightning-era favourite Creeping Death, and airing no fewer than four songs from their hugely successful self-titled album before closing out their main set with Kill ‘Em All’s Whiplash

The quartet returned to the stage to conduct stadium-wide singalongs on Nothing Else Matters and Enter Sandman, exhumed a couple of classic covers – their take on Misfits’ Last Caress and Diamond Head’s Am I Evil? – then rounded off the evening with thrasher Damage Inc. and explosive anti-war anthem One.

“Metallica seems fully aware that this tour presents a marvellous opportunity,’ wrote Los Angeles Daily News reviewer Bruce Britt afterwards. “In a performance that could only be compared to Attila the Hun’s tour of Mongolia, Metallica storm-trooped its way into the hearts of the crowd.”

Almost two hours separated the closing notes of One and the familiar introductory riff of Guns N’ Roses’ set opener It’s So Easy – two hours in which an increasingly drunken and restless crowd repeatedly cajoled female audience members into exposing their breasts for projection upon the giant screens flanking the stage – and when Axl Rose finally walked onstage energy levels in the crowd had already peaked. 

With Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler now part of Gn’R history, Rose, Slash and Duff McKagan now stood at the core of an expanded thirteen piece touring band featuring three backing vocalists and a three piece horn section. 

At their best, the new look Guns possessed the cocksure swagger of the mid ‘70s Stones - whose Wild Horses was co-opted as one of three covers (alongside Wings’ Live And Let Die and the second Misfits’ song of the night, Attitude) in the opening hour of the set – but with Rose, Slash and drummer Matt Sorum all granted indulgent solo instrumental showcases in hour two, momentum slowed painfully. Each time Axl pleaded with the crowd to “Wake the fuck up!” his words echoed off increasing numbers of empty, up-turned seats. 

To neutrals, it was all too evident who’d walked away with the honours on the two heavweight’s first bruising encounter, with reviewer Britt cautioning “If Guns N’ Roses isn’t careful, this tour could sound the band’s death knell.”

In truth, the drama was only just beginning…

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.