Metal Detector: Guns N' Roses

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They used to be referred to as ‘The Most Dangerous Band In The World’. After a career that spanned 21years and yet offered up only three and a half albums worth of original material, Guns N’ Roses were seen as nothing more than a shambles. But it was once very different...

Arriving at a time when blandola dance and pop dominated the charts, Guns N’ Roses were like a whirlwind of thrilling, drug-fuelled orgiastic hedonism when they first came to prominence. That was in 1987, with the release of Appetite For Destruction, arguably one of the greatest debut albums – if not one of the greatest rock albums of all time. Before that it was a tale of banding together against the odds. Slash auditioned for Poison and an early version of GN’R and childhood friends Izzy and Axl were in an early LA Guns. Together they were Guns N’ Roses.

They stuck to their guns though, got their chance on Sunset Strip, and grabbed it. 1986’s Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide caught the attention of UK mags such as Metal Hammer. They played three celebrated shows at London’s Marquee in June 87, and toured with Faster Pussycat, headlining at Hammersmith Odeon in October 1987. Taut, lean and muscular, full of angry hedonistic anthems one minute, capable of stunning sensitivity the next, it was a huge hit which, after single Sweet Child O’Mine took off, set them in stone.

Capable of incendiary live shows, these five young rock brats really did walk it like they talked it. Tales of debauchery abounded, and those close enough to them knew it wasn’t just hype. They were the new saviours of metal, touring with Aerosmith and Mötley Crüe.

The first signs things might go awry came with the release of GN’R Lies, with the much misunderstood One In A Million. Then drummer Steven Adler was fired for, amazingly, taking too many drugs, and then the long-awaited follow-up to Appetite…, Use Your Illusion arrived as two separate volumes, hinting at overblown and indulgent ideas. Guitarist Stradlin left (replaced by Gilby Clarke), and a tour with Metallica portrayed the band as an unpredictable controversy machine.

1993’s punk covers album The Spaghetti Incident was slapdash at best and hardly the thing to keep the band’s glam/trad-metal flag flying high in the face of the Nirvana onslaught. Axl Rose’s temper tantrums tested the patience of audiences and critics the world over. None more so, though, than his fellow band members. One by one they all departed to work on a myriad of solo projects, leaving the reclusive Rose to surround himself with a series of no-marks and sessioneers.

The arrival of Velvet Revolver, with drummer Matt Sorum alongside Slash and Duff, was the closest anyone had got to a full-on Guns reunion, but the rumour mill was working overtime. Your guess was as good as ours as to whether we’d see anything at all, and if we did, anything remotely interesting. Axl Rose is a man for whom time, it seems, must wait. See how long you waited for him to deign to appear on stage at Download. And how long for the Chinese Democracy album to appear?

To think this man once sang, “All we need is a little patience”!

Laugh? Not really, no.

MUST HAVE Appetite For Destruction Geffen, 1987

This is the album that made Guns N’ Roses. It helped shape the rock landscape we see before us today. And it gave us the band who in one fell swoop redefined what rock’n’roll was all about in the days pre-Nirvana. A streetwise hurricane of equal parts Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Aerosmith, the members’ love of Hanoi Rocks gave them a glam dash, but underneath lurked a ferile hunger that was simply dangerous. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll: that’s what the Guns N’ Roses who recorded Appetite For Destruction were made of. The press may have given them the accolade “the most dangerous band in the world”, but these five angry young men with a passion for their music walked it like they talked it.

Immediately courting controversy when MTV complained about the sleeve – artist Robert Williams’ own Appetite For Destruction depicting a robot rapist about to meet a suitably metallic end, replaced with an image of a cross and five skulls representing the five band members – Appetite… is very successful because it is very real. The bitterness and hatred for their own environment that can be found on the likes of the smack-addled Mr. Brownstone (‘I get up about seven/get out of bed around nine’), the plea for something better in Paradise City (‘Captain America’s been torn apart/he’s a court jester with a broken heart’) and the bleak paranoia of Out To Get Me is all real. But imbued with an innate sense of musical perspective and bonded almost by blood (in the case of the band’s drug users), this is rock’n’roll at its purest and most effective.

It wasn’t just the stark reality, though. These five young men knew how to pen a killer rock tune, and better still, deliver them on stage with fearsome intent. The juddering carrion-cry of opener Welcome To The Jungle, the simplistic It’s So Easy and the pile-driving Rocket Queen, these are all from the top drawer of hard-rock songwriting. And yet in the massive hit Sweet Child O’Mine Axl displays an unerring sensitive side that would further surface later. All five musicians are on top of their game, delivering with venomous aplomb. A dirty, frightening but undeniably great hard rock album with the bittersweet allure and terrifying sting that was much the same as the heroin the band pumped into their veins. And it was just as addictive, too.

SILVER MEDAL Use Your Illusion II Geffen, 1991

Released simultaneously with Use Your Illusion I in September 1991, the second of the two releases (the blue and purple one – no laughing at the back, please) might not have rocked as hard, but its variety proved it had its very own spicy life. If the first disc showed a band ripping apart between what they were best at (bluesy hard rock) and what their singer wanted (Elton John meets Queen – please, stop laughing at the back), here they seemed settled. True, Civil War and Estranged champ at the epic bit, but You Could Be Mine and Pretty Tied Up are two of the best rockers from both records. Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door misfired in the studio (it never did live) and Get In The Ring was the sound of a grown man throwing his toys out of his pram. And listen to Axl’s freakshow closer My World and tell us that you can’t hear a man starting to go ‘Wibble, wibble, wobble.’ This album certainly had its moments.

Policemen and niggers, that’s right, get out of my way,’ sang Axl on One In A Million, one of four acoustic tracks on this mini-album stopgap between the first two albums. The simpering Patience might have been the big hit, but it was this song that grabbed the headlines. The simmering rage and paranoia that lay beneath the surface of many of the songs on Appetite For Destruction exploded full-force on this one song, attracting the kind of headlines most bands wouldn’t want, but that would become increasingly the norm for GN’R. One whole side featured the live tracks from the now rare Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, including wild covers of Rose Tattoo’s Nice Boys and Aerosmith’s Mama Kin. The acoustic side showed another fine side to the band, but alas on One In A Million Axl went closest to the knuckle. Were these his thoughts or the words of a character who bore a relation to the boy he used to be? You decide.

WILD CARD Use Your illusion I Geffen, 1991

By their release in September 1991, both volumes of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion had become the most anticipated follow-up to a debut that our fuddled old minds can recall. And typical of being the biggest band in the world, Guns N’ Roses went for it in a major way. Some might say too much, for the overblown nature of Use Your Illusion went some way to alienating people against the band (not difficult in Rose’s case). It’s true that from both volumes one could create a killer album, possibly to rival the debut, but the first of the two volumes (the red and yellow one) highlighted all that was wrong with the band that would eventually split them. The low-slung rockers of Slash and Izzy are at odds with the extravagant ideas of Axl, who saw himself as a cross between Queen and Elton John. The video for November Rain anyone? An occasional success, but all too often a failure.

THE RARITY Live ?!*@ LIke A Suicide, Uzi Suicide, 1986

Although it’s the 18 million-selling Appetite For Destruction that most people will say is Guns N’ Roses’ debut, in the strictest sense of the word that accolade should really go to the four-track live mini-album the band released on their own Uzi Suicide label in December 1986. Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide might have hinted in title at the tastelessness that would later attract the wrong kind of headlines, but in the grooves of its four tracks lay the bare bones of the band’s raw appeal that attracted the attention of rock writers the world over. Now a rarity, the tracks, covers of Rose Tattoo’s Nice Boys and Aerosmith’s Mama Kin and the band’s own Move To The City and Reckless Life are today available on Lies. Axl has even gone on record to state these are studio recordings with crowd dubbed on, but find one on eBay and see what the price tells you.

AVOID! The Spaghetti Incident? Geffen, 1993

If it was a joke it wasn’t very funny. But then Guns N’ Roses have rarely been that. More likely it was intended to display the fact that Guns N’ Roses were actually a punk band in the face of Nirvana’s grunge attack, rather than the Hanoi Rocks-worshipping glam-metallers they really were. It began life as an EP covering things like Iggy & the Stooges’ Raw Power and The Damned’s New Rose, but was expanded to a full-length album with the addition of Nazareth’s decidedly un-punk Hair Of The Dog and The Skyliners’ Since I Don’t Have You. The addition of Charles Manson’s Look At Your Game Girl as an extra track was a similar kind of foot-in-mouth exercise as One In A Million had been. They sound like a bloated arena-rock band remembering some old favourite songs and playing them badly. Appetite For Destruction was more punk than this! Not big, not clever.

FOR FANS ONLY Live Era ‘87-‘93 Geffen, 1999

By 1999 the Guns N’ Roses most people loved and revered were well over. It would be two years before Axl’s new rock’n’roll circus would take to the road, though even then reports of an alleged hair transplant gone wrong for Axl overshadowed any musical achievement by the new-look group. Unfortunately for a band whose live show was once the envy of almost any rock band that shared the planet with them, this, the only official live Guns N’ Roses album to date, fails to deliver in the way the band themselves once could. The main problem is the wide spread of material dates. By 1993 Guns N’ Roses were a pale imitation of the angry, hungry band of 1987, when they ripped the rock world to shreds. You can’t fault the choice of material, right down to the thumping Pretty Tied Up from Use Your Illusion II, but the latter cuts are dull. Still, all the evidence of what might have been is here.

This was published in Metal Hammer issue 153.