Steven Adler: How Guns N' Roses made Appetite For Destruction

Guns N' Roses in 1987
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

“The five of us were brothers,” Steven Adler says of the classic Guns N' Roses line-up. “We lived together. We ate together. We fucked together. And Axl and all his lawyers will never be able to take away what we accomplished at that time in our lives. There are millions of musicians, but to get five in a room that can actually make magic happen, that’s rare. We had that on Appetite For Destruction.” 

The drummer believes the legendary debut has aged “like a fine brandy”. True enough. The most dazzling album of its era, Appetite… is the sound of undiluted anarchy: a musical simulation of fighting bikers, fucking strippers and shooting smack that gives a vicarious thrill to armchair hedonists. 

It’s an album built on chemistry – both kinds – and with respect to Matt Sorum (who is arguably the better drummer), the gang mentality never truly recovered from Adler’s 1990 dismissal, when his heroin habit left him too weak to nail Civil War for Use Your Illusion II. Now clean, and having published his memoirs – My Appetite For Destruction: Sex & Drugs & Guns N’ Roses, in 2010 – the drummer bears no grudge. 

“I have wonderful memories of Appetite…,” he says. “Because we just knew. Me, Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy… we all knew where it was gonna take us. We’d go into the booth and listen back, looking at each other, saying: ‘This is gonna be the greatest record ever’. The first time we heard it on the radio, we were like little kids, jumping up and down, screaming, singing along, dancing in a circle.”

Steven Adler in 1987

Steven Adler in 1987 (Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

The backstory of Appetite… is well-known: the band wrote most of the material in a squalid LA headquarters known as the Garden, and began work with producer Mike Clink at Rumbo Recorders in August 1986. The material was graphic and autobiographical, equal parts sex, drugs, porn and poverty. 

“The songs were everything we’d lived though,” says Adler. “They were part of our lives. It was just the five of us, our crazy friends, and all the crazy experiences. You’re living on the streets, you got nothing… Thank God we had strippers! Because strippers make great money, and if you’ve seven or eight of them on your side, that’s a lot of money. They wanted to take care of us rockers…” 

Slash has previously described songs like Mr Brownstone as being written “at the height of our chemical bliss”. When it came to recording, Adler insists they lived a dual existence. “We were young guys, and had nothing but parties and pussy on our minds, but when it came to going in that studio, everybody straightened their ass up. 

"First we work, then we party. I was a big pot smoker, a little alcohol… but heroin around the band during Appetite? I’m telling you, none. Well, not with me personally. Our guitar players, they’d fiddle-faddle every once in a while. But we took it seriously. We’d sleep all afternoon, go record, then go out and party.”

All except Axl: “He’d do his parts by himself. Axl’s a lone wolf. He’s like… I don’t want to say Dracula, but he likes his space. Axl’s vocals are what took the longest, because he’s a perfectionist: some of the vocals, he’d record one word at a time. But most of the songs are first or second take. Sweet Child O’ Mine was first take.” 

Quite a smooth process, then? 

“There was one incident,” recalls Adler. “As a band, we always said we’d never let anyone tell us how to write our music. There was this one part in You’re Crazy… it was originally full-time from beginning to end, but Mike Clink goes: ‘Hey, why don’t you do the verse half-time?’ Thinking that everybody else was gonna jump up and say: ‘Fuck you, don’t tell us what to do!’ I was the only one who jumped up and said it. Everyone else was just looking at me.” 

Ask Adler for a favourite song and he reels off the tracklisting. “Rocket Queen… Nightrain… Welcome To The Jungle… Think About You… Sweet Child O’ MineBrownstone’s a good one. You know what? Every single one. I felt for sure we were gonna have the first album ever that had twelve singles.” 

What did you think of Axl recording himself having sex with a groupie/girlfriend of yours (since revealed to be Adriana Smith) on Rocket Queen

“Oh, that was just an old girlfriend, a stripper,” Adler laughs. “We had, like, eight or nine strippers who were part of our little clan. She just happened to be one I was making out with at the time. But I didn’t mind that Axl fucked her. Of course not. He was doing it for the band. Fuck away!” 

Adler was equally relaxed about royalties, with Axl taking 25 per cent, the other three on 20 per cent, and himself on 15 per cent. 

“It was split perfectly,” he maintains. “The lyrics were Axl’s, so I thought it was only proper for him to make a bit more. Without a fight, I offered it: I said, ‘Dude, you take five per cent of mine; I’ll take 15, you take 25’. Lyrics are important. You drive around in your car, you’re singing the lyrics. But of course, I made a lot of money from Appetite… You can’t sell that many records and not make money.” 

The bonhomie couldn’t last. “Our relationships didn’t change during Appetite…,” he says. “Things only started changing after we’d been on the road, and there was so much drugs and alcohol. We didn’t even have to ask for drugs… All we had to do was think it, and it magically appeared. You just think: ‘I want a big line of coke’ and bing! I was very naïve with heroin. I did it for two months straight, got sick, and the doctor gave me this opiate blocker. I got even sicker, and we had to go in for Civil War, and I could not perform.”

All logic dictates that Appetite… represents the never-to-be-repeated peak of Guns N’ Roses. Adler refuses to accept it. 

“The thing that bothers me is that we didn’t finish what we started – because of me,” he says. “Use Your Illusion would have been bigger and better. If they didn’t have that drummer [Matt Sorum]… He’s like a machine, nobody wants to hear that. You want to hear swing, feel, groove – that’s how I play. I did the demos for Use Your Illusion; we’d play the songs, go to the booth and say: ‘This is gonna be bigger than fuckin’ Appetite…’ 

"And it would’ve been. But because of my fuck-up, we didn’t finish what we started. Years later, we still can’t finish what we started. It means so much to me to do that. 

"Slash and Duff are part of my life again. Izzy is like a gypsy, he just travels the world, but I’ve been trying to get hold of him. More than anything, I want to be part of Axl’s life again. 

"We’re brothers. And what do brothers do? They fight. Just because you don’t like your brother sometimes doesn’t mean you don’t love him."

The original version of this interview appeared in Classic Rock 150, in August 2010.

Henry Yates

Henry Yates has been a freelance journalist since 2002 and written about music for titles including The Guardian, The Telegraph, NME, Classic Rock, Guitarist, Total Guitar and Metal Hammer. He is the author of Walter Trout's official biography, Rescued From Reality, a music pundit on Times Radio and BBC TV, and an interviewer who has spoken to Brian May, Jimmy Page, Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie Wood, Dave Grohl, Marilyn Manson, Kiefer Sutherland and many more.