The 50 greatest Guns N’ Roses songs ever, and the stories behind them

Guns N' Roses at the UIC Pavillion in Chicago, Illinois, August 21, 1987.
(Image credit: Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Earlier in the year, we asked you via our website and social media what you thought Guns N’ Roses’ greatest song was. This list, which featured in issue 315 of Classic Rock, is a celebration of those choices, with a crack team of Classic Rock writers and editors plus guest contributors including Alice Cooper, Ayron Jones, Michael Monroe, Larkin Poe, The Cult and more guiding you through the 50 best tracks by the world’s most dangerous band. With fans still reeling from Axl & co.’s triumphant Glastonbury and Hyde Park shows, there’s no better time to salute the song’s that define them. 

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50. Shadow Of Your Love (Single B-side, 1987)

Written by Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin during their Hollywood Rose days, along with Rose’s friend and Stradlin’s future sometime replacement in GN’R Paul Tobias, this is the fastest song in the GN’R canon. Originally slated for the Live ?!*@ Suicide EP (hence the faux crowd noise mixed onto the track) and introduced by Rose’s ‘1-2-3-4’ count-off, it proceeds over a breakneck 3:05. Rose claimed Thin Lizzy as its influence, but really Shadow Of Your Love owes a much greater debt to Motörhead. In fact Slash’s bottleneck-guitar contortions recall ex-Lizzy man Brian Robertson’s standout contributions to his solitary album with Lemmy’s troops, 1983’s Another Perfect Day. PR

49. You Ain’t The First (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

Guns’ hit the back porch with this whisky-soaked shit kicker.

Corey Taylor (Slipknot/Stone Sour): “I know a lot of people – including myself – have huge issues with the Use Your Illusion albums. To me, had they trimmed the fat and consolidated it into twelve or fourteen songs, it would have been bulletproof. But there’s just something about this song that makes it so good to listen to – like you can practically hear the booze in the air. When you put it on, you don’t have to get warmed up to hit any of the good notes and you don’t have to know all the words – it’s a huge ‘fuck you’ to the chick that stormed out and ruined your life. To me it was a great middle ground between GN’R Lies and Use Your Illusion. You can just hear they’re just hanging out – you can practically smell the smoke in the room. As a kid, that was so fun to hear that it took me out of the rest of the album. There are some great songs across those two albums, but that song in particular, I can just put it on and drive.” RH

48. Oh My God (End Of Days OST, 1999)

The GN’R that recorded this rattling slab of distorto-metal from the soundtrack to reviled Arnold Schwarzenegger movie End Of Days was unrecognisable, musically and physically, from the band that had dominated the first half of the 1990s. Slash, Duff and Izzy were gone, leaving Axl lord of all he surveyed. It was probably for the best – there’s an unfathomable chasm between Appetite For Destruction and Oh My God. The first original Guns song in eight years, it was a shock to the system at the time but it’s aged well, even if the presence of four (!) guitarists – NIN’s Robin Finck, Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro, ex-Circus Of Power man Gary Sunshine and Paul Tobias – pointed towards the overkill that would define the reconfigured Guns N’ Roses. DE

47. Catcher In The Rye (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

This intelligent, insistently melodic song opens with mellow electric guitars and piano, and Axl Rose vocalising in the reverb-soaked distance. Ahead lay darkly humorous lyrics about madness and violence, Rose drawing on his revulsion for JD Salinger’s titular book, and the pernicious effect Rose thought it could have on weaker-minded souls. Most notorious among these of course was John Lennon’s murderer, Mark Chapman; the song fittingly offers some pleasing, Beatlesy tribute sequences, thick with chiming piano chords and some Hey Jude ‘nah-nah-nah-nah’s. An early version with a nixed guitar solo from Brian May isn’t difficult to unearth online. GM

46. Chinese Democracy (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

Written by Axl after he found himself moved by the final scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama epic Kundun, Chinese Democracy was first played live a whole seven years before its namesake album finally emerged. It’s no Welcome To The Jungle (what the hell is?), but as far as album openers go it’s still a riotous, full-throttle rager, bouncing along for a breathless 4:43 minutes as bursts of noodly solos fly out all over the place. With contributions from two backing vocalists, three keyboard players (including Axl) and no fewer than five guitarists, it also might just be the record’s most collaborative track. MA

45. Move To The City (Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP, 1986)

A track that may as well have been marinated in sleaze, Move To The City repurposed Aerosmith’s Mama Kin to recount the teenaged Axl Rose’s journey from Lafayette, Indiana to Sunset Strip – wailing sirens, rumbling gutter-boogie riff, barely audible horn section and all. Another carry over from their Hollywood Rose days, it surfaced as the third track on the self-released Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP. The crowd noise, overdubbed on to the EP’s tracks to excuse the band’s own amateurish production, was lifted from recordings of the 1978 Texxas Jam festival, headlined by none other than a zonked-out Aerosmith and with Ted Nugent and Van Halen also on the bill. PR

44. Shackler’s Revenge (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

The first official Chinese Democracy release, owing to its inclusion in the videogame Rock Band 2, Shackler’s Revenge received a lukewarm reception upon arrival. For many, its Nine Inch Nails-goes-glam-metal stylings felt at least a decade out of step with the rock scene at the time, while its unenviable standing as the first proper preview of a Slash and Duff-less Guns record had old-school fans turned off even before pressing ‘Play’. Which is a shame, because on its own merit Shackler’s Revenge is a fun ride, despite some weighty subject matter owing to the song’s lyrics tackling America’s school shooting epidemic. MA

43. I.R.S. (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

Axl was talking about I.R.S. as far back as 2000, when he broke cover to give a rare interview to Rolling Stone magazine, and an early version was leaked three years later via New York Mets player Mike Piazza. That title might nod to the Inland Revenue Service, but I.R.S. – a mercurial mix of woe-is-me ruefulness and venomous defiance set to music that slips from stripped-down restraint to punk-metal howl – was reputedly inspired by the barrage of lawsuits Axl faced in the 90s, not least from former wife Erin Everly and ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour. ‘Read it, baby, with your morning news/With the sweet hangover and the headlines, too,’ sneered the singer, proving no one does ‘spiteful’ quite like him. DE

42. Right Next Door To Hell (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

GN’R needed a banger to open the first volume of their simultaneously released third and fourth albums, and this throbbing punk rocker about hard times and bad people more than fitted the bill. Coming in on Duff McKagan’s trademark chorused bass, a guitar riff that’s a close cousin of Appetite For Destruction-era album cut Mr. Brownstone and a born-to-do-it beat from new drummer Matt Sorum, Right Next Door To Hell was a co-write between Rose, Stradlin and their mate Timo Caltia, a Finnish songwriter, who supplied the chorus tune. The title alludes to Rose’s 1990 fracas with a female neighbour at his luxury condominium block, after which he was arrested and then quickly released. He promptly gave away the apartment in an MTV contest, as you do. GM

41. Madagascar (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

Grandiose and ambitious, Madagascar sees Rose in fine, gravelly voice and on familiar lyrical ground, vulnerable yet defiant in the face of ostracism. Musically, though, this is a development from earlier GN’R. A co-write with keyboard player Chris Pitman, and with orchestrations by Marco Beltrami, it opens with French horns, an insistent string motif, then progresses on a mid-tempo, almost trip-hop groove. It kicks up another notch when the big Stairway To Heaven-style guitar riff slams in, and the scale is amped up again with audio clips of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and dialogue from bleak ‘outsider’ movies, Vietnam war flick Casualties Of War and serial killer thriller Seven among them. GM

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.