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

40. Back Off Bitch (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

Back Off Bitch represented revenge served cold: the song had been written by Rose in the early 80s and was a staple of GN’R’s early club sets. But the take recorded for Use Your Illusion I found the singer spitting the lyric like his wounds were fresh (“I’ve found out I’ve had a lot of hatred for women,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 1992). Set up by the meanest of descending licks and the singer’s macabre chuckle, the track remains an outlaw classic, even if Slash admitted in 2018 that the gang-chanted chorus has grown more problematic: “Some of the songs were sort of sexist in their own way, but not to be taken that seriously.” HY

39. Reckless Life (Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP, 1986)

“Hey fuckers! Suck on Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses!” As far as first impressions go, Slash’s slurred introduction to the opening track on his band’s live-in-the-studio debut EP is a doozy. A turbo-charged update of an old song dating back to Rose and Stradlin’s pre-GN’R band Hollywood Rose, Reckless Life wasn’t so much a song as a manifesto: ‘I lead a reckless life, and I don’t need your advice,’ Axl snarled, fangs dripping with venom, over a racket that was equal parts Aerosmith, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. GN’R may have been deep in the gutter, but they had their eyes on the stars even then. DE

38. Live And Let Die (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

Wings’ all-time classic James Bond theme gets the never-knowingly-understated Axl Rose treatment in this epic blowout.

Luke Spiller (The Struts): “Guns’ cover of Live And Let Die is pretty undeniable. It’s taken from an album where the band were at the height of their powers and were not afraid to be completely self-indulgent, and this song is a testament to that. Not only is it a ballsy statement to cover anything by Paul McCartney (or The Beatles), but to actually nail it and give it a new edge is a real triumph.

"It’s so trashy but yet so big and intentional at the same time. I’ll never forget seeing the video to this song when I was just a kid, and being blown away by the look and sound of the band.

“I feel McCartney is mainly appreciated for his musical legacy, but not necessarily his vocal delivery. Axl is one of the very few people that could ever tackle a vocal like this, and he does it with such ease and finesse. Listen to this now as loud as possible and tell me it isn’t brilliant.”

37. Ain’t It Fun (The Spaghetti Incident?, 1994)

The Spaghetti Incident? is GN’R’s love letter to their punk influences. Here they enlisted another inspiration, Hanoi Rocks’ Michael Monroe, to pay tribute to US hooligans Dead Boys and their late singer Stiv Bators.

Michael Monroe: “I first met Axl when he happened to stop by the video shoot for my song Dead, Jail Or Rock’N’Roll [1989] in Midtown Manhattan. He came up and introduced himself and turned out to be a really nice guy, so we got along great. Guns N’ Roses always acknowledged that Hanoi Rocks had influenced them. Axl told me that Izzy used to tell him: ‘Do your hair like Michael Monroe.’ I saw a little bit of that in some of their early photos and the Welcome To The Jungle video, but Axl has always had his own unique style. “Axl mentioned to me on the phone that he was not that familiar with the Dead Boys material, so I made him a tape of their first two albums. I gave it to him when I got to LA for the Use Your Illusion sessions [Monroe appeared on the song Bad Obsession]. We were driving around Hollywood in Axl’s car, listening to that tape, and when Ain’t It Fun came on, Axl said: ‘Wow, this a great song! We’ve gotta record this for our covers album. We’ll do it as a duet, you and me.’ He immediately called Slash and said let’s get the band together, we’re covering this Dead Boys song...

“The recording of the song was magical. Stiv [Bators, Dead Boys frontman, who died in 1990] was definitely there in spirit. When Stiv and me used to record vocals in the studio, Stiv had this ritual in which he placed a bunch of burning candles in a circle around me and had me sing the vocal inside the ‘protective’ circle . So me and Axl collected all the candles we could find in the studio and made a circle of them around us. We were placed facing each other. Then we lit up the candles and sang the song face to face. In some parts Axl even sounds just like Stiv. I remember thinking that they had the same kind of voodoo.

“I didn’t ask for money for doing Ain’t It Fun. So many people saw dollar signs and got greedy when it came to Guns N’ Roses, which I found quite obnoxious. All I asked was to have ‘In memory of Stiv Bators’ in the album credits and to spell my name right. Axl replied: ‘Yes, of course!’ I was so happy that I was able to do this for my late, dear friend, and to raise awareness of Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys. Now millions of their fans could see Stiv’s name and hopefully find out more about him.” DE

36. If The World (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

Layering flourishes of flamenco guitar, hazy strings, a funky drum beat, crunching, metallic riffs and dubby bass lines in the first 90 seconds alone, If The World is a typically stuffed Chinese Democracy cut, yet it’s all engaging and oddly charming enough that it works. Rose’s lyrics dabble in classically bittersweet romantic fare as he croons and cries his way through a song that climaxes in a woozy, dreamy guitar solo amid bursts of orchestral pomp. It’s immediately overshadowed by There Was A Time (more on that later), but If The World is an impressive composition all the same. MA

35. Absurd (Single, 2021)

The first new Guns N’ Roses song in 13 years was nothing of the sort. In a previous life, Absurd was called Silkworm. Written and recorded for Chinese Democracy, and even played live under its original name, this distorted electo-metal hand grenade of a song bore testament to Axl’s love of industrial music – so much so that it was deemed too far out to be included on the album. It was mothballed until the pandemic, when Slash and Duff McKagan re-recorded the guitar and bass for an updated version. Rose’s vivid, bad-trip lyrics – ‘Pussy full of maggots, isn’t that absurd?’ – take aim at some unknown antagonist. Even now, it sounds like nothing else they’ve done. DE

34. Dust N’ Bones (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

Izzy Stradlin was the Keith Richards of Guns N’ Roses, the cool rhythm guitarist who sung like he was about to nod out. On the Illusion albums (unlike Appetite), Izzy sang lead on a couple of numbers. Those were his songs, where GN’R sounded more like the Rolling Stones: less hard rock, more rock’n’roll. Dust N’ Bones, the second track on Use Your Illusion I, followed the manic Right Next Door To Hell with a mean swagger. Izzy’s delivery was perfect as he drawled nonchalantly: ‘She loved him yesterday, he laid her sister/She said okay, and that’s all right.’ And in the parts where Axl sang with him, snarling about ‘cold’ women, it’s as sleazy as Guns N’ Roses ever sounded. PE

33. Dead Horse (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

There’s a pervasive narrative out there about grunge’s casual nihilism killing off the party-hearty decadence of the glam era. Except GN’R were way ahead of the game when it came to casual nihilism, as evidenced by Dead Horse’s biting opening line: ‘Sick of this life, not that you care’. Written entirely by Axl, Dead Horse opens with a minute-long acoustic intro before exploding into one of Illusion’s more hard-driving songs. At their best, GN’R sounded like the New York Dolls with a hundred million dollars in their pocket. This was one of those times. KM

32. You’re Crazy (Appetite For Destruction, 1987 / GN’R Lies, 1988)

Axl berates an ex- for being completely fucking bonkers (pot, kettle?!) The song was later reworked in acoustic fashion on GN’R Lies.

Josh Todd (Buckcherry): “You know what? I like the acoustic version of You’re Crazy from the Lies record best. I don’t know that this is the truth, but when I hear that acoustic version I feel like it’s the original way they wanted that song to come across. I love the words and the groove, and I think it’s better slowed down like that. It swings, and it’s way nastier because of where he’s singing it. I really love Axl’s low register. That’s probably my favourite GN’R track. I think it’s sick. It’s just so mean. Axl is such an interesting character. He intimidated me, and that’s what I loved about my favourite rock singers: girls wanted to fuck them, and guys wanted to be them. Axl was one of those guys. I just thought: ‘He’s real.’” HY

31. Better (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

Whether you enjoyed Chinese Democracy for what it was, or find its very existence to be nothing less than blasphemous, most fans at least seem to be able to agree on one thing: Better is an absolute banger. Written in the early 00s by Axl and Robin Finck and played live in 2006 and 2007, the song was practically familiar by the time it appeared on the record. Luckily it absolutely slams, riding along on some seriously chunky riffs that Slash brought an extra edge to when playing the song live upon his return to the fold. MA

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.