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

20. Breakdown (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

One of the really deep cuts from Use Your Illusion II, Breakdown is also one of Axl’s most underrated songs, written by him alone, and with a flavour all its own. He’d whistled on the ballad Patience, a huge hit in 1989, and did so again in the intro to Breakdown, in the manner of a milkman doing the rounds. And yet from this nonchalant opening came a song of real depth, based on a piano riff and stretching out over seven minutes as Axl meditated on rebellion, isolation and a love gone bad: ‘Funny how everything was Roses when we held on to the Guns.’ The ending, with Axl reciting a speech from the cult 1971 movie Vanishing Point, is weirdly brilliant. PE

19. 14 Years (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

What Dust N’ Bones was to Use Your Illusion I, so 14 Years was to Use Your Illusion II – the great Izzy Stradlin song that proved he was the rock’n’roll heart of Guns N’ Roses. This one was co-written with Axl, and again, as with Dust N’ Bones, they sing together in the chorus. But really, the vibe in 14 Years is all about Izzy, the way he sings it, and the way his guitar drives the swinging boogie. In contrast to such epic blow-outs as November Rain and Estranged, it’s all so simple, and so effortlessly cool. Izzy went on to make more great stuff like this on his first solo record, Izzy Stradlin And The Ju Ju Hounds – the second-best rock’n’roll album of 1992 after The Black CrowesThe Southern Harmony And Musical Companion. PE

18. There Was A Time (Chinese Democracy, 2008)

There Was A Time is about a relationship gone wrong, although exactly who the song is about remains a mystery. It’s been suggested that Axl wrote it about his turbulent relationship with Stephanie Seymour, while others think certain missives in the lyrics are aimed at Slash (‘There Was A Time’ = ‘T.W.A.T.’). ‘I was the one who gave you everything, the one who took the fall,’ Axl moans. Is he talking about taking the blame for Guns N’ Roses’ implosion? Either way, what’s not in question is that There Was A Time is a top-tier Axl composition. Opening with a choral and orchestral flourish that could have come straight out of a Lion King pre- credits (well, he does love his Elton), the song builds to a stirring crescendo featuring swells of strings, a searing but not too flashy solo, and a mighty yelp from our flame-haired diva, nailing those ‘I would do anyyyyythiiiing for youuuuuuu!’s in fine style. MA

17. Don’t Damn Me (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

Don’t Damn Me is a crucial snapshot of a band defiantly holding their ground. They were banging out a song a day, so naturally some of them are a little undercooked. Aside from a bracing, thrashy riff from Slash halfway through, Don’t Damn Me just sounds like the guitarist absent-mindedly warming up, and Axl’s delivery here can only be described as bitch-slap rappin’. But lyrically this is one of Axl’s most insightful and (gasp!) self-aware moments on either album. Don’t Damn Me is fiercely defiant song about sticking to one’s principles, lines like ‘Your only validation is in living your own life, and vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time’ read like The Ballad of Axl W Rose, Poet Laureate of The Teenage Wasteland, and ‘How can I ever satisfy you?’ is probably the most important line of the dude’s whole career. He’s still trying to answer it. KM

16. My Michelle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

The song that opens Appetite For Destruction’s second side is a seemingly vicious, vituperative take-down of a strung-out Sunset Strip wild child: ‘You stay out late at night and you do your coke for free,’ Axl sneers over a syringe-sharp riff, ‘Driving your friends crazy with your life’s insanity.’ Except that’s not the full story. ‘Michelle’ was Michelle Young, a school friend of Slash and Steven Adler. Young was driving Axl to a gig when Elton John’s Your Song came on the radio. “I said I wished someone would write a beautiful song for me,” she told Spin. The singer obliged, though his original, “sappy” lyrics were ditched for altogether more brutal ones. Young’s dad did work in the porn industry, her mum was dead, and she was a drug user, but Axl sang the song with a weird kind of fondness, no less heartfelt in his own way than Elton had been on the song that inspired it. Young thought so: she’d later called this unlikely tribute “My Song”. DE

15. Locomotive (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

Shacking up with fellow addict Izzy Stradlin in a Hollywood Hills rental proved surprisingly productive for Slash. The heroin-soaked guitarist not only emerged from the stopover with the epic Coma, but also partnered his housemate to write a second marathon number. Led out by a militaristic Sorum drumbeat with all the momentum of the title, Locomotive’s first curve ball was McKagan’s funk-metal bass line, setting up a scritch scratch guitar riff that nodded more to LA’s new breed like Jane’s Addiction than to Slash’s touchstones of the 70s. According to former manager Doug Goldstein, Rose was furious at being sidelined creatively (“I’d get these phone calls from the studio: ‘Have you heard this song Locomotive yet? How the fuck am I supposed to write lyrics to this shit?’”). Yet the singer channelled his frustration into a seething shoot-from-the-lip vocal that nods to the album title: ‘You can use your illusion, let it take you where it may...’ HY

14. Don’t Cry (Use Your Illusion I & II, 1991)

Written by Axl and Izzy during the earliest days of Guns N’ Roses, Don’t Cry was not included on Appetite For Destruction because the band felt that one ballad was enough, and that Sweet Child O’ Mine was better. That decision made sense. Less so the inclusion of two versions of Don’t Cry on Use Your Illusion I and II, especially as these versions were not much different except for the lyrics. But a great song is a great song – in this case, two great songs. And while November Rain was, in every sense, the big ballad on the Illusion albums, Don’t Cry is subtler, darker, and possesses a deep emotional power, and a doozy of a solo from Slash. PE

13. Mr. Brownstone (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

Don’t do drugs, kids. GN’R’s ode to smack goes from glamorous lifestyle documentary to cautionary tale. When Axl threatened to fire the rest of the band on stage at a show in 1989, this was the song he referenced.

Scott Holiday (Rival Sons): “I am a true blue, OG Guns N’ Roses fan. And by that I mean I was a kid when they came out. They hit me and my friends like such a breath of fresh air, which sounds ironic because they were so fucking dirty! And that’s what we liked. Warrant, Poison and Slaughter and these kinds of bands were like the kings of MTV. And then here comes Guns N’ Roses. The first time they played live on MTV... Axl looked like a homeless person. His teeth were just dirty. They just looked real, and I remember standing up in front of the TV and going: ‘Oh my God...’ and feeling all tingly. I thought: ‘I love this band. This connects with my heart. These guys are dirty like the Stones. Izzy over there – that guy is dirty. He looks like Keith Richards. And the dude with the hair – Slash! He’s shredding and he’s not tapping!’ I lived on Appetite, and I think one of the greatest riffs on that record is Mr. Brownstone. It’s incredible, it’s seminal and it’s important. I love that track.” JD

12. Coma (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

While Rocket Queen had hinted that GN’R could handle a long-form finale, Use Your Illusion I’s parting shot went further, sprawling to a prog- worthy 10 minutes, with enough ideas to sustain it. Principally written by Slash “in my heroin delirium”, reality receded and time felt elastic during Coma, which opened with the thump of a defibrilliator and saw Rose’s OD-confessional lyric decorated with phasing effects, bestial growls and background ER babble (“Okay, we’re starting to lose this guy...”). Meanwhile, Coma’s final straight stood amongst Illusion’s finest moments, with one of Slash’s most melodic solos setting up Axl’s rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness-sounding outro, his dying yelp dovetailing with a wail of feedback, before the final coffin nail was banged in by a brutal thump on Sorum’s snare. Performed live only a handful of times before the reunion, for obvious reasons, Coma is all the more exhilarating for being a relative rarity. HY

11. Nightrain (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

There just haven’t been many other debut albums with first sides as strong as Appetite For Destruction’s, and from its cowbell count-in this rough-hewn diamond is one of the highlights on it. The title is drawn from the band’s early love for low-cost, 18 per cent ABV wine Nightrain, which regularly got them loaded like a freight train and flyin’ like an aeroplane. Cool rock lyrics involving ‘rattlesnake suitcases’ and ‘mean machines’ are allied with a perfectly sleazy, low-slung riff, melodic twin- guitar hook and an irresistible chorus.

The song was cobbled together by Slash and Stradlin on the floor of their rehearsal room, with Rose pitching in later. They say success has many fathers, and Kiss’s Paul Stanley claims he suggested the part that should be that (helluva) chorus. But as with all the best GN’R songs there’s something intangible, beyond the music itself, that adds to the atmosphere. Before Stradlin and Slash trade solos (notably free of the post-Van Halenisms of the period), Rose sings ‘I’m on the Nightrain, never to return’, and the line reeks of authenticity. At their best this band conveyed rock’n’roll oblivion and edge with more conviction than any of their LA Strip contemporaries could muster. From theme to delivery, this is peak GN’R in glorious, four-minute-and-28-seconds microcosm. 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.