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

10. It’s So Easy (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

‘Why don’t you just... fuck off!’ GN’R’s punk roots show on this Appetite rager, inspired by the haters who had it in for Axl even before he became famous.

Ricky Warwick (Black Star Riders/The Almighty): “The first time I heard It’s So Easy I thought: ‘Hang on a minute, have Hanoi Rocks made a new album?’ It had such swagger. It was metal but it was punk rock as well. There was a connection early on because The Almighty’s demos fell into Axl Rose’s hands. He sent a message to our management saying how much he liked it. We played The Cathouse [in LA in 1990], where we met Del James who had been Axl’s tour manager since day one, which strengthened the connection.

“I hung out with them a couple of times on the Use Your Illusion tour, but I didn’t play with GN’R until a 2012 tour when I was with Thin Lizzy. You hear those stories, but I’ve nothing but good things to say about the guy. We were treated brilliantly, and Axl made time to come and hang out with us. There was one great night in Birmingham drinking Jägermeister during which we had a lot of great laughs.” DL

9 Patience (GN’R Lies, 1988)

Like Sweet Child O’ Mine before it, Patience was written by Axl Rose for his future wife Erin Everly, daughter of the Everly Brothers’ Don. Done in a single session, it has the on-the-fly air of a snatched demo. Rose’s mostly reined-in vocal is set to the backdrop of loosely strummed acoustic guitars. Portentously, drummer Steven Adler was sidelined. Slash’s picked solo at 3:25 nods at Mick Taylor’s interjections on the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic Wild Horses. The more strident coda is rounded off by a wailing Rose stretching the word ‘time’ to seven seconds.

Released as a single in April 1989, Patience was a Top 5 US hit. Rose’s and Everly’s union proved less successful. Having met at a party when model Everly was 19, they got married in a Las Vegas chapel on April 28, 1990. Rose filed for divorce after four months, then reconciled with Everly, only to have their marriage annulled in January 1991. “Erin and I treated each other like crap,” he later observed. “We messed up each other’s lives completely.” PR

8. You Could Be Mine (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

Guns N’ Roses were labelled ‘The Most Dangerous Band In The World’, and musically speaking You Could Be Mine might just be the most dangerous they ever sounded. It’s a sneering, antagonistic, edge-of- your-seat rager, packing less-than apologetic lyrics allegedly written in the wake of Izzy Stradlin’s faltering relationship with Angela Nicoletti. ‘When I come home late at night, don’t ask me where I’ve been,” Axl snarls. ‘Just count your stars I’m home again.’

A feminist anthem this ain’t, but it captures the wild and remorseless monster that was GN’R in their earliest years. No surprise, perhaps, given that the song was originally written around the Appetite For Destruction sessions (the ‘bitch slap rappin’’ line famously first appeared inside the Appetite album sleeve). Add to that the fact that the song is inexorably linked to James Cameron’s classic action sequel Terminator 2 thanks to its inclusion in the soundtrack (and Arnie’s brilliant cameo in the track’s promotional video), and you have a perfect slice of early-90s pop culture, wrapped up in one all-time great rocker. MA

7. Civil War (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

Hardly nuanced with its anti-war sentiment, Civil War is nonetheless GN’R’s most finely detailed epic. Born from a riff Slash recycled at soundchecks during the latter stages of the Appetite For Destruction world tour, the band drilled it into shape prior to playing two shows in Australia in December 1988. The recorded version first appeared on the George Harrison-compiled 1990 charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, and was later repurposed to open Use Your Illusion II at a slow burn.

It begins with a sample of Strother Martin’s prisoner governor’s speech to Paul Newman’s titular convict from the 1967 movie masterpiece Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is failure to communicate...”), and has Rose whistling the American Civil War-era folk song When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Rose’s mourning piano and vocal – ‘Look at your young men fighting...’ – is stalked by layered electric guitars.

At 1:19, Slash’s scything guitar and Adler’s drums kick in, with Rose switching to his hellion howl. Civil War ebbs and crests for near five more minutes, beseeching verses, roared choruses. Rose cites the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK and quotes the manifesto of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla army. Slash plays up a storm. The concluding 1:38 breaks down to a rolling piano line and Stones-y riffing, paired with a sampled thunderstorm and yet more whistling from Rose. Adler’s only recorded contribution to the Use Your Illusion albums, this was the last GN’R track he played on. PR

6. Paradise City (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

If Welcome To The Jungle presented LA as a dog-eat-dog gladiatorial arena, its Appetite For Destruction counterpart flipped the script. Here, the City Of Angels is an aspirational fantasy playground for down-on-their-luck rockers dreaming of green grass and pretty girls. Rarely has debauchery sounded so damn Californian.

Billy Duffy (The Cult): “Paradise City has it all! From the moment I got turned away from a sold-out Marquee club in London, for a band I’d not heard of but had been encouraged to see by my partner in crime, to having them as special guests on a Cult American tour in 1987, to special-guesting for them a few times once they had become a huge band, one thing remained constant: Guns N’ Roses have always been totally and utterly authentic, the real deal. A true legendary American rock’n’roll band from that great lineage – as real off stage as on it. They lived it as they played it out on stage. Even if they had not remained friends to this day I’d have always had the greatest respect for these guys and always will.” DE

5. Rocket Queen (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

The last track on Appetite For Destruction is essentially two killer songs for the price of one. The first is a blast of snake-hipped rock’n’roll with an uncharacteristically funky undercurrent (Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante claimed Axl told him Guns were trying to copy his own band). The second is an escalating, heartfelt tribute to the Rocket Queen of the title: Axl’s friend Barbi Von Greif, who by all accounts acted as a one-woman support system through some tough time. But it’s the bit that joins the two parts that sealed Rocket Queen’s notoriety. The groans and squeals that erupt as Slash peals off a fluid solo aren’t staged; Axl persuaded one of the band’s friends, Adriana Dawn Smith, to have full sex with him in the recording booth while the tape rolled (the fact that Smith was Steven Adler’s fiancée didn’t seem to trouble him). “Apparently there was three and a half hours of audio on the reel-to-reel,” Smith told Classic Rock in 2007, adding that she “directed” the coitus. The greatest debut album of the decade had got the climax it deserved. DE

4. November Rain (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)

November Rain was Axl Rose’s magnum opus – a song he sat on for five years, waiting for the right moment to unleash it on an unsuspecting public. When it did emerge, as the centrepiece of Use Your Illusion I, this grandiose, six-tier wedding cake of a song was simultaneously admired as a mark of the singer’s ambition and ridiculed as a testament to his supposed hubris.

Axl said he was inspired to write it after seeing Tommy Lee play on Mötley Crüe’s 1985 hit Home Sweet Home. Guns recorded a 10-minute solo-piano demo with producer Manny Charlton in 1986, which sounds remarkably close to the finished article (“That one’s for the second album,” Axl told Charlton – accurately, as it turned out). The song’s lyrics were based on a short story about a man who loses his girlfriend to suicide, written by the singer’s buddy Del James.

The finished track, clocking in at an emotional eight minutes and 57 seconds, was a behemoth, nodding to both Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding by Axl’s idol Elton John and, in its glorious coda, Derek And The Dominos’ Layla. The track, and its $1.5 million video, was so shamelessly opulent and over-the-top that even the corrosive cynicism of grunge couldn’t hole it beneath the waterline. But it also highlighted the gulf that had opened up between Axl and his bandmates in terms of what GN’R had been and what they could be. November Rain may have been written about the death of a relationship, but it sounded the death knell for the original incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. DE

3. Estranged (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)

It’s no coincidence that the best songs on both Use Your Illusion albums are their longest. Axl Rose was always way more complex than your average Sunset Strip hair farmer, and he pours all that complexity into Estranged, a rushing torrent of emotion that’s not just the best Illusion track but also a high-water mark of GN’R’s entire post-Appetite career.

This is Axl’s song all the way, addressing his turbulent, violent marriage to Erin Everley. “I wrote the song basically about who I am and how I feel, the break up of my marriage with Erin and how I didn’t want it to die,” the singer said. “But also apply it to a lot of other situations or friendships where you knew it had to end.”

At nine minutes and 23 seconds it’s half a minute longer than November Rain. But where the latter song stuffs in as much drama as it can until it’s close to exploding, Estranged ebbs and flows, shifting from stark piano parts to incandescent guitar eruptions that gives it a perpetual forward motion. And it features Axl’s finest vocal performance: when he sings plaintively: ‘I jumped into the river too many times to make it home/I’m out here on my own, drifting all alone,’ you’re there with him all the way. Estranged is more than just a snapshot of Guns N’ Roses at that point: it offered a taste of what they could have become. That wasn’t to be, of course – it would be another 17 years before a new GN’R album materialised, by which time everyone but Axl was gone. DE

2. Sweet Child O’ Mine (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

The breakthrough song that turned Guns N’ Roses into the most successful band of their generation; a bad-boys-with-broken-hearts ballad built on an immortal Slash riff and Axl’s coiled-cobra charisma.

Axl said Sweet Child... was “the first positive love song I’d ever written”, although Slash initially dismissed it as “a joke”. The ‘Where do we go now?’ coda was reportedly suggested by Spencer Proffer, producer of the band’s pre-Appetite demo. Ultimately, its ungainly birth didn’t matter. Sweet Child O’ Mine is the song that took GN’R to the masses.

Megan Lovell (Larkin Poe): “I have such distinct memories of being four or five years old and rolling around our family’s mini- van to Sweet Child O’ Mine. It was always on the radio all the time. That riff is so iconic – it sticks in your memory. It’s a massive ear worm.”

Rebecca Lovell (Larkin Poe): “One of the great things about that song is that it has so many segments. You have the main riff, which is a ballsy move in a ballad to begin with, then you have these vocal sections which are so pop and relatable, then it goes into this kind of Santana section, with these South American-style vibes.”

Megan: “Axl Rose is definitely #goals in a lot of ways in terms of being a frontman. I love the way he would just fling himself into his performances. You knew you were signing up to get a very edgy experience when you went to see them live.”

Rebecca: “My husband’s band [Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown] have supported Guns N’ Roses a lot over the last five years, and I’ve got to meet Axl and Slash a couple of times. They’re really lovely guys. I was really surprised at how chill Axl Rose is in real life.” DE

1. Welcome To The Jungle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)

One of the greatest album openers ever, Welcome To The Jungle compresses Guns N’ Roses’ entire essence into one ferocious four-minute mission statement. Danger, sex, violence, unhinged guitar riffs and siren-screaming vocals, all amid a clash of metal and pop. And that’s just the first verse.

As Slash said in an interview with Guitar Center: “This represents to me probably the first real Guns N’ Roses song, with Izzy, Axl, Duff, Steven and myself. The first real song we wrote together as a band. That was the product of the five of us taking an idea and making it our own. You can almost hear everybody’s input.”

The initial idea was Slash’s. He’d been playing the stuttering intro riff around the house for weeks, and even when he did it on acoustic guitar for Axl one night, the all-hell-breaks-loose energy of it was contagious. They both sensed it could be something special. The riff got fleshed out into a song in a single three-hour session soon after at Nicky Beats Love Palace Studio in Silver Lake in Los Angeles.

“There was no analyzing this stuff,” Slash said. “Writing a song was something that happened spontaneously. But in that whole discovering-ourselves period from eighty-five through eighty-six, when we were living very haphazardly and getting together and jamming, there was something going on that not a lot of people had. And this song just had that natural feel that was very cool.”

The band navigated the deceptively complex arrangement, snaking through verse and chorus, while the middle breakdown section – which Slash said had a “bluesy, soulful feel” – was borrowed from The Fake, a song that Duff McKagan had written in 1978, when he was a member of Seattle punk band The Vains.

Inspired by the explosive track he was hearing, Axl dived into his a notebook and wrote some vivid memories of a cross-country hitchhiking trip he’d taken a few years before.

“On part of that trip I ended up kind of stranded in the jungle, the Bronx in New York,” he told MTV. “This old black man came up to me and my friend, who were backpacking, and we had like no money, just enough for a couple of Cokes. We’re sitting up on this bridge, and this guy says: ‘Do you know where you are? You’re gonna die. You’re in the jungle, baby!’”

Axl finished the lyrics a week later, while visiting a friend in Seattle, drawing from another memory of when he first arrived in Hollywood in the early 80s, a starry-eyed Indiana kid.

“For young, impressionable musicians who aspired to rock stardom, Hollywood could be as intoxicating as it was for a hot eighteen-year old actress wannabe just off the bus from the Midwest,” Slash said. “And it was a very telling lyric. Just the stark honesty of it. If you lived in Los Angeles, and in the trenches, so to speak, you could relate to it. And knowing Axl, I could relate to exactly where it was coming from.”

The final version of the song, recorded at Rumbo Recorders studios in LA and produced by Mike Clink, maintains the recklessness and electricity of a freshly minted track, with the band locked into a tight, dirty groove, breathing as one five-headed monster.

Welcome To The Jungle is this high-velocity, high-impact, aggressive delivery,” said Slash. “But there were a lot of emotional subtleties in the song that the band really grasped. If Axl went here, the band went with him. I really love that about the band and the music and how it all came together. There was something magical in all of that.”

The second single from Appetite, it reached No.24 in the UK and No.7 in the US. At the time of its release, MTV were afraid to play the video, fearing its raucous visuals might get them dropped from their parent cable system. Finally, to appease the band’s label head David Geffen, the station aired it during the small hours. Their switchboard overloaded, and they soon added it in heavy rotation.

The track has had a long pop-culture afterlife, appearing in many movies, including The Dead Pool (the band make a cameo in the Clint Eastwood film), The Interview and Thor: Love And Thunder, the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas videogame, The Simpsons, a Taco Bell commercial and as the unofficial anthem for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. It remains GN’R’s signature song, a kind of rock identity card that tells us everything about the band.

“We never conformed to anybody else’s expectations or standards or commercial demands or whatever,” Slash said. “No fucking gimmicks. This was rock’n’roll from the street – boom!” BDM 

Ayron Jones: “Welcome To The Jungle, that’s my favourite easily. It’s just hard. It’s just one of their hardest tracks ever, you know? Everything about it. It’s equal parts hard classic rock with elements of, like, pop. You know what I’m trying to say? There’s a little sprinkle of pop on there. Not in the sense of like modern pop, but like [sings] ‘nananananana-knees!’ That’s really poppy shit, you know? That’s why I like that song so much. I love that song. Have I played it? No! I’m not touching Guns N’ Roses. All that shit’s hard, man! One of these days I would love to jam with Duff and Guns, though. If I ever get the opportunity to, on one of their tracks, that’d be cool.

“Me and Duff are friends. I hung out with him and Slash backstage when we did Hellfest together. The next morning we hung out in his hotel room, we just chatted. And that’s another one of those cats I know I can call if I’m going through a hard time, and trying to figure out how to handle all this. You know, that guy’s really been through it.”

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.