In the late 80s when Guns N’ Roses became the biggest hard rock band in the world, nobody saw it coming, least of all the band’s lead guitarist. Slash was 22 when GN’R’s debut album Appetite For Destruction was released in 1987. The album went on to sell more than 30 million copies worldwide and become the best-selling debut in US music history. But, as Slash says now: “If somebody had told me it was gonna be this huge record, I’d have laughed in their face.”
Unlike other big rock albums of that year – such as Def Leppard’s Hysteria and Whitesnake’s 1987 – Appetite had a sound that was memorably once described as “rawer than a whore’s thighs”. It had the bludgeoning force of early AC/DC, the decadent air of a drug-sick Aerosmith, the volatile energy of the Sex Pistols and a fuck-you attitude eloquently expressed by foul-mouthed singer Axl Rose.
“We never conformed to anybody else’s expectations or standards or commercial demands or whatever,” Slash says. “No fucking gimmicks. This was just rock’n’roll from the street – boom!”
And on an album that defined Guns N’ Roses as the greatest rock’n’roll band of their generation, no song was more definitive than its opening statement: Welcome To The Jungle.
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It was one of the first songs written by the classic line-up of the group that came together in Los Angeles in June 1985 and made Appetite For Destruction: Rose, Slash, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. When Slash thinks back to ’85, he remembers a time in which they were so close that Slash’s mother let Axl live in a basement room at their home. And it was there that Welcome To The Jungle took shape.
“I had this riff,” Slash recalls, “and I remember playing it for Axl on an acoustic guitar. I said: ‘Check this out.’”
Axl liked what he heard. During the band’s next rehearsal, that basic riff was developed into a fully structured song.
“It was really the first thing we all collaborated on,” Slash says. “And it’s really a combination of everybody’s input.”
The song had a heavy swing to it – a dirty, nasty groove. But there was also a mid-section in which the band pulled back a little, easing the tension. This breakdown was lifted from a song called The Fake, which McKagan had written in 1978 when he was a member of Seattle punk band The Vains.
“I don’t want to say the word ‘bluesy’,” Slash says, “but it had a really cool kind of soulful feel. There was no analysing this stuff – 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 this natural feel that was very cool.”
The title and lyrics came to Axl when he was visiting a friend named Tori near Seattle. Removed from LA, Axl was able to reconnect with the feelings he had on arriving in the city in 1982 as a wide-eyed, 20-year-old escapee of rural Indiana, drawn to the bright lights of Hollywood like so many other dreamers before him. He wrote of the struggle for survival in this place: ‘Ya learn to live like an animal/In the jungle where we play.’ In one line, he alluded to the hedonistic impulses that threatened to derail his band: ‘When you’re high you never ever wanna come down.’
“It was a very telling lyric,” Slash says. “Just the stark honesty of it. If you lived in Los Angeles, and lived 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 finished version of the song – recorded at Rumbo Studios in Canoga Park, and produced by Mike Clink – was electrifying. The whole intro sounds like something bad is about to go down: an ominous quality in Slash’s first, echoing notes and fast descending run; a howl from Axl like the wailing of a police siren. The riff is as mean as a rattlesnake. There’s that cool breakdown – cited by Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire as evidence of a songwriting genius that elevated GN’R far above and beyond the route-one heavy metal of other 80s LA bands such as Mötley Crüe and Poison.
For Slash, the song is testimony to the unique chemistry they had back then. “Welcome To The Jungle has this high-velocity, high-impact, aggressive delivery,” he says, “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.”
Above all, he says, Welcome To The Jungle is the essence of what Guns N’ Roses were. They were, says Slash, “one of the most genuine, straightforward rock’n’roll bands ever to come out”.