Guns N’ Roses came screaming outta Hollywood with all the force of a runaway mine cart, but it wasn’t just the band’s rage-filled music that filled column inches and sold records by the million: it was the personalities of the five members. At the front of the pack were singer Axl Rose, as furious as he was ambitious, and guitarist Slash, perhaps the band’s most dominant musical architect. But which musician truly embodies the sprit of the band? We asked two of our writers to fight it out. First up, Malcolm Dome on Axl.
_Axl and Slash at Rock In Rio II, January 15, 1991 _
All of the above can be used to define Guns N’ Roses, but can just as easily be applied to Axl Rose, because he alone embodies the spirit of the band: what made them great, and what ultimately ensured an intense demise.
It was Axl’s lyricism that gave GN’R the edge over everyone towards the terminal end of the 1980s. While the rest of the Gunners had forthright, couldn’t-give-a-shit attitudes, Axl always took it the crucial extra mile. He never needed drugs or booze to fuel the dysfunctional agitation in his mind. This was clear in songs like Welcome To The Jungle, Paradise City, and Sweet Child O’Mine. More than anything, these were about his life, his mental state, his dark psyche.
It was Axl’s remarkable vision that made such songs memorable. Because this wasn’t entertainment, this was reality. When GN’R were dubbed The Most Dangerous Band In The World, it was Axl’s doing. Nobody else. The others had a misbehaving charm, yet were essentially no more or less contentious than any other band in LA. Whereas Axl had a disturbing charisma, a fracturing personality that made the band truly different. This was more than hinted on perhaps the greatest album of the era, but onstage her carried it further. His image, his voice, his dance moves, his antagonism. All of these were not just unmistakable, but unmissable.
It was often said the fate of a GN’R gig rested solely with Axl. If he were in the mood, then the result would be astounding. If he wasn’t, it could be excruciating. Or worse. As his behaviour became increasingly bizarre, the rest of the band didn’t so much accept it as accommodate him. Why? Because they knew he was what made them unique.
GN’R were always going to implode, because it was in Axl’s nature to self-destruct. He had no fear of failure because he had no reticence about success. That’s why he could take years over making Chinese Democracy without caring about losing momentum and spending millions of dollars. Or insist on Use Your Illusion being two double albums released simultaneously. Both ridiculous for any ‘normal’ band, but workaday for GN’R and their cuckooland emperor.
Given Axl’s mental aberrations, he would never have been expected to hold the band together. In fact, he was the one pulling it apart. Leaving things in their currently parlous state.
The spirit of Guns N’ Roses is not only represented by their brief spurt of global dominance, but as much by the subsequent disappointments, disintegration and delusion. You cannot have the blazing triumph of Appetite For Destruction without the icy torpor of Chinese Democracy. People will say GN’R were never the same after Slash left. Absolutely true, but the reason Slash left was because he couldn’t curb Axl, the undoubted spirit of the band.
…and going into bat for Slash, it’s Classic Rock’s resident sleaze grinder, Sleazegrinder
_Slash backstage at The Troubadour in Los Angeles, February 28, 1986 _
This is not about Axl Rose. Well, just about everything is about Axl Rose, at least a little, but he’s not the focal point of my argument. But I would like to recount this anecdote, as a point of clarification: a friend of mine worked as a publicist for a then-prominent indie record label in LA back in the mid 80’s. He told me that he once shared a cab with Axl on the way to a Geffen-sponsored party. The whole ride over, Axl told him about how GN’R were gonna be the biggest rock band of all time and that he, W Axl Rose, would be the biggest rock star on the planet. This was before Appetite was even recorded. Of course he was right, but at that moment, he was just some petulant hayseed from Indiana. I asked my friend if he thought Axl had potential, based solely on their cab ride together. “No,” he said. “I thought he was a fucking maniac.”
Everybody did. And everybody was right. You could argue that Axl’s monomania is what drove the GnR medicine train to the top. You would be wrong (it all fell apart when Izzy split, so you know, do the math), but you can argue that. The one thing you can’t argue is who lays claim to the heart and soul of Guns. Slash does. Slash is Guns N’ Roses. Without him, you’ve got cornrows and Chinese Democracy and guys with fucking buckets on their heads, a screechy circus shitshow with an unhinged man-baby at the helm. Slash woulda never let any of this happen.
Even in their heyday, everything iconic about GN’R was Slash’s doing. The top hat, the corkscrew hair, the whiskey bottle, the screaming solo on Welcome to the Jungle. Slash was the epitome of cool, the one you tried to dress and act like. Slash had a python, Axl did a crab-dance. I mean, no contest. More importantly, Slash’s affiliation for classic rock is what tempered Izzy’s dirty Stones riffs and Duff’s manic punk thump. While his singer aspired to be a Golden God, Slash aspired to be in UFO, or maybe Deep Purple. Slash was the kid listening to FM radio and studying how it all worked. Izzy had Johnny Thunders hair, but Slash could play all of Rory Gallagher’s best riffs. Slash was the grand architect of early GN’R. Unfortunately, he handed the blueprints over to psychotics and pill shovelers, and it quickly unraveled. But for a few good months in ‘87-88, his towering electric frankenstein ran roughshod over everyone else, and it was so good and so right we’re still not over it.
Nothing Slash did post GN’R holds a candle to his old band (again, Where’s Izzy?), but it’s all been cool. Snakepit, Velvet Revolver, whatever. It’s all whiskey and leather pants music. You can dance to it. GN’R without Slash sounds like Nine Inch Nails at best, Queensryche at worst. The crazy thing is, plenty of people have bought into the Axl-is-Gn’R scam. But that’s only because they don’t have a choice in the matter. But what if they did? What if Slash and Izzy and Duff and Stevie-boy all got together and let whoever sing? King Diamond, Miss Guy, just somebody cool. Which show would you go to? Of course, you’d go to see the Slash version. And it would be the best thing ever. And you’d never think about Chinese Democracy ever again.
Last week: who’s the best Van Halen frontman?
Dave Lee Roth: 50.25% Sammy Hagar: 49.75%