In 1991, there was no rock band in the world that was bigger than Guns N’ Roses. And in a year of big rock records – including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pearl Jam’s Ten, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik and The Black Album by Metallica – Axl Rose and the boys had not one but two.
Released simultaneously on September 17, 1991, the twin albums Use Your Illusion I and II featured 30 songs; two and a half hours of music. Ultimately, these two albums could never top what the band had created with their debut Appetite For Destruction – one of the greatest rock’n’roll records of all time. But across them were some of the greatest songs that Guns N’ Roses ever recorded, and some of the worst.
Among those that didn’t make the cut for the Top 10 Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion Songs: the covers of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door and Paul McCartney & Wings’ Live And Let Die; the 10-minute riff-fest Coma; the infamous Get In The Ring, a vehicle for Axl’s beefs with journalists; and My World, his lame attempt at rapping, not just the worst track on the Illusion albums but one of the worst tracks ever recorded by a major rock band.
Here, in ascending order, are the 10 that really matter…
10. Dust N’ Bones
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, he got to sing lead on a couple of numbers, his songs, the ones where the band 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 O.K./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.
One of the really deep cuts – this 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.
8. Double Talkin’ Jive
It’s no easy feat to play the tough guy while dressed in hot pants and a tuxedo jacket while smoking from a fancy cigarette holder, but Axl pulled it off when he sang Double Talkin’ Jive during a televised show in Paris in 1992. It was Izzy’s song, but Axl turned it into a vendetta against Warren Beatty, the actor who had briefly dated Axl’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour.
Axl also expanded the song’s title to Double Talkin’ Jive Motherfucker, adding a little extra emphasis to what was already the most badass thing on the Illusion records. With the band blasting away, Izzy’s voice sounded suitably twisted as he recounted his experiences of being “fucked up and outta place”. The surprise coda – rolling thunder fading into gentle acoustic guitars – only added to the whacked-out vibe.
7. Pretty Tied Up
It was as if Izzy Stradlin had sensed what was coming, such was the prescience in his lyrics to Pretty Tied Up, from the opening line – “The perils of rock’n’roll decadence” – to the wry observation: “Once there was this rock’n’roll band rolling on the streets/Time went by and it became a joke.”
All of this from a guy that had quit drugs, and – tired of the circus around them – was about to quit the band. And while Izzy wrote the words, it was Axl who sang them. But if the subtext was complicated, the song itself was simple. As its title implied, Pretty Tied Up was the true-life story of a girl Izzy knew who worked as a dominatrix. And the band played it just right – down and dirty.
6. 14 Years
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 the epic pieces on these albums, such 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 Crowes’ The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion.
5. You Could Be Mine
It was the perfect set-up for the Illusion albums. The flagship single – also featured in the Hollywood blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day – You Could Be Mine was a flat-out shit-kicker with a killer riff and Axl spitting venom from the off. It was proof that Guns N’ Roses hadn’t lost touch with their roots – not least because it was a song that dated back to 1987.
The credits to Appetite For Destruction had included a line from You Could Be Mine: “With your bitch slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue you get nothin’ done.” And as the first taste from Illusions, it was the song that introduced the band’s new drummer Matt Sorum. He nailed it.
4. November Rain
It was the song that Axl said had to perfect or he would quit making music. Just as his hero Freddie Mercury had created his magnum opus in Bohemian Rhapsody, so Axl put everything he had into November Rain – a grandiose power ballad, complete with full orchestra and a preposterous big-budget video famously satirized by French & Saunders.
Axl had spent years working on the song – it was demoed long before Appetite For Destruction was released. The result was a classic rock ballad, arguably Guns N’ Roses’ biggest song after Sweet Child O’ Mine, a monument to obsession and excess, and for Axl, his own masterpiece.
3. Don’t Cry (Original Version)
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 save 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 better – subtler, darker, with a deep emotional power and a doozy of a solo from Slash.
For all that November Rain represented for Axl, he dug even deeper on Estranged. It was written in the period following the annulment of the singer’s marriage to Erin Everly, who had been the inspiration for Sweet Child O’ Mine. And just as Axl had revealed in Sweet Child O’ Mine a sense of vulnerability at odds with his bad motherfucker image, he really put it all out there in Estranged, right from the opening lines: “When you’re talking to yourself and nobody’s home/You can fool yourself/You came in this world alone.”
At over nine minutes in length, Estranged was as grand in scale as November Rain, and its power came not only from Axl’s words and voice but from what Slash contributed. Although Axl was credited as sole writer, he stated in the credits: “Slash, special thanks for the killer guitar melodies.” The guy in the top hat never played anything more beautiful.
1. Civil War
It is, for Steven Adler, the cruellest of ironies – that the best song on the Illusion albums is the only one that he played on, his last recording with Guns N’ Roses. It was during the making of Civil War, in the summer of 1990, that the drummer was fired from the band. A full-blown heroin addict, Adler had by own admission failed more than thirty takes at the song.
But there was enough in what he played for producer Mike Clink to fashion the finished song, and what the band created in Civil War was unlike anything on Appetite For Destruction – a heavy, brooding, epic anti-war protest song in which Axl mourned American heroes such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Civil War was first released on the 1990 charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, by which time Adler was already gone. He went out on a high – in every sense.
But if this song was the end for Adler, it was for Guns N’ Roses a new beginning. The Most Dangerous Band In The World had found a whole new dimension.