In September 1991, with Guns N’ Roses about to release Use Your Illusion I and II, US music magazine Rolling Stone published a cover story on the band titled, ‘Outta Control’. Covering the build-up to the simultaneous issue of these offbeat twins, it began: “It’s late July, and, as usual, Guns N’ Roses are screwing everything up.”
“Will they survive?” the magazine asked. “Do they even want to survive?”
Such a question has always been at the heart of Guns N’ Roses. The band always had a nihilistic disregard for almost everything, but that nihilism was met head-on by an equally grand ambition. Those forces were grating against one another throughout the making of these records.
It’s a reflection of both the era in which they were created and the momentum that Guns N’ Roses had generated that only the same-day release of two double-albums would lend sufficient weight to their importance. It was an end-of-empire event. Like mad dictators, they ordered the building of ever more ornate tributes to themselves even as the earth around them was scorched by the coming revolution.
As Use Your Illusion came out, Geffen were also releasing Nirvana’s Nevermind; the Use Your Illusion records and the vast and doomed, two-year tour that followed would prove the last throes of both band and era. Caught in the middle were the fans, who weren’t even offered a clue as to which one they should buy first.
So with the distance of time, it’s easy to view the Illusion albums as anachronistic symbols of some remarkable years, and they do tell us plenty about those years: they are indulgent, bloated and created by men who weren’t hearing the word ‘no’ too often. And yet they are also unafraid and unapologetic, and they contain some of the best work Guns N’ Roses ever produced. Interestingly, too, they lend perspective to the band’s other major releases: they are with hindsight a clear bridge between Appetite For Destruction and Chinese Democracy. They contain some of the focused fury of the former and plenty of the baroque and strange extravagance of the latter.
But as any Darwinist will tell you, evolution does not travel in a straight line. The earliest songs are not all pithy rockers, the latter tunes are not all monstrous ballads. The roots of the album stretch right back to the beginnings of the group. Don’t Cry is cited by Axl as the first song they ever wrote together.
It appears, along with November Rain, The Garden, Bad Obsession and Back Off Bitch on the Rumbo Tapes, a bootleg of very early demos. That small group of songs is as representative as any on Use Your Illusion. Bitter, raunchy little rockers appear alongside romantic ballads; Izzy Stradlin’s loose and groovy riffs sit with Slash’s heroic piledrivers; Axl’s bleeding heart is visibly on his sleeve one minute and being violently rammed down your throat the next.
Thanks to the internal chemistry that always existed between the founding members, their individual quirks and ticks often complement each other perfectly. When Rose needs a huge and traditional solo from Slash to set off November Rain, he gets one. When Slash needs Axl to scream and spit over scalding little riffs on Don’t Damn Me or Get In The Ring, he does. When Izzy requires some rolling, easy grooves on Pretty Tied Up, Slash and Axl oblige.
And while songs like November Rain, Estranged, Civil War and Coma are almost 10 minutes long, there’s often sustained sections of great inspiration and even charm within their grooves. They are served more poorly by the overblown videos that accompanied them than the ambition at their heart./o:p