We went to see Guns N’ Roses live in London and this is what happened

The reunited rockers return to London, but do we get the most dangerous band in the world, or a money-making circus?

Axl Rose on stage

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On June 19, 1987, Guns N’ Roses played their very first UK gig in front of 500 people at fabled Soho sweatbox the Marquee. They weren’t calling themselves The Most Dangerous Band In The World yet, but the implication was there. Nor was that gig quite the birth of the legend, but it was a giant step on the way towards the circus that followed.

Thirty years later the circus is back in town. This time around, the cramped confines of the Marquee have been swapped for the giant steel-and-glass pavlova that hosted the 2012 London Olympics, and the crowd is now 60,000 strong.

The years in between have been eventful, in the same way that your average prime-time soap opera or large-scale armed conflict is eventful. There has been off-the-scale success and last-days-of-Rome excess, fights, tantrums, firings, bitchiness, silences, rumours and, ultimately, a reunion that was either surprising or inevitable, depending on just how cynical you’re feeling.

It would be great to find out exactly what the people involved think about how things have unfolded, except they’re not saying anything; Axl, Slash and Duff are keeping themselves away from the media. Which is wise when you consider what’s flowed under the bridge over the years hasn’t been so much water as several gallons of shit.

Unsurprisingly, the warren of identical corridors that loop beneath the Olympic Stadium appear to be a Guns N’ Roses-free zone in the hours leading up to the show – God forbid a stray member of the media actually buttonhole one of them in the corridor. Mind you, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown have opened several shows on this tour, and they’ve barely come across them either. “I’ve seen Slash a few times, and he always says hi,” says Bryant, perched on a leather sofa in The Shakedown’s dressing room, a faceless area with all the rock’n’roll glamour of a dental surgery.

“We’ve not seen Axl that much. I’ve spoken to him maybe once. We talked about how much AC/DC changed our lives. He was a nice guy, but he is kind of an enigma. That’s what you want, right?”

This isn’t Bryant and his band’s first big tour. The Shakedown have previously opened for Aerosmith and the Axl-fronted AC/DC, the latter at the same venue as today. They’re either the luckiest band on the planet or their agent deserves every cent they’re paying him, and more.

“You gotta get out in people’s faces,” says Bryant, a 26-year-old with a mop of black hair and a scrawny charisma. “No one ever made it sitting on their ass.”

Luck and contacts might have played a big part in them being here at the Olympic Stadium for a second time, but they wouldn’t have been asked back if they stank. They don’t. Playing in front of a quarter-full arena can’t be good for the soul, but The Shakedown seem to look on it as a challenge. “Sometimes it’s not easy, sure,” says Bryant. “But then it’s our job to make people listen.”

Tyler Bryant: honest, direct, no-fucks- given rock

Tyler Bryant: honest, direct, no-fucks- given rock

He’s not wrong. Their 30-minute, six-song set is short, to the point and right on the money. Weak And Weepin‘ and House On Fire are unashamed old-school, hard-rock anthems given a shot of youthful energy. A souped-up cover of Muddy Waters’s Mojo Workin’ nods to Bryant’s beginnings as a teen blues prodigy, while Don’t Mind The Blood indicates that their forthcoming second album isn’t going to mess with the formula. It’s honest, direct, heartfelt and does not give a fuck about what’s trendy. The fact that the audience in front of the stage triples during the time they’re playing suggests they’re doing something right.

If Tyler Bryant And The Shakedown are on the way up, then The Kills feel like they’ve already crested. When they started as a duo back during the garage-rock boom of the early 2000s, they had the whiff of a Top Shop White Stripes, but thankfully that faded as the gatekeepers of cool swivelled their laser glare elsewhere.

Ironically they’re not a million miles away in fuck-you spirit from the headliners – or their 1987 incarnation, anyway. But musically they’re fish out of water today. The likes of Kissy Kissy and Black Balloons are better fitted soundtracking an edgy fashion show than a stadium filled with fans of old-school rock, and the group look lost on this huge stage. Even singer Alison Mosshart’s usual megawatt charisma is absent. Maybe she had to leave it behind at the bag check, or maybe they’re just the right band in front of the wrong crowd.

Guns N’ Roses have never been the wrong band in front of the wrong crowd. Even before anyone knew who they were, their reputation preceded them. They were a force of nature and envoys of notoriety, the Rolling Stones retooled for the MTV age. There were plenty like them before, but there’s been very little since.

That includes Guns N’ Roses themselves. It only took a few years for them to transform from feral streets rats into music’s most unseemly soap opera. It’s not that the two Use Your Illusion albums were bad (far from it), or even the pinnacle of hubris (if anyone was going to release two double albums on the same day, it was Guns N’ Roses). But they were the moment when the genie was let out of the bottle.

It’s taken them this long to even come close to getting it back in. Even now there‘s a school of thought that says this latest version of Guns N’ Roses isn’t the real thing – a line-up woth no Izzy Stradlin, no Steven Adler, not even Matt Sorum. Still, even the most ardent cynic has to admit that it’s a better deal than the bootleg GN’R Axl has been taking around the arena circuit for the past 10 years.

Actually, this show is way better than anyone could have anticipated. The hype that has trailed it more than matches anything from the first time around, and tonight they more than match it.

It’s just over 18 months since Axl, Slash and Duff set foot on stage together for the first time since the mid-90s, but that feels like an age ago. Since then their Not In This Lifetime Tour has slowly worked its way through assorted lucrative markets before washing up on these shores, raking in upwards of $230 million and counting along the way.

But this hasn’t just been about the money. Sure, it’s mostly been about the money, but they’ve confounded a few expectations along the way too. For one, there’s the timekeeping. The days of Axl turning up with the milkman are long gone. He’s reportedly been bounding on stage on time at every date on this tour, and tonight is no exception: the tickets say 7.45pm, and that’s when he appears. It almost makes you forgive him for all those long and painful hours he kept us waiting in the old days. Almost.

The other concern was their ability to actually pull this shit off. While Slash has replaced Lemmy as rock’s seemingly ageless deity of choice, Axl is a different matter. Before the tour began, rumours circulated that he was overweight and out of shape, that his voice was shot, that a lifetime of living like a Roman emperor had sapped his rock’n’roll soul. That he’s more buffalo wings than snake-hips.

Who knows if that was the case then, but it’s definitely not now. Even if he wasn’t match fit before, a pair of high-profile outings – subbing for Brian Johnson in AC/DC, followed by this ongoing tour – have whipped him into shape. Sure, the 55-year-old Axl barely resembles his 25-year-old self, but then who does? Apart from Slash.

Tonight there really is no dicking around. From the opening strains of the Looney Tunes theme – who says Axl has no sense of humour? – the band hit the stage running. Quite literally in Rose’s case. The only time the man isn’t in motion is when he’s off stage during one of his nine – count ’em! – costume changes. There’s little chat, aside from the odd wry aside and a misfiring attempt to lead the crowd in singing an ironic Happy Birthday to the Queen. But no one has paid a hundred-odd quid for banter.

There aren’t any surprises in the set tonight. We get super-sized portions of Appetite For Destruction (seven songs), the Use Your Illusion albums (11 songs), and even three songs from Chinese Democracy (the venomous title track, a blinding Better, and an overblown This I Love). But then the novelty of seeing three-fifths of the classic Guns line‑up is still enough of a surprise, even now.

New Rose: on time, and on top form

New Rose: on time, and on top form

Of course, three-fifths will never be enough for some, and if there’s a ghost at the feast it’s Izzy. Some might place Stradlin at the dead centre of the GN’R mythos, but tonight’s he’s not missed, and not just because Richard Fortus seems to have rented his hair for the tour. The truth is that no one was putting Izzy Stradlin posters up on their walls back in the day. He wasn’t as volcanic as Axl, as cool as Slash, as punk rock as Duff. Sure, his songs were great, but then so were everyone else’s. And let’s not even get started on Steven Adler.

No, if there’s anything letting the side down here, it’s not who isn’t here so much as what GN’R don’t play during their mammoth set. We get the hits, of course – roof‑raising versions Welcome To The Jungle, Paradise City, Sweet Child O’ Mine, You Could Be Mine and the rest (granted, the stadium doesn’t actually have a roof, but you get the drift). Drill down, though, and you can’t help but wonder at some of the choices. Where Estranged still crackles with emotion all these years later, they’re still dragging out November Rain, a song that couldn’t be more Liberace if Axl came onstage sporting an ermine cape and 70s power-bouffant. Coma was an eight-minute bum note on record, and is even less interesting here. If you’re going to cram in three epics, at least make one of them Madagascar.

More grating are the covers. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door is practically their own song now. Live And Let Die is acceptable. Whole Lotta Rosie is pushing it, even if Axl does dedicate it to his dead dog. But eight covers – including The Damned’s New Rose, a mawkish Black Hole Sun and instrumental versions of Wish You Were Here, the piano outro from Layla and the theme from The Godfather – is taking the piss. This is a stadium, not the lounge bar of the Holiday Inn, Poughkeepsie. How about Right Next Door To Hell? Or So Fine? Or even Shadow Of Your Love for those of us who have been here for the whole journey?

Still, you gets what you pays for, and for the £100-plus cover price, you get a hell of a lot. Three hours of it, to be precise. It fairly flies by, helped immeasurably by the fact that the band – and especially Axl – look like they’re having a blast. By the time the fireworks go off and they take a final bow during Paradise City, you wonder why it took them quite so long to get back together.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. The GN’R rumour mill is in perpetual motion: they’re playing Appetite For Destruction from start to finish next time around. They’ll be headlining Download 2018. They’re working on a new album. But whatever happens, on tonight’s evidence, it’ll be way better than anyone expects.

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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.