BEFORE THE NO-SHOW OF THE `CHINESE DEMOCRACY' ALBUM BECAME ONE OF THE BIGGEST LET DOWNS IN ROCK HISTORY, GUNS N' ROSES WERE THE WORLD'S MOST POWERFUL AND DANGEROUS BAND. CLASSIC ROCK LOOKS BACK AT THE MAKING OF A LEGEND. IN THE JUNGLE: SIĀN LLEWELLYN
LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG - AND LEAVE A GOOD-LOOKING CORPSE. SO GOES A famous Hollywood phrase. Although, thankfully, no member of Guns N' Roses has died, there's no denying that they certainly lived fast. They were a supernova that burned brightly, but briefly; in recent years their flame has faded and died. Will GN'R's fabled `Chinese Democracy' album ever be released? And in the event that it does finally see the light of day, will there be anyone around who actually cares?
Even if '...Democracy' is the most spectacular thing the world has ever heard, it still won't live up to all the hype surrounding it. Anticipation is one thing, but waiting this long can engender only disappointment.
It's easy to have a perspective some 16 years after GN'R exploded on to the hard rock scene. But cast your mind back to 1987: rock is having something of a mainstream renaissance in the form of pretty boys with implausibly big hair and mascara, and songs that are poppy and safe enough to be adored by the lucrative teenage-girl market; think Bon Jovi, think Def Leppard, Poison and the rest. Think of the bands that it's OK for guys to like, too, because they've got big, loud guitars in them.
Then there was Guns N' Roses. Fresh from haunting California's famed Sunset Strip, they were five young men ready to take on the world. On their terms. They weren't pretty and preening in the same way the other bands were; they were from the street and they lived the kind of life that other bands aspired to (or pretended to aspire to). But in reality, these other groups were too scared-or perhaps too sensible-to live that life for real. GN'R were dirty. Fast and loose. They epitomised raw rock'n'roll in a way that had been distinctly lacking for several long years. They embraced the way of life, not just the soundtrack to it-for them it wasn't just an image. They liked a drink - or a caseful. They liked their girls - often more than one at a time. They liked their drugs - to the extent that toxins would almost destroy them.
Vocalist W Axl Rose, bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Steven Adler and guitarists Izzy Stradlin and Slash were Guns N' Roses. Not for them the pretty perms and lycra; they had dirty, smelly jeans and belts made from beer cans. But they possessed a raw, twisted, feral charm. They were street urchins. They were edgy. They were dangerous. It was their sense of unpredictability that won them their fans - and frightened the establishment. Classic Rock's Mick Wall was one of the early champions of the band, and his biography put it out there in no uncertain terms: they were the most dangerous band in the world - in outlook, in terms of the place they held in rock'n'roll.
And then, of course, there was the music. While much has been made of the band's other exploits, less has been said about the records they made. From the first, the 'Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide' EP, you knew you were about to embark on a roller-coaster ride. Over the twisted, sinewy rhythms of the rest of the band, Axl ranted and screamed like a man possessed. The screamed introduction - "Hey fuckers, suck on Guns N' fucking Roses!" - on that record was less a welcome message, more a statement of intent.
When Geffen Records released 'Appetite For Destruction' in July 1987, there is no way that the label could have known what a monster they had on their hands. The opening rumble of 'Welcome To The Jungle' illustrated exactly what Guns N' Roses were about with the statement: 'We got got everything you want'. But for all the band's ramshackle appearance, their swagger, their on-the-surface we-don't-give-a-fuck attitude, there was also a definite method in their madness.
"What people don't understand is that there was a perfectionist attitude to 'Appetite For Destruction'. There was a definite plan to that," Rose explained. "We could have made it all smooth and polished with [original producer] Spencer Proffer, but it was too fuckin' 'radio'. That's why we went with [eventual producer] Mike Clink. It just didn't gel having it too tight and concise. We knew this, cos Guns N' Roses on stage, man, can be out to lunch; you don't know what to expect. But how do you get that on record?"
By some dark twist of fate, though, they managed to do just that, and capture their essence on record. The sleeve artwork for 'Appetite For Destruction' was to be problematic, however, with censors up in arms over the dark cartoon on its front cover. The original drawing, by Robert Williams, depicted the aftermath of a girl having seemingly been raped by a robot. That version of the sleeve didn't last on the shelves for very long and was replaced by a more sanitised and tasteful black sleeve with cartoon drawings of the band on it.
When 'Appetite For Destruction' was released in the UK in August 1987 it went decidedly less than ballistic. In general the reviews it received were extremely positive. Critics seemed to appreciate that what we had on our hands was a bona fide rock'n'roll band-the antithesis of everything both US and British radio had been fooled into playing since the demise of punk rock. But despite the critics' recommendations, the record was not looking like a hit. The band had to get out there and convince the public at large that there was something to this motley crew. So they toured. Solidly. For almost a year.
In the end it was a combination of that and the staple of all good rock bands that got them noticed by the casual music buyer - the rock-ballad single. Of course, being GN'R, this was no 'Every Rose Has Its Thorn' kind of soppy love song. It was 'Sweet Child O' Mine' with its velvety, instantly recognisable guitar motif (one that would take over from 'Smoke On The Water' and 'Stairway To Heaven' as the scourge of guitar shops for the rest of the century). And it became a hit in June '88. It was their first single to hit the top spot in America, and also the first to bring them to the attention of the British record-buying public.
In June of the previous year Guns N' Roses hit the beach running and made their assault on the UK, playing a trio of nights at London's Marquee club. The hype was all in place, thanks to some Mary Whitehouse-baiting headlines about what a terrible, destructive band they were.
It hadn't taken too long at all. Since 1985 GN'R - a bunch of misfits with an enigmatic frontman -had gone from sharing a small house in Hollywood to being the biggest band on planet Earth.
The year 1988 should have been when GN'R capitalised on their new-found success and took everything to the limit. What happened instead, however, was that they took themselves to the limit. They overdid everything. They should have been doing their lap of honour... although in some ways it was.
The eventual success of 'Appetite For Destruction' had secured them a slot at the prestigious Donington festival on August 20, 1988. headlined by Iron Maiden. but what should have been a triumphant return to the UK following their Marquee debut was to turn sour when, midway through the GN'R's set, two fans were tragically killed as the crowd surged to the front. Despite the band being exonerated from blame - in vain Rose had repeatedly implored the crowd to move hack to prevent the fatal crush - it was a nasty legacy that they would never be rid of. If anything, however, it only added to their air of danger.
In 1989 Guns' continued their incredible rise to the top. Singles were still forthcoming from `Appetite For Destruction' with `Paradise City' - the band's homage to their adopted hometown of LA - putting them in the UK Top 10 for the first time. But at this point GN'R were still hungry for more.
THE NEXT CHAPTER IN THE GUNS N' ROSES STORY WOULD see them have to face the music and return to the studio to commence the task of following up the monster worldwide hit that 'Appetite For Destruction' had become. The interim stop-gap, semiacoustic EP of 'Lies' in November 1988 didn't really count, despite containing great GN'R songs such as 'Patience' and the wicked, darkly funny 'I Used To Love Her But I Had To Kill Her'.
By the time October 1989 had rolled around, the endless touring and consistent hard-drugging was taking its toll on the hand, prompting Axl to make and on-stage declaration at the Coliseum in Los Angeles while opening for The Rolling Stones, the singer threatening to quit first if members of the band didn't, to quote one of his own songs, "stop dancing with Mr Goddamn Brownstone". His statement was a barbed comment aimed at Adler, Slash and Stradlin and their continued heroin use, which was getting out of control. "I was addicted to everything," Stradlin admitted to Classic Rock in 2001. "I didn't even know l was in trouble until someone pointed it out to me."
It served as a wake-up call (albeit temporary) and some basic tracks were recorded for what would turn out to be the double-album epic `Use Your Illusion' volumes I and II but it would take to the end of the following year until anything approaching an album was ready for release.
In a hint of what was to come with Axl's perfectionist nature, `Use Your Illusion' was a bloated set. Despite some moments of genius that echoed both the vitality and immediacy of `Appetite For Destruction', 'UYI' wasn't that consistent.
The covers of Wings' Bond theme tune `Live And Let Die' gave the Gunners an immediate, enormous hit, as did their interpretation of Bob Dylan's `Knocking On Heaven's Door'. But the two Guns songs that were to gain most attention in the music press of the day were very different in nature. The first was the vitriolic 'Get In the Ring', which contained lyrics that took a vicious swipe at media types and journalists whom Axl felt had wronged him. As has been well-documented in these pages, one of the people bearing the brunt of Axl's surprising attack was Classic Rock's Editor-in-Chief Mick Wall.
The second attention-grabbing song was the older, wiser successor to `Sweet Child O' Mine': the big ballad on 'UYI' was the sweeping epic 'November Rain', a massive wall of sound including piano, orchestra, a searing guitar solo from Slash - and a preposterously over-the-top video clip to accompany it. And it worked beautifully, reaching the Top 10 in both the UK and the US. It looked, for a fleeting moment, like GN'R were unstoppable. But they weren't.
Within the band, all was not well. Things moved so fast that they didn't quite know where this whirlwind of success would take them. Drug use had increased; original drummer Adler was fired in July 1990 for his continued substance abuse and replaced by former Cult drummer Matt Sorum. Axl's egomania and controlfreakery got worse. It was this total-control trip that at first served to alienate his old school pal back from his days in Indiana, Izzy Stradlin.
As Izzy recalled: "Axl had this power thing where he wanted complete control. And you can say, well, it goes back to your fucked-up childhood where his dad used to smack him around, you know, and he had no control. So now he's getting it back."
But what really pushed lzzy over the edge - he was the first original Gunner to quit on his owm terms, Ieaving in November '91 - was being given a contract by Rose. A contract which essentially relegated him to the position of a hired hand. "They were gonna cut my percentage of royalties down. I was like: `Fuck you! I've been there from day one, why should I do that? Fuck you, I'll go play the Whiskey'. That's what happened. It was utterly insane."
It was a similar story for the other members of the band, too. "One of the main reasons that I actually ended up leaving [in October 1996; he was followed by Duff McKagan in August 1997] is because the ideology behind Guns N' Roses all of a sudden took up a more preconceived turn than what we originally set out doing," Slash recalled. "So I'm still working on being a rock'n'roll band, and I realised that I didn't have much control over the outcome of the way Guns was gonna sound.
"But as far as Guns themselves," Slash continued, "I can't exaggerate enough how proud I am of the fact that I was a part of Guns and of all the material we released. That was a few EPs, three original LPs, an album of covers and, for all intents and purposes as far as the proper' GN'R line-up goes, a posthumous live album."
Back in August 1989, Axl Rose told Rolling Stone magazine: "Maybe `Appetite For Destruction' which went on to sell more than nine million copies will be the only good album we make, but it wasn't just a fluke."
Or was it? Perhaps we'll never know. Maybe we should just celebrate the fact that Guns N' Roses did leave a beautiful corpse, in the shape of their records and the stories they told along the way.