The Student Playlist

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CLASSIC ’80s: Guns N’ Roses – ‘Appetite For Destruction’

Influenced: Pearl Jam, Manic Street Preachers, Soundgarden, Jane’s Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Rage Against The Machine, Lenny Kravitz, Foo Fighters, Marilyn Manson, The Darkness

Influenced by: The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, The Stooges, New York Dolls, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Alice Cooper, Elton John, T.Rex, AC/DC, Sex Pistols, Ramones, Aerosmith, Hanoi Rocks, Van Halen

There is a school of thought on what constitutes a very good album that all it actually requires is three great songs and no other bad ones. Forget the ‘beginning, middle and end’ or the ‘all killer, no filler’ rationales: dish up some massive singles, and the rest will follow. Even those who can’t stand Guns N’ Roses (and believe me, there are many of them) have to concede, on this logic, that their 1987 debut Appetite For Destruction is a classic.

After all, it is simply undeniable that Appetite For Destruction falls into this category – its three heavy-hitters (‘Welcome To The Jungle’, ‘Paradise City’, ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’) really do tower over everything else on the album on every conceivable marker of star quality – but in this case, these tracks are more like tentpoles that provide structural cover for a wealth of more minor yet considerable examples of bravura talent and meticulous execution.

Original banned artwork for ‘Appetite For Destruction’

Appetite For Destruction turned out to be the primer for the last great cultural phenomenon in American youth culture in the 1980s, offering something more real and more primal than their contemporaries, and prepping the ground for the alternative rock revolution in the following decade.

BACKGROUND

Having left high school in Lafeyette, Indiana and found little of interest to satisfy their rock ambitions, childhood friends Izzy Stradlin and Axl Rose met up in Los Angeles in 1983, the former having moved there three years previously. Forming the band Hollywood Rose together while eking out a living running scams and dealing drugs, Guns N’ Roses eventually came into being through the merger of the band with rivals L.A. Guns in 1985.

Playing a number of blistering gigs on the L.A. circuit, particularly the famous clubs on Sunset Strip, the group signed with Geffen in March 1986 after a feverish bidding war. Following a limited-edition EP in December that year, titled Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide, G’n’R set about recording their full-length debut in January 1987, a point when they were already a well-drilled, if combustible and unpredictable, live outfit.

Although the credits give the impression of a group songwriting effort, it was actually Izzy Stradlin who came up with most of the songs, or at least their ideas that were fleshed out in committee. After a couple of high-profile names were floated, the band settled on the experienced but functional Mike Clink, who had previously buffed up the likes of Whitesnake and Mötley Crüe into million-sellers, as producer.

SUBSTANCE

Primarily, G’n’R dealt in a blues-derived, metallic-sounding hard rock that, in truth, had long been familiar to mainstream rock audiences in the U.S. With a few refinements, theirs is basically the same sound that made AC/DC and Aerosmith such consistent draws from the late ‘70s and through the ‘80s, also taking references from the Stones, the Pistols and, most importantly, the tragically overlooked cult band Hanoi Rocks.

But the key to Appetite For Destruction’s enduring appeal when all their subsequent albums were so bloated is that G’n’R sound like more than the sum of their influences, creating a clutch of songs that caught fire so drastically in pop culture that it changed the course of rock’n’roll, for a short time. They were streets ahead of their competitors in terms of heaviness and pure songcraft. Also, for the only time in their career, the band was greater than the sum of its component personalities, two of them incredibly strong and leading to a volatile internal chemistry that would explode just as quickly as the commercial success of their debut.

Firstly, there was lead singer Axl Rose, whose memorable voice on record was curiously high-pitched and androgynous for such an alpha stage presence that seemed to channel the best of both Bowie and Iggy; then twin guitarists Slash, a mercurial talent covered in tattoos and resembling some kind of ‘Muppets’ interpretation of what a guitarist might look like, and Izzy Stradlin, a livewire creative force fuelled by drink and drugs. Bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler, both technically impressive and bringing their own styles to the party, completed what is known as the Gunners’ ‘classic line-up’. Perhaps inevitably, they butted heads as the gigantic world tour that followed Appetite For Destruction took its toll.

However, unlike his peers, the so-called ‘hair metal’ likes of Poison and Mötley Crüe that celebrated hedonism in a rather two-dimensional fashion, Axl Rose doesn’t seem to see much to love in the sex, liquor, drugs and rock’n’roll lifestyle as he documents it in his lyrics. More often than not, his is a voice of fear and vulnerability rather than of braggadocio or swagger, particularly on the second ‘R’ side of the album.

The first six tracks, representing the ‘G’ or ‘Guns’ side of Appetite For Destruction was a visceral illustration of the band’s hard-living life of drugs and debauched hedonism that had already become central to their image. Opening with ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, whose one-note descending intro riff sounds like a revving car followed by the pedal-to-the-metal of the band joining in, painted L.A. down-and-out life as a dog-out-dog struggle. Still used in sports stadia and TV alike to this day, its arguably G’n’R’s signature tune.

Carrying on in this mode, the ‘G’ side is stuffed with great moments – the punk-inflected nonchalance of ‘It’s So Easy’ is followed by the classic drinking song ‘Nightrain’ referencing to the brand of Californian fortified wine, cheap but strong, that the band was enamoured with. ‘Mr. Brownstone’, with its chunky Bo Diddley rhythm, addresses heroin addiction (“I used to do a little, but a little wouldn’t do, so the little got more and more / I just keep trying to get a little better, said a little better than before”). Only the urban paranoia of ‘Out Ta Get Me’ sounds a little makeweight.

Closing the first side and acting as a kind of bridge to the second, softer side, ‘Paradise City’ is another jaw-dropping show-stopper. Conceived in a bout of homesickness while in the North-West, it sees Los Angeles as a kind of mythical utopia (“where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”). Less well known is that Slash originally wanted that line to go “where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties” – thank God he was talked out of that one! With its shimmering riff and synthesiser bedding, it’s an absolutely colossal moment in ‘80s rock and has served as the group’s set-closer more or less constantly.

The second ‘R’ (or ‘Roses’) side sees the band explore their softer side, in a sequence of songs that mainly refer to the women in their lives. ‘My Michelle’ was written about a friend of the band named Michelle Young, who wanted a song like Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ written about her. Axl Rose tried but failed, and ended up with a song describing a broken life lived on the edge – happily, Michelle absolutely loved that take on her.

‘Think About You’ is one of those classic songs that sounds like it’s about a girl but is actually about heroin. Written largely by Stradlin referring to his first experience with drug, its acoustic inflections make it a more mellow moment than most of what went before on Appetite For Destruction.

‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, another immortal ‘80s rock anthem, emerged from a jam session in little under an hour, to which Rose then added lyrics that he made sure had a “Lynyrd Skynyrd” feel to make it feel more universal and ‘down-home’. Written about his then-girlfriend and future wife Erin Everly, Slash’s incredible guitar solos provide the decorations on an unusually tender moment for Guns N’ Roses.

At this point Appetite For Destruction loses its admittedly impressive momentum for a while, with back-to-back tracks in the shape of ‘You’re Crazy’ and ‘Anything Goes’ that sound rather innocuous and lightweight in comparison to the riches that surround them. They’re perfectly serviceable, but in the context of the rest of Guns N’ Roses’ up-and-down career are the only two tracks, aside from possibly ‘Out Ta Get Me’, that one might swap out for tracks from other albums.

Fortunately, Appetite For Destruction goes out with a bang with the lengthy closer ‘Rocket Queen’. Another track written for a girl they knew, the title referred to their friend Barbi Von Greif and her desire to form a band called Rocket Queen. A track in two segments, Rose’s lyrics go from masculine bravado in the first half to something much more affectionate in the slower, second section. If you listen closely, you can hear Rose having sex with Adrianna Smith in the studio in the gaps between vocals, which was deliberately recorded – make of that what you will.

LEGACY

Guns N’ Roses themselves, in defiance of logic and physics, seemed to simultaneously bloat and implode over the following years. The huge world tour did untold damage to inter-band relations: Izzy Stradlin, possibly the most important creative force, quit the band in 1991 after getting clean, shortly after Steven Adler was kicked out for excessive cocaine use. Yes, that’s right, although getting expelled from G’n’R for drug use is like getting kicked off Club 18-30 for being too drunk – how fucked up did he get???

After a four-year wait, during which the G’n’R Lies mini-album was released in 1988, the band returned with two full-length albums released on the same day in September 1991, titled Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. Both extraordinarily long and containing little in the way of memorable songs, it’s doubtful that it could have even been edited down to a single half-decent album. Crucially, they came out just a week before Nevermind, and suddenly G’n’R were a redundant force culturally as well as musically.

Shortly after this, the group’s line-up became a revolving door circus, with an increasingly ego-maniacal Axl Rose at the centre of it all. 1993’s ill-judged covers album The Spaghetti Incident?” followed before a massive hiatus that has gone down in pop history as one of the most famous incidences of writer’s block. Chinese Democracy, their first proper album in 17 years, finally emerged in 2008, and it was exactly as overblown and overproduced as everybody thought it would be. Four of the group’s original five-strong ‘classic line-up’ (minus Izzy Stradlin) eventually agreed to a comeback tour in early 2016 and, at the time of writing, they are still together, and G’n’R still attract sell-out crowds on the nostalgia dollar.

While the band itself may have become a rather clichéd mess, the phenomenal commercial success of Appetite For Destruction speaks for itself. Despite all the tricks of major label A&R departments showing off their new signings since, it’s still the biggest-selling debut album in American chart history, and has sold 18 million copies to date with an additional 12 million around the world. It’s even the 11th biggest-seller of all time in the States.

While the shiny, FM sound aimed straight at the heart of Middle America would within five years become unfashionable in the wake of Nirvana’s Nevermind, the MTV-driven success of Appetite For Destruction had a key role in preparing the next generation of bored youth. Not only did Guns N’ Roses render the spandex-clad cartoonish hair metal crew immediately obsolete, but their grittier, grimier aesthetics primed teenagers for what was to come with Generation-X outlook of grunge.

Listen to Appetite For Destruction here via Spotify, and tell us what you think below!

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