Saturday, November 15, 2014

Guns N' Roses


I was, and possibly am, an afficianado of a Sixties and Seventies hard rock and metal and never cared much for the Eighties metal bands that followed in the wake of punk, such as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal or the LA-based "hair metal" bands. By the late Eighties Rafe Lavine had a metal show on Radio 5 on Friday nights and that was about the best exposure I ever had to the music, whether it was Metallica, Mötley Crüe or Headpins, to name a few across the spectrum

Between roughly 1988 and 1993 Guns N' Roses ruled the hard rock world, taking up the discarded crown of Aerosmith who, though then still mega successful, had learnt that the way to mainstream stardom was through airbrushed power ballads and smoothed out radio friendly rock. Plus they were getting on. Metallica was the nearest competition but not as ubiquitous as the Gunners were.

I had seen the original Appetite for Destruction (1987) album at Ragtime Records, with the salacious, somewhat non-PC picture of a young woman with her panties around her ankles, evidently after having sex with, or having been raped by, a weird sci fi robot creature. The name of the band and the album cover made me think that this was typical of the crap metal that was so prevalent back in the late Eighties and with which I had no truck.

I changed my mind once I'd heard "Sweet Child O' Mine" and saw the video for "Paradise City."  The melodic power of the first songs and the controlled frenzy and guitar power of the latter convinced me that this band was far superior to the other LA hair metal bands I'd heard.  I also read more about the band - the rebelliousness, the rock 'n roll lifestyle - and realised that they were not dissimilar to the punks of the late Seventies. Insofar as Guns N' Roses were identified as Aerosmith acolytes, I was doubly smitten because I truly liked the kind of hard rock Aerosmith had made up to Night in the Ruts. The music on Rocks and Toys in the Attic were some of the scuzziest, loud, visceral hard rock I'd ever heard and that certainly put any punk band to shame for pure guitar power.

Once I'd actually heard some Guns N' Roses tunes I went out and bought the album, and not as a sale item either.  My anticipation of a great thrill ride was rewarded. "Welcome to the Jungle," "Mr Brownstone" and "Rocket Queen" easily matched the two songs I'd already heard and all of the songs were strong and assured. At the time I loudly proclaimed that Appetite for Destruction was the best hard rock debut of the Seventies and that Guns N' Roses was the arguably the greatest rock band of the Eighties. This is a view I still hold, albeit with less fervor than that time. Metallica might have been the great rivals but listening to the first couple of Metallica albums today I still believe that the Gunners would have blown Metallica off-stage.

In late 1991 Guns N' Roses released their major follow up to Appetite for Destruction. There had been an EP before that, of older tunes, but the new product was the first since 1987 and was keenly awaited. The music took the form of two double albums called Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.  Same cover illustration, different colour scheme.  It was about the same time that Nirvana’s second album, the monster hit for them called Nevermind, was released. At that time I was cash strapped due to personal circumstances that had gone badly belly up yet I made a supreme effort to acquire not only the two Gunners albums but also Nevermind. In 1991 Ragtime Records was selling new CD album for around R89 but had a policy that certain brand new albums would be sold at R60 a pop within the first days of release, presumably this policy was restricted to surefire commercial hits where they reckoned turnover would make up for the discounted price and may well help push the album into the sales charts.  I did not care. R120 for two lengthy albums was a bargain back in the day.

I guess there was a concerned effort also to distinguish the two albums in terms of mood and theme and, like Kill Bill I and II, one may well have developed a preference for the one album over the other based on song content.

The first album had the big ballad hit "November Rain", a lot slower and elegiac than "Sweet Child O' Mine" and in the manner of all great piano driven, slow rock anthems. Tough guys can be even more tender and yearning than ostensibly sensitive guys.

The second record had the confrontational stuff like "Get In The Ring" where Axl Rose was daring rock writers, who loved creating "controversy? to take him on in a very real bout of fisticuffs.  This song apparently typified the belligerent arrogant attitude Rose had  those who did not share his opinions.

I must say that I liked the two albums although I found each to be rather too long.  It is a rock writer cliché that just about every double album contains an excellent single album and even if the dubious songs are in the minority, one could probably have made a killer double album  from the two double albums.

Steven Adler had been kicked out of the band, not so much (I guess) for using a lot of drugs in a band that was known for its excesses but for failing to controlling his drug intake and from allowing the drugs to impair his abilities to perform his drumming role. Litigation ensued.

Shortly after the Use Your Illusion world tour Izzy Stradlin also left, citing musical differences and the need to pursue diverging musical interests. He released a couple of solo albums and is presumably still active.

The only other product to emerge from the first era of the great Guns 'n Roses line up, was "The Spaghetti Incident?" (1993), an album of covers versions of punk and metal songs, in the vein of Metallica's Garage Days releases. I bought this album as soon as it was available in Cape Town and I liked it. This record, too, has its controversial moments, because of the version of a Charles Manson song, but is not as band as G 'n R Lies' references to "queers." At some point Axl Rose and Elton John dieted on stage, making peace.

After this, things fell apart. First Stradlin, then Slash,  left and recorded solo albums. Gilby Clarke recorded at least one solo album, and the band went on an extended hiatus. not quite breaking up, not quite a viable, living organism anymore. It was an astonishing thing that a commercially successful band as Guns 'n roses had become simply just faded away like that.  Twenty years later there is still (kind of) an Axl Rose-led version of the band, and there was an album called Chinese Democracy (2008), by some version of the band and about 14 years in the making, but that is it. The main point of interest of this album was that it reportedly cost $14 million over 15 years to record it.

Band members have had various more or less successful side projects and have released various memoirs. Duff McKagan had teamed up with Steve jones, ex Sex Pistol, and the singer from Stone Temple Pilots for a now defunct, well-regarded group called Velvet Revolver. Slash had his Snakepit project and then went completely solo. Presumably Matt Sorum and Dizzy Reed are working. The books have spilled the beans on one of the last of the old school rock bands with roots in late Seventies hard rock. Metallica brought a whole new thing and was a prime mover in bringing metal closer to punk in attitude and style. Guns 'n Roses were a rock and roll band, like Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones, and not a metal band. They were as much against the LA "hair bands" of the Eighties as Metallica and the other thrash bands were, even if they had similar hairstyles, and the Gunners could also be seen as the link between Aerosmith and Pearl Jam or Soundgarden, between old school hard rock and the newfangled hard rock of the grunge bands.

I bought the EP G'n'R Lies (1988) some time after I’d bought the other albums, mostly because I resisted buying a record that was ostensibly acoustic based, given that the Gunners' appeal lay in their twin guitar hard rock attack, and not because I disapproved of the controversial lyrics of one song on the record. This EP also adumbrated the "unplugged" fashion that followed the grunge explosion, when, from about 1993, grunge bands suddenly discovered that quiet was the new loud and that plucking away at an acoustic guitar and crooning melodic tunes, was very satisfactory. The Stones had always known that it was an effective commercial trick and artistic statement to put away the electric guitars and play softer songs. Axl Rose was not just about screaming out hate or loathing. He liked a ballad as much as the next guy. The EP gives one a good overview of the strengths of the music Guns 'n Roses made and if it was a stopgap, it is still a good, underrated set. One should not shoot it down as a whole simply because there is one unacceptable song on it. 

Being a one hit wonder is not necessarily a bad thing, unless you are the artist who cannot achieve further commercial success, especially if the hit is truly excellent. The official Gunners canon consists of 4 studio albums and we should be glad that we have them and to be too saddened that there have not been more. All artists decline over time, start repeating themselves or just deteriorate in creativity, allowing craft and technique to carry the music rather than genuine, exciting innovation. The Guns 'n Roses of 1999 may well have been a pale shadow of the band of 1989 even if the original guys had stuck together and the hiatus never happened.

We do have a greatest hits set and a live set as well and the latter is as good a memento as anything else we have. I have not bothered to seek out Chinese Democracy and although I have a vague curiosity about how it would sound and compare to the glory years, this curiosity is not so strong that the acquisition is an imperative. I guess I would buy it should I find it at Cash Crusaders for R50 or less but so far it has not happened.

I was already 30 when Guns N' Roses became massive and they were just another band whose music I enjoyed; one amongst many. I still rate them highly and they are probably the last hard rock act that I took a serious interest in. I own a couple of Pearl Jam albums and a couple of Soundgarden albums but by and large I paid little attention to the grunge bands or post-grunge bands and the whole Nu-Metal moment of the late Nineties passed me by. No Limp Bizkit, no Korn, no Kid Rock or Linkin Park, or whoever. Even the likes of Creed and Live never particularly interested me beyond being perhaps palatable radio rock. You can keep the neo old school melodic hard rock of Nickelback. My interest in Metallica had been restricted to Metallica (1991) until I bought the Some Kind of Monster documentary and then decided to listen to the older albums, none of which have endeared themselves to me in any significant way.

Perhaps it is the blues rock underpinning of Guns N' Roses that attracts me to them but this band is pretty much the only hard rock act of the last thirty years whose records made a lasting impact on me. The Black Crowes were as important, and I actually own as many Black Crowes albums, though I would hardly think of the Crowes as hard rock.

The Guns ‘N Roses style Stones and Aerosmith influenced outlaw rock and roll still appeals even if I haven’t listened to it for many years. There is something about the swagger and attitude, accompanied by excellent playing and really good rock tunes, that deeply satisfies.  How on earth a band like that could simply fade away after so much success, is  unbelievable.  At least Guns ‘N Roses did not go down the road of smooth, commercial  AM rock that led to the critical demise of Aerosmith even as they raked in the millions.  Although Axl Rose is still out there scuffling away under the band name, one can argue that Guns ‘N Roses outlaw cred has kind of remained intact because it operated according to its own credo and rules and never sought to cash in when classic rock became big business.

A small catalogue of really good records is far better than a bloated forty years one with a few good, usually early, albums and then  mostly dross. A one hit wonder is always perfect.  A band that folds at its peak leaves us with the regret that it did not last, not the regret that it did last and simply became more and more crap as time went on.

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