Guns N’ Roses – Appetite For Destruction
Released July 21st, 1987 on Geffen Records
The highwater mark for Eighties hard rock came directly from the squalor of L.A.’s rock club circuit, the combination of two hot bands in that scene: L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, the latter of which featured guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose. The three members of L.A. Guns – lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner – were either fired or quit, and of their replacements, two were former Hollywood Rose alumni (Slash and Steven Adler). Bassist Duff McKagan was the only out-of-towner, hailing originally from Seattle. Still, regardless of the fact that the band was basically Hollywood Rose in it’s structure, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck.
It’s an apt name for the band on Appetite For Destruction: blazing-gun guitar work and attitude with a dash of the rose, or at least a facade over burning lust. In an era when so-called “hair metal” was dominating MTV with increasingly-saccharine pop music and power ballads, GNR were a fist in the nose. Bands like Poison and latter-day Motley Crue were pretending at being loud and dangerous; Guns N’ Roses actually were. This was the same era in which Vince Neil was singing about “Girls, Girls, Girls” and David Coverdale was crying in the rain. Right from Axl Rose’s snarl of “you’re gonna die!” (cribbed from a homeless man who’d warned him in that exact fashion when he’d arrived in L.A.) this was something different – brash and bold, the musical equivalent of a street kid offering you weed with a switchblade hidden behind his back.
There were a lot of ways it could have gone wrong. 1987 was also the year that Def Leppard released that most boneheaded of hard rock singles, “Pour Some Sugar On Me”. GNR’s id-driven sound could have had thudded like that, but it was kept deft by the dancing rhythm section of Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler, who were much more Rolling Stones than they ever were Black Sabbath. Slash’s guitar work has always had trouble getting out of the minor pentatonic range, to be true, but it fits his work on Appetite exactly, like his leads were always meant to be married to the rest of the band’s boxer-bounce clamour. Axl Rose also never sounded better; his soaring, hectoring nasal voice found the vanishing point between Bon Scott and Brian Johnson (ahem) and took up residence there, becoming the signature voice for a generation of aspiring hard rock vocalists.
Much has been said of the problematic nature of the songs on Appetite. The album’s original artwork featured a surreal beholder-like monster attacking a robotic rapist, with the robot’s latest victim lying disheveled on the ground. Indeed, there is a certain obnoxiousness present throughout the tracks – singing about getting sex on demand, regardless of consent, spilling out a tell-all on “My Michelle”, glorifying alcoholism on “Nighttrain”, spelling out the boys-club rock ‘n’ roll fantasy lifestyle on “Paradise City” – but, coming from a quintet of near-homeless, drugged-up and boozed-out miscreants barely out of adolescence and raised on Zeppelin and KISS, it’s maybe not hard to figure out where that obnoxiousness comes from. At any rate, the band sells their songs with such vitality and fervor that it’s hard not to bang your head along, even if you’re worried about the message it sends. It’s also important to note that a lot of the filth and fury present here is dredged up from the then-decade-old punk rock scene, and presented as a middle finger to the Just Say No, Nancy Reagan, Christian America of the 1980s.
Everyone from a certain era has put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on a mixtape for a person they’ve been romantically/sexually interested in, except for me. For reasons I’ll never be quite clear on, my go-to was usually “Rocket Queen”, probably because the latter is a much better-written song and the former is built around a guitar exercise Slash found stupid, and for good reason. I’m convinced that the only reason he changed his tune on it was because it got so godawfully huge. It’s a really annoying riff, even if the rest of the song is pretty okay.
Even as the band’s star diminished (by 1992 they were mostly a bloated joke, made fun of by Nirvana and the rest of the Alt Generation) Appetite For Destruction remained a classic album, a legacy of where rock ‘n’ roll had been prior to Nevermind that carried over into the new alternative world by sheer force of attitude. Even in the face of sprawl, an acrimonious breakup, a revolving-door lineup, and a long-delayed vaporware album that was finally released, Appetite For Destruction remains the quintessential GNR album, the one that makes them rock stars for life, regardless of all else.