Hard rock, blues and attitude are what made 2011 WNCX Hall of Fame nominee Guns N’ Roses such a successful band in the late 80s and early 90s. Despite internal tensions that led to the mid-90s departures of all the original members except singer Axl Rose, and a 16-year wait for the band’s album Chinese Democracy, “GnR” managed to create a catalog of songs that have helped to shape the image of rock n’ roll.
Guns N’ Roses began as a merger of two Los Angeles bands, Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, in 1985 in Hollywood, CA. William Bruce “Axl” Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin of Hollywood Rose joined guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner in L.A. Rose, and the two bands combined the names to reflect the collaboration. One by one, the L.A. Guns members of the band quit, and were replaced. Beich was replaced by Duff McKagan, Guns with Slash, and Gardner quit to be replaced by Slash’s best friend Steven Adler. With Rose, Stradlin, McKagan, Slash, and Adler, Guns N’ Roses came together as a band. Even though the band no longer was comprised of a single L.A. Guns member, the name Guns N’ Roses stuck as the band grew in notoriety, excelling on the club circuit to a great enough degree that the group scored a recording contract with Geffen Records.
GnR’s first full-length release with Geffen would go down in history as the best-selling debut album of all time. Certified Diamond by the RIAA (over 18 million copies sold in the U.S.), Appetite for Destruction (1987) contained hits that have become rock radio staples. “Welcome to the Jungle” set the tone for the band, with lyrics based on an actual exchange that occurred between Axl Rose and a street denizen of Los Angeles. “Welcome to the Jungle, baby!” exclaimed the shady character, “You’re gonna die!” (Rose moved to L.A. from Indiana at the age of 20.) Although the first track alone is a powder keg, the rest of the album doesn’t exactly drag, either. Rockers like “It’s So Easy”, “Paradise City”, and Mr. Brownstone kept the album raging.
The most popular song on the album proved to be what the band thought would be a throwaway – “Sweet Child o’ Mine” became a number one hit song, but it began life as a “joke riff” played by Slash to the amusement of fellow guitarist Izzy Stradlin. “The thing about ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, said bassist McKagan in a 1988 interview with Hit Parader, “it was written in five minutes. It was kind of a joke…except that vocal-wise, it’s very sweet and sincere.” The intro riff may have been a joke, but as the song came together, the pairing of Slash’s wailing guitar solos with the heartfelt vocals from Rose made an indelible impression on the rock world.
That album was not without controversy, particularly for the choice made for the album art. The original art was based on a painting by Robert Williams titled “Appetite for Destruction”, which featured a robotic rapist about to commit an act of violence on a female victim, while a flying mass of flesh and knives was about to destroy said robot. Not surprisingly, several music retailers refused to stock the album, and the label replaced it with the alternate image, designed by tattoo artist Billy White, Jr.. To date, 28 million copies of the album have been sold in the U.S. and internationally – making the album the most successful ever debut in terms of sales.
The formula of Guns N’ Roses had many important elements: the heavy, bluesy riffs emanating from Slash’s Gibson Les Paul, the defiant vocals from Rose, and the overall attitude. In addition, one important element may have been the sheer volatility of the band, particularly in concert. Rose became known to confront unruly fans at live shows, even intervening on behalf of security on occasion. In 1991 in St. Louis, Rose was annoyed by a fan taking pictures of him during the song “Rocket Queen”. He stopped singing to give orders to security to confiscate the camera, and when they were too slow to respond, he intervened on his own, diving into the crowd to attack the fan. After security came to the aid of the fan, Axl returned to the stage, and said, “Thanks to lame-ass security, we’re leaving.” He slammed his microphone to the ground (making a loud noise like a gunshot) and walked off, followed by Slash and the rest of the band. A huge riot ensued as the fans may have felt robbed of the rest of the show.
GnR’s next full-length album would be the double album Use Your Illusion I & II (1991), but in between that and the debut album, the record label released the stopgap EP G N’ R Lies (1988). That album included early material the band recorded before their deal with Geffen, and four new tracks, including the hit song “Patience”. Demand for GnR was exorbitant, and even though the album included only four new tracks, it still sold over five million copies in the U.S..
Use Your Illusion was actually released as two separate albums, but at the same time. Use Your Illusion I included the hit “November Rain”, while Use Your Illusion II included the classics “You Could Be Mine”, “Civil War”, and a blistering cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”. Each album has been certified over 7 times Platinum by the RIAA for domestic sales.
Tensions in the band were rising even before the release of Use Your Illusion I & II. Drummer Steven Adler was fired from the band by Rose during initial sessions for that album, as a result of his debilitating drug and alcohol addictions that were preventing him from working. With Matt Sorum in the fold to replace Adler, the album could be completed – but soon after the release of the album, founding member Izzy Stradlin left, as well. Gilby Clarke was hired as Stradlin’s replacement, and the band embarked on an arena tour with Metallica, whose Diamond-selling black album was released around the same time as Use Your Illusion I & II.
Problems occurred during that tour, particularly in Montreal in 1992. During Metallica’s set, Metallica frontman James Hetfield was severely injured by a stage pyrotechnic, causing third-degree burns to his left hand. GnR was asked to return to the stage to play the rest of the show, but they were unable to go on, and massive riot ensued. Though the band’s decision not to play may have had to do with technical problems, in addition to Rose’s sore throat (as noted in a later interview with MTV’s Tabitha Soren), some (including Metallica’s Lars Ulrich) could not help but feel like the riot could have been prevented if only Axl Rose had chosen to perform anyway.
GnR’s next album The Spaghetti Incident? (1993) was an unusual choice for a follow-up to Use Your Illusion since it was a full album of punk/glam cover songs. The album has managed to sell over a million copies in the U.S., but it was the least successful album in the band’s history. After that album, the principal members of GnR quit or were replaced one by one. Guitarist Clarke was fired and replaced with Paul Tobias, a decision that lead guitarist Slash didn’t quite agree with. He eventually left the band in ’96, followed by drummer Sorum and bassist McKagan. Though members seemed to come and go during this point in the band’s existence, GnR never officially broke up – each departure would be met with a replacement.
GnR had started writing new material immediately after the release of The Spaghetti Incident?, but it would be 15 years before the next studio album, Chinese Democracy, would finally hit stores. Excitement for the band may have significantly subsided, and Axl Rose was the only original member to appear on the album, but it still proved to be a surprising success. Chinese Democracy sold over a million copies in the U.S. after its November, 2008 release, on the strength of songs like “Better” and “Chinese Democracy”. The recording and release of Chinese Democracy cost many millions of dollars, and took many recordings and re-recordings as band members came and went, but the end product is certainly worth a listen.
Today, GnR is comprised of Rose, guitarists DJ Ashba, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, and Richard Fortus, keyboardists Dizzy Reed and Chris Pitman, bassist Frank Ferrer, and drummer Tommy Stinson. The band has been back on tour since releasing the album, and reportedly has plans for a follow-up to Chinese Democracy in the near future. Axl Rose continues to prove a simultaneously volatile and essential frontman for GnR, even though the band’s former members have moved on to other projects (such as Velvet Revolver). While some fans may feel that GnR is not truly GnR without members like Slash or Duff McKagan, Axl Rose’s continued ability to create music to thrill an audience cannot be denied.
Ed. note: This article was also featured on WNCX.com, available here.