25 years of Guns, Roses, and other contradictions
Aaron S. Bayley
On July 21 2012, I received a text message from a friend which read: "Happy 25th Anniversary! (Appetite, I believe)". Until that moment, it had escaped me that Guns N' Roses' debut album, Appetite For Destruction, the album that has sold over 30 million copies worldwide, and which had a profound influence on my life, had turned twenty-five. I had always remembered the release date of July 21, but the album no longer did overtime on my CD player. But what had always amazed me about AFD is that despite its controversies and contradictions--or perhaps because of them--it still managed the distinction of being the highest-selling debut album of all time, when that phrase still meant something.
I don't remember the summer of 1987, but I can tell you that I never heard of Guns N' Roses. That changed sometime in the next few months, when a classmate named Nicky Di Giorgio kept talking about two songs; one was called "Paradise City," the other, "Sweet Child O' Mine." Neither song impressed me. Soon after, my sister got their record and made me listen to a song called "It's So Easy" in which the lead singer said the f-word. In 1988 I was 13-years-old, and hearing someone say "fuck" on a record presented a contradiction of sorts. It made listening to the album both taboo and obligatory; at once unacceptable and irresistible. Still, I paid the band little attention until my first year of high school, when my friend, George, introduced me to the album during English Media class the way a dealer introduces crack to a drug fiend. Our mutual affection for Mötley Crüe already established, George seemed astonished when I told him I had never listened to Appetite. "You never heard 'Rocket Queen'?! You gotta listen to 'Rocket Queen'." I figured that a guy who was wearing an Appetite For Destruction tracksuit when I first met him in 1989 must know what he was talking about. And so I began to whet my appetite, so to speak, with a nightly dose of Guns N' Roses and soon discovered what most horny and rebellious teenage boys across North America already knew: that this was a badass album from the most dangerous band in the world. And I liked it.
Dangerous was the operative word when describing Appetite, but listening to the album revealed a slew of contradictions that only served to heighten the band's mythical status. First, there was the band's name: Guns N' Roses. Equal parts beauty and violence. Then the album, Appetite For Destruction, which could only have been made possible by the creative forces and combined genius of five dysfunctional derelicts hell-bent on making the Hollywood scene, and pretty soon owning it. Those first terrible notes that echo out from Slash's Gibson Les Paul at the start of "Welcome To The Jungle"--arguably the greatest introduction ever for a hard rock song--set the tone for the entire album, a warning siren that something wicked this way comes. If the opening seconds of Appetite For Destruction don't make it screamingly clear, the Robert Williams painting of the same name, found inside the album jacket and depicting a woman who'd just been raped by a futuristic robot, demonstrates that Guns N' Roses had no interest in making you feel safe and comfortable: they wanted to show you the underbelly of Los Angeles; the sex, drugs, and debauchery. Singer Axl Rose, an Indiana boy who'd gone to Los Angeles in search of his friend, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin,' wrote the lyrics from the point of view of someone with a rural upbringing seeing the big city for the first time. "You can taste the bright lights but you won't get there for free": the song cautions and seduces at the same time.
The album's second track, "It's So Easy," while less impressive than "Jungle," gets by on punk rock attitude and sleaze, jumpstarted by Duff McKagan's bass guitar. The gasoline fuelled "Nightrain," an ode to a cheap California wine the band once subsisted on, is a sleazy, mid-tempo rocker reminiscent of classic Aerosmith. "Honey put on your clothes/And take your credit card to the liquor store," Axl commands, raising the ire of women's lib movements everywhere. But the highlight of "Nightrain" is Slash's outro solo, an inspiring, slow-building blues pattern that climaxes into a cacophony of fury, desperation and defiance. It is Slash unleashing the beast from the beauty of his six-string sunburst. "Out Ta Get Me" represents Axl's middle finger to authority, while "Mr. Brownstone" is a funky, cry-baby infused, not-so-subtle reference to Izzy's and Slash's heroin addictions. As Steven Adler pounds out a Bo Didley-esque beat, Axl and Izzy harmonize: "I used to do a little but a little wouldn't do it so the little got more and more." The last track on the album's first side, "Paradise City," is a rock anthem. The song begins with Slash playing a countrified clean-toned arpeggio starting with a G chord, with Adler coming in with a half-time beat before power chords ring out from distorted guitars, and Axl's vocals soar on the nursery-rhyme-like chorus. The band then shifts into a dirty, heavy riff that drives the bulk of the song through four brilliant verses. The verses and chorus play off each other; the former, with lines like "just a urchin livin' under the street" and "you gotta keep pushin' for the fortune and fame" represent the harsh city life, while the chorus' "take me down to the Paradise City/where the grass is green and the girls are pretty" is downright bucolic, a sort of hedonistic nirvana for the red-blooded American male. But the path to Paradise City detours slightly into a minor skirmish in D and C, before returning on its joyful journey in Gmajor. The song's outro descends into joyful chaos, with Adler doing double time and Slash's frenzied solo accompanying Axl's banshee wails. Clocking in at six minutes and forty-six seconds, it's the longest song on the album, and it would go on to become the band's show-closer, a triumphant ode to greener pastures and beautiful women that left audiences walking away in a jubilant mood.
Even lesser songs have their moments. "My Michelle," about a spoiled socialite who stays up snorting cocaine and partying, features one of the album's rawest guitar riffs, while "Think About You" is heartfelt and optimistic with no hint of sarcasm or negativity. "Sweet Child O' Mine", for all of its popularity, would be no more than a better-than-average ballad were it not for Slash' anthemic intro riff. The song features an awkward, foreboding bridge--"Where do we go now?"--that shifts the song from a sweet ballad to something else altogether. The next track, "You're Crazy" is a fast-paced punk-influenced rocker that is better served by the band's acoustic rendition on their sophomore effort; "Anything Goes" is a sleazy, kinky nod to sexual fetishism. Finally, "Rocket Queen" is the band's epic tour-de-force, a blend of hard-driving riffs, funk grooves, sexual bravado-infused lyrics ("I've got a tongue like a razor/A sweet switchblade knife"), a dramatic change in mood and even live sex, via Axl's in-studio tryst with Adler's ex-girlfriend. The song is quintessential G'N'R: Izzy's cool but bare-bones, single note rhythms trading with Slash's testosterone-fuelled chords; harsh, boastful lyrics mellowing out in favour of a sweet, hopeful message; heavy distorted riffs giving way to clean arpeggios and a melodic solo. It nicely sums up the band's Dionysian and Appolonian tendencies and the musical and lyrical contradictions revealed throughout the album.
After George sent me that text message, I thought back to that moment in English class and wondered why Appetite For Destruction became such a cultural phenomenon. After all, I never thought the album aged well at all. There was a time when I had the album on constant rotation; listening to it every night on headphones, memorizing every lick, learning every song and solo on guitar. In high school I tried to look and dress like Izzy Stradlin, who I thought was the epitome of cool, and when I was 20 I bought an Gibson Epiphone Les Paul because it was the closest thing I could get to Slash's guitar. But when I listen to AFD today, I don't feel that sense of urgency and rebelliousness that I identified with as a youth. I've had discussions with friends about whether Appetite would have been as big of a deal if it was released today. I don't think so. For starters, the record industry--and the way people access music--has changed dramatically. Today's so-called artists want to be famous rather than legitimate or critically-acclaimed, and they have greater social networking tools to promote themselves than did any other generation. By the time AFD was released, the band had put in the time rehearsing, putting up posters and playing small clubs and dives to build their name. They built their brand from the ground up and became examples of sincerity and authenticity in a scene populated by lipsticked wannabes and hair-sprayed clones. They emerged from their ambivalent glam-metal roots and embraced what truly defined them: a hard rock sound delivered raw and uncut. But a band like GN'R and an album like AFD would be passed over by today's mainstream audiences and those with short attention spans, relegated to the same lonely corner as today's metal bands.
The reason Appetite For Destruction--considered the last classic rock record mastered for vinyl--sold so many albums is because the timing of its release was perfect: rock music was alive and well in the 1980s, and MTV served as the ideal stage for the band to make its debut. Everyone wanted to look like a badass in the late '80s, but only Guns 'N' Roses looked and played the part. One month after AFD was released--or more appropriately, unleashed--Michael Jackson released Bad, and appeared on the album cover clad in black and looking contrived. MTV allowed fans to see the band's five distinct personalities and marvel at how serious, articulate and authentic they were when discussing their own music. Guns N' Roses represented something that was real in a musical atmosphere that was vacuous, insipid, and fake. But most of all, Appetite For Destruction tapped into all the paradoxical feelings experienced by its teenage fans for whom opposition to authority was a rite of passage: partying and alienation, sexual bravado and sexual frustration, aggression and intimacy. Appetite For Destruction was the choice of a generation, and that generation had good taste.