Every generation has a different relationship with Guns N’ Roses. For those old enough, they represent the hardest rocking band hair metal produced and for those too young to remember the 80s, they are a ridiculous throwback to the time taste forgot. The Guns N’ Roses I know is somewhere in between.
There was a time where Axl Rose was the leanest, meanest singer in music. He wore a bandana and tiny lyrca shorts and he was fucking cool.
Men performing shirtless was a thing in the 80s and early 90s, not so much anymore. The idea of a rockstar adonis has all but died now. However, if you turned on RTR Countdown in 1988, Axl Rose was who you would see. Shirtless and virtually pants-less, with his winkle looking straight at you.
He and it were everywhere.
He was on magazines and in the news, his outrageous antics pushing the band’s status as The Most Dangerous Band in the World. These glory years came in the wake of 1987’s Appetite for Destruction, the seminal Guns N’ Roses album and the one by which all othes are judged. It features their most famous and hardest rocking songs. Its riffs are carved from granite and aren’t dressed up in the sheen that has made so many other records of the era and genre sound like relics in comparison.
Appetite was intense and sits closer to the heavy metal genre than the hair metal one it is usually associated with. It’s dark and spiky, but balanced with a pop sensibility to keep it accessible. “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” were the three huge hits from the record, but it is packed with classics. It remains an artifact of the late 80s, without sounding self-parodying in the same way albums by bands like Skid Row or Poison sound to modern ears.
Following Appetite, they were keen to keep their momentum going and released G N’R Lies as a stop-gap between studio albums. It’s a combination of an early EP and four acoustic tracks, the most memorable of which is “Patience”. This song proves that Axl is a great singer, despite how polarising his usual style is.
In 1991, Guns N’Roses released what was going to be their masterwork. A grand double album that crossed genres and cemented their position as not just a great hair metal band, but a bohemoth of a band. A juggernaut of Beatles’ proportions. That was the plan, but no one expected Nirvana and Nevermind. Kurt Cobain single handedly destroyed their genre, making Guns N’ Roses’s brand of testosterone fuelled uber-rock sound neanderthal in comparison to the brittle, biting and self-loathing style of grunge.
That wasn’t the whole problem however. Use Your Illusion I & II are both overblown, bloated records, with more bad songs than good and could have made a decent single album if some of the more indulgent moments had been left in the studio. They have become, not cult record sas that suggests some level of quality, but fun documents of the last embers of 80’s excess turning to ash. “November Rain” is both a good song and an example of everything that is wrong with the records. At almost nine minutes long, it takes a pretty good power ballad and slaps a coda at the end which almost doubles its length, but also makes the song the epic people love. Axl’s sudden desire to be Elton John, despite his quite vocal homophobia was another weird twist and their stage show started to feature long periods of him sat at a piano. Still in his lycra hotpants, though.
Guns N’ Roses fell apart after these records, sure they released the Spaghetti Incident?, but Slash left after that. Despite what Axl says, the band was Slash and Axl. They were the most recognisable members and regardless of who he put on guitar, Axl would never beat having a man with a big perm and a top hat next to him. Even Buckethead, which is exactly what it sounds like, couldn’t make the job his own, despite having an equally distinctive look.
Guns N’ Roses only matters because of Appetite for Destruction. Everything they have done since has diluted the impact that record had and the image of the band. The assembled playlist is a brief rundown of their progression, but it isn’t definitively their best songs. Those all reside on their debut.