Where to Begin: Guns N Roses

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The name “Guns N’ Roses” released an album called Chinese Democracy in 2008, but Axl looks like this now. axl

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Where to begin: Radiohead

I don’t like seeing people on the train listening to their headphones because I know they are listening to crap. Especially when they are young. I always think it is probably something dreadful that I either haven’t heard, or something I have and wish I hadn’t. If only they were reading this series.

This time, it’s England’s greatest band.

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Radiohead has had the same five members since they started. Quite remarkable given how long they have been around. Their first album was released in 1993 and has been all but forgotten by the band. They don’t ever play anything off Pablo Honey anymore, despite it featuring their most famous song “Creep”. The rest of it is very much of its time and uses a lot of distortion and is undoubtedly their most straight-forward record. As a teenager, understanding and absorbing this record was essential to the full Radiohead experience, but now I take the same tack as the band and it rarely gets a spin.

The Bends was the first album that genuinely sounded like the Radiohead everyone knows. They master the electric guitar over acoustic guitar dynamic, use interesting chord progressions, and walk the line between atmospheric and exhilarating masterfully . This record laid the blueprint for every subsequent album, with its thematic cohesion making it more than simply a bunch of songs, as was the case with their debut.

Taking the first of many sharp turns that would come to define the band from record to record, OK Computer was not simply unlike The Bends, it was unlike anything in music at that time. Much like iconic records by The Beatles or Bob Dylan, it is hard to listen to OK Computer with fresh ears, such was its ubiquity in 1997. It is one of those records that bears greater rewards with every listen and it is so firmly imprinted on my DNA that any progeny I may have will be born reciting “Fitter Happier” and creeping everyone the fuck out.

The new millennium saw yet another iteration of the Radiohead sound. Kid A and the 2001 release Amnesiac were recorded in the same sessions and feature the band’s first forays into Krautrock beats and electronic experimentation. The two records couldn’t sound more different, despite their parallel gestation, with Kid A sounding clinical and distant, and Amnesiac including the more recognisably Radiohead-sounding songs. These two records cemented the concept that whatever Radiohead did, however far they went away from what they supposedly were, they could still create magical work.

Then they released Hail to the Thief in 2003. My first listens left me thoroughly disappointed and it sat on the shelf for a long time. But eventually, after dipping back into it almost 10 years later, I realised how remarkable it was. Thom Yorke has stated that he’d like to resequence it and take some of the songs away to make a shorter, more coherent record, but I think that meandering unfocussed aspect of it is its greatest strength. It matches, in retrospect, the feeling of the early to mid-2000s. While a political record in name only, its dark mood is a reflection of Bush and Blair-era lies and warmongering.

The band started to slow their output at this time, with four years elapsing before In Rainbows sudden appearance. On a “pay what you want” basis, the record appeared online and felt over-shadowed by the nature of its release. Honestly, I feel this is probably their most forgettable record. It has some great songs, but it never stuck with me in the way their others have, even Pablo Honey. I remember really liking it when it first came out but I rarely listen to it now. Also, this record isn’t available on Spotify, which totally fucks up my playlist.

King of Limbs is the last Radiohead record and it came out in 2011, which makes it likely that it will be five years between releases. King of Limbs is yet another direction for the band, with the album feeling organic and electronic all at once. It’s a dance record and a rock record, and while it may not have the resonance of OK Computer, it is possibly their finest to date. It sounds accomplished and brave, and while it is unlike anything they have done before, it still feels like a natural progression from their previous work.

 

Where to begin: Wilco

Kids these days are all listening to shit. I figure it is because they don’t understand how to approach an established band with a long history and an extensive back catalogue. This is where I come in.

First up, America’s finest band.

Wilco can be divided into three distinct eras: 

Pre-Summerteeth

Starting with A.M., they were very much still in the hoedown country mode, with an added pop-sensibility. Jeff Tweedy was still finding his feet as a band leader and frontman, and while A.M. featured a number of good songs, it is their most straight-ahead album to date. I would consider it on par with Radiohead’s Pablo Honey in terms of how incongruous it now sounds next to their later work.

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Being There showed the beginnings of the band stretching themselves in terms of textures and song styles. While the record still has plenty of songs with traditional structures, they were experimenting with elements of dissonance and songs like “Misunderstood” laid the foundations for what was to come.

As a double-album, Being There is perhaps overlong and in need of an editor, but despite being sprawling and inconsistent, it still rocks pretty hard.

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The prescription pill era:

Summerteeth is a perfect convergence of style and sound. Produced to within an inch of its life, the songs gleam, but still feel rough enough around the edges to stay human and affecting.

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Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is Wilco’s high water mark. A remarkable album that simultaneously washes over the listener, drifts around your mind, and turns you inside out. It was a singular record that came out of the turmoil within the band and the world around it.

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After dismissing Jay Bennet, Wilco produced A Ghost is Born. A fine record, but one that will always exist in the shadow of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. It has a colder, more clinical feel to it, and lacks the ethereal nature of the previous record’s production.

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The current era:

The current Wilco line-up has been together for almost a decade now. Something the band hadn’t experienced before, with the line up changing for every album. Sky Blue Sky was their first effort, and while it featured some strong songs, it veered into the jam band territory that Wilco became mired in for the second half of the 00s and early 10s.

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Wilco (The Album) is the first forgettable record the band ever produced. “Wilco (The Song)” was the only highlight, if only for the humour of the title and chorus.

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The Whole Love was somewhat of a return to form for the band, however the record still lacked the emotional impact that their stand-out albums possessed. The Whole Love’s songs all tend to feel overlong and while there are exceptions, the band’s slide into The Grateful Dead mode seemed almost complete. The songs tend to lack the crackle and spikiness of even the most sedate moments on Summerteeth, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or A Ghost is Born.

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Just when all seemed lost, Wilco came roaring back with their freshest, most vibrant sounding record in years. Star Wars’s short run time means there is no time for filler, with every track complementing the next. If it was released at a more impressionable age, I might have considered Star Wars my favourite.

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Addendum:

Wilco also recorded two records with Billy Bragg – Mermaid Avenue volumes 1 and 2. These are a mixed bag, with the Wilco tracks being strong and the Billy Bragg ones being, well… Billy Bragg. There is a third volume of Mermaid Avenue, but this relies even more heavily on your like of Billy Bragg.