In the late 1980′s, heavy metal had gone from Motorhead and Black Sabbath to become glam metal, pop metal, big hair metal. It was interesting, and it’s fun watching my wife rock out to Poison or Motley Crue. But I was schooled in classic rock back when it was what Billy Joel termed “old junk” and before it became a lame formula for Clear Channel’s program directors. My idea of metal was influenced by Deep Purple, by Ozzy Osbourne, and by Led Zep in their early phase.
And then one night on MTV’s Headbangers Ball in 1988, I saw this band that played metal more towards its hard rock roots. They had two guitarists, one with a top hat like Ritchie Blackmore in his Rainbow days and so much hair you couldn’t see his face. The lead singer had a high voice, but never sounded like Robert Plant like every other metal vocalist at the time. The sound was raw, aggressive, and decidedly unpolished.
And you couldn’t miss that siren call of lead guitarist Slash playing that repeating scale at the beginning of “Sweet Child o’ Mine.” Oh, yes, friends and neighbors. The nineties had come early.
The Guns ‘N Roses that broke out in the late 80′s was Axl Rose on lead vocals, Slash on lead guitar with Izzy Stradlin on rhythm, Duff McKagan on bass, and Steven Adler on drums. GNR was a hard playing, hard partying rock n’ roll band. Other bands wanted to be GNR. But GNR, with its opening salvo of Appetite for Destruction and Lies dragged rock kicking and screaming out of the pre-packaged, plasticized eighties. The sound was rough, often improvised, and in-your-face.
But the boys lived as they played, and Slash had several well-publicized trips to rehab. Steven Adler was so self-abusive that they fired him, replacing him with Matt Sorum. They then kicked off the 1990′s with a pair of albums, Use Your Illusion 1 and 2. Many bands talk about an a double album being their Physical Graffiti, the one album that defines a band. This was it for GNR. It had two versions of “Don’t Cry,” the Terminator 2 soundtrack song “You Could Be Mine,” and the politically aggressive “Civil War.” GNR ruled the world and, in the height of hubris, released a kick-ass remake of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” (Hubris maybe, but it does give Mick and Keith a run for their money.)
Yet all was not well in GNR Land. Izzy Stradlin quit, finding life with Axl too stressful. He went solo for a time, then retired from music. Adler had a stroke, but managed to recover, still a really good drummer. They brought in Gilbey Clark to take over and recorded an album of covers called The Spaghetti Incident. But GNR was rapidly turning into The Axl Rose Band. In 1997, they returned to the studio to start work on Chinese Democracy. That album took so long that most of the band quit and formed Velvet Revolver, did two albums under that name, and broke up. When Chinese Democracy did finally appear in 2010, it went over only somewhat better than the long-awaited Duke Nukem game, which had started development about the same time.
It’s too bad Axl let it all go to his head. The downfall might have started in Montreal in 1992 when they co-headlined a show with Metallica. During the show, James Hetfield of Metallica accidentally walked into a magnesium flare, suffering severe burns and pretty much ending the set. Guns ‘N Roses came on early and could have saved the day by playing an extended set, but Axl had a meltdown and claimed his throat hurt. He said this while sucking on a cigarette. Others, some in the band, said that Axl was upset that Metallica upstaged him with a near fatal accident. The crowd did not care. They rioted after GNR left the stage after a few songs.
Too bad. Axl is a helluva vocalist, but he’s nothing without Slash, Duff, either Steve or Matt behind the kit, and especially without Izzy Stradlin lending his songwriting chops. That said, I’ll listen to anything Slash does, wish that Izzy would record again, and find it a treat to see Matt or Steven Adler (or even both, as when GNR entered the Rock Hall) drumming. Guns ‘N Roses was great because they were a band, not a solo act.
Axl Rose doesn’t seem to get that.
(Of course, I picked “Welcome to the Jungle.” This is Bengals country.)