Guns N' Roses Appetite for Destruction turns 25
In the early 1980s, a red-haired, Midwestern boy named William Bailey stepped off a bus in New York City. Clearly naive and over his head, Bailey was targeted by a psychotic homeless man, who shouted at the frightened ginger, "You know where you are? You're in the jungle, baby; you're gonna die!" The moment stuck with the kid, who years later would legally change his name to Axl Rose, and appropriated the sociopathic line for his song, "Welcome to the Jungle," and recreated the scene of a wide-eyed innocent being corrupted by the city for the hit music video of same name.
Trading one jungle for another, young Rose eventually moved to Los Angeles, fronting an early lineup of the band L.A. Guns, before being kicked out and forming Hollywood Rose with childhood friend Izzy Stradlin, who had moved to California a few years earlier. It would have seemed strange for two Midwestern boys to form a band named after a city they're only recently acquainted with, if it weren't for the inclusion of two other childhood friends: Steven Adler and Saul Hudson, also known by the childhood moniker describing his ADD sprightliness: Slash.
Slash and Rose were the ideal counterpoints to each other, both headed toward the same goal from completely different directions. While each endured tumultuous, suffocating childhoods, Rose's antagonism was born from a Pentecostal church and a manically idealistic stepfather; Slash was the latchkey kid of Hollywood, his mother a black costume designer for David Bowie, his father a white British artist who designed album covers for Joni Mitchel and Neil Young -- neither were very interested in parenting. So while Rose would go on to write about the decadence, filth and betrayal of the Los Angeles underbelly with the romanticism of an outsider, Slash would match it with the howling guitar solos that only a child survivor of that life could exude.
These four musicians (along with Duff McKagan, a respondent to Slash's newspaper ad looking for a bassist) would incestuously move back and forth between the bands, L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, before melding the two into Guns N' Roses in 1985. By this time, the Sunset Strip music scene had, willingly or not, been solidified into one solitary cultural designation: hair metal. Avoiding the violent pubescence of the L.A. punk scene, venues like the Whiskey a Go Go and the Trip embraced more commercial, yet still relatively dangerous, bands like Quiet Riot, Mötley Crüe and, eventually, Poison.
Despite once unsuccessfully auditioning as their guitar player, Slash hated Poison, and would, along with his bandmates, begin to characterize them as everything GNR was not. "If you put us side by side with a glam band you'll see a big difference. We wear leathers and jeans. Their hair is always spiked up, and they have a full time makeup job," Slash once said to the L.A. rock mag Concert Shots. "What's wrong with the whole L.A. scene is that so much of it is just a front. There's so much falseness in the way all these bands take on a certain style that's supposedly 'in.' All the basic stuff, what's real important -- they miss. They spend most of their time getting their 'image' down. What's that? So I have to say, the glam scene's cool, and there are bands that we like, but as a whole, it's pretty false."
Even more than the failed Poison audition, these types of statements from Slash and his band, plentiful as they were, carry more than a spice of hypocrisy. Early photos of GNR band members reveal hair as teased and soaked with Aqua Net as C.C. DeVille, or makeup as thick and gaudy as Dee Snider -- the last gasp of this can be seen in Axl Rose's frightening poof in the "Welcome to the Jungle" video. Guns would begin and remain a highly stylized band, though in time they did distance themselves from the DayGlo spandex and purple eye-shadow of their contemporaries, taking on a darker, seedier image that matched their unhygienic songs. While bands like Poison and Ratt wrote tunes about the care-free world of parties and girls, Guns N' Roses wrote songs about disease, addiction and self-destruction in a way that simultaneously illustrated the dangers of the lifestyle while equally glamorizing it. The party life would eventually destroy the careers of glam metal musicians; by the time Guns N' Roses became signed by Geffen Records and began recording their major label debut, they were already destroyed.
The band was seen as a major liability to Geffen, who went through several panic stages leading up to the album release. "Elegantly wasted" was GNR's premier public image, and their label worried if anything would come of the $375,000 price tag that hung on just the album alone. By that time, McKagan had a bottle-a-day vodka habit; Axl Rose would disappear into hotels for weeks at a time with a girl and a bag of heroine; Slash was being propped up for photo shoots, later to be found in a gutter the following morning, shoes missing and lips turning blue.
"They were operating with no restraints," remembers a former A&R executive in the GNR biography Watch You Bleed: the Saga of Guns N' Roses. "You would go over to their house and there would be semi-naked girls running around in various stages of distress. Once they arrived at the [Geffen] office, late for a meeting, with a naked girl wrapped in a shower curtain -- she was still wet. The whole deal, to us at the company, seemed out of control. I remember one long discussion at Geffen where someone, possibly David Geffen himself, or maybe his hatchet man, Eric Eisner, said: 'We must record everything they do -- rehearsals, sound checks, concerts -- now, because this band is going to be incredibly popular, and they're going to be incredibly short-lived. One of them is going to OD before it's all over.'"
Yet when the band was in the studio, it was all business. While they would be epically hung-over and most-likely nursing a bottle of Jack Daniels, the recording sessions for what would become Appetite for Destruction were mostly drug-free. Producer Mike Clink kept pressure on the band, recording songs in one take, which not only forced the most organic and primal delivery out of the band, but kept the project moving at a pace that would not be conducive to heavy drug use.
Like most debut albums, Appetite was the culmination of years of songwriting, attempted to be crammed into a simple LP. Sensitive ballads like "Don't Cry" and "November Rain" would -- due to their emotional vulnerability -- be delayed until the next album, while darker, more cynical songs like "My Michelle," "Mr. Brownstone," "Nightrain," and "It's So Easy," would define Appetite's vision of cheap sex and violent debauchery.
The only evidence of Axl Rose's sincere, lust-free ardor toward the female gender comes in Appetite's singular ballad, "Sweet Child o' Mine." The riff that opens the song -- emulated by teenage air-guitar enthusiasts the world over -- surprisingly began as a joke. As a simple warm-up exercise, Slash often played what he considered a silly little circus-riff, just something to pass the time while waiting for recording to begin; but once the band found a rhythm in it, Rose became excited and laid down a vocal of a poem he'd written (and abandoned) about his girlfriend: "She's got a smile that it seems to me/ Reminds me of childhood memories/ Where everything was as fresh as the bright blue sky." The song is a marked contrast to the album's more misogynistic tunes like "It's So Easy" ("I see your sister in her Sunday dress/ She's out to please . . . No need to try/
She's ready to make") or "Anything Goes" ("Panties 'round your knees/ With your ass in debris/ Doin' dat grind with a push and squeeze/ Tied up, tied down, up against the wall/
Be my rubbermade baby/ An' we can do it all.")
As much as heroin, leather or Hanoi Rocks, a Caligula-style sexuality, was a primary influence in the writing and recording of Appetite for Destruction. In the song "Rocket Queen," Axl was unsatisfied with the bridge of the song, feeling it was in need of some heavily sexualized, non-musical contributions. So a darkened room of the studio was miked, and Axl brought in a revolving door of women to be pleasured by him and other members of the band, in the hopes of their climactic ecstasies being sonically documented. One subject of Axl's sex tape dalliances was drummer Steven Adler's girlfriend, a nineteen year old stripper named Adriana, who was getting back at Adler for cheating on him. Naturally, Adler was furious when he heard the news that his big debut album as a drummer would be seasoned by the sound of his girlfriend's rapturous infidelity.
Like Black Sabbath's self titled opening number, or Nevermind's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" a few years later, the opening track of Appetite for Destruction remains one of the quintessential debut songs for a band about to redefine rock music. Less a journalistic observation, and more of a threat of bad intentions, "Welcome to the Jungle" introduced the world to this new model of a hard-rock band. Neither punk nor metal -- yet at times resembling both -- GNR appeared to be an effortless tightrope walk of cultural contradiction. They dressed gay, yet were virulently homophobic; they were macho, yet effeminate, the perfect balance to frighten mothers and enthrall pubescent teenagers. With Axl Rose as the prettiest, most bi-polar ginger in rock history, and Slash as the elusive, unsettlingly calm demon in the corner, Guns N' Roses were the treasured link between the cute, party-glam of the L.A. scene and the more sincere, tenebrous grunge-rock that would ultimately render them obsolete.
Sources for this essay are attributable to Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses, by Stephen Davis, and Slash, by Anthony Bozza and Slash.
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