By Glenn McDonald
When the Guns N’ Roses album Appetite for Destruction was released in the summer of 1987, mainstream American rock and metal began a radical shift. It took about a year for the record to break through, but once it did, nothing looked the same. After years of watching heavy metal acts get progressively more pop and glam – Night Ranger, Bon Jovi, Cinderella, Poison – fans got a good hard look at the real deal.
The boys in GNR didn’t come across like the other acts in heavy rotation at MTV at the time. These dudes looked serious. And mean. Like they’d just crawled up from the sewers beneath the Sunset Strip. The videos for the band’s first two massive singles – “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – are among the most pitch-perfect music videos ever produced. They presented the band’s weird alchemy of ferocious charisma and melodic hard rock in all its gritty, grimy glory.
Remember that 1987 was the MTV era at its apex. For a band to punch through to the cultural super consciousness, it wasn’t enough to have a great song, or even a great album. You had to have a great image, too. Guns N’ Roses, as it turned out, had all three – plus a five-man lineup that seemed genetically engineered from birth to be rock stars.
In the Beginning
GNR was formed in the crucible of Los Angeles’ infamous 1980s hard rock scene on the Sunset Strip. Clubs like the Whisky a Go Go, The Roxy and The Troubadour hosted a rotating lineup of bands that caromed around in a boozy mix of rock, metal, punk and glam. Several bands from this era would go on to make a splash: Van Halen, Mötley Crüe, Ratt, Kix, Whitesnake, Night Ranger.
In the midst of the madness, Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin – childhood friends who had moved to L.A. from Indiana – formed the band Hollywood Rose. After the usual merry-go-round of lineup changes and defections, Rose and Stradlin joined with three members of another Sunset Strip stalwart, L.A. Guns – of which Rose had also been a member. The new band name, Guns N’ Roses, came from the collision of the two previous groups.
More lineup changes followed. The L.A. Guns guys dropped out one by one and were replaced with three more Sunset Strip veterans – guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. This was to be the classic GNR lineup that would soon storm the occupied territories of mainstream American hard rock.
In that strange and unknowable way of great rock bands, each member brought an element to the group that would combine to form something entirely new.
Welcome to the Jungle
Rose’s story has been told so often it’s rock and roll canon by this point. A former choir boy in Lafayette, Ind., he grew up with the name William Bruce Bailey and became something of a town terror in his late teens. In 1983 he moved to Los Angeles – fresh off the farm, as it were. His arrival in the city is dramatized in the song and video “Welcome to the Jungle.” The enduring image of the hayseed young rebel getting off the bus, and gradually morphing into a snarling rock monster, is one of rock’s great fairy tales.
Stradlin also grew up in Lafayette, and played in bands with Rose in his high school years. Born Jeffrey Dean Isbell, Stradlin moved to L.A. three years before Rose and played in several punk bands as a drummer. When GNR first assembled, Stradlin assumed a large portion of the songwriting duties and his punk-informed musical style and image became a key aspect of the new band.
McKagan had a healthy punk rock pedigree as well when he joined Guns N’ Roses. Before moving to L.A., McKagan had played in several Seattle-area hardcore and punk-pop bands on drums, guitar and bass. Duff, Slash and Adler played together briefly in the band Road Crew before forming GNR.
Adler had grown up in Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley. A veteran of several Sunset Strip bands when GNR formed in 1985, the drummer brought a rollicking, old-school rock cadence to the band’s rhythm sound that’s still overlooked and underappreciated.
Then there’s Slash – Saul Hudson to his mom – born in London and raised in L.A. Slash and Adler had also met in high school – after a skateboarding accident, according to legend. A true prodigy on guitar, Slash’s penchant for powerful but melodic riffs would prove to be the band’s driving musical engine.
Rock and Roll Band
That old adage, that a band is more than the sum of its parts? That’s an old adage for a reason, and it’s why in the case of Guns N’ Roses, the individual biographical details are important. Anyone who heard or saw GNR in its prime got the message that this was really and truly a band.
Like any musical act gunning for the big time in the late 1980s, GNR was processed through the show business machine. Those early videos – “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” – were professional productions, planned and executed by people paid a lot of money to deliver such things properly in the age of MTV.
And yet you never got the sense that GNR was being packaged. The verve and swing of the band as a rock and roll unit – the sense of danger these five guys projected – could not be contained. As a rock-and-roll frontman, Axl Rose had the requisite chops: a fierce vocal style and a menacing charisma. Slash had found a new variation on the old lead guitarist template that seemed effortlessly cool.
All the little things added up just right. Izzy’s anti-metal shag haircut and aviator shades. McKagan’s lanky, sneering style on bass. Axl’s psycho snake charmer dance moves that somehow recalled both Davy Jones and Jim Morrison at the same time.
None of which would have mattered, ultimately, if the band hadn’t also delivered, in 1987, one of the greatest hard rock albums ever recorded.
Appetite for Destruction
Appetite for Destruction didn’t make an immediate impact when it was released in August of 1987. It lingered on the charts for almost a year before the band broke big in 1988. The one-two punch of “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” dominated radio and MTV and the band stayed on the road for a year and a half promoting the record, covering the U.S., Europe, Japan and Australia.
But the roots of the record were located squarely in Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. Several songs were pieced together from fragments that band members brought from previous L.A. projects, and others were built from scratch during the band’s days on the club circuit. Tellingly, all the songwriting on Appetite is credited to the band as a whole.
“Welcome to the Jungle” was written in about three hours, according to lore, and put together Frankenstein-style with Slash’s rehearsal riffs, a melody from Axl, and parts disinterred from one of McKagan’s old punk bands. “Paradise City” was written in the back of a touring van. The famous opening riff to “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was a warm-up exercise Slash had put together.
But listen to it all again – even 25 years later – and Appetite hangs together remarkably well as a unified whole. The album has a texture and grain that persists all the way through. It’s that arcane mojo that happens in the realm of popular music when a sequence of songs so clearly evokes the spirit of a specific time and place. Appetite is the sound of a rock band hitting on all cylinders.
Guns N’ Roses would never capture that particular magic again. The band was just too volatile a concoction to last. Like so many bands before them and after, GNR would fly apart under the pressures of fame and the sheer G-force of its own ascent.
The Later Years
In late 1988, the stopgap record G N’ R Lies paired four recordings from the 1986 EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide with four new acoustic tracks. The band continued playing live through the late 1980s, in increasingly larger arenas and festivals.
During this period, Guns N’ Roses gradually faded from its initial incarnation and away from being a functional rock band in any real sense of the term. The bad news came in waves. Adler was fired by the band in 1990 as a result of continuing drug addiction. In 1991, Stradlin quit – reportedly because he had gotten sober, and the others couldn’t or wouldn’t.
Fans rioted after performances that were started hours late, or that were canceled outright. New band members came and went. A rotating cast of supporting musicians, backup singers and even a horn section shared the stage as the GNR circus rolled across the globe.
After 1993, the entity we call Guns N’ Roses had really become something else entirely. Flashes and sparks would follow for a few years: A cover album of punk and glam rock songs (The Spaghetti Incident?) or a few one-off recordings for film projects or charity events. Slash eventually left the band, then McKagan.
Rose, who retains legal rights to the name Guns N’ Roses, became a virtual recluse for much of the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. Rumors of a new GNR record, titled Chinese Democracy, came and went. New lineups were announced, reshuffled, disbanded, reassembled and dropped again. The names ticked by: Tommy Stinson. Josh Freese. Dizzy Reed. Buckethead.
Chinese Democracy was finally released in 2008, 17 years after the last album of original studio material by Guns N’ Roses. The album earned an enthusiastic response from fans and critics alike. Yet another new lineup of Guns N’ Roses, led by Rose, embarked on a world tour.
In April 2012, Slash, McKagan and Adler joined later members Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Stradlin declined to attend, but issued a statement thanking his fans and former bandmates. Rose boycotted the event altogether.
Presenter Chris Rock took the opportunity to tweak Rose as the induction ceremony rolled on into the night. “A lot of people are disappointed that Axl Rose isn’t here,” he said. “But let’s face it, even if he was going to be here, he still wouldn’t be here yet.”
At the time of GNR’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it had been 25 years since Appetite for Destruction changed the rock landscape. Internal strife had prevented the band from navigating the kind of long-term career fans would have liked. But for a brief window in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Guns N’ Roses changed the very direction of American hard rock and earned their title as “The Most Dangerous Band in the World.”