Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction - 25 Years On
, July 27th, 2012 04:04
Jimmy Martin examines the perfect storm of raunch, repulsiveness and riffs that went into "the greatest hard rock record of the 80s"
Appetite For Destruction isn't just the greatest hard rock record of the 80s; it's the only good record Guns N' Roses would ever make. If this 25-years-old, 50-minutes-long tirade of kaleidoscopic raunch stands for anything today, it's as a cautionary tale of how bloated a band from humble origins can become. The story of Guns N' Roses is one in which any tawdry rags-to-riches trajectory would have to reconcile itself with the fact that the only real riches were to be found in a knackered pair of leather strides and an acrid bottle of wine.
The hoopla in the late 80s over Guns N' Roses sometimes seems hard to fathom in the here and now. Appetite For Destruction initially wasn't always reviewed well; august metal scribe Dave Ling was particularly harsh in Metal Hammer, essentially dubbing it a second-rate reheating of AC/DC, Aerosmith and Hanoi Rocks' ideas. Yet within two years this unpleasant bunch of maladjusted wasters were being hailed as veritable messiahs, in a manner of such alacrity that their egos, and one in particular, have never fully recovered.
Perhaps the guiltiest party in their lauding would be former Jim Morrison biographer Danny Sugerman, who as a self-styled intellectual and longtime kneeler at the altar of rock mythos was so struck by the gaudy cavalcade of GN'F'N'R that he took it upon himself to write arguably the most ludicrous rock biography of all time; the prosaic title of 1991's The Days Of Guns N' Roses - Appetite For Destruction disguises a work of such monumental foolhardy hubris that it's well worth snapping up the next time you spot it in your local Oxfam. Portraits of Byron and Rimbaud languish next to photos of Duff McKagan with comedian Andrew 'Dice' Clay, and talk of 'the quintessence of Dionysus', Nietzsche's anti-bourgeous ire, and T.S.Eliot's 'The Wasteland' share space with colour plates of Axl resplendent in stars-and-stripes leather jacket and cycling shorts.
What, besides a healthy publishing advance, would provoke even someone like Sugerman to do something like this? Warning signs were perhaps apparent in that he had been heavily involved with The Doors, unquestionably as a band the biggest bullshit magnet in rock history. Yet also, one is grudgingly forced to agree with Sugerman that GN'R had created arguably the most striking rock frissante of outrage and danger in at least a decade by effectively taking the decadence of the imperial period of The Rolling Stones and the raw nihilism of The Sex Pistols, and hammering them both together in ragged style.
Whilst the common consensus insists that Nevermind was what eliminated the MTV-hair-metal of the '80s, the truth is rather more complicated; as much as many were keen to play the two bands as diametrically opposed, the same punters were buying Guns N' Roses and Nirvana records. Moreover, rather than Nevermind being some grand moment at which middle America magically came to its senses, Appetite For Destruction, which was considerably both more unwashed and punk-rock in spirit than anything that had been as all-encompassing a hit in America thus far, was the first nail in the coffin of the production-line MTV-fodder that the band's contemporaries Poison and Ratt were peddling.
It was surely no coincidence that within a year of this album hitting No.1 on the Billboard album charts, even whilst Napalm Death's notoriously irascible drummer Mick Harris was physically destroying singer Lee Dorrian's tape copy of Appetite For Destruction with a baseball bat to the horror of his other bandmates (so appalled was he that a member of the band that performed 'Cock Rock Alienation' should be enjoying such a trifle), every rocker in Los Angeles was suddenly growing his fringe out and muttering things about going in a more bluesy direction, blind as ever to the reality that the kind of strange serendipity that led to Appetite's glory would be impossible to contrive.
Yet as might be expected for a work powered by unquantifiable serendipity, Appetite For Destruction is not a perfect album. Even its most giddy cheerleader would have to admit that the Izzy-penned 'Think About You' is ditzy filler at best, whilst the less-than-gentlemanly lyrics of 'Anything Goes', another undistinguished workout, have a tendency to stick uncomfortably in the craw. It's also debatable that the runaway-train mania of 'You're Crazy' actually worked way better played slow, as on the following year's Lies stopgap.
Moreover, it's easy now to see that the seeds of everything that would eventually fuel Guns N' Roses' descent into hubris, nullity and dull controversy, almost all of which are Axl's fault, are distinguishable even amidst this thrilling record. 'Out Ta Get Me', for example, remains a quite startling chronicle of a paranoid persecution complex that would later blossom into unbearably petulant and tedious tirades like 'Get In The Ring' and the impossible-to-parody 'My World', not to mention the cretinous and unforgivable 'One In A Million'. 'It's So Easy', a relentlessly ugly yet grimly compelling splurge of boyish posturing and dead-eyed misogyny, makes for particularly queasy listening in the here and now, in the tradition of 'Bodies' and even the worst of The Stranglers. Even the semi-legendary "FOOKOOF" that precedes the guitar solo sounds these days less like the thrilling transgression it appeared in the late 80s to a thirteen-year-old, and more like the havering of the proverbial one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest.
Yet his status as the most unfathomable pillock in rock history (or at least since Jim Morrison) notwithstanding, it's hard to deny that the equally charismatic and contemptible Axl made a fascinating figure in 1987. Part of both this album and Guns N' Roses' appeal derives from his tendency to yo-yo from macho rooster-strutting to emotional vulnerability; it's there in the two-act structure of two of the album's best songs, 'Rocket Queen' and 'Sweet Child O'Mine'. In the former Axl's swaggering bile gives way to a beguiling, boyish romance that ends the album on an oddly optimistic note. On the contrary, the mawkish Southern rock sentiments of the verses and chorus of the latter are thrown into relief by the brooding coda, and yet it's only the Slash solo's trajectory from plaintiveness to melancholy to fiery anger that can carry the song to its bittersweet conclusion; more than merely their biggest hit, 'Sweet Child O' Mine' was a classic example of the whole entourage's finesse writ large.
And really, what a band. Bash Street Kids mischief overloaded with The Warriors viciousness. Cliched rock personae reinvented anew through an '80s hall of mirrors, from Axl's Plant-esque wailing shaman via Izzy's Keef-esque insouciance and Duff's louche Seattle-scenester earthiness, then topped off with Slash, the inhuman beast whose surly demanour belied a style raw yet lyrical enough to transform him into a legend worthy of both teenage adulation and guitar mag bore-athons overnight.
Unlikely as it may seem though, it remains extremely tempting to surmise that it all started going wrong for Guns N' Roses when Steven Adler's flaxen mane disappeared into the sunset. The first member of GN'R to succumb to his drug habit and incur the wrath of the ginger prince, Adler's loose, behind-the-beat and intuitive style of drumming was a crucial part of Appetite For Destruction's swagger. What's more, his replacement Matt Sorum, hard-hitting rock pro that he may have been, in retrospect robbed them of a surprising proportion of their character and signaled a descent into stadium rock orthodoxy. Adler may have always looked like the least important member of the band, painted as a dumb pretty-boy along for the ride and certainly no Buddy Rich, yet this was a band-as-gang where the chemistry between the five scrappy, degenerate members was absolutely crucial, and hence every single line-up change essentialy diluted their initial potency exponentially throughout the following years.
Indeed, the palpable danger, the raw charisma, the uncontrived nonchalance, and the whole other rag-bag of accidental thrills were all long lost by the time the Use Your Illusion albums thundered into town a full four years later; a beastly and cumbersome parade of sound and fury ultimately signifying fuck all. Guns N' Roses had now been transformed into an Ozymandian colossus only good for furthering Axl Rose's dreams of the kind of elevated auteur status that he himself recognized in artists like Elton John and his other big faves 10CC, as his sidemen (and pretty soon that's all they were) started to look more like cheerful, old-fashioned jobbing musos by the day.
The legacy of Guns N' Roses, post-Illusion, often seems little more than sickening largesse, retrogressive redundance and a litany of unreconstituted clichés. The poor gluttons-for-punishment that hang around half-empty aircraft hangars in the second decade of the 21st century waiting for Axl and his coterie of hired goons to come onstage ought to realise that they're barely even there for a rock concert. The band that calls themselves Guns N' Roses in 2012 are a wake, more depressing even than a video-screen Elvis or a holographic 2Pac. Yet the sound of the Guns N' Roses of 1987 remains an elemental testimony to the glorious foolishness and grubby glory of rock & roll that glimmers beyond either time or reason. A band in the gutter, staring at the kerb, and tragically unaware that all the magic they needed was right before their bleary eyes.