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30 Years On: Guns N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction Revisited
David Bennun , July 20th, 2017 10:49

Guns N' Roses were not nice people. Appetite For Destruction is an extraordinary, and ugly, and sensational album that could not conceivably have been made by anyone other than awful people, says David Bennun

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Dunno about you, but I don’t put on Appetite For Destruction and think, Oh, man, remember the time when this happened? I put on Appetite For Destruction and think, Oh, man, remember the time when something like this could happen?

Because, make no mistake, first time around Guns N' Roses were vicious, sordid, hateful, savage, inexcusable – and absolutely amazing. Had they not been all the aforementioned things, they would never have been the last.

Now that they’re treading the heritage circuit – to considerable acclaim, it should be acknowledged – it’s difficult to recall except in the most abstract way just how dangerous G N’ R genuinely felt when they first manifested as a five-headed hydra whose venomous breath and toxic blood were chemically composed from the very essence of rock & roll. Buildings, politicians and whores, so runs the aphorism, all become respectable with time. So too do dirtbag musicians, despite their best efforts not to.

There was no way to know it at the time, but G N’ R were rock’s last great outrage; the ultimate guitar-borne virus to hit pandemic status. They were an affront to the ears and nostrils of civilised society, a Saturnalia in the flesh and in the speakers. Appetite For Destruction has shifted 30 million copies worldwide; a record for a debut it is hard to imagine will ever be approached, let alone surpassed, even when considered proportionately to overall album sales then and now. A decade later it would be all Coldplay round these parts, and we’ve never really come back from that. Do not mistake this, please, for “music is rubbish now”-type nostalgia. Nobody with such a view belongs here either as a reader or a writer. Rather, it’s a structural issue: no new guitar band this overtly depraved will have the powers of the industry as it is now line up behind it.

Memory often plays you false, though. There are few manners of music-biz squalor in which Guns N' Roses have not at some time or other been involved; much of their output reflects that straight-up repulsiveness. But while Appetite itself is unquestionably brilliant, is it truly also that horrible? There is nothing on it, for instance, so obviously vile as the slur-riddled ‘One In A Million’ from the following year’s G N' R Lies, nor possessed of the crashing oafishness, hubris and pettiness of Use Your Illusion II’s odium-laden ‘Get In The Ring’ (1991). (The most amusing footnote to that song concerns Spin magazine publisher Bob Guccione Jr. accepting its challenge to fight, at which point Axl Rose backed out, leading wags to wonder if he had belatedly learned of Guccione’s prowess as a trained pugilist.)

The contrast reminds one of how few if any acts have ever fallen so far, so fast as G N’ R. But then few have ever had so far to fall, so fast. In their brief but magnificent pomp – which consisted entirely of the run up to, release of, and immediate aftermath of Appetite – they radiated the quality my colleague Simon Price has unimprovably dubbed “fuckinghellness”: an act’s capacity to inspire uncontainable excitement and jaw-dropping incredulity at the very fact of its existence. It is often said of this or that band, this or that album, that it changed everything. Seldom is the claim more than hyperbole. But Appetite did make pretty much everything else in mainstream rock seem suddenly obsolete.

Yet playing it back now, it takes a while to identify specifically what about it seemed so nasty. I start to wonder if I retrospectively superimposed my later repugnance at the band onto it. But I don’t think it’s just that. I think it’s mainly to do with the record’s atmosphere. There’s something there, an incipient cruelty and contempt – chiefly, and unsurprisingly, given rock’s track record on the matter, towards women – that would make what followed utterly unsurprising.

The original, withdrawn sleeve, infamously, was constructed around the Robert Williams painting from which the album takes its name, depicting a young woman lying ravished on a pavement, as a blade-toothed, steel-jacketed monster flies over the fence to inflict awful punishment upon her robotic violator. Now, there are various ways to interpret this. Rose claimed his sympathies were with the girl, whom he metaphorically viewed as the individual defiled by society. Maybe. But the image as an image is what Williams, combining his twin backgrounds in hot-rod toons and underground comix, painted it to be: lurid and titillating, a highly eroticised depiction of rape as a kind of psychedelic, mechanical pin-up fantasy. If, from the off, you’re having to explain why the rape scene you’ve chosen to represent your album isn’t literally a rape scene, that suggests an underlying issue or two.

Relegated to the inside of the packaging, the illustration is more unnerving than any of the music, and I don’t doubt it affects the way one hears it – which is, of course, one of the principal purposes of album art. Just as alcohol cannot turn people from amicable to violent, but can and does reveal a violence already in them, so mind-boggling success would give G N’ R, and Rose in particular, the leeway to indulge their very worst tendencies at the expense of their best. On Appetite, their best tendencies were still fuelled by their worst. They were a band driven by the poison undeniably already present in their veins, not yet debilitated by it.

There is a way to take that phrasing literally – and in ‘Mr Brownstone’, clear evidence one isn’t wrong to – but so much else that was objectionable about G N’ R is present in embryonic form: the combined self-pity and self-entitlement (‘Out Ta Get Me’); the strutting indifference to anyone who isn’t them, other than as objects for their use (‘It’s So Easy’); the Madonna/Whore complex (most of the second half). Appetite is not a record for which one can or should make apologies. It is frequently unforgivable. It is in some ways unconscionable (“Panties round your knees/With your ass in debris . . . Tied up, tied down, up against the wall” – well, consenting adults, and so on; but is that supposed to be a metaphor for society too, Axl?) If anyone were to tell me they find it intolerable for these reasons, I couldn’t argue. But I still find the first half of it – the “G” (for “Guns”) side – one of the most thrilling rushes rock & roll music has ever delivered to me: the initial five out of those six songs coming at you one after the other like a flurry of punches.

Aptly, however, it opens with a riff that feels more like approaching gunfire. From the very first moment you know trouble’s on the way. And it doesn’t take long. ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is one of the great mean songs, the way, say, ‘Nutbush City Limits’ or ‘I'm Waiting For The Man’ (all of these, not coincidentally, being songs about particular cities and the awful things that happen there) are plain mean. It’s a landscape carved in razor on unsuspecting flesh, with Slash living up to his name. Right away it tells you what an astonishingly good band this lot are. The rhythm section is locked in tight, the sound is glued together by second guitarist (and principal songwriter) Izzy Stradlin, and the two frontmen can jitter, howl and sprawl around it as they please. The riffs at times border on metal. The energy not only feels but almost smells like punk rock. The whole is a feral, swirling, serrated thing with tunes and colours popping off it like fireworks. This, no question, is going to be quite something.

Of the three major hits that appeared on Appetite, ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is by some distance the most brutal. ‘Paradise City’, the largely mid-paced sing-a-long anthem that closes the “Guns” side, is almost staid in comparison, as if the kid stepping off the bus and fending off predators from the get-go is dreaming of whatever solid burg he hails from. It’s also the first time the album really slows down, having stormed and swaggered through its five songs thus far with its louche sneer clamped around the filter of a burning fag. Had G N’ R kept on going in that vein, they might have sold, who knows, three million copies instead of 30. But they were a sight shrewder than that. 'Paradise City' is the point at which this marauding gang of piratical sleazeballs introduce into their torrent of snarling amorality the element that will turn it into a gold-plated blockbuster record: its occasional but overweening sentimentality. “Take me back to Paradise City, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty.” Ah, homesickness. Nostalgia. The longing to return to a place so much better and gentler than the rabid cesspit described in the verses. The rest of the band outvoted Slash over his preferred line, “Where the girls are fat and they've got big titties.” In that moment, his canny bandmates likely decided the difference between cult success and superstardom.

The third of those hits, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, is more of the same, only more so. It’s the centrepiece of the “R” (for “Roses”) side – those roses being the girl with the pulled-down panties getting banged in filth (‘Anything Goes’); and the messed-up hooker (‘My Michelle’); and the stereotypical mad bitch (‘You’re Crazy’ – for not wanting the protagonist’s love, apparently). But a little sentimentality goes a long way; especially when you put all the rancour in the album tracks and the sighing and swooning in the biggest hit. “She’s got a smile that it seems to me/Reminds me of childhood memories/Where everything/Was as fresh as a bright blue sky.” Yeah, well, if you’re not hooked by that, you’re a tougher customer than I am. Who hasn’t known a girl whose smile made them feel that way? But if you’re also put in mind, across the entire album and the second side in particular, of that whole business of treating women like dirt while binding them to you with strategically and sparingly dispensed sweet talk, making them feel worthless and grateful for the crumbs of love you dispense . . . I’m with you there. Taken on their own, any one of these songs might just be standard-issue macho posturing. Cumulatively, they make up something more sinister, something whose bitter taste can’t be masked by a sugaring of sensitivity: in the empathy and wishes for a better life for Michelle, or in the album’s closing declaration that, “All I ever wanted/Was for you/To know I care.” That, by the by, is from ‘Rocket Queen’, which accentuates the record’s distinctly pornographic flavour with a recording of Rose and the spurned would-be girlfriend of drummer Steven Adler having sex in a vocal booth. When Rose suggested this, the woman said she would do it, “for the band, and bottle of Jack Daniels.” She later said she struggled for years with her “extreme shame and guilt,” trying to blot it out with alcohol and drugs.

This is not a nice album. It was not made by nice people. It is an extraordinary, and ugly, and sensational album that could not conceivably have been made by anyone other than awful people.

Was it worth it? Probably not, for the various casualties of the whole scene, although they would have to answer for themselves. But there it is. It can’t be unmade. It can't be unheard. Whether or not it should go unplayed is up to you. I can’t see myself not listening to it, despite the deep distaste I feel for it. It’s too damn good, and in the end, as distinct from other aspects of life, there are no useful rules about morality in art. There’s what you can stand and what you can’t. I’ve never lost my appetite for Appetite for Destruction, and I don’t suppose I will.

Jul 20, 2017 12:01pm

Thoroughly enjoyed your take on this seminal album which has sat somewhat uncomfortably in my collection (currently nestled between Grizzly Bear and Halstead, Neil so that should tell you something) since its release.

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Jul 20, 2017 12:37pm

I gave this album a chance recently (I don't own it btw). Back then I hated it, I also hated the attitude it embodied and (yes), triumphed. And all the memories came back, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, One in a Million. I remembered why I hated it and still hate it. Dumb red-neck rock 'n' roll dressed up as punk rock - but without the intellect. Rebellious hair metal for MTV, custom made rebellion for teenagers who've nothing to rebel against but want to hold on to the same good ol' values their equally-dumb parents have but hate anything that's different or questions the status quo.
So you can keep you're 30 year anniversary, "wasn't it great" thinkpiece. It was bollocks then and it's bollocks now.

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Jul 20, 2017 2:28pm

"Dumb red-neck rock 'n' roll dressed up as punk rock - but without the intellect."

Eh, way off the mark in summarizing the harder side of hair metal. Fine, you're not a fan, but I don't think you understand what 'red-neck' means.

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Jul 20, 2017 2:46pm

Very interesting read. In 1987 I was 16 - I saw them at The Marquee just after finishing my O levels (it was that long ago), having got a coach down from Norwich with my mates. As soon as read about them, i just knew there was going to be something extraordinary about them. This was pre-Appetite but all the songs were there. It was (still) one of the best gigs i've ever been to. I knew how dodgy their lyrics were, but as a band they were genuinely exciting, genuinely dangerous, in a way that's difficult to comprehend if you're not old enough to remember that time. I've got blurry disc camera pictures from the gig I took that night which i treasure to this day – alongside a slightly battered copy of Live?! Like a suicide.

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Jul 20, 2017 3:28pm

In reply to :

From Wikipedia: The term redneck is a derogatory term chiefly used for a rural poor white person of the Southern United States. Its usage is similar in meaning to cracker (especially regarding Georgia, Texas, and Florida), hillbilly (especially regarding Appalachia and the Ozarks), and white trash (but without the last term's suggestions of immorality). By the 1970s, the term had become offensive slang, and its meaning had expanded to mean bigoted, loutish, and opposed to modern ways.

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mitchell cobb
Jul 20, 2017 4:04pm

i've always thought that 'rocket queen' would be immeasurably improved if the sex noises were overdubbed with a slide-whistle, car horn and cartoon 'boing' sounds

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No Refugee
Jul 20, 2017 4:17pm

In reply to :

Ha ha. You think Wikipedia is "a source."

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Jul 20, 2017 5:45pm

In reply to No Refugee:

No Refugee, is there any deep meaning behind your name or do find something objectionable about refugee's in general?

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Jul 20, 2017 6:14pm

Cool beta cuck prose. Write it again, bro.

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Jul 21, 2017 4:19am

In reply to No Refugee:

Thanks for confirming any remaining doubts I had about Guns n Roses and their 'enlightened' fan base.

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Jul 21, 2017 12:24pm

Your handling of the Williams' painting is clumsy at best. Painted years before the album, Axl stumbled over it and the name resonated. After all, the name of the painting, "Appetite For Destruction" is clearly an awesome rock album title. Further, the title itself shows that the victim in the painting is being sympathized with since the avenger is has an "Appetite For Destruction", IE wants to avenge the crime and destroy the robot.

To put any finer of a point on it than that is to read into something that isn't there. And while your point about the handling of women by the purveyors of this type of music has merit, the young ladies that have been "exploited" whether in music videos or in backrooms of concert venues, all go willingly. And many have capitalized on it years later. See the reality show Married To Rock as an example.

The 30th anniversary of Appetite's release has launched several reflections back on the original cover art. Though it should be pointed out that it was more of a "let's generate buzz with this controversy" than a true attempt at launching with William's painting as the real cover. (See this for a more accurate account of what really transpired: ).

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Jul 21, 2017 12:28pm

In reply to :

"I gave this album a chance recently (I don't own it btw). Back then I hated it, I also hated the attitude it embodied and (yes), triumphed. And all the memories came back, the racism, the sexism, the homophobia, One in a Million. I remembered why I hated it and still hate it. Dumb red-neck rock 'n' roll dressed up as punk rock - but without the intellect. Rebellious hair metal for MTV, custom made rebellion for teenagers who've nothing to rebel against but want to hold on to the same good ol' values their equally-dumb parents have but hate anything that's different or questions the status quo.
So you can keep you're 30 year anniversary, "wasn't it great" thinkpiece. It was bollocks then and it's bollocks now."

Opinions vary. I happen to think that The Beatles are overrated rubbish. You can't please everyone. However, I don't go to Beatles nostalgia articles and spew venom.

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Jul 21, 2017 5:13pm

In reply to LoneWolfArcher:

Yeah but The Beatles didn't insult women, immigrants and gays as comprehensively as Guns n Roses.

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Jul 22, 2017 2:43am

They are disgusting. The backwards-looking excuse that really the album art is about sympathizing with the woman - bull fucking shit. B U L L S H I T. what a load. That's why they licensed T-shirts with that scene cropped out, right? Sure. If you're dumber than a box of hair. And if there were still any doubt, 'One in a Million' is just the wink-wink-nudge-nudge anyone needed to know where the hell Axl Rose is coming from.

On a more philosophical note, in RPG terms, I think why they felt so dangerous at the time was their status as ''chaotic neutral' so to speak, vs. most punk bands' 'chaotic good' vs. most metal bands' 'lawful evil' alignments, respectively. Maybe that's a stretch. But, uh, that was certainly part of their appeal, they seemed like they meant real 'anarchy' way more than the Sex Pistols ever did. Just in that way that actual anarchy empowers the worst of the worst kinds of people and leaves the most vulnerable to either kill themselves or be killed. Anyways, fuck guns and fucking roses, but especially fuck axl rose.

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Reggie P
Jul 22, 2017 2:42pm

Excellent and fascinating read. Thank you, David. However, when I read the bit about the artwork I found myself adopting Bobbi Fleckman's voice. Did anyone else get that?

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Jul 22, 2017 4:57pm

In reply to onceler:

Well said, also the argument for the original artwork is farcical. It is neither a strong anti-rape message or educational. For instance, does anybody really think feminists or a women's aid group is ever going to champion it or think it's helpful to women. Why? Because it's exploitative and cheaply sensational.

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Simon Tucker
Jul 22, 2017 9:56pm

Great piece. This album changed my life. As an 8yr old all I was hearing was my parents music but then me and my friend raided his older sisters record collection and came across THAT cover. From the opening riff of WTTJ we were hooked. Here we were listening to someone singing about sex, drugs and violence and also SWEAEING. It blew our minds. Suddenly here was a music that was "ours" something to annoy the parents. Obviously as I grew up I've noticed the very ugly elements to the album but it still holds a big piece of my heart as once I heard it I truly discovered my passion for music which lasts to this very day

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Sunn QuO)))
Jul 25, 2017 8:29am

In terms of truly dangerous, envelope-annihilating, raucous-'n'-unrepentant in-your-FACE rock-'n'-roll, I'd put Guns n' Roses only SLIGHTLY below Cliff Richard. Terb sap.

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Jul 25, 2017 9:03am

It always seemed to me that Guns N' Roses only seemed outrageous or dangerous within a very narrow frame of reference, one taking the primacy of long haired rock for granted. They had some catchy songs but reliving the Aerosmith story at Benny Hill chase speed was hardly the threat to civilisation that their admirers believed it to be.

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Jul 25, 2017 1:36pm

Nobody cares, but the phrase "Appetite For Destruction" appears in the novel "Malign Fiesta" by Wyndham Lewis.

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