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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

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.