My teenage years aren’t something I relish in bringing to light particularly often, mainly because natural light is not the friend of black fingernails, studded leather, crass band t-shirts and horrendous hair at all. I couldn’t help myself this week though, after the worst kept secret in the music industry became a reality on Tuesday and Guns N’ Roses, one of the formative bands of my youth, decided that money actually could
buy them happiness wipe away the last 25 years of petty grudges, incessant infighting and long-range mud-slinging, reuniting most of their original lineup to headline this year’s Coachella festival.
That’s the actual Guns N’ Roses. As in the really, really good one from the late 80s and early 90s that set popular music ablaze. Not the sham cabaret act version frontman and noted crazy person Axl Rose has been disappointing everybody in Las Vegas with. Not the Chinese Democracy Guns N’ Roses, who released the most long-awaited album of all time with all the fanfare and musical acclaim of a fart that compensates its silence with sheer noxiousness.
This won’t be that Guns N’ Roses, no. As of right now, headlining this year’s Coachella will be the volatile, cornrow-ed frontman Axl himself, joining transcendent lead guitarist Slash, bass punk Duff McKagan (and potentially drummer Matt Sorum from the Use Your Illusion era lineup as well) playing together onstage as Guns N’ Roses for the first time since 1994.
And it got me thinking back to high school almost a decade ago. Back to a place I thought I’d long left behind full of zits and social awkwardness and abject heartbreak. Of hormones running wild, of anger I could never explain and of recesses spent on my own with GnF’nR and their angry, bluesy, sleazy hard rock blaring in my ears, livid at the world beyond belief and never fully understanding why.
I haven’t really listened to much Guns N’ Roses in the intervening years, a combination of age, cringing uncontrollably at even the tiniest reminder of my teenage self and the bitterly awful taste Chinese Democracy would end up leaving in my mouth the contributing factors. That album was so terrible that if I were to put my musical taste on a timeline, it would be Chinese Democracy that marked the end of my hard rock and heavy metal listening days, and this was no coincidence.
This announcement though, which I will have creeping doubts about until I physically see Guns N’ Roses on that Coachella stage and pinch myself, made me feel the kind of unbridled excitement I’ve scarcely felt since I was that kid. And so I went back there. Back to an album that I first got into almost 20 years after it was released but one that nevertheless grabbed me by the throat and never let go, though its grip now definitely loosened. I found a quiet corner, shoved my headphones into my ears and hit play on Appetite For Destruction.
The first time I ever heard Guns N’ Roses and picked up on it, like a lot of other music in my life, was through an episode of The Simpsons. Specifically the episode Marge On The Lam, wherein Marge Simpson leaves behind the doldrums of being an unappreciated housewife and runs from the law in a stolen car with her felonious next-door neighbour, who accidentally pops Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows into the 8-track of her ex-husband’s convertible before switching it to Appetite For Destruction and speeding off into the night with the strains of Welcome To The Jungle piercing the air.
Whether intentionally or not, The Simpsons managed to depict the arrival of Guns N’ Roses near-perfectly, and my introduction to them as well. In the late 80s, popular rock and roll largely was sunshine and rainbows, most of it in the form of sickly, saccharine-sweet hair metal bands like Poison and Def Leppard dominating the airwaves. Rock had all but sold its soul to candyland before Guns N’ Roses landed in 1987 with Appetite For Destruction, pouring out a bottle of Jack on everything before it and dropping the Zippo with a smirk.
As far as opening tracks on debut albums go, Welcome To The Jungle is probably bested only by Straight Outta Compton in terms of incendiary force and the making of an immediate and thunderous statement. This was less their arrival than it was a literal welcome to their world, the jungle they’re referring to finding its borders in the darkest, seediest midnight corners of the Sunset Strip you’d ever make the mistake of stumbling across.
Welcome To The Jungle was the initial catalyst for the many different elements of Guns N’ Roses to slam together and make something instantly explosive. Slash and Izzy Stradlin’s hard as fuck guitars steeped in the blues, the relentless punk rhythms from bassist McKagan and then drummer Steven Adler and, slithering around the stabbing switchblade riffs and the supercharged backbeats wailing over the top of it all, frontman Axl Rose with that inimitable falsetto, both glam and snotty at the same time. It builds and builds through the intro, before that boogie riff drops and Axl steps up to the mic for the very first time. What follows after that is four and a half minutes of the best hard rock ever recorded. Perverse and threatening, wild and free.
Bam. I was hooked like it was musical crack.
When I first set foot into that jungle around 15, I’d been infatuated with bands like AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Motörhead to that point and, while these were all unquestionably amazing hard rock bands, they always had a ‘dad’ feel and voice about them that didn’t quite resonate. Guns N’ Roses were something entirely different though. Having watched that episode of The Simpsons and all but sprinting to Appetite, I was immediately rewarded, rocked to the very bone.
When Axl sang ‘you learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play’ on the opening track, he fucking meant it. Appetite wasn’t just a record, but a screeching venomous document of the lives they had learned to live on their less than glamorous way to the top. Here were five young street punks from LA who extolled the virtues of drinking cheap liquor out of paper bags in songs like Nightrain. Who, when backed into a corner, stood up roaring with vitriol against the establishment in songs like Out Ta Get Me. Who lamented the pitfalls of doing a little and then inevitably more and more on their initially glorifying but ultimately soul-crushing ode to dancing with heroin personified in Mr. Brownstone.
Clearly not one of them gave a single fuck about anything. They all had long hair and loose morals, some of them homeless at the time and all of them drinkers and partiers of the hardest ilk. A band who recorded themselves having sex with groupies in the studio and layered it over the raunchy breakdown of Rocket Queen. Who openly bragged about leeching whatever they wanted off of those same groupies and hangers-on in It’s So Easy. Who made no bones about a former flame who treated them wrong in the breakneck speed metal histrionics of You’re Crazy. Who tried to write a love song and ended up telling a sordid tale of drugs and death about a girl they all knew in My Michelle. Every track on the album featured a guitar solo from Slash that left your head spinning. Every track left your eyes wide at the unfathomable vocal range of Axl. Every track had a roiling undercurrent of danger. Every track energised you beyond belief and curled your upper lip into a ‘fuck it all’ snarl.
And this fan-made mashup music video ft. Robocop and Terminator might be the best thing ever.
Oh yes. Guns N’ Roses, to this 15-year-old kid, were kings among men.
There were two other enormous hits on that album that have become as entrenched in the legendary wings of popular culture as the introductory Welcome To The Jungle in the decades since. Paradise City is the first, a sprawling hard rock opus contrasting what the band saw as the dirty realities of a crumbling 1980s American wasteland with their longing for an entirely fictional ‘Paradise City’, ‘where the grass is green and the girls are pretty’. It’s a rare moment of almost upbeat optimism in amongst the fury and the debauchery on the album, the band abandoning the cold, grey streets for just a few blissful choruses. Paradise City holds its own up there with Skynyrd’s Free Bird and Springsteen’s Born In The USA in terms of the most iconic American stadium rock songs ever written.
The other one should need no introduction, originally included in keeping with the token ballad tradition of seemingly every hard rock and hair metal album of the late 80s. A song written in prose that is ludicrously exaggerated yet manages to hit home harder than almost any of the other over-produced and ultimately soullessly hollow love ballads of the era. That song was Sweet Child O’ Mine, with its unforgettable squealing riff turned up to 11, its simple and sweet choruses all building to a monumentally hard rocking crescendo.
It was the song I’d mull over every high school crush to. A song that unearthed a rare sensitive side of a band largely intent on making musical anarchy on the rest of the album and in the years that followed it found itself covered to death and used in wedding montages and movie soundtracks ad nauseum. The original though was raw and unpolished and bursting at the seams with feeling and genuine emotion, conspicuous in their absence from the ballads of their later years like Estranged and Don’t Cry. Sweet Child O’ Mine would go on to be one of Guns N’ Roses’ biggest hits, smashing the test of time too.
And just like that, after my very first run-through of an album that had seemingly everything: romance, sex, drugs, violence, booze, sleaze, debauchery, death, unbridled rage juxtaposed with heartbreaking introspection, both self-deprecation and self-loathing and above all else rock and fucking roll, they lit a fire inside me and with one album I had a new favourite band.
Appetite For Destruction was the recording of not just a band but a tight-knit gang, one who accomplished a hall of fame album against all odds while they were mired in some of their own shitty circumstances, dealing with an ouroboric cycle of drugs and poverty, scratching and fighting to make a name for themselves in a music industry preferential to inoffensive slick and shine over in-your-grill grit and grime. They thankfully persevered, Appetite For Destruction dropped like an atom bomb and Guns N’ Roses went from being just five struggling nobodies in a hard rock band plugging away on an already saturated Sunset Strip scene to being the biggest band in the world almost overnight.
Of course it all went to hell in a handcart as quickly as it arrived, the individual egos of the band swelling at the same rate as the arenas and stadiums they quickly found themselves packing out. Like so many other rock bands, after Guns N’ Roses rode into the spotlight in ironclad unity and at their creative peak, they subsequently walked out on it just seven years later in a shitstorm of petty internal conflict amid a steady decline in the quality of their output. All of their subsequent albums (while still very good in retrosepct) ended up suffering from an increase in commercial influence and the well-meaning but ultimately clunky desire to branch out and experiment with the genre instead of staying true to what worked with their roots (cough, that’s you Axl, cough). As a result, those albums were never quite able to clear the stratospheric bar set by Appetite, a record that was rebellious, dangerous and captured so marvellously that defiant anger in the face of fear and helplessness that summed up life as the members of Guns N’ Roses knew it in late 80s America.
As a middle-class Australian kid from an unbroken family who wasn’t even born when Appetite For Destruction was released, I admittedly know nothing of that life. As a teenager going through all kinds of shit I often struggled to deal with though, Guns N’ Roses and their music: snarling, pissed off, unruly and nihilistic to the very core, was exactly what I was searching for back then, and saw me through so many rough patches when sunshine, lollipops and rainbows just wouldn’t fucking cut it.
The Coachella reunion spectacular may yet fall spectacularly flat and I’m using no illusions (had to) in my expectations of that show and the potential tour coming with it. Axl Rose is pretty much shithat insane and somehow even more bloated on his own misguided sense of self-worth at this point and Slash and McKagan are three decades older and have spent the better part of that time in and out of some barely even mediocre side and solo projects. No, this won’t be the same Guns N’ Roses who took over the world nearly 30 years ago. At the very worst though, the hatchet won’t truly be buried, the underlying resentment of Axl vs everybody else will boil over the moment and make it feel forced, but it couldn’t possibly let me down any harder than Chinese Democracy did.
And at the very best? Well, maybe these three old LA street punks can recapture some of that white hot youthful rage they first bottled like lightning all those years ago on Appetite For Destruction. For now though I’ll spend the months before Coachella with a nostalgia-heavy soundtrack of vintage Guns N’ Roses assaulting my ears, feeling like a teenager and excited beyond belief to be going back to the jungle after all these years.
I haven’t forgotten where the fuck we are.