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Retrospect is a series which takes a look at some of the most important albums of all time. This week, Barra Ó Súilleabháin examines the influence of Guns N’ Roses‘ Appetite For Destruction.
A rented house in L.A on the same estate that Cecil B DeMille used to own, July 1985. All the toilets have long been fucked out the window and smashed to pieces two floors down. Holes filled with piss and cigarettes mark their old post. Sinks, crevices, and drains are clogged with shit. The walls are plastered with anything but actual plastering; sweat, semen, blood, faeces, ash, graffiti, and rotting food have Jackson Pollocksed themselves all over the panelling. Whatever other substance a horde of junkies can perspire has dissipated into the essence of the place.
There are no light sleepers here to be disturbed by the many furry night creatures that run riot over the mouldy Whopper bars and pizza boxes with lyrics scrawled on the back. Used needles mean cosy snoozers and free reign for the subtenants. Clothes are optional in 40-degree heat, but not so much if you were offered a Chinese rock back at the Roxy for that very purpose. Your purse will be empty and your client gone by the time you wake up anyway, and there’s nothing to steal in revenge. Who’s got money on these residents producing the best-selling debut album of all time? Better still, who’s got a penny on them seeing 1990 with a beating heart? 9/4 hai.
Not the worst odds, but for a reason. Watch your foot there and come around to the throne. Behind this padlock-secured door is a (comparatively) immaculate and cosy little sleeping quarter. Who’s the asshole with a modicum of cleanliness and orderliness in their head? Why, the king of assholes, no less. Captain narcissism himself; a man who carries no less than three major psychiatric disorders into battle and relishes psychological and physical sadism.
Most rats are long, cylindrical, and highly flexible, and this is how they squeeze and whittle their mass through the most minuscule of holes. Axl Rose ploughs an uncompromising and unfathomably massive dick through any obstacle, the capillaries of which are filled not with blood but with misogyny, fear, and insecurity. You certainly don’t need to like the artists whose work you love; talent and genuineness don’t require a moral compass. After all, Charles Manson wrote some gorgeous 60s west coast pop tunes. Oh, and Axl covered one of them for 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident (Look at Your Game Girl).
Gang of freaks
At the core of this band of 20th-century pirates were two pairs of long-time friends and one loner from up north. From the Sartrian emptiness and head-in-the-sand fundamentalism of the mid-west, we have William Bruce Buckley and Jeffrey Dean Isabell, both anarchically at odds with small-town Indiana. The former ran riot as an undiagnosed and temperamental individual, cunning and crafty but cut throat as can be. Izzy Stradlin, the latter, was the more reserved other half; a man of immense songwriting talent, who possessed no need for obnoxiously overstated credit lines nor had a zealous penchant for coin and power.
The local LA heads were the real deal vis-à-vis Beavis and Butthead. Steven ‘Popcorn’ Adler, lover of KISS, beer, and pissing off early morning joggers by playing poorly tuned drums in the local park. Saul Hudson, better known as Slash, is the English-born child of a black mother who used to work costumes for David Bowie and an English artist who produced cover art for Neil Young among others. “As a musician, I’ve always been amused that I’m both British and black; particularly because so many American musicians seem to aspire to be British while so many British musicians, in the ‘Sixties in particular, went to such great pains to be black,” he said in a later interview. As if born by genetics, geography, and fate to be the living embodiment of rock n’ roll, the guy dropped out of school to play his guitar for 12 hours a day at his grandmother’s house.
The last is Duff McKagan, the ‘King of Beers’, and the loner who bussed it from Seattle, having cemented his punk credibility via the Fastbacks and the Fartz. McKagan’s nightstand was a 40 of vodka which he would intermittently wake up and swig throughout the night. Otherwise, it was just another glass to polish by noon the next day. He dropped out of school despite being an honour’s student to become a musician, got a degree in economics after Guns, and now runs a wealth management firm. Book? cover.
Beneath the exterior that bore a resemblance to a lot of their peers, musician or otherwise, this was a group of freaks and nothing short of it. Slash was an introspective, soft spoken loner who stole vans and drove them around construction sites while drunk out of his mind. Axl constantly had everyone on edge with his suspected multiple personality disorder and megalomaniac ambitions. Izzy couldn’t go on stage without black tar heroin in his veins, and he traded the stuff for food. Duff’s pancreas inflated to the size of an American football because of alcoholism, and Steve can barely string a sentence together these days after a heroin-induced stroke.
Mid-80’s rock music was nauseatingly saturated with over-produced, anthemic, bullshit glam metal acts that adorned the jockish and cheesy overlays of good-time heavy metal. ‘Poison’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Ratt’ and the rest are all retrospective jokes; exhibitions in the museum of pop music history that lacked all substance, championing hairspray, spandex and ‘havin a reeeeeeeaaal good time, baby!’
Bringing it all back home
The theatre of unironic vanity and fakery was so easily smashed by the brutal realism and honesty of a band like Guns N’ Roses. They were denied air time when Appetite For Destruction was released, yet a 4 a.m showing of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ on MTV after some well-connected phone calls was the moment the hammer came down. Millions were enthralled by the ferocious, Aerosmith-fucks-the-Sex Pistols noise coming out of their TV sets. A raw, groovy, furious and blistering debut immediately captured attention on the streets and in the offices. The vacuous could still flock to KISS minus the Cat and the Spaceman, but fans of dirty, bluesy hard rock finally had their long-awaited cake.
Scream and sing about prostitution, overdoses, theft, the cops, heroin, and they will come, Garth. This LP is an immoral hell hole on tape; it’s nihilistic hedonism sticking up its middle finger before going kaput in the soup of a capitalist dystopia. No one has prospects in this world, just whatever dollars, drugs, or sex they’re offering or stashing, and therein you have the myriad of gangs, death, violence, music, power and betrayal. The best novel you’ve never read is in there, and to get it on tape from the urchins themselves is something else, especially given the quality and coherency of it all (cough cough, GG Allin). Rotten/Lydon and co. threw around swastikas and blue hair while half-seriously espousing the philosophy of the Situationist International; Guns forewent the theory but kept the indulgence in apocalyptic fun and misanthropic voyeurism.
“They say that the Stones to the sixties were the kings of their genre. They say Aerosmith to the seventies were the same thing. They say in the late eighties going into the nineties, it is these boys right here, Guns N’ Roses,” said the host of the Headbanger’s Ball in ’88, introducing the five. Slash and Izzy let the sycophants of the LA rock scene ride on the coat tails of Van Halen as they desperately attempted to mimic his rapid shredding and tapping, losing originality and feel. The pair were too busy infusing the roots of rock n roll, individually distilled to the finest purity: punk anger, bluesy grooves, hard rock punches, soulful wailing, and a club’s level of reverb on the drum mix, not an airport hangar a lá Motley Crue.
Appetite for Destruction was the last of a dying breed in terms of production. Mike Clink, the man at the desk, had vinyl and the pantheon of 60’s and 70’s rock gods in mind when approaching the capture. Clink used a razor blade to cut and edit the two-inch tape and mixing was a five-man venture requiring militant attention and rapid sliding of faders on a non-automated board. Victor ‘The Fucking Engineer’ Deyglio: “It could almost be seen as the last of one of those types of records, from Layla to Abbey Road on down. It could be seen as the last great rock record made totally by hand.”
The back to basics approach of Clink and his squad was a crucial factor in the ageing process; hearing the squeaky clean group choral chants of Poison is utterly painful listening in 2017. What is dated on Appetite For Destruction is the quintessentially 80s double-tracking of the acoustic lead guitars on ‘Think About You’. Not everyone’s cup of tea, but a more likely cringe-inducer is the unironic little jibe from Axl at the end of ‘Out Ta Get Me’: “Take that one to heart!” Personally, I can’t help but shamelessly indulge myself every time I hear it, simply because I thought it was the most badass thing in the universe when I was 15.
Unfortunately, despite all the sardonic and mind-numbingly arrogant statements that Rose spewed out of his mouth, he backed them up with the walk. It takes something else to get up in front of a crowd and sing such unashamedly abusive and narcissistic yet honest lyrics:
“Ya get nothin’ for nothin’
If that’s what ya do
Turn around bitch I got a use for you
Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do
And I’m bored”
Rose went into hiding for a while under accusations of rape by a groupie, but ‘Out Ta Get Me’ is more an ode to his illustrious run-ins with the LAPD and beyond. Talking about vocal crown glories, the album is littered with extraordinary, unearthly wonders. I didn’t even realise as a teenager that that was a human at the start of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’; stop reading this right now and try to imitate a police siren without ripping all of your vocal chords out. As for range, a pair of good headphones can help to soak up the baritone harmony at the opening of ‘Paradise City’ – contrast that with the demonic howls that swirl and swish around the two channels in the closing double-tempo section.
Slash’s guitar tone on Appetite For Destruction remains a topic of debate in forums like Ultimate Guitar and Guitar Player Magazine. Initially frustrated with a Gibson SG, he found his calling in the chunky boy tone and versatility of the Les Paul, powered by a rented Marshall. As the story goes, this particular amp had been modded previously by an anonymous tinkerer, and as fate would have it, this realised the grit, punch, and sustain that birthed the greatest rock n’ roll tone of all time. The amp was returned after the session, the modder never found, and the tone remains a puzzle for engineers to this day.
Where do you even begin with the lead lines and riffs on this album? Every tune is packed with a masterful understanding of the dos and don’ts of rock music in light of tempos and feel. The twin guitar partnership is easily the most fluid and memorable since Richards/Taylor, and Joe Perry commented the very same sentiment a few years back. Break out a score or tab of the closing solo to ‘Paradise City’ and try to wrap your head around the succession of eviscerating 16th note runs that lose none of the blues or swagger despite weaving in and out of the chromatic scale.
The rumbling and infectious riffs that put the horse power into tunes like this and Mr Brownstone show what Izzy can do with so little. The flip side of the coin is a sense of melody that paints such beautiful twists and troughs in classics like Sweet Child O’ Mine and Rocket Queen’s weeping closing lead runs. When people can sing each and every note of your solo despite the technical prowess and blending of modes and scales, you’re a true master of your craft.
Elsewhere, you’ll find the monstrous blues and harmonic minor-infused assaults on’ Nightrain’, ‘It’s So Easy’, ‘You’re Crazy’ and ‘Out Ta Get Me’. These solos seamlessly fit across key changes, transitions, rapid tempos, competing screeches from Mr. Rose and the rest of the bands pummeling riffs. TalkWah and chicken picking bask ‘Anythin’ Goes’ in pure character, while trippy delay and slide lines ooze the sleaze and sex of ‘Rocket Queen’s drifting background melodies and middle ground overdub of Axl having sex with Adler’s girlfriend.
Rumble in the jungle
Axl sleazily coaxed her into it with the petty trade-off acting as vengeance for Steven’s cheating, plus a bottle of wine for the road. “I ended up drinking and using drugs over this for a really long time because I had this extreme shame and guilt and stuff,” said Adriana Smith, the real-life Rocket Queen. Being cold and rational, it adds to the credibility of the record since it is emblematic of the lifestyle that surrounded it, but this is one example among many of the ruthless hand of Axl and the damaged people left to waste.
The very same tune hosts one of the best rhythm features of the whole album. Duff and Steve’s grooves are so infectious here that it’s impossible not to tap and slap the nearest surface. Granted, other famous beats that spring to mind are the skunky interpretation of Bo Diddley’s signature beat on Mr Brownstone, and the only real stadium-level anthem on the record, Paradise City. Mr McKagan’s bass playing is an essential part of the intro to Sweet Child; how many times have you seen drunken hordes in clubs sing along to that particular melody when the tune hits the karaoke bar or the deck?
For all the flaws, insanity, and egoism of its creators, Appetite for Destruction is the pinnacle of rock n’ roll in its rawest form. The energy and exuberance garnered from their live sets were what gave them their reputation and loyalty on the scene before the album’s release, and Clink bottled the essence and the atmosphere succinctly. Every thematic hallmark of the genre was lived, talked and walked by Guns N Roses, and no matter what you think of them as people or their work thereafter, this album is a near-flawless consolidation of the boys at the height of their game. A must-listen.