The 1987 release of Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was a pivotal moment in rock history. With Guns N' Roses – vocalist Axl Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler – rock music rediscovered its edge, rage and sense of danger. Guns N' Roses rank alongside a handful of hard-rock bands with punk-rock attitudes – including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and AC/DC - that shook and shocked the world.
Guns N' Roses formed in Los Angeles in 1985 and Appetite for Destruction, which was released on Geffen Records two years later, would ultimately enjoy a 147-week run on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In 1991, Guns N' Roses released two volumes of Use Your Illusion on the same day. It was a remarkable outpouring of music, totaling 30 tracks on two CDs. Use Your Illusion I and II each sold 7 million copies and reached Number Two and Number One, respectively. By 1997 only Axl Rose remained from the original Guns N' Roses. However, a rather stable lineup has existed under his leadership since the late Nineties and released Chinese Democracy in 2008.
Here, the Rock Hall suggests 10 essential Guns N' Roses songs.
"Welcome To The Jungle" was the opening volley of an assault on the rock and roll mainstream of the Eighties. The first track on 1987's Appetite for Destruction, "Welcome To The Jungle" was the antithesis of the pop-metal that was heavily favored by rock radio of the era. Rose's lyrics painted a portrait of Los Angeles far removed from the glitz and glamour more commonly seen and heard, instead singing of the town's dark, seedy side (Welcome to the jungle we take it day by day / If you want it you're gonna bleed but it's the price to pay / And you're a very sexy girl that's very hard to please / You can taste the bright lights but you won't get there for free). For Indiana native Rose, it was an honest account of his introduction to a cruel metropolis and the scenes he witnessed. His screeching vocals – including the bone-chilling opening to the song – reflected a despondency and anger, while the song's gritty, distorted verse riffs and declarative rhythm section gave the track a muscular backbone. The production was loud and brash – just like the band members themselves.
This was the song that helped make the Gunners superstars, peaking at Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1988 and helping take sales of Appetite For Destruction to more than 18 million. If “Welcome to the Jungle” displayed their hard rock edge, then “Sweet Child O’ Mine” showed more emotional range, but without dipping into the metal power ballad territory mined by so many of their contemporaries. The song also established lead guitarist Slash as a bona fide guitar hero. With his signature top hat, wild shock of hair and low-slung Gibson Les Paul, Slash struck a singular presence and had the memorable chops to match. The intro to "Sweet Child O'Mine" ranks among rock's great guitar riffs while the main guitar solo translated the mid-tempo rock song's romantic sentiment into a blistering passage with evocative blues licks and pentatonic runs, and wah-wah effects.
Although the late 80s may be considered a golden era of hard rock in terms of commercial airplay, "Paradise City" was still an unlikely radio hit. The song presented a tale of urban grit (Just an urchin livin' under the street / I'm a hard case that's tough to beat / I'm your charity case, so buy me somethin' to eat) and the superficial veneer of fame and fortune (Take me down to the paradise city / Where the grass is green / And the girls are pretty). The opening vocal parts showcased not only Rose’s vocal ability but also his ear for beautiful interlocking pop harmonies. Clocking in at nearly seven minutes, the song's composition and the band's adroit playing gave it a vitality that kept it from seeming overblown, from its chugging verse groove to the anthemic chorus to the double-time coda that closed the track at a frenetic pace. "Paradise City" was the third single from the band's 1987 debut to chart in the Top 10.
An all-acoustic ballad, "Patience" showed a more vulnerable Guns N' Roses. Whereas Rose projected an almost feral howl throughout most of the songs featured on Appetite For Destruction, he showcased a more subdued croon on "Patience," which appeared on 1988's G N' R Lies, whistling and tenderly emoting, while Slash and the band delivered a melodic soundtrack with tasteful solo work. Still, the song's climactic coda featured Rose delving into his familiar snarl, though as a juxtaposition to his timbre leading up to that moment, it had a profound effect on the mood of the song. Stylistically, "Patience" was a departure from their (ostensible) comfort zone, and provided an early teaser for the more ambitious material that would appear a few years later.
Although the meaning of this honky tonk shuffle from G N' R Lies is open to debate – Slash once claimed it was about Rose's dog – it ranks among the band's more lighthearted moments, a sentiment echoed in Rose's call to action during the song: "Take it for what it is." With its chorus – I used to love her, but I had to kill her / I knew I'd miss her, so I had to keep her / She's buried right in my back yard – it was a moment of humorous, deliberate ambiguity for a band who would engender its fair share of controversy (including the racist claims brought about by lyrics to Lies' "One In A Million"). The light mood is echoed in the breezy strum of acoustic guitars and Slash's dextrous handling of countrified leads that showcased his versatility as a guitarist.
"You Could Be Mine" was first rehearsed by the band in the late 80s (the song's lyrics "With your bitch slap rappin' and your cocaine tongue you get nothin' done" appeared in the liner notes of Appetite For Destruction). Released in June 1991, a driving drum fill, menacing bass line and controlled feedback opened "You Could Be Mine," and gave fans the first taste of material that would be featured on the sprawling, 30-song double release Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, which arrived that fall. Although the production was more slick than earlier efforts, "You Could Be Mine" still delivered a liberal dose of Rose's angered, impassioned holler (I'm a cold heartbreaker / Fit to burn / And I'll rip your heart in two / And I'll leave you lyin' on the bed) with a complementarily charged-up hard rock soundtrack. "You Could Be Mine" was featured in James Cameron's 1991 summer blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and the video for the song featured the movie's star cyborg: Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Everything about "November Rain," one of the last singles to appear from the Illusion set, was grandiose. With its heavily orchestrated opening featuring an array of strings and piano that gradually gave way to a more rock-oriented wall of guitars and drums, the nine-minute track – and the suitably epic music video that followed – solidified the band as a group of musicians capable of lavish arena-rock level productions both on and off the stage. Still, the song was grounded by Rose’s keen sense of melody and Slash’s soaring guitar solos. In songs like this, Guns N' Roses seemed to be following in the footsteps of bands like Led Zeppelin and Queen who recorded multi-part rock journeys on later albums.The band performed the song at the 1992 MTV Music Awards and were joined on stage by Elton John, who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by Rose in 1994.
"Civil War" launched Use Your Illusion II with a sweeping narrative on war that had Rose questioning "what's so civil about war anyways?" The song included a number of audio samples – including Strother Martin's speech to a group of chain gang prisoners in Cool Hand Luke – adding to the song's expansive dramatics. Musically, the song reportedly grew from an instrumental developed by Slash, and with the addition of the band's input and Rose's lyrics, evolved into an eight-minute arrangement. The song's intro and verses revolved around a simple minor-chord riff on the guitar and piano as the backdrop for more delicate passages before exploding in the bombastic chorus and a series of wah-wah driven solos that culminated in a somber fade with Rose whistling "When Johnny Comes Marching Home."
Originally recorded by Paul McCartney and Wings for the 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die, "Live And Let Die" was the fourth single to appear from the Illusions set. The band had included covers on their albums before – Rose Tattoo's "Nice Boys" and Aerosmith's "Mama Kin" on Lies; Bob Dylan's "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" on Use Your Illusion II; and later released an album of mostly punk and glam rock covers entitled "The Spaghetti Incident?" in 1993 – but none so effectively fit the Guns N' Roses aesthetic the way "Live And Let Die" did. The band took McCartney's rock-reggae motifs and transformed them with a metallic rock resonance that gave the lyrics (When you got a job to do / You gotta do it well / You gotta give the other fellow hell) a summarily nastier tone than the original.
Guns N' Roses began writing material for a new album in 1994, started recording music in 1996, underwent numerous line-up and production changes, reportedly finished a new album in 2006 and released Chinese Democracy in 2008. “Better” took Rose's gift for melody and combined it with his ability to push his voice into different spaces, such as the falsetto of the song's opening lines and pre-chorus, the gritty growl of the verse and the vocal shouting of the chorus. The music on the track rocked hard with an industrial edge, featuring a tight drum and bass rhythm section that allowed the various guitar riffs to sink deep into the groove, while the guitar solo (played by Buckethead) mixed old school hard rock distortion with digital chop and glitch.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum curatorial director Howard Kramer discusses Slash's electric guitar, which he played as a member of Guns N' Roses.
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