Steven Adler (drums; born January 22, 1965), Michael Andrew “Duff” McKagan (bass; born February 5, 1964), Darren Arthur “Dizzy” Reed (keyboards; born June 18, 1963), William “Axl” Rose (vocals, piano; born February 6, 1962), Saul Hudson aka Slash (guitar; born July 23, 1965), Matt Sorum drums; born November 19, 1960), Jeff Isbell aka Izzy Stradlin (guitar; born April 8, 1962)
The 1987 release of Guns n’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was a pivotal moment in rock history. It upended the music world, which had been filled with videogenic synth-pop and hair-metal bands for much of the Eighties. 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 – beginning with the Rolling Stones and extending through Aerosmith and AC/DC – that shook and shocked the world. They were uncompromising, tempestuous, explosive and controversial – everything but predictable.
The members of Guns n’ Roses were misfits who came together in Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties. William “Axl” Rose grew up in Lafayette, Indiana, as Bill Bailey. He adopted the surname Rose when he discovered his birth father’s identity. He was in a hometown band called Axl, which he took as his first name. After moving to Los Angeles, he legally changed his name to W. Axl Rose. An inveterate troublemaker, he claims to have been arrested more than 20 times in his hometown and to have spent as long as three months in jail. One of his best friends in Lafayette was Jeff Isbell aka Izzy Stradlin, who headed to Los Angeles after graduating high school. Rose hitchhiked west and joined him. British-born Slash, whose real name is Saul Hudson, grew up in L.A. with parents who worked as designers in music and film. Duff McKagan was a multi-instrumentalist who moved down from Seattle, where he’d played in numerous bands. McKagan met Slash via a musician’s ad in a local paper.
The name Guns n’ Roses was coined in 1985, when Tracii Guns (of L.A. Guns) joined Rose and Stradlin’s band, Hollywood Rose. After Guns left, they were joined by Slash, Adler and, finally, McKagan. This completed the classic lineup that recorded Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide – a four-song EP from 1986, issued on the group’s own Uzi Suicide label – and their full-length masterpiece, Appetite for Destruction, released on Geffen Records in July 1987. The group was signed to David Geffen’s namesake label by A&R staffers Tom Zutaut and Teresa Ensenat.
By virtue of their confrontational sound and attitude, Guns n’ Roses stood out on the Sunset Strip club scene. While their glam-punk and heavy metal peers celebrated the decadent party atmosphere of mid-Eighties Los Angeles, Guns n’ Roses addressed the grisly realities of the scene, most memorably on “Welcome to the Jungle,” a potent slice of urban realism. The massively popular single “Sweet Child o’ Mine” showed a gentler side, while “Mr. Brownstone” delivered a plainspoken, cautionary tale about heroin use. “Paradise City” was an idealistic anthem whose double-time finale, featuring blistering lead guitar from Slash, remains one of the musical highlights of the Eighties.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” was among the earliest singles by a hard rock group to top the chart, and “Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle” made the Top 10. An extensive period of touring, during which Guns n’ Roses opened for the Cult, Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper, Iron Maiden and Aerosmith, allowed them to build a grassroots following and graduate to headlining status. Appetite for Destruction enjoyed one of the longest runs of any hard rock album in history, remaining on Billboard’s Hot 100 for nearly three years. As if 2012, it has sold 18 million copies in the U.S. alone.
Appetite for Destruction was a tough act to follow, but Guns n’ Roses were up to the challenge. In 1991, inspired by Queen and Elton John – two similarly prolific and bombastic role models – Guns n’ Roses released two volumes of the highly ambitious Use Your Illusion on the same day. It was a remarkable outpouring of music, totaling 30 tracks on two CDs. Each volume was also issued as a double vinyl album. Of course, virtually no one bought just one volume; those who were among their fervid following had to have Use Your Illusion I and II, and each sold millions of copies and shared adjoining positions on the charts, peaking at Number Two and Number One, respectively. The epic singles “November Rain” and “Civil War” proved how far the band had evolved in a few years. The two years’ worth of international tours that followed Use Your Illusion were epic as well, breaking records for attendance and the speed at which venues sold out.
When finally off the road in late 1993, Guns n’ Roses paid tribute to their 1970s hard rock, punk and glam mentors by recording an album of covers called The Spaghetti Incident?. Beyond this labor of love, Guns n’ Roses proved itself adept at covers throughout its career, recording captivating versions of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door,” Paul McCartney and Wings’ “Live and Let Die,” and the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil,” among others.
Guns n’ Roses’ reign was not without controversy. A hue and cry over the initial cover of Appetite for Destruction, a bizarre painting that intimated a scene of robotic rape and violence, resulted in record stores’ refusal to carry it. That cover image was replaced by one in which five skulls (each representing a band member) adorned a cross, while the offending painting was moved to the album’s inner sleeve. Some offensive lyrics in “One in a Million” – a song from GN’R Lies, issued in 1988 as an interim release between Appetite for Destruction and Use Your Illusion – provoked another firestorm. There were violent incidents at concerts, usually incited by comments, tardiness, premature exits or no-shows by Axl Rose. He sparked a riot at a 1991 show in St. Louis that resulted in injuries to more than 50 people (including 15 police officers), caused $200,000 in damage to the venue and resulted in lawsuits. The group was notoriously heedless of starting times and curfews. Yet Guns n’ Roses often played shows lasting upwards of three hours, and few questioned their intensity and commitment.
“Guns n’ Roses are perceived as dangerous because we’re so unpredictable and willing to take chances,” Slash commented in 1991. “To be a real anarchist, you have to have a lot of integrity to be able to follow through with it. Rock and roll is all about attitude and rebellion. It’s supposed to be fun, spontaneous, a release.”
In 1994, the band took a hiatus that led to a breakup. Already there had been defections from the core membership. Drummer Steven Adler was fired in July 1990 for drug-related problems. Drummer Matt Sorum joined a month later, during sessions for Use Your Illusion, and Dizzy Reed – a friend from Guns n’ Roses' club days – joined on keyboards. Izzy Stradlin left in 1991 and was replaced by guitarist Gilby Clarke.
By 1997, the only original remaining member was Rose, and Guns n’ Roses appeared to be history. However, a rather stable if only intermittently active lineup – including keyboardist Reed – has existed under Rose’s leadership since the late Nineties.
Over a period of a decade, Rose and his comrades labored in secrecy on an album entitled Chinese Democracy. In 2008, the long-awaited album finally appeared. It had been two decades since Appetite for Destruction originally ignited the Guns n’ Roses phenomenon. Times had changed, however, and Guns n’ Roses had been so long out of the limelight and Chinese Democracy so long in the making that its arrival was a relative non-event. It entered the Hot 100 at its peak position of Number Three.
While the revamped Guns n’ Roses hasn’t exhibited the earth-shaking impact of the prototype, a fascination with Rose continues to fill arenas on the band’s occasional tours. He has welcomed original members Duff McKagan and Izzy Stradlin onto his stage on a few occasions. Meanwhile, the other members have pursued solo careers and various group projects, such as Slash’s Snakepit, Izzy Stradlin’s Ju Ju Hounds and Velvet Revolver (which included Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum).