A vintage Guns n' Roses press photo

Guns n' Roses

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive
2012
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Axl Rose
  • Slash
  • Duff McKagan
  • Izzy Stradlin
  • Steven Adler
  • Dizzy Reed
  • Matt Sorum

Mainstream hard rock wasn't the same after the members of Guns n' Roses sank their teeth into it.

The band's sound combined a reverence for classic rock titans (to name a few, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Aerosmith and Queen) with metal's abrasive snarls and punk's sneering dislike of authority.

Plus, vocalist Axl Rose and guitarist Slash rival music's great pairings—Mick and Keith, Tyler and Perry, Lennon and McCartney—in terms of creative chemistry, onstage charisma and singular style.

Biography

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During its late '80s and early '90s heyday, Guns n' Roses perpetually teetered on the brink of chaos and threatened to implode. That powder keg atmosphere made the L.A. band great: Not only were its concerts unpredictable, energetic and confrontational—thanks in no small part to frontman Axl Rose's loose-hipped stage moves and gravelly, menacing banshee screams—but the band and its music oozed danger.

The ominous guitar pulses introducing "Welcome To The Jungle," the teeth-baring "Nightrain" and "Right Next Door To Hell," and the no-brakes cover of Wings' "Live And Let Die"—it all solidified Guns n' Roses' reputation as a gang of debauched misfit hellraisers determined to inject raw sincerity and adrenalin into an increasingly staid, overproduced rock scene.

This "us-against-the-world" mentality started with Rose, a mercurial Indiana native with a troubled upbringing who followed childhood friend Jeff Isbell (a.k.a. Izzy Stradlin) to Los Angeles in the early '80s. The pair formed the glammy punk-metal band Hollywood Rose, whose lineup later featured guitarist Slash and his teenage best friend, drummer Steven Adler.

As local bands do, Hollywood Rose eventually disintegrated due to interpersonal turmoil. However, when Rose decided to give the band one more shot, he struck gold: In 1985, Guns n' Roses' lineup finally coalesced with guitarists Stradlin and Slash, drummer Adler and Seattle-born punk vet Duff McKagan on bass.

Still, the band's full-length debut, 1987's Appetite For Destruction, wasn't an immediate hit. In fact, Guns n' Roses spent over a year opening for Mötley Crüe, Alice Cooper and the Cult while the slow-burning record caught fire. The tipping points: the video for "Welcome To The Jungle," which mirrored Rose's Midwest-boy-hits-seedy-L.A. backstory, and the band's only No. 1 single, 1988's unabashedly romantic "Sweet Child O' Mine." Next single "Paradise City" landed in the Top 10, while Appetite For Destruction itself hit the top of the Billboard album charts for four non-consecutive weeks in summer and fall 1988. As of 2008, the record had sold a staggering 18 million albums in the U.S. alone.

Guns n' Roses' penchant for chaos and unpredictable behavior grew in proportion with its popularity; in fact, this was part of its charm. But despite hard rock tendencies and an off-putting attitude, the band had deep respect for tradition. Its songs often possessed a streak of defiant, melodic vulnerability—something Rose, an avowed fan of artists such as Billy Joel, Elton John and Queen, never shied away from embracing—and maintained a distinctly bluesy edge. Slash had a penchant for easygoing licks and affection for Jimmy Page, while 1988's G N' R Lies featured a fiery live version of Aerosmith's "Mama Kin."

All of these ambitions collided on Guns n' Roses' sprawling, 1991 double-disc release, Use Your Illusion I & II. Although these records referenced the band's wild-eyed punk and metal club days, they also touched on Southern-rock boogie and supersonic hard rock, and highlighted towering epics such as the guitar-scorched "Civil War" and the dramatic, almost Broadway-esque "Estranged." Thankfully, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and new drummer Matt Sorum were on board to help flesh out the dense music, both in the studio and live: After all, by this time, Guns n' Roses was playing gigantic stadiums all around the world  and touring with acts such as Metallica.

Unfortunately, the stress and tension that came with global superstardom—and distractions ranging from various members' substance abuse issues to notorious concert riots in St. Louis and Montreal —took their toll, and the massive, two-and-a-half-year post-Use Your Illusion tour felt like a last hurrah. The band's original lineup splintered in the years after 1993's covers album "The Spaghetti Incident?" and Rose didn't start sporadically touring again with a new lineup until 2001.

Rumored acrimony kept the original lineup at odds for well over two decades. In early 2016, however, the improbable happened: Rose and Slash buried the hatchet, and teamed up with McKagan, Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist Melissa Reese for a reunion tour.

The reactivated Guns n' Roses sounded powerful at its first dates in Las Vegas and at Coachella. And when Axl, Slash and McKagan kicked into "Welcome To The Jungle" together for the first time since 1993, the song felt as vital—and important—as it did back on the Sunset Strip in the late '80s.