Albums Revisited: Guns N’ Roses ‘Appetite For Destruction’ Turns 30: celebrating GnR’s raunchy, landmark début on its 30th anniversary.
There has been a long-running theory that Nirvana killed hair metal. The story goes like this: their groundbreaking smash album Nevermind’s frayed and raw aesthetic (and the group’s shabby fashion sense) made every poodle-haired, shrill voiced butt-rocker in Hollywood look ridiculous by comparison.
This is partly true: grunge certainly was the final nail in the cock rock coffin. But the scene had already suffered a slow but steady decline ever since Guns N’ Roses Appetite for Destruction (which turns 30 on July 21st) was released in 1987.
That album, one of the greatest début releases in rock history, had an edge of danger–splitting the difference between classic rock decadence and punk nihilism that cut like a razor and made bands like Bon Jovi and Cinderella look exactly like the corporate constructs they were.
GnR were far too rowdy and chaotic to ever be controlled or corralled in the manner of a Warrant or Firehouse. They were lightning in a bottle, who producer Mike Clink masterfully captured on tape on an album that has sold 18 million copies in the U.S. alone, making it the biggest selling début of the decade.
Guns N’ Roses were aided in their world domination when they opened for The Cult (another act whose dark, muscular brand of hard rock made them stand out from the pack) during their 1987 Electric tour. In the end, the opener usurped the headliner in terms of popularity.
That being said, success was far from immediate: the album didn’t hit paydirt until a year later when the music videos for Welcome to the Jungle and Sweet Child O’ Mine dominated MTV. It showed a band less concerned with makeup and Aquanet (the exception being Axl Rose’s teased hair in the Jungle video), and more focused on the music.
*interesting bit of trivia: the Jungle video was based off ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ starring David Bowie, who had his own unique interactions with the band: he reportedly slept with Slash’s mother when the guitarist was a teenager, and later got punched in the face by Rose after flirting with his then girlfriend Erin Everly.
This is why its frustrating that the band still gets pigeonholed with their Sunset Strip contemporaries. While they may have shared stages and drunken nights together, GNR’s sound was miles away from the likes of Mötley Crüe, (a more apt comparison would be L.A. Guns, a rawer glam act featuring guitarist Tracii Guns who briefly played with the band).
Appetite became such a monster success that it appealed to a wide swath of music consumers. At the time I was deeply immersed in Goth and New Wave, but Appetite grabbed my attention immediately. It was the perfect fusion of Aerosmith boogie and Sex Pistols sneer. Guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin were accomplished, yet never ostentatious or masturbatory. And Axl Rose’s voice was a thing of awe, capable of baritone growls and chill-inducing wails.
Songs like My Michelle and It’s So Easy were dark, bleak and mesmerizing tales of the L.A. underbelly. For a teenager growing up in conservative Texas, the band may as well have existed on Mars. It sounded exotic and thrilling to my adolescent ears. Perhaps no other band of that decade made self-destruction and squalor look so appealing.
This combustible energy would escalate, unfortunately, at the expense of the music during the late 80’s and early 90’s. The 1988 E.P. GN’R Lies, was a (mostly) acoustic appetizer featuring the hit Patience, but fans had to wait until 1992 for the full-length follow-up Use Your Illusion, which showed how Rose’s outsized personality and grandiose vision had overpowered the band dynamic.
Illusion, was an overly ambitious double album (technically two separate releases), that despite true moments of brilliance was marred by bloat and lack of editorial discipline. It has nothing on their lean, mean, raw and infectious début, and hasn’t aged nearly as well.
Appetite is of course remembered for its singles, but the truth is despite a couple of mediocre songs (You’re Crazy, Anything Goes) it’s the rare album where every song could have been a hit (barring the liberal peppering of profanity throughout). But IMHO the group saved the best for last: Rocket Queen is GnR’s greatest song.
Why is it so awesome? Because it showcases all the group’s greatest strengths in one song: Slash and Stradlin’s soulful guitar work, Duff McKagan’s thrumming bass, and Stephen Adler’s dynamic drumming, all intertwined for a tale of decadence (augmented by a groupie’s orgasmic moaning) and redemption that showcased Rose’s range (most notably during the 50’s doo-wop finale).
Appetite For Destruction is a coming-of-age sonic odyssey full of sex, drugs and violence. And if you crank it loud enough in your car while racing down the freeway, you can totally be forgiven for feeling whatever age you were when you first heard it. Which exit do we take for Paradise City again?
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