Albums Revisited: Guns N’ Roses ‘Use Your Illusion’ Turns 25: a reappraisal of Guns N’ Roses overstuffed 1991 albums on their 25th anniversary.
We live in a time when everyone’s a critic. Mix tapes are now playlists. Fan fiction doesn’t live on the Internet fringes anymore. And fight as I might to stave off the elements of cultural evolution that I may find problematic or shallow, I am only human, and thus occasionally succumb to the conveniences of technology that allow me to so easily and publicly expose the whims of my imagination.
Case in point – I’ve recently rewritten the history of midnight, September 17, 1991. In my fantasy, I am still at the mall with my incredibly patient parents, waiting giddily in line to get the new record by Guns N’ Roses, their proper follow-up to Appetite for Destruction. The band had been teasing it for months, with cryptic ads in Rip magazine, but no one really knew what to expect other than the single “You Could Be Mine,” released a few months earlier. Since that release, GNR had gone on complete media silence, and we didn’t even know the title of the record. Anticipation was at a fever pitch. And then, at the moment of truth, as I get to the counter, I am confronted with not one new GNR record but two! The first has a suitably “RAWK!” cover (probably involving skeletons – I haven’t quite thought that through); it’s got 11 tracks on it, the first called “Right Next Door to Hell”. Fuckin’ A. The second record, though, has a totally different cover. It’s very un-“RAWK!”, featuring a painting of a black and white figure writing in a book, overlaid on a blue painting of some old dude in a robe. It’s got nine tracks and according to the track list on the back, only three of those songs are under seven minutes long – several extend past eight minutes. It’s called Use Your Illusion (which celebrates its 25th anniversary on September 16th).
An illusion indeed.
I have to admit – I’ve spent WAY too much time thinking about GNR’s magnum opus and last commercially successful hurrah. The reality, which of course you know if you’re reading this, is that Use Your Illusion, which turns 25 this month, does indeed consist of two separate records, but each one tops 75 minutes, and taken together, provides 30 songs (basically a triple record). It’s a twisty mess of crazy, a collection so dense and audacious, so wrought with contradictions, and so all-over-the-place consistency-wise that I can’t help but be sucked into its vortex. Oh to be a time traveling fly – to go back and sit on the cigarette-scented walls that housed the song writing process and subsequent recording sessions.
I am absolutely intrigued by it as an expression of a band trying to follow up a bona fide classic debut album, and I’m absolutely fascinated by its legacy, or lack thereof, as the case seems to be at this time. Again, my imagination runs wild as I dream of what Use Your Illusion might say to us GNR fans if it were to somehow become sentient. “Appetite, Appetite, Appetite! That’s all you care about!” it would mourn aloud. “What about me? What about my 10 radio hits? You loved me back then – we toured the world together for 2.5 years! We were so massive we had to hire TWO keyboard players, some back-up singers, and God knows how many fucking tambourine players! And we did it in the midst of the flannel takeover!”
Indeed, Appetite for Destruction cast a shadow so large that even GNR throwing everything they had at the wall couldn’t get them out from underneath. But the question I ponder is – could they have? With this same collection of songs, with the same personalities, with even all the bullshit on and off-stage ass-hattery – was there a way that Use Your Illusion could have been the epic follow-up they hoped it would be? That today, a spirited debate could be waged between fans about what GNR’s best record was?
These sorts of what-if’s represent Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst, fan fiction at best. But there is one truth here, and that’s the music. No matter how it all went down, we’re left with a collection of songs, and if those songs suck, the question is moot. I argue that if you carve away the context and trim a serious amount of fat, a legitimate case can be made for the GREATNESS of Use Your Illusion. So respect for the artist be damned, I’m gonna give it a shot.
Let’s start first with Appetite for Destruction as an obstacle – a piece of art by which all subsequent releases would be compared. Its attributes have been widely and justifiably praised. It was an honest portrayal of a hungry band, where intentions and outcome fused themselves into a lean, mean slice of visceral, dark life in sonic form. There was a purity in its descriptions of sleazy Los Angeles, and it happened to come along when GNR’s peers were laughing it up in hedonistic excess. You can say Nirvana brought a certain realness that served as antidote to hard rock. But GNR was for those of us who weren’t seeking an antidote – we were looking for higher standards from our rock stars.
The baggage that Appetite brought to the follow-up was two-fold. First, what resonated with fans was its honesty, but by 1990, GNR was a changed band. They were no longer hungry. They’d even cleaned up – maybe not 100% (maybe not even 60%), but enough that they could function (mostly) as a touring act and recognize the toxic nature of drummer Steven Adler’s drug problem. They were successful and seemingly doing well financially. For them to paint another grimy picture would have been disingenuous and counter to what we appreciated in GNR in the first place.
It was a no-win situation, and in the end, singer and lyricist Axl Rose opted for honesty most of the time, resulting in a record largely dealing with these themes:
- Pain-in-the-ass women
- Pain-in-the-ass journalists
- Pain-in-the-ass neighbors living in Axl’s high-dollar high-rise
- Pain-in-the-ass anyone who tried to tell Axl what to do or how to live
Talk about your all time disconnects! If Appetite for Destruction was “Straight Outta Compton,” Use Your Illusion was “Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems.” I must concede, then, that Use Your Illusion never really gets under your skin lyrically in the way its predecessor did.
It was left then for the music itself do the talking, but again, Appetite put them in a tough position. The songs on that record wouldn’t have succeeded had they not kicked unholy ass. But those songs also didn’t branch out beyond blues-based hard rock riffing. For GNR to attempt to recreate that sound again across 12 songs – it might yield a good record – but it might also yield diminishing returns. And that would be OK for some bands, many of whom make decent livings churning out similar records over and over again. But GNR was more than just a hard rock band. They wanted to be Queen, Elton John, and the Stones. Their musical ambitions clearly surpassed what was represented on Appetite, and for them to succeed, they would have to expand their sound and explore their influences, a risky move when your biggest supporters are notoriously fickle heavy metal fans.
So what happened? Good art almost always involves making tough choices, and well, I think it’s fair to say that GNR, ever the rebels, didn’t want to be forced into an either-or scenario and opted instead for a have-cake-and-eat-it-too approach, one that allowed them to craft songs that would appeal to their base but also satisfy their own creative aspirations.
And the thing is, it could have worked! But the final product suffered not only from being overstuffed but also oddly sequenced. As notorious perfectionists (they actually scrapped original mixes partway through recording), one would’ve hoped that GNR had been more judicious when deciding not only what made the final cut, but how those songs would fit together coherently. Interviews from back then indicate that they did intend for Use Your Illusion I to be the more straightforward rock record with II being more experimental; in general, I guess that’s true, but the end result is still undercooked. Were they concerned that if one record just had the weird stuff, it wouldn’t sell as well? Possibly, but it’s just as likely that they simply didn’t put that much thought into it.
SIDE NOTE: I would be remiss if I didn’t briefly examine Lies, the double EP which some might argue was the true follow-up to Appetite for Destruction. The live first half of that record is classic GNR, but then the second acoustic half begins with “Patience,” a song that blew me away the first time I heard it because I couldn’t believe that GNR was capable of crafting something so gentle. Releasing that as a single was a bold decision, and the fact that it was a hit is testament that their fans were open to some experimentation. That said, Lies was released right on the heels of Appetite’s success. It was a palate cleanser comedown, and as such, didn’t have to endure the levels of anticipation and scrutiny placed on Use Your Illusion.
My inquisitive mind wonders if anyone ever stepped in and suggested they scale this monster back. Given that they fired their manager during the recording process, it wouldn’t surprise me if those in the GNR inner circle decided it best to tip-toe on eggshells or else risk losing their seats on the gravy train. But again, I’m just speculating.
Here are ten things I do know though:
- Two versions of “Don’t Cry” were completely unnecessary. An alternate version is the kind of track you put on a follow-up EP or special edition release, but as no such release ever transpired, I shudder to think what GNR left on the cutting room floor, if anything.
- The back-to-back servings of “Get in the Ring” and “Shotgun Blues” represent Axl at his worst. These two sorta-OK musically in a B-side kinda way rockers are both derailed by the stupidest, most petulant sets of lyrics in the whole GNR catalogue (“Ring” invites detractors to suck Axl’s dick; “Shotgun” invites them to suck his ass. When I mentioned making choices earlier, this isn’t what I had in mind).
- “Back Off Bitch” makes “It’s So Easy” sound like an ode to chivalry. This is actually a pre-Appetite tune, and while some bands have found success in re-working old songs and releasing them later, this feels like an example of, “If it wasn’t good enough the first time around…”
- I suspect “Pretty Tied Up” has its fans, but I’ve always felt that it lyrically sinks to the levels of cock rock’s most egregious offenders.
- The less said about the pseudo-industrial “My World,” the better. And allow me to correct an earlier statement. This is Axl at his worst.
- “Live and Let Die” was a big hit, and for good reason. The original was great, and GNR didn’t reinvent the wheel, adding their hard rock oomph to a rock solid template. But on a statement record of such magnitude, maybe GNR would have been better served sticking to their own material and letting “Live and Let Die” serve as B-side bait on a cassette single.
- “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was already played out by the time Use Your Illusion was released (“I’ll sing one. You’ll sing one. We’ll do this a few times…”).
- Of the eight aforementioned songs, six appear on Use Your Illusion II, which is why that record is such a slog despite containing some of Use Your Illusion’s best tracks.
- Of the eight aforementioned songs, guitarist Izzy Stradlin only had a hand in writing one of them (“Pretty Tied Up”). Has there been a more publicly underrated musician than Izzy? I get that fans are excited about Slash and Duff McKagan rejoining the band. They were certainly the most recognizable original members other than Axl once Izzy left shortly after the release of Use Your Illusion, but Izzy was arguably the man who gave GNR their mojo in the first place. He had a hand in writing all of their best songs.
- If you excise the eight aforementioned songs, you’re left with 22 songs ranging from OK to great in quality. Still plenty for a double record with a few left over for B-sides!
So let’s return to my fantasy – the day I buy two new GNR records. The one with nine incredibly long songs – the one titled Use Your Illusion – begins with the somber “Civil War.” It lets the listener know right off the bat that this record will be different. It segues into the uber-cheesy but thoroughly awesome Elton-esque “Breakdown.” It’s a rocker, but it’s also a piano rocker, so again, things are a little weird. “Locomotive” is funky but sounds more like “traditional” GNR; it’s also almost nine minutes long. Duff’s crooning “So Fine” is the most underrated track on the whole shebang. Then you have the centerpiece – “Don’t Cry” into “November Rain” into “Estranged” – and suddenly their outlandish video trilogy for those songs takes on more weight. The record wraps with the one-two weirdness of “The Garden” and “Coma.”
Admittedly, the record skews dark and mellow at times, but man does it go down epic. Had this been the actual release, undoubtedly there would have been some fan discontent, but I bet it would have its fierce defenders still today (I know this because I would have been one of them. Thanks to the ease of iTunes, I listen to this “version” front to back more than any other GNR release – yes, even Appetite).
SIDE NOTE: The above collection emphasizes the moments when GNR went big and bold. And when you go big and bold, there’s a good chance that not everything will land in the way it was intended. Which is a nice way of saying there’s a lot of goofy shit on Use Your Illusion. Too many moments to count here, but some of my faves include: The “yaaaayaaaaayaaaa” interminable vocal drone at the end of “Don’t Cry”; the incredibly questionable jive-talking monologue at the end of “Breakdown”; anytime Axl has to end a song with some exclamatory statement or spoken commentary; and pretty much all of the sound effects / spoken word moments on “Coma,” my favorite being, “Zap him again. Zap the son of a bitch again!” My favorite line on the whole record: “Funny how everything was roses when we held on to the guns” (C’mon, that’s GOLD!). For those of you out there who absolutely HATE these sorts of moments – I get it, and I won’t argue. Other than Lies’ ”Used to Love Her,” GNR was not known for their humor, intentional or otherwise. But hell, I find it kind of endearing. And fun. What can I say, I like to laugh.
The beauty of compiling all the “weird” songs together is that GNR would have still been left with 13 songs to craft the other “RAWK!” record. Now we could argue on which of those songs to include, but at the very least, the up-tempo slammers “Garden of Eden,” “Perfect Crime,” “Don’t Damn Me” and the Izzy-sung “Double Talkin’ Jive” rock as hard as anything on Appetite. “You Could Be Mine” was a great single. “Yesterdays” is a pretty track for those who love the more tender side of GNR. Songs like “Dead Horse” and “Dust N’ Bones” show signs of musical growth but don’t alienate anyone. It might not be Appetite level quality, but it would have been pretty damn great while throwing a bone to the fans turned off by the Use Your Illusion comp. Oh, and the name I would give to this “RAWK!” compilation? Your Illusion – as in, this is who you think we are, but in reality, we’re so much more.
Who knows if this would have changed anything? GNR probably still would’ve toured the world for close to three years and released umpteen thousand videos. They were everywhere back then. Was it too much? Too much touring, too much exposure, too much property destruction? Was it so much that when the inevitable break-up occurred, we as fans said, “That’s OK, we needed a break anyway”?
And then the question becomes, why, as the nostalgia train rolls through, are we clamoring for the Appetite line-up? And I think the answer is that Use Your Illusion-era Guns N’ Roses broke a cardinal rule of show business – they didn’t leave us wanting more. To the point that even still today, most fans want the version of the band that did.
I’m not sure any reconfiguration of Use Your Illusion would’ve changed that. But it sure is pleasing to these ears! Happy birthday, old friend! And until next time…
Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em! All riiiiiiiiiight, that SUCKED!
Buy Use Your Illusion I and II on Amazon: