|Guns n’ Roses:
Appetite for Destruction Label: Geffen
It was the fall of 1987, when glam and pop metal ruled the hard rock world. But then one Saturday night in September, everything changed when MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball show debuted the video for “Welcome to the Jungle.” The first single from Appetite for Destruction, the debut album by Guns n’ Roses, hit the music scene like an atomic bomb, sending shockwaves that influenced everything in its wake.
Singer W. Axl Rose had the teased hair like other glamsters, but GnR’s sound had a raw, hard-hitting attack that stood a mile above anything else heard in recent memory. Lyrics such as “When you’re high, you never want to come down” spoke out in a candid way that high school and college kids weren’t hearing anywhere else. The band’s look was different too – these guys appeared more like rock and roll pirates in the tradition of Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones than like glam contemporaries such as Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, Bon Jovi, etc.
Appetite started flying off the record shelves and the album was a revelation to the youth of the world. Questions about whether the rest of the album would hold up to the promise of “Jungle” were quickly dispelled – every song had its own vibe and Rose’s lyrics were unlike anything else in modern rock, speaking out about the band’s sleazy and brazen attitude toward drugs, women and the Hollywood scene. “Jungle” led off the album and then the second track, “It’s So Easy,” saw Axl and company going even further over the top. When Rose sang lines such as “I see you standin’ there, you think you’re so cool / Why don’t you just fuck off,” it resonated with every disaffected youth who had ever felt disrespected by “the cool kids.” When Rose sang, “Ya get nothin’ for nothin’ if that’s what you do, turn around bitch I got a use for you / Besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do, and I’m bored,” it was clear that Rose was a unique personality unlike any that had come before. And it wasn’t just the lyrics, but the way Rose sang them. It was immediately apparent that Rose had one of the most distinctive voices in rock history, and his vocals emanated with a soul and authenticity that stood out from the contrived efforts of many of his peers. This was definitely music that your parents were not going to approve of. But such lyrics would mean little if they weren’t backed up by great music. GnR also stood out in this regard.
The incendiary yet bluesy solos from lead guitarist Slash were more reminiscent of classic rock masters like Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page than the flashy guitar wizards of other ‘80s hard rock bands. Like the ‘70s rockers, Slash played a Gibson Les Paul, rather than the modern guitars with whammy bars favored by most of his contemporaries. He also seemed to have an ever-present bottle of Jack Daniels and pack of Marlboro Reds at his side, making him the Keith Richards of his generation. The rest of the band fit right in with this vibe as well – rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler all appeared to be in a constant state of toxicity, yet ready to go wild and kick a poser’s ass at a moment’s notice.
The album’s impact on the listener’s consciousness grew with each song, a truly rare characteristic. Track three, “Nightrain,” sizzled with attitude as Rose sang about getting wasted on cheap street wine. In an early interview, Rose said that the song was about a beverage that was loved by winos – not to mention the band – because it only cost about two dollars and would get you “loaded like a freight train, flyin’ like an aeroplane, feelin’ like a spacebrain.” Needless to say, sales of the wine skyrocketed across the country when fans realized it was an actual product and could indeed get you blitzed on a thrifty budget.
There was no let-up in track four, as “Out Ta Get Me” detailed what would become Rose’s characteristically paranoid state of mind toward the world around him. The anti-authoritarian lyrics only made Rose more endearing to anyone in the midst of the teenage rebellion phase of life. What teenager who had ever gotten in trouble for anything couldn’t relate to lyrics like, “They’re out ta get me, they won’t catch me / I’m fucking innocent, they won’t break me.”
Track five, “Mr. Brownstone,” was yet another instant classic. With a funkier and more syncopated riff than most of the more straight-forward rock on the album, “Brownstone” helped show the band’s diversity. This was a song you could actually dance to. Like “Nighttrain,” the lyrics spoke frankly about the pursuit of altered states – “I used to do a little but a little wouldn’t do, so the little got more and more / I just keep tryin’ to get a little better, said a little better than before / We’ve been dancing with Mr. Brownstone, he’s been knockin’, he won’t leave me alone.” While ostensibly written about the band’s heroin problems, Rose would go on to tell live audiences that the song could be about any addiction, from drugs to watching too much TV and becoming a couch potato. This was part of the genius of Axl Rose at the time – he was a larger than life figure, yet able to pen lyrics with a universal appeal to the disaffected. It wasn’t long before stoners across America were giving their bongs names like “Slash” or “Mr. Brownstone.”
Track six, “Paradise City” was essential in helping cement the band’s persona as more than just sleazy L.A. rockers. With its shimmering guitars, basic backbeat and lyrics that conjured a permanent vacation to a fantasy paradise, GNR had a spring break anthem that made them an All-American group who could appeal to the preppy kids and frat crowd as well as the metal-head and stoner kids. Slash’s ridiculous outro solo further established him as one of the premiere blues rock guitarists of his generation.
Six classic tracks that blew the lid off the listener’s expectations, and this was only side one of the album! Back in the late ‘80s, most people were still buying their music on cassette tapes instead of CDs, so “Paradise City” capped off side one with a bang and there was still a whole second side to go.
“My Michelle” returned to detailing the sleazy underbelly of the band’s Sunset Strip origins, as Rose sang about a girl whose “daddy works in porno, now that mommy’s not around / She used to love her heroin, but now she’s underground / So you stay out late at night and do your coke for free / Driving your friends crazy with your life’s insanity.”
But then the album took a surprising detour with consecutive love songs! “Think about You” was a straight-forward rocker, but with surprisingly romantic lyrics by rhythm guitarist Stradlin. It wasn’t a song the band would often feature live though, as opposed to the all time classic that followed it, “Sweet Child of Mine.”
Released as a single in the summer of 1988, “Sweet Child” was the song that propelled GnR from buzz band to international megastars. The melodic opening riff remains one of the most distinct and memorable in rock, while Rose’s touching lyrics toward his then-girlfriend showed his rarely displayed tender side. The song shot straight up to #1 and boosted Appetite’s sales from gold to multi-platinum. It wasn’t just headbangers buying the album now. The song’s sweet vibe shifted to a minor key for the outro section though, giving Slash a chance to wail an intensely bluesy solo to keep the headbangers interested. This was the hard hitting “gun” to accompany the tender “rose” as it were, which epitomized the band’s diverse sonic palette (more of which would be seen on the Use Your Illusion albums in 1991, with epic ballads like “November Rain,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Estranged.”)
“Sweet Child” was followed by another manic rave up in the form of “You’re Crazy,” which showcased Rose at his manic best in a high-octane rocker about love gone wrong – “You don’t want my love, you want satisfaction, you don’t need my love, you gotta find yourself another piece of the action / ‘cause you’re crazy, you’re fuckin’ crazy.”
“Anything Goes,” the album’s penultimate song, saw GnR join their Sunset Strip brethren with a tune wholly dedicated to the pursuit of sexual escapades – “Panties ‘round your knees, with your ass in debris / Doing’ that grind with a push and squeeze, tied up, tied down, up against the wall / Be my rubbermaid baby, and we can do it all / My way, your way, anything goes tonight.” But unlike most of their peers whose albums were filled with such songs, it almost seemed like GnR threw this one on as an afterthought, since it was rarely played live.
Last but most definitely not least on Appetite was “Rocket Queen,” one of the album’s strongest tunes. An album this great needed a classic closer, and GNR delivered with a vengeance. McKagan’s dynamic bass line that opens the tune is one of the band’s heaviest and most distinct grooves, swimming in a sea of psychedelic guitar fills. This promised more than just another standard four-on-the-floor rocker to close things out. (The groove would also provide a chance for McKagan and Adler to jam out together live while other band members took a brief break.) Slash and Izzy then traded sharp riffs over the groove as Rose launched into another screed about his adventures with promiscuous women – “I’ve seen everything imaginable pass before these eyes / I’ve had everything that’s tangible, honey you’d be surprised / I’m a sexual innuendo, in this burned out paradise / If you turn me on to anything, you better turn me on tonight.” Slash’s bluesy slide riffs, over pants and moans from Rose and a female accomplice, recalled Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” further establishing GNR’s classic rock roots. But then the band throws another curveball by shifting into a major-key outro section where Rose confesses his compassionate affections in lyrics that once again struck a more universal appeal.
Appetite remains one of the best selling rock albums of all time, and like the host of classic rock albums that influenced it, continues to sell in strong numbers to each successive generation that grows into the adolescent curiosity about the classic trilogy of sex, drugs and rock and roll. One could argue that no album better encompasses those themes than Appetite for Destruction.
~Greg M. Schwartz