By Martin Popoff
Knock, knock, knockin’ on the Rock Hall’s door, it swings open, and Guns N’ Roses became fully ensconced. Lightning quick that was, with the band ushered in promptly on the edge of the rule. Their incendiary “Appetite For Destruction” album emerged 25 years ago, the minimum qualification for entry to the Cleveland shrine.
“Appetite For Destruction,” in this writer’s opinion, was a record not that much better or more innovative than many of the day. In fact, reaction for the first year or so bears that out, with the album taking 10 months or so to gather steam, and part of the hoopla based on the trash of celebrity antics. Essentially, “Appetite” went viral before YouTube, sort of like “Frampton Comes Alive!” a decade earlier. In other words, sure, good album, but the units shifted over the years (18 times platinum in the U.S.; add another tenner worldwide) is arguably out of whack with what it deserves, what any one album deserves, as most rock stars will fully admit whenever this happens to them.
But hey, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction isn’t based solely on an album that is rated so highly; it’s pretty sensible to call it over-rated. When the long-awaited “Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II” arrived in 1991, the band had to put up or shut up, bringing pretty much three albums’ worth of material in one Jack double shot.
Massive touring marbled with magical shows is also part of the headline-grabbing GN’R phenomenon, as is the continued presence of Slash as an icon, Slash and Duff as Velvet Revolver, Axl as infuriation and the slow-brewed saga of what eventually became “Chinese Democracy,” an album weightier and smarter and more musically substantial, too, than its inevitable slagged fate.
“I know; that’s bizarre. I’ve heard those comments,” laughs Duff, on the idea that a lot of rock fans in this world think “Appetite For Destruction” is the greatest album of all time, by anybody. However, looking back, Duff gets the point across that the magic around the record was that it was more real and naïve than all those ridiculous hair-metal albums that were starting to give heavy metal a bad name as the ’80s ground and pounded on toward grunge.
“Mike Clink (the producer) was great, because we had gotten the record deal, and it was time to get a producer. All kinds of different people, like Paul Stanley from Kiss, wanted to do the record. But he wanted Steven (Adler) to add all these drums and wanted to change the songs, and we were like, ‘F**k that,’ you know? And there was another guy, Spencer Proffer, that big drum sound; we had gone in and done some demos with him. You know, he was a nice guy, but he put Steven on a click track, No. 1, and we did ‘Night Train,’ I think, and it sounded so sterile. It didn’t sound like us at all — his big drum sound and all that crap, so we didn’t do that. And finally Clink came down to our rehearsals, and he was a guy who had engineered a couple of Triumph records and nobody had heard of Mike Clink, but he came down and recorded us on his 8-track, and it sounded killer! He didn’t try to change the songs; he didn’t try to do anything. And he says, ‘Well, it sounds good. Do you want your record to sound anything like this?’ And he just played us back. OK, perfect.”
And what’s this about GN’R being a punk rock band? Well, with authentic rock ’n’ roll sound secured at the production end, “Appetite” also benefited from the punk-rock ethics of Duff, and even, as it turns out, second guitarist Izzy Stradlin.
“I was a punker kid,” confirms Duff. “The first gig I ever played was opening up for Black Flag in 1979. So I listened to a lot, you know, even before hard-core punk rock. I saw The Clash in 1979, so I liked them, and Buzzcocks, XTC, The Avengers. DOA were one of my favorites. They were like Kiss to me when I was a little kid. And they were from right up the street in Vancouver. I loved The Saints. The second album … you know, we made this thing for producers, Guns did, this compilation of songs, to show what we kind of wanted to sound like. It was the best compilation. It had Motorhead, Nazareth, The Pistols and it had The Saints. So I grew up with that, and then hard-core started happening and then I was into Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Minor Threat. And I was in a hard-core band called The Farts. So for me, when I moved down to Hollywood, to see even long-haired guys … like when I first met Slash and Izzy, or Slash and Steven actually, when I met them at this restaurant, out of this music newspaper, and these guys had long hair, you know (laughs). And they listened to W.A.S.P., and I’d never heard W.A.S.P., so it was kind of a culture shock to me. So I came walking in, and I had blue hair, and Slash’s girlfriend thought I was gay, because I had blue hair and it was short. Hanoi Rocks was also definitely something I came down from Seattle to Hollywood with. They were kind of the new thing, new for America, anyway. And that was a natural progression I think from punk rock — if you were a rocker at all, you’d go there.”
But did Duff feel out-voted as the punkiest guy in the band?
“No, because Izzy had come to L.A., and he was in this band called The Atoms, and he was also in this other band called The Naughty Women, which was a punk-rock band. The cool thing about Guns at the early stage is that nobody battled. We just brought what we had to the table, and it just meshed. Nobody was questioning anybody else. We all started listening to everything, all kinds of music, from R&B to metal to old Nazareth to GBH. So it was a very well-rounded band, as far as listening to music went.
“We were so not part of the hair metal scene,” Duff adds emphatically, which also is a sentiment that comes from Slash any time he’s asked. “Maybe we were lumped into it way after the fact, but we weren’t then. We were considered a punk-rock band at the beginning in the club days. We played with Social Distortion and Tex & The Horseheads and Fear and Dickies and Red Hot Chili Peppers. We weren’t allowed to play with any … like we weren’t put on bills with Poison or Ruby Slippers or whatever was around. So then we just kind of made that record which was … I mean, Geffen wanted us to make a softer, hair-metal-ish record, I’m sure. It was easier to stuff down people’s throats.”
So was “Appetite For Destruction,” as it emerged, then perhaps still too ruff ’n’ tuff for the label’s tastes?
“Oh yeah. Oh yeah, man. They were about to pull… we were out touring, I think, for 10 months, and they were… David Geffen told Tom (Zutaut) to pull us off the road; they were done sending us tour support. And then ‘Sweet Child’ came out, the softest song on the record, and that’s the thing that crossed us over, and then it made the rest of that record palatable, and then there was a sort of undercurrent of a huge swath of youth that could identify with the songs, ‘It’s So Easy,’ etc. And, ‘I want to burn shit down,’ yeah. I think Guns — Axl, Izzy and I — especially, were more punk then … we’d listen to Nazareth and stuff, but more we’d listen to Fear and Motorhead and Pistols.”
Ah, yes, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” the gateway drug, the power ballad, very much a maneuver exploited within the hair band movement.
“Especially in the early days, or at that particular point in Guns N’ Roses’ career, f**kin’ we were so hard-edged, that ballads just seemed so sappy,” says top-hatted ambassador of the band Slash. “And still, to this day, it’s a sappy song, but it’s also coming from an emotional place for Axl that was very heartfelt and meant a lot. And over the years, I actually started to enjoy playing it. But I used to dread having to walk out to the front of the stage and start playing that lick. And for the longest time, I couldn’t always play it right (laughs).
“It’s not the most conventional finger styling,” continues Slash on a spot of music that is among the most recognizable in rock. “It was just something I made up while I was sitting around with Izzy. And it’s not an exercise, but it’s just one of those kinds of quirky little things I do when I’m f**king around. It just happened to be something I stumbled on that afternoon. So I was more just trying to perfect it, because it was a little more left-field; it’s not a predictable style (laughs), guitar-player kind of note configuration or whatever. Once I stumbled on it, I was just trying to perfect it. Izzy started playing the chords that went underneath it, and I sort of transposed a couple of notes to fit the chords, and then Axl heard us doing it, and all of a sudden he was onto something. But I hated that song (laughs).”
I asked Duff if anybody felt, from a business standpoint, that messaging-wise, GN’R may as well have gone with the hair metal thing. In other words, not necessarily change the band’s sound, but not worry so much if they were considered part of that groundswell of platinum acts.
“Oh no, we would have never done that. We would have never, ever done that. We would have disbanded the band before we did that. We didn’t care about business. If we cared about business, we would have made a lot of other moves. If we cared about just making a quick buck, we would have sold our publishing for $250,000 when it was offered to us back in 1986, you know? That’s quick and easy money, right? So we just kind of believed in ourselves and our music. And if it’s worth $250,000 to somebody, it must be worth more than that to us, you know? We don’t know why, but it must be.”
The rest, as they say is history. Come time for the “Use Your Illusion” suite, the Gunners were bona-fide megastars.
“I remember when those records came out,” muses Duff. “The night it came out, the record company took Slash and I out to this dinner. You know the Tower Records on Sunset in West Hollywood? They open it up at midnight if a record like that is coming out. And the f**king line, half a mile down Sunset. And they took us to this place behind Tower Records and put us in this office where you could see down and watch the people coming in, this one-way glass. And just watching this thing, these people going nuts for your record, you know? Waiting in line …”
Guns N’ Roses sure didn’t have to wait in line. First year of eligibility, and the band is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Is something like this important enough to push the bad boys back together for a reunion that would surely be a stadium-breaker? Miraculously, everybody is still alive, and some of those friendships — particularly between Axl and Duff — seem to be coming back. Welcome to the jungle, indeed.