‘Appetite for Destruction’, released in 1987, is the first album by Guns ‘n’ Roses and also their best. That’s the view of Classic Metal Hawk. Controversial?
Maybe. But stay with The Hawk while he makes the case.
‘Appetite for Destruction’, released in 1987, is the first album by Guns ‘n’ Roses and also their best. That’s the view of Classic Metal Hawk. Controversial? Maybe. But stay with The Hawk while he makes the case.
More Than Meets The Eye
In a different Guns ‘n’ Roses blog post, Classic Metal Hawk took a look into the psychological make-up of frontman Axl Rose, concluding that this was a complex character, perhaps unfairly written off as merely a prima donna for long periods of time. (There will be plenty more blog posts about characters who were, prima donnas and dicks, and not much more. But that’s for another time.) That last Rose post, though – it left little room to talk music. Too little. And now is the time to put that right.
For example, the Hawk touched on ‘Appetite for Destruction’, with the following hot take:
Can you believe that? Most bands take at least an album or 2 to find their feet, but for Classic Metal Hawk’s money, ‘Appetite for Destruction’ was not only the band’s first album, but also their standout best.
A bold conclusion, but still a true one, in the Hawk’s view. So, let’s take a closer look at ‘Appetite for Destruction’, and try and figure out what made it so good.
Guns ‘n’ Roses cut their teeth playing on the LA club scene for a couple of years after they were founded in 1985. And during that period, they managed to write a great deal of new music – so much so that when they came to record ‘Appetite for Destruction’ in early 1987, they had more songs at their disposal than could reasonably be included. ‘November Rain’ and ‘You Could Be Mine’ were already in the locker, for example, and ended up being kept back until the ‘Use Your Illusion’ releases in the early 90s.
The band didn’t necessarily over-think their choices. They only wanted one ballad on the album, so had a straight choice between ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ and ‘November Rain’. Going with the former turned out to be a smart career decision, as we shall see. Aside from that, it was very much a ‘sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll’ themed collection – something the critics thought lame and stupid at the time, then a triumph in retrospect.
Whatever your take, the writing was unarguably authentic, grounded in experiences the band members had been through in their younger days. We’ll dig deeper into that subject matter shortly. The songs were then divided up – those covering drugs, booze and big city living were slated for the first side of the record (side ‘G’ instead of the conventional side ‘A’). Then there were the ones about sex and love. They went on…wait for it…side ‘R’. So ‘Guns’ for the harder side of rock ‘n’ roll living, and ‘Roses’ for the softer side. (Actually, side G has its share of sex as well, so it’s a rough division, but not important enough to split many hairs over.)
Armed with material, the band mulled over a couple of different possible producers, going with Mike Clink in the end, then hit the studio.
The album took longer than expected to record, mainly because of a level of perfectionism which was very evident even at the beginning. For example, Axl Rose insisted on recording his vocals only one line at a time. Slash took time to find the right guitar sound before settling for the trademark Gibson Les Paul copy and Marshall amps, and he worked for hours getting the solos right with Clink’s help.
Perhaps surprisingly, after ‘Appetite for Destruction’ was released in July 1987, sales were disappointing through the first year. They went for ‘Welcome to the Jungle as the first US single, but that bombed, with little radio or MTV coverage. Things only really started taking off after ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ was released as a single. Hated with a passion by Slash, it nonetheless topped the chart in the US, and remains their biggest ever selling single to this day.
After that, things duly exploded, with the album running all the way to #1 in the US Billboard 200. Guns n’ Roses had firmly established themselves as the next big thing, perhaps best illustrated by an incident on tour. Interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine whilst supporting established rock giants Aerosmith, they ended up usurping their supposed betters on the magazine’s cover. Aerosmith themselves were enjoying a resurgence of support at the time, after the release of their comeback ‘Permanent Vacation’ album, which gives you an idea of how much GnR-mania had exploded in a short time.
Let’s dive into some of the songs, which, as said earlier, were often inspired by experiences of the band members. ‘Welcome to the Jungle, for instance, recalls an incident Axl Rose was with a friend at a New York bus station, having just arrived as young runaways. A homeless guy shouted at them, ‘You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby; you’re gonna die!’. Who knows if the warning worried Rose who’d lived through his share of hard times in his early life, but anyway, if summed up the kind of ‘trench warfare’ atmosphere of some big cities in the US. Rose even includes the direct quote towards the end of the song, almost certainly delivered with more charisma than the down-and-out had managed.
It’s atmospheric all the way through, but that guitar intro is the key, hooking the ear before the lyrics start to describe life in said trenches. Movie producers agree – it’s been featured in at least 10 Hollywood movies, anything from kids’ offering ‘Megamind’, to ‘Jumanji’ (twice) to the recent Marvel smash ‘Thor: Love and Thunder.’ The song establishes the guitar sound – bluesy rhythm / spiky, harmonic-filled lead – that some thought lacked originality at the time. It was ‘an inferior mix of AC/DC, Aerosmith and Hanoi Rocks’ according to one critic. But for Classic Metal Hawk, that’s not true – there is an original Guns ‘n’ Roses guitar sound, and this song encapsulates it perfectly.
Booze n’ Drugs
That then continues throughout the ‘G’ side. We have ‘It’s so Easy’, written mostly by bass player Duff Mckagan about the hangers on and groupies that would throw themselves at the band. Early career, they had no money, yet plenty of fans – but it all resulted in an unsatisfying existence, a constant emptiness. ‘It’s so easy / Yet nothing seems to please me’, as the song tells us. Drug problems were already manifesting themselves in Guns ‘n’ Roses at this time, and maybe this gives us a partial explanation.
Moving swiftly on to booze as our next theme, we get ‘Nightrain’, which refers to a brand of wine, ‘Night Train Express’, which was popular with the young Guns ‘n’ Roses because it was both strong in alcohol and cheap. No need to look for deep meaning in these lyrics – ‘I’m on the Nightrain’ = getting hammered. According to legend some of the lyrics were improvised during a drunken singalong in LA with some random passers-by. You may disapprove of this message, but again, it brings in that authentic note, and besides, for the Hawk’s money, the outro solo is one of the best on the album.
‘Out to get Me’ deals with Axl Roses juvenile delinquent years in Indiana, when he was arrested at least 20 times on charges like public drunkenness and assault. The plaintiff manner in which Rose sings the chorus (‘I’m f***ing innocent / They won’t break me’) suggests that he feels he was unfairly victimized by the authorities at the time, and the anger is real enough. That combines with a song intro at least as strong as ‘Welcome to the Jungle’, and more great soloing later on.
On to drugs next, with ‘Mr. Brownstone’, obviously a reference to heroin. The band seem to be already unhappy about their addictions even at this point (‘He won’t leave me alone’), but still would continue to battle them for many years to come.
Then finally on the harder / heavier ‘G’ side we have Paradise City, with it’s clean, arpeggiated opening, and later hard driving riff. It doesn’t refer to any specific place – just wherever the ‘home’ for a rock star might be at any given time. At one time, the big city with fans, bright light and all that jazz. But at the same time maybe still pining for the simpler life back in Indiana. The double time feel for the last section takes this part of the album out with a bang.
Is the ‘R’ side really soft, sentimental and squishy? Well up to a point, yes. We kick off with ‘My Michelle’, a story about Michelle Young, a childhood friend of Slash. On hearing Elton John’s ‘Your Song’ on the radio during a car journey with the band, she said she’d also love to have someone write a song about her – but may have been taken aback by the lyrics Axl Rose came up with. The soft, clean guitar in the intro might have listeners expecting a soft and tender, perhaps even romantic number, but that quickly dissolves into a no holds barred examination of Young’s delinquent lifestyle. Her drug addiction. The early death of her mother. Her father’s career in the porno industry. Nothing is left out. But anyway, Young gave the band her blessing to record it, and later managed to clean herself up, so a happy outcome ensued.
‘Think About You’ is next up, a weaker track where Rose reminisces about a past love. But then the big gun is yanked out – ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine,’ which of course was the smash single that launched them firmly into the big time. Imagine if they’d have gone for ‘November Rain’ as the ballad? Arguably a stronger song, but with less commercial appeal, especially for a relatively unknown band, it could have been a disaster for them, AND changed the course of Classic Heavy Metal history. Before the single came out, the record label Geffen were already thinking about abandoning the album as a write off, and probably the band as well as a serious prospect.
‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ is a good ballad, though a little over sentimental, and you can see why Slash was ambivalent. After all, it started out as nothing other than a guitar warm up exercise for him. But the planets aligned, and the rest is history.
After the requisite ballad, the band ups the tempo again with 2 more sex themed numbers: ‘You’re Crazy’, which starts with middling quality, but then explodes into life with the guitar solo; followed by ‘Anything Goes’ which is probably the weakest on the album.
Fortunately, we finish strongly with ‘Rocket Queen’, which could be about one of 2 women. The first (and most likely) candidate is Barbi Von Greif, an old friend of Rose’s who dreamed as a young woman of forming a band called ‘Rocket Queen.’ She ended up running a brothel, but at the time, her passion to follow her dream inspired Rose to keep on pursuing his own musical ambitions.
Candidate 2 would be Adriana Smith, a groupie at the time of the recording who agreed to have sex with Rose in the vocal booth of the recording studio, so that the resulting sounds could be added to the song. Rumour has it that there were plenty of other couplings in the same place that may have been added in also.
So far, so shallow, right? For the first couple of verses, you wonder if this is just another song about sexual bravado, especially with the live pornography so prominent in the mix. But then the mood changes completely, and the second half is a heartfelt declaration of friendship by Rose for Von Greif, something lots of people have seemingly taken some inspiration from over the years.
One and Only
So that’s the story of ‘Appetite for Destruction.’ Of course, once it took off commercially, it was milked for dear life, with Deluxe and Super-Deluxe re-releases including additional tracks. In addition to that, Rose re-recorded it in 1999, though with a much-changed band line-up, and himself as the only surviving member from the original. That re-record was never released, which is probably for the best. As far as Classic Metal Hawk is concerned, the original is the best.
Now let’s play out with the story of Axl Rose’s youth crime spree. Lucky he found a proper job on the end.
Guns ‘N’ Roses may have produced some more refined music later in their careers, but after writing this article, The Hawk remains convinced that ‘Appetite for Destruction’ is their best. But what do you think?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.