Metal in the 80s was polarizing at best. Sure, there were acts that really redefined metal for today: Possessed, Death, Iron Maiden and Metallica released some of the most iconic metal music ever during this decade. But then there weas the almost-nauseating influx of glam/hair metal, with bands like Def Leppard adopting glam personas and releasing less-than-stellar (albeit catchy) music. However, there were exceptions to both of these rules: a little band from Los Angeles called Guns N’ Roses. During 30+ years of existence, they’ve been one of the most well-known rock bands, and one of the most controversial. In their heyday, they constantly footed the line between hard rock and metal, and even in their early days, glam metal and regular metal. Today, despite having only six albums, they are regarded as legends and one of the most iconic bands ever assembled. However, there are some nuances to the GnR catalog, all of which we’ll cover in today’s Half Life.
Even to this day, Guns N’ Roses’s first album holds the distinction of being the best-selling debut ever, with about 30 million copies sold since 1987. When it first hit in 1987, it showed off a band that, frankly, didn’t give a fuck about anything. This wasn’t anything new: Mötley Crüe had existed for years at that point under that same label of “don’t give a flying fuck.” But while Crüe’s music could be spotty, Appetite For Destruction was the ultimate soundtrack for hard rock. There was no weak track; even the slower jams like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City” had a grit about them that launched the band into superstardom. The music even had that pseudo-hedonist aesthetic; the band combined punk, blues rock, hard rock and heavy metal—with just a heaping of filth for flavor—into a sound that hearkened to early rhythms and blues groups like The Rolling Stones, yet also looked forward into harder, grittier territory. While Appetite’s reception was lukewarm at best in 1987, it’s now considered a hard rock/heavy metal staple, and one of the greatest albums of the 80s.
Although Lies is technically considered to be an EP—with only about a half hour of music altogether—it was the last release by the band in the 80s, and proved to be a symbol of the band’s maturation and ability to produce softer music. The first half of Lies—in actuality a reissue of the band’s debut EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide—contains a few “live” i.e. faux-live tracks—three of which are covers, including one of Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin.” All of these tracks have the standard GnR fare to them—blistering hard rock with an extreme blues influence, thanks to lead guitarist Slash. However, it’s the second half that brought Guns N’ Roses some attention, as the band opted for a more bluesy acoustic sound. While not the best the band has ever come out with, it still holds an important place in the Guns catalog; the song “Patience” remains one of the band’s most iconic songs to date.
(Note: while Use Your Illusion I and II are technically separate albums, they were both recorded at the same time, released on the same day, and are so musically identical that it’d be stupid not to describe them in one section)
Although the Use Your Illusion albums marked the beginning of the end for Guns N’ Roses—what with Axl Rose’s dictatorial diva attitude and increasing problems with drug addictions among band members—they proved to be incredibly solid and musically diverse, bringing the band huge success in the early 90s. The releases saw the band’s sound expand a bit; while they still retained the gritty hard rock that they’re now legendary for on tracks like “Back Off Bitch,” “Bad Obsession,” “Get in the Ring” (particularly famous for its purposely excessive use of profanity), and “You Could Be Mine,” the band started producing softer songs as well. “November Rain” is nothing short of one of the best rock ballads ever recorded (and the video’s awesome as well, obviously), and other, more melodic tracks like “Civil War,” “Estranged” (which, yes, wherein Axl Rose swims with dolphins), “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Don’t Cry” definitely had the band wearing their hearts on their sleeves, with Axl’s lyrics ranging from hatred to politics, and his myriad of relationship problems. I personally find the band’s blues sounds to gain some real maturity in the Use Your Illusion albums; “Dust N’ Bones,” “Bad Apples,” “Dead Horse,” and “Shotgun Blues” all have a very British rhythm and blues feel, reminiscent of Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones. While they aren’t the drunken madness that we traditionally think of when we think of Guns N’ Roses, they are nonetheless very well written, and really serve to show off the band’s influences.
Technically a covers album, “The Spaghetti Incident?” was the last album featuring most of the band’s original lineup, including guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan. The disintegration of the band is a little palpable on the album as the tracks turn out to be simply okay—not too great or too horrible. If you’re a fan of the band, it’s worth at least a listen. Nonetheless, it does serve as an interesting look at the band’s influences, most notably Duff McKagan, who was (and still is) very big into punk music. Some of the more interesting covers include The Stooge’s “Raw Power,” the Misfits’s “Attitude,” and Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You.” And then there’s the Charles Manson cover—an addition that generated some serious controversy (no duh), with many questioning Axl’s interest in the Manson Family after its release to the general populace.
The band’s—that is to say, Axl Rose and his revolving door of musicians’—first offering of original material in over a decade was greeted with mixed reviews upon its release, thought usually thought to be a bit underwhelming considering the time it took to create. Indeed, Chinese Democracy was supposedly finished near the end of the 90s, but was then re-recorded and tooled around with by Axl Rose for years before it finally hit shelves in 2008. (And with the production costs ranging up to about $13 million, it’s on the record as the most expensive album ever made.) For all the time that was put into the making of the album, the payoff wasn’t particularly great. Axl’s vocals are decent enough on the album, and the guitars are admittedly pretty cool (thanks to contributors like guitarist Bumblefoot and the infamous Buckethead), but the addition of electronic and industrial elements to the album definitely take things down a notch or two. However, at the end of the day, Chinese Democracy was well received enough by fans to be certified platinum in both American and Europe.
In January, the Internet was abuzz as the band announced the return of (most of) the original lineup, including long holdout Slash. The band is scheduled to play at Coachella and a series of North American dates, with rumors of new material being written as well. While they will never make another Appetite For Destruction, the band still has talent, and I personally can’t wait to see what they pull out of their sleeves next.