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1987 should have belonged to Aerosmith. Having signed to a major label two years earlier, they had already suffered one misfire with the overlooked Done with Mirrors but after partnering with a host of professional songwriters on their latest offering Permanent Vacation success seemed guaranteed. This same year saw the release of several high profile albums, with many rock and pop veterans enjoying something of a career revival after a period of commercial failure. Thus, Platinum-selling albums were produced by such heavyweights as KISS, Fleetwood Mac, Heart and Whitesnake, while other notable records came from Anthrax, The Cult, Mötley Crüe and Def Leppard. Despite a prominent rock scene in America, the year undoubtedly belonged to Michael Jackson, whose critically acclaimed album Bad would produce no less than five number one singles. Yet despite so many classic records being released at this time, 1987 is now remembered more for one significant event – the arrival of Guns N’ Roses.
As documentarian Penelope Spheeris explored in her 1988 feature The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years Sunset Strip during the 1980s was a circus of sex and drugs, with a new generation of wannabe rock stars making their way west to Los Angeles in the hope of finding fame and fortune. Often forced to live in their cars or in rundown apartments, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers, these young hopefuls would come together and find each other on the streets of Hollywood, sharing their love of ’70s hard rock and from the stages of the Roxy, the Whisky a Go Go and Rainbow Bar and Grill a new generation of superstars were born.
Since the turn of the decade the scene had been dominated by Van Halen and Mötley Crüe, both of whom had embraced the sleazier aspects of the rock and roll lifestyle while also producing a string of influential albums. Guns N’ Roses were just one of countless bands to emerge during this time, in which hundreds of groups tried and failed to gain any kind of exposure on the city’s live circuit. Yet despite ultimately becoming the most successful band to emerge from the Strip, none of the members came from Los Angeles.
Saul Hudson was born a world away from the glamour of Hollywood, having spent the first few years of his life in Stoke-on-Trent, an industrial city in the north of England that had little in the way of art. The son of a British painter and an American costume designer, Saul eventually moved to California to discover an environment rich with musical influence. His neighbours in Laurel Canyon included Jim Morrison of The Doors and Joni Mitchell, while David Bowie was also a close friend of his mother, having designed the clothes for his appearance in the cult movie The Man Who Fell to Earth.
After his parents split, Saul lost interest in high school and began to drink and experiment with drugs, but his passion for music, particularly Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith, eventually became the focal point of his adolescence. Striking up a friendship with a local boy called Steven Adler, Saul – commonly known to his family as Slash – decided that they would form their own band, with Slash on bass and Adler on guitar. But following his expulsion from high school his mother began to pressure him into focusing on graduating, yet all Slash wanted to do was learn how to play guitar and jam with his friends.
Following the short-lived Tidus Sloan Slash formed a band with a group of friends called Roadcrew but, after the departure of drummer Adam Greenberg, he turned to Adler as a replacement. Fascinated by the colourful characters they would see on the Sunset Strip, Adler would often spend his evenings outside the Rainbow Bar and Grill, studying the comings and goings of the musicians and patrons that he would see on a regular basis. After an unsuccessful audition for London, a popular local act that had marked the arrival of future Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx, Slash and Adler decided to post an ad in the Recycler, a free newspaper whose ‘wanted’ pages would be littered with teenagers seeking fellow musicians. The man who would respond to their request was Michael McKagan, who had moved from Seattle, Washington a few years earlier with the hope of indulging in the L.A. punk scene. Tall and scrawny with short blonde hair, McKagan – or Duff, as he was more commonly known – looked nothing like Slash or Adler, both of whom had long hair, but despite their differences there was an instant chemistry.
‘Slash’s long hair, it turned out, hid a shy introvert. He was cool, though,’ explained Duff in his memoir It’s So Easy (And Other Lies): The Autobiography. ‘Even so, I was afraid he and Steven were coming from a very different place musically than I was. Some of my fears reflected the way things had been in Seattle – long-haired guys there tended to be kind of behind the times. Long hair meant heavy metal.’ Another lost soul to make his way to Hollywood was Jeffrey Isbell – known on the Strip as Izzy Stradlin – who had performed briefly with London before searching for another band, which would eventually lead him to Slash and his slowly forming group. Hailing from Lafayette, Indiana, while at high school Stradlin had formed a close friendship with another introvert, Bill Bailey.
Born William Rose, Bill had been raised in a dysfunctional household, with his biological father abandoning the family when his son was just two-years-old. His mother soon embarked on a new relationship with a man called Reverend L. Stephen Bailey and before long Bill had a new father. Much like his future bandmates, Bill’s first real introduction to music was Led Zeppelin, while other early influences would include Elton John and 10cc. His friendship with Stradlin began while the two were students at Jefferson High School in Lafayette but after graduating Stradlin decided to relocate to Los Angeles.
Bill Bailey – who would soon go by the stage name W. Axl Rose – would visit his friend several times over the next twelve months before eventually deciding to move to California after witnessing Stradlin’s new life. Sharing their passion for music, the two formed a group called Rose, which also consisted of Chris Weber on guitar, Johnny Krieff on drums and Rick Mars on bass. They played their first show at the Orphanage in January 1984, although during the band’s various incarnations their name would regularly alternate with Hollywood Rose. By the summer, Weber and Krieff had been replaced by Slash and Adler, respectively, and the new line-up began performing on the local circuit.
But with the group constantly falling apart Slash responded to an ad seeking for a new guitarist and was invited to audition for Poison, a glam rock band whose guitarist, Matt Smith, had moved back home to Pennsylvania after his partner became pregnant. ‘I learned five of their songs from a cassette, went down to the audition and fucking kicked the shit out of them’ Slash later told Revolver. ‘But at the same time I was wearing, like, a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and I think I may have had some moccasins on. So I came back the second day and they were like, ‘So what kind of shoes are you gonna wear?’ And you just knew it wasn’t gonna work out.’
While being shortlisted for the position Slash soon felt disillusioned by their music and flamboyant image and decided to pass up the opportunity, allowing C.C. DeVille to join the band instead. ‘Slash is one of my all-time favorite guitar players and I believe he would have steered our sound a little more in the Aerosmith direction,’ Poison frontman would tell Ultimate Classic Rock. ‘He was basically the same guy he is today. What you see is what you get. It never really had a chance to work out or not.’ Meanwhile, Hollywood Rose‘s line-up continued to change, with guitarist Tracii Guns and drummer Rob Gardner joining the fold.
‘A bunch of people revolved in and out of Hollywood Rose – it’s the way these bands are. Izzy got an offer to join this band called London so he left. Axl ended up singing for L.A. Guns until he got into a fight with our manager,’ Guns told Spin in 1999. ‘But Axl decided we should continue writing songs together since we lived together. Then we came up with the name Guns N’ Roses – it was like, ‘I’m Tracii Guns and you’re Axl Rose.’ We pulled in Izzy, who was trying to do another version of Hollywood Rose. Steven Adler was the next guy in the band – he had great hair. Duff was in some weird Top 40 band but Izzy was like, ‘This guy’s got short hair but he’s into the New York Dolls and stuff like that.’ He had a Johnny Thunders T-shirt on and we were like, ‘This guy’s perfect.”
With Guns and Gardner being replaced by Slash and Adler after hesitating at the prospects of touring, they soon gained a loyal following along the Strip, regularly appearing in local venues like the Troubadour. Over the next year, they perfected their setlist with such early favourites as Reckless Life and Shadow of Your Love, along with covers of Aerosmith‘s Mama Kin and Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
Their minor success soon brought them to the attention of Vicky Hamilton, the manager of several local acts including Poison, who helped the band to book more shows and arouse the interest of various labels, all of whom would attend shows to see how marketable they could be. According to Duff, among the labels that would court Guns N’ Roses were Chrysalis, who offered the band a considerable sum but at the risk of losing creative control over their image and music. On 5 March 1986, Tom Zutaut of Geffen Records sent a letter to Hamilton stating, ‘After seeing the performance last Friday night at the Troubadour I was quite anxious to meet with you.’
He expressed his interest in signing the group but as discussions became serious Hamilton was suddenly replaced by Zutaut’s associate Alan Niven, who was charged with the responsibility of managing the band as success finally beckoned. Zutaut had a master plan on how he wanted to introduce the band to the public; with them having gained a reputation in Los Angeles as a strong live act he felt that their raw energy should be captured on tape prior to the release of their album.
Thus, it was agreed that the band would record a live EP. To give credence that they had paid their dues on the street the record was to be released under their own independent label Uzi Suicide, although in reality this would be funded by Geffen. Due to the cost of setting up the recording equipment in a venue the songs would be cut professionally in a studio, with the sound of the audience added retrospectively. It was ingenious marketing that would mark the band’s transition from popular live act to major label artists. The sessions were produced by Spencer Proffer at Pasha Studios in Hollywood, with the band cutting several of their live favourites, including a rendition of Mama Kin.
‘Although I’ll admit to being a little upset about the authenticity of it all I ultimately felt it was okay because many of the live records we loved so much weren’t really live either,’ admitted Adler in his biography My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, Drugs and Guns N’ Roses. ‘After we finished the songs Spencer added the audience. He used archived tapes of live performances by Dio and Quiet Riot and mixed the cheers in. Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide would serve its purpose, whetting the appetites of the fans while allowing the band to commence work on their official debut.
Although the production of the EP had not been a major issue Guns N’ Roses were particular with whom they wanted to oversee the recording sessions for what would become their full-length album. Several potential candidates were suggested, mainly due to their prior body of work that had made an impression on the various members of the group. According to Slash’ own biography, the first potential candidate who was suggested was Tom Werman, whose early work had included Blue Öyster Cult‘s Mirrors and Cheap Trick‘s Dream Police.
In recent years Werman had become the go-to producer for glam metal acts, having overseen the sessions for Twisted Sister‘s Stay Hungry and Mötley Crüe‘s Girls, Girls, Girls. The collaboration proved unsuccessful and Werman instead opted to produce Poison‘s sophomore record Open Up and Say…Ahh!. Author Marc Canter indicated that one suggested producer was Manny Charlton, guitarist of Nazareth, a group that Axl Rose had considered an influence on his early musical tastes. Charlton had also been involved in the recording of several Nazareth albums, having been credited as a co-producer of Rampant, before taking over for 1975’s Hair of the Dog, which produced their signature tune Love Hurts.
Another candidate was Paul Stanley, guitarist and co-singer of KISS, whose own group were in the process of working on their latest album Crazy Nights. But it became clear from the very beginning that his designs on the band differed to their own and no further action was taken. According to Duff one acclaimed producer who was considered was Robert John ‘Mutt’ Lange, the man responsible for defining the sounds of both AC/DC and Def Leppard; ‘For a time we thought we could get Mutt Lange, the producer behind AC/DC‘s Back in Black. But Mutt wanted $400,000 to walk into the room, plus a cut of the future earnings of the record. We had to pay for the studio and the producer cut out of our $250,000 advance and we had already taken out $75,000.’
The producer the band and label finally agreed upon was Mike Clink, who at that time was more known as an engineer for Jefferson Airplane and Survivor, often working for producer Ron Nevison. Invited to the offices at Geffen, Clink met with Zutaut, Niven and Rose to discuss the direction that Guns N’ Roses intended to take with their debut. Listening through samples of his work, the album that made the biggest impression on those present was Strangers in the Night, a live record from UFO that Nevison had produced, with Clink assisting.
With their producer in place sessions for the album would commence at Rumbo Studios in Canoga Park, with the band laying down the tracks they had been perfecting over the last three years. Anything Goes, co-written with Weber, had been part of their repertoire since 1984, having performed it in many of their earlier shows alongside Reckless Life and Back Off Bitch, the latter finally surfacing on their 1991 double album Use Your Illusion. The following year they added Think About You, while also debuting Welcome to the Jungle in the summer of 1985. Taking its title from the chorus of a Hanoi Rocks song, a Finnish glam punk group who had been a major influence on both Rose and Stradlin, the song would not only become the opening track from the album but also their breakthrough single. On 20 September of the same year Guns N’ Roses appeared once again at the Troubadour, where they had now became regular fixtures, sharing the bill with the long-forgotten Ruby Slippers and Sweet Revenge.
It was during this show that they would debut another new song Rocket Queen, while continuing to perform Think About You, Don’t Cry (another that would later surface on Use Your Illusion) and the Rolling Stones classic Jumpin’ Jack Flash. The recording of Rocket Queen would prove to be an unusual experience for all involved, as Rose decided that he wanted to feature the sounds of a woman having an orgasm in the background and so invited a girl into the studio to have sex with her. ‘I didn’t want to be around for recording a girl getting fucked. That wasn’t the high point of my career,’ admitted mixer Michael Barbiero to Spin. ‘So I set up the mikes and had my assistant record it. If you look at the record it says, ‘Vic Deglio, fucking assistant engineer.’ So it’s literal.’
Paradise City, another future hit, would make its first live appearance at the Troubadour three weeks after Rocket Queen. ‘There were only two things that I found difficult while recording my overdubs for Appetite,’ stated Slash in his book. ‘The first was the solo at the end of Paradise City, which was always easy live but wasn’t in the studio. In concert it could last anywhere from one to two minutes but on the album version of the song, it was designed to be exactly thirty seconds.’
Despite the band’s excessive lifestyle already being notorious by this point Clink tried to run things as smoothly as possibly in the studio, even though some sources claim that he felt he was working on a generic rock album. Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide had been a success from a creative perspective for one very simple reason; it felt authentic. The key to capturing the sound of Guns N’ Roses on tape was to not overdo the production; instead try to record as much of it in as few takes as possible and not relying on overdubs. They had developed their sound through constant live performances and so it was necessary for the album to reflect this.
For Adler the making of Appetite for Destruction was a brief experience, as he explained in his memoir, ‘My contributions to the record took six days, start to finish and I was done. On the other hand Axl would insist on doing his vocals one line at a time and that took much longer. Nobody wanted to be around when he was in the studio because his Talmudic recording methods drove everyone nuts. It was beyond what a perfectionist would demand.’
Once the recording sessions were complete Rose, Stradlin and Slash travelled to New York City to work with Barbiero and Steve Thompson on the mixing of the tracks at Mediasound Studios. Working from a demo cassette that had been provided by Zutaut, who was adamant that they capture a raw and authentic sound, with the pressures of recording now finally out of the way they had a little more freedom to experiment. ‘I remember when we were mixing Paradise City I goofed this one part during the breakdown before ‘take me home,” explained Thompson in an interview with Canter.
‘I basically copied that part of the song and duplicated it. Axl heard it and loved it and said to keep it in there.’ Adler also noticed changes to the song when he finally heard the mix; ‘Paradise City came on, and at the end of it, where it’s got my drum fill that sounds like a double bass, I noticed something different. I know I did that fill only once in the studio. But Slash had the idea to repeat it somehow. I asked him right then and there and he admitted the idea came to him in the studio. The second fill is actually the first played backward.’
One of the most controversial aspects of the album would prove to be its artwork. While not even a title had been agreed on during the recording and mixing sessions it would be after Rose discovered a postcard in a Melrose store that he would find the inspiration he had been searching for. The image was a painting entitled Appetite for Destruction, in which a woman lies with her shirt torn open, exposing one breast and her underwear below her knees – having been sexually assaulted by a sleazy robot in what appears to be a trench coat – while a vicious-looking monster leaps over the fence, eager to dish out vengeance against the rapist.
It was a shocking picture and one that made an immediate impression on Rose. Technology, sexuality and justice are all common themes of Robert Williams, the artist responsible for the painting, as was evident in much of his work, such as Ernestine and the Venus of Polyethylene (which featured a full frontal painting of a nude woman) and The Pachuco Cross, which explored themes of street justice.
‘The people at Geffen agreed to run it and love the opportunity to grab a little extra press, maybe a lot of extra press, with such controversial artwork,’ noted Adler. ‘Apparently, they were well aware that many retailers would never carry a cover that contained such a graphic misogynistic image. They went ahead and pressed the first shipment with it anyway, knowing that they’d probably have to change it for the future pressings. It was done intentionally to create resistance. Word got out about the offensive cover and the story got some extra ink for the band.’
Elsewhere in the artwork was a collage of photographs that documented Guns N’ Roses as a popular live act, mixing images of the group onstage with behind-the-scenes shots. With early live tracks such as Back Off Bitch and Don’t Cry failing to make the album, only to surface four years later on Use Your Illusion, perhaps it is no surprise that the inlay to Appetite for Destruction included a passage from another future hit; their 1991 single You Could Be Mine, which was released to coincide with the summer blockbuster Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The quote, which Rose would screech during the chorus of the song, stated, ‘With your bitch slap rappin’ and your cocaine tongue you get nothin’ done.’
While Appetite for Destruction certainly captured the essence of the band, from their tight grooves to its no-nonsense attitude, expectations for the album were not as high as Geffen had for Permanent Vacation. Aerosmith had proven during the mid-1970s that they were capable of producing acclaimed albums filled with hit singles,s but their career had derailed due to drug abuse and changes in music taste. After signing with Geffen they had failed to achieve a comeback with their first attempt, but following an unexpected pairing with hip-hop act Run–D.M.C. (on a reworking of the Aerosmith classic Walk This Way) their new album promised to launch the band back to the top of the charts.
But Permanent Vacation was not due out for another four weeks and before then there would be stiff competition from Def Leppard‘s long-awaited Hysteria, so a debut album from a relatively unknown rock band could easily have slipped by unnoticed. ‘Appetite for Destruction was released on 21 July 1987, to little or no fanfare at all. To be kind I’ll say it was a hit on the underground circuit; it had a small cult following, transmitted by word-of-mouth, like Metallica‘s Kill ‘Em All,’ said Slash in his biography.
Guns N’ Roses released their debut single It’s So Easy on 15 June 1987, a little over a month before Appetite for Destruction, accompanied by one track from the album and two early live cuts, Move to the City and Shadow of Your Love. The song had little impact on the rock scene and it would take another release, Welcome to My Nightmare, to gain the attention of the press. While the label expected protests regarding the album cover – forcing them to release a store-friendly version – what did take them by surprise was when MTV initially refused to broadcast the promo video.
In an era when sexuality played such a significant role in videos that were broadcast by the station, with notable examples being those produced by Madonna, while Michael Jackson’s featured zombies and gang violence, it seemed astonishing that this particular clip would cause such an issue. ‘There’s no nudity or obscene behaviour. And yet MTV object to it,’ explained Rose to Kerrang! at the time. ‘What sickens me is that the George Michael video for I Want Your Sex, which is far more suggestive than ours, is allowed to go out uncensored. Explain that one if you can. We’re just being picked on.’ The song would be featured the following year in the Dirty Harry sequel The Dead Pool, in which the band appeared as a fictitious rock group with a drug-addicted singer, played by a pre-fame Jim Carrey.
Despite the reluctance of some to promote the band, within a year Guns N’ Roses had become one of the biggest rock acts in the world, scoring further success with the singles Paradise City and Sweet Child ‘o Mine, the latter displaying a pop sensibility not found elsewhere on the album. ‘I didn’t tell anyone at Geffen about Sweet Child o’ Mine and I buried the song towards the end of side-two,’ said Zutaut. ‘I did not want the song to be discovered until later. And my reason was that Guns N’ Roses needed to start based on its punk roots.’ By the end of the decade Appetite for Destruction had been certified multi-Platinum and was considered one of the most influential rock albums of the 1980s, inspiring young fans to form their own bands.
In a 2011 review of the album Guardian critic Dafydd Goff stated that, ‘Appetite for Destruction ignited my passion for all things heavy. I hunted down bands that had inspired it. I discovered the Stooges, New York Dolls, Aerosmith and AC/DC, as well as punk bands from Britain (Sex Pistols, the Damned, U.K. Subs) and the U.S. (Misfits, Dead Boys, Fear). It was the album that began my life as a music fan.’ There are generations of rock fans that would agree with that statement.