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 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 eighties 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 rock ‘n’ roll, 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 American hard rock scene had been dominated by Van Halen and Mötley Crüe, both of whom had embraced the sleazier aspects of the rock lifestyle, while producing a string of influential albums. ‘We’d get drunk, do crazy amounts of cocaine, and walk the circuit in stiletto heels, stumbling all over the place,’ detailed Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil in their memoir The Dirt. ‘The Sunset Strip was a cesspool of depravity. Prostitutes in spandex and needle-thin heels walked up and down the streets.’ Guns N’ Roses were just one of countless bands 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, Hudson 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. Hudson’s mother, Ola, was a clothing designer that worked with the likes of Mitchell and David Bowie, while his father, Anthony, created the artwork for records by Mitchell, Bowie and Neil Young. ‘My first memory of Los Angeles is The Doors’ Light My Fire blasting from my parents’ turntable, every day, all day long,’ recalled Slash. ‘In the late sixties and early seventies, L.A. was the place to be, especially for young Brits involved in the arts or music: there was ample creative work compared to the still-stodgy system in England, and the weather was nothing but paradise compared to London’s rain and fog.’
After his parents split, Hudson 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. ‘The first thing I did as soon as I could put three chords together was start a band,’ he claimed. ‘At a really young age, I was going around trying to find people to form a group, and I was probably a little more ambitious and focused than most of my peers. It was difficult, but eventually I started meeting people that were into playing music. I was in and out of different, thrown-together groups. I guess you could call them garage bands.’ Striking up a friendship with a local boy called Steven Adler, Hudson, commonly known to his family as Slash, decided that they would form their own band, with Slash on bass and Adler on guitar. 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.
Much like Slash, Adler also harboured dreams of becoming a rock star, something that he had nurtured since an experience that had changed his life when he was thirteen-years-old. On 19 May 1978, he had attended a show at Magic Mountain in California, in which the legendary KISS had performed a selection of their most iconic hits, the footage of which would be used for the finale of their feature length sci-fi movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. While the film would be despised by both critics and the band, the opportunity to see KISS larger than life before his very eyes would have a significant influence on the teenage Adler. ‘That night I saw a lot and learned a lot about rock music,’ he would later declare. ‘The most important thing I took away from the concert was an appreciation for how much the studio version of a song could take on a life of its own when it was performed live. It was the same song, same lyrics, same chord progression, but it was totally different, having a unique and often superior energy all its own.’
Slash’s first attempt at launching a rock group was Tidus Sloan, a short-lived four-piece that he had formed with bassists Ron Schneider and Louie Metz, and drummer Adam Greenberg, while in high school. ‘Tidus Sloan was a purely instrumental band because we never found a singer, and I certainly wasn’t going to sing myself,’ he admitted. ‘I don’t have the personality to be a frontman of any kind; it’s enough of an effort for me to get out there and talk to people at all. All I really want to do is play guitar and be left alone. In any case, Tidus Sloan played early Black Sabbath, early Rush, early Zeppelin, and early Deep Purple, without vocals; we were retro before there was retro. We rehearsed in Adam’s garage, which drove him mom completely insane. She and the neighbours would complain constantly, which is understandable because we played much too loud for a residential neighbourhood.’
Following the demise of Tidus Sloan, Slash formed a new band with a group of friends called Road Crew but, after the departure of drummer Greenberg, he turned to Adler as a replacement. Fascinated by the colourful characters they would see on 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 saw on a regular basis. Eventually, 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, 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. Those of us in the punk scene called guys like that heshers. We were city kids. We thought of ourselves as ahead of the curve. Of course, some of my fears about Slash and Steven were more concrete; Anvil’s Metal on Metal was part of the cover repertoire they played. Still, the more we played and talked about music and listened to music, the more common ground we found.’
Another lost soul to make his way to Hollywood was Jeffrey Isbell, known on the Strip as Izzy Stradlin. ‘I grew up in Florida and moved with my mom to Lafayette,’ he recalled in 1989. ‘It was a bad time, being there. The people, the girls, it was so backward. The girls didn’t even know how to dress when they went to gigs! So, the prospects were absolutely zilch…I was always into hard stuﬀ, the Ramones, the raw power that stuﬀ had, the sound of the chords. So I got this Les Paul, which was real good for barre chords; all I could really play at the time, anyway. Then I got my friend’s guitar, a Gibson LG5, I think. I’d play that guitar to Ramones records forever.’ It was during his time at high school in Lafayette that Stradlin had formed a close friendship with another introvert, Bill Bailey.
Born William Rose, Bailey 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 Bailey had a new father. Much like his future bandmates, Bailey’s first real introduction to music was Led Zeppelin, while other early influences would include Elton John and 10cc. His friendship with Stradlin began when the two were students at Jefferson High School in Lafayette, but after graduation 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. ‘When I first met Axl, I didn’t think too much of him,’ Weber would admit. ‘He could sing but his voice wasn’t unique. Axl said he had learned to sing in the choir and, at that time, he only sang his stuff in a smith baritone voice. Then a week or so later, Izzy and I heard Axl sing Hair of the Dog by Nazareth while in the shower. Izzy and I looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it! That’s the voice.”
Slash would also recall the first time he heard Rose sing. ‘The first time was on a cassette that Izzy brought over to my house,’ he told Kerrang! in 2020. ‘There was all this noise, and then there’s this really intense high voice over the top of it. My first impression was that it was very soulful. It had a bluesy, melodic thing to it, which was rare for that type of voice. You didn’t often hear somebody hold that melody together so naturally. Then I went to see him and Izzy play one time. I didn’t actually realise I was going to see the same person that was on that cassette. They were fucking hardcore on stage. Izzy was doing knee slides and Axl was bashing down. It was cool, like, ’Fuck!’’
Rose performed their first show at the Orphanage in Los Angeles on 3 January 1984, and over the next few months the band would undergo various line-up and name changes, regularly alternating between Rose and 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 with the addition of bassist Steve Darrow. ‘Izzy faded out again. He was out of the picture and was looking for something else,’ described Darrow on how members would never stay with Rose for long, even his closest friends. ‘Axl was the one who got the ball rolling again. Izzy was more the glam kind of flash-talker, and Axl was like, ‘Let’s do all the same stuff.’ But I wanted to make it more street, more denim, you know, straight-up Nazareth meets Motörhead meets Aerosmith. And he was convening with Slash more.’ This incarnation, however, would also prove to be short-lived and they soon parted ways with Darrow.
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. ‘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 Bret Michaels 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, Rose‘s own line-up continued to change, with guitarist Tracii Guns and drummer Rob Gardner joining the fold.
This guy’s perfect
‘A bunch of people revolved in and out of Hollywood Rose; it’s the way these bands are,’ 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.”
In an interview with the Quietus a decade later Guns added, ‘In the beginning Izzy lived at my house, years ago. And he had Hollywood Rose with Axl; that was their band. I never played in Hollywood Rose. And I had my high school band, and I was really looking for a cool name and I loved Hollywood Rose. And I had a girlfriend that had been calling me Mr. Guns. One day me and Izzy were sitting in the living room of my house and I said ‘L.A. Guns’ and I made this Cheap Trick-looking logo on a blank album cover, and I show it to Izzy and go, ‘What do you think of this for a band name?’ And he goes, ‘That’s great.’ So that’s been my band name ever since. So anyways, we had a little manager guy at the time and he hated our singer, Mike Jagosz, so we fired him. So then I asked Axl to join L.A. Guns, and he was in the band for about six or seven months, and then the same manager ended up hating Axl and he wanted to fire him. We’re all living together at this point and Axl and I sat down and went, ‘What are we going to do?’ So we both said, ‘Fuck that’ and came up with the name Guns N’ Roses, which was going to be just a record label that we’d put singles out on.’
Despite Slash having moved onto other projects, his friends were determined to bring him back to the group. ‘On Friday 31 May 1985, Slash had a gig at the Country Club with Black Sheep, a band he had recently joined,’ claimed McKagan. ‘I had already been thinking that his guitar style would mesh well with Izzy’s. So I took Axl to the show and we talked to Slash. The next day, I called Slash and tried to convince him to bring Steven Adler and come by to rehearse with us. They both knew Axl, too, having played a few gigs with him as Hollywood Rose in 1984, not long after Axl arrived in L.A. But in the interim there had been some bad blood. Apparently Axl had slept with Slash’s girlfriend. Not only that, but when the singer of Black Sheep figured out the reason for our visit to the show the night before, he was so angry he called Slash’s mom and told her we were drug addicts; a point on which he was only partly right. Slash was inclined to try it out because Guns seemed more where he wanted to go musically than Black Sheep.’
In a 1988 interview with Hit Parader, Rose recalled the birth of Guns N’ Roses. ‘During the time I was in L.A. Guns, Izzy and I started doing stuff on the side and calling it Guns N’ Roses,’ he explained. ‘Meanwhile, the other band I was in got sick of me sitting around and saying, ‘Slash would be great for this.’ Finally, I got myself kicked out of that band by putting on a pair of ripped jeans and a spray-painted pink and black jacket, doing my hair, putting full make-up on and running all around the stage and out into the crowd one night. The guitarist freaked out because it was his band and he was used to getting all the attention. So, before I could say, ‘I quit,’ he kicked me out. I said, ‘Yeah!!!’ It was great.’
Adler, too, would find his way back to the group following a period of experimenting with other projects. ‘Slash called me up. He sounded excited and told me that Izzy had resurfaced and wanted us all to play together again,’ he explained. ‘This time, however, my heart really started pounding because Slash told me that they had committed to doing a show Thursday night. And Friday they were planning on heading up to Seattle to play a couple of shows. Since we had introduced Duff to Izzy and Axl, he had been playing with them too. In fact, Duff was the one who booked the upcoming shows. So it was, ‘Dude. Cool. I’m there!’ The next day, I got together with them, and they told me the band was now called Guns N’ Roses.’
With Guns and Gardner having been replaced by Slash and Adler, 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. Despite his rock star presence, Rose was notoriously shy offstage and would often panic before a show. ‘Axl had terrible stage fright because there was so much focus on him,’ claimed Arlett Vereecke, the band’s publicist. ‘Plus, he was insecure. He didn’t see himself as a sexy, attractive guy. He always thought Slash was the guy who got all the attention.’
Although Rose had gained a reputation as an outrageous and aggressive frontman, there was a more vulnerable side to him that their growing fanbase were unaware of. He may have strutted across the stage with the cocky swagger of a rock star, but this performance was in some ways a cathartic release from the insecurities he felt when he was alone. ‘I was expressing my emotions and took that as far as you can,’ he confessed to USA Today. ‘I could beat my mike stand into the stage but I was still in pain. Maybe fans liked it, but sometimes people forget you’re a person and they’re more into the entertainment value. It’s taken a long time to turn that around and give a strong show without it being a kamikaze show.’
Even though the band had yet to land a record deal, they had already begun to emulate the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, while Rose continued to struggle with his own personal demons. ‘Three of my bandmates were using heroin at least occasionally by this point, and Izzy was continuing to deal, but everybody put in the work,’ revealed McKagan. ‘Even then, though, the singer’s personal issues were beginning to affect the band in a way that drug habits were not, at least not yet. Axl had intense emotional swings marked by periods of incredible energy, followed by days on end when he would be overtaken by black moods and disappear, and miss rehearsals. Since I had suffered from panic attacks since I was seventeen, I knew all too well how crippling things like that could be. Axl and I talked together about it once in a while, and I told him about my panic attacks. I quickly realised that while each of us in the band had his own things to deal with, Axl’s was closest to mine; a sort of chemical imbalance that he had no more control over than I did over my panic attacks. After that, we had an understanding.’
Despite undergoing numerous line-up and name changes, the moment the core group first came together, all five members knew that it felt right. They had been Rose and they had been L.A. Guns, but now they were Guns N’ Roses. ‘When we got together, as far as I was concerned, we were definitely the only five guys that could have made up that band,’ admitted Slash. ‘There were a lot of different configurations; Steven and I; Steven, Duff and I; Steven, Axl and I; Izzy and Axl; Izzy, Axl and Duff, and it finally finally settled into what became that band. And I don’t think any of the other configurations could have possibly worked to make up what Guns N’ Roses really was.’
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 the band could be. ‘It wasn’t Guns N’ Roses yet; it was Hollywood Rose and I was an agent at Silver Lining Entertainment,’ explained Hamilton to Rolling Stone. ‘Axl called me up and said, ‘You come highly recommended. Would you like to book some gigs for us?’ I was like, ‘Well, send me a demo’ and he was like, ‘Well, can’t I just bring it in and play it for you?’ I was like, ‘Well, I don’t really have a stereo here’ and he said, ‘That’s okay, I’ll come with my ghetto blaster.’ And that made me laugh!’
Hamilton knew upon meeting the band that there was something that separated them from all the other young hopefuls on Sunset Strip. ‘They felt dangerous and edgy. You knew you were watching a train wreck, but you couldn’t keep your eyes off it. No one had the magic they had. They were just brilliant when the five of them came together,’ she confessed. Yet before long Hamilton soon discovered just how high maintenance her latest clients were when she received an unexpected phone call from Slash requesting that the singer be able to hide at her apartment to avoid the police. ‘I said, ‘Oh boy, okay for a couple of days,” she would recall. ‘What was supposed to be a couple of days ended up being six months. It started with Axl on my couch and then a few days later the rest of the band moved their gear in.’
Her dedication to Guns N’ Roses would extend to accompanying members of the band to local shows, where they would attempt to secure support slots from popular acts on the Los Angeles scene. ‘We pushed our way from stage to stage, talking to organisers, looking for an opening until we found one, playing after Social Distortion,’ recalled Slash. ‘It didn’t sound like the best idea, following a loyally beloved local punk band, but it actually turned out to be one of the greatest gigs we ever did. The audience was full-on punk and still bloodthirsty after just having seen Social Distortion. We got up there and ripped into our set, and within the first thirty seconds, the show became a spitting contest between us and the first five rows; their fans fucking spit on us, so we just spit on them back. It was hilarious and memorably sickening.’
Even as Guns N’ Roses attempted to attract the attention of major record labels, they gained a reputation as the most dangerous group in Los Angeles. ‘It could be said that we have a pretty nasty history,’ admitted Stradlin in an interview with Guitar World. ‘The thing is, I don’t give a fuck about the image that everyone buys. It’s all been blown out of proportion, the ‘bad-boy’ thing, how much we drink, how much drugs we do or don’t do. It’s boring. While everyone’s talking about what we did or supposedly did yesterday, we’re already working today on the music they’re gonna hear tomorrow.’
The first industry figure that the band would be approached by was Kim Fowley who, a decade earlier, had been responsible for the overnight success of the Runaways. The first all-female rock group became the latest sensation, but within a few short years they had self-destructed and its guitarists, Joan Jett and Lita Ford, had both become famous in their own right. ‘Kim Fowley was still trolling the gutters for the next rising stars,’ claimed McKagan. ‘One thing that we knew about ourselves by that point was that Guns was the best and most committed band that any of us had ever been in, and we had become very protective of it. Kim had a storied but checkered past; I had opened for Joan Jett when I was with the Fastbacks shortly before she became a household name with I Love Rock ’n’ Roll, and I knew the stories. We were dubious.’
According to McKagan, among the labels that would court Guns N’ Roses during this time were Chrysalis, who offered the band a considerable sum but at the risk of losing creative control over their image and music. Hamilton, meanwhile, had sent a copy of the band’s demo tape to Tom Zutaut of Geffen Records and on 5 March 1986 Zutaut sent a letter to Hamilton stating, ‘After seeing the performance last Friday night at the Troubadour I was quite anxious to meet with you.’ With Aerosmith having recently signed to the label in an effort to reinvent their career after several years of critical and commercial failure, the prospect of signing to the same company would be too tempting to resist.
‘Axl didn’t strike me as being particularly savvy or into his career,’ Zutaut admitted to Spin in 1999. ‘He was more like a wild animal from the African jungle. I remember Axl saying to me the Monday after the show, ‘Well, if you can get a check for $75,000 by Friday, we’ll sign with you.’ It was unheard of. Then, on Wednesday, he called me and said, ‘Look, man, we told the A&R person at Chrysalis that if she walked naked down Sunset Boulevard from her office to Tower Records, we’d sign with her.’ He was dead serious! And I remember thinking, ‘My office is on Sunset. I’m going to have to watch until Friday at 6 o’clock, because if she does the nude walk, I’m going to lose the band.’
Although Hamilton had remained hardworking and loyal to the band, they could sense that a change was coming. ‘It was obvious to everyone in our camp that Vicky Hamilton wasn’t going to cut it as a manager once our operation increased in scale,’ said Slash. ‘Tom Zutaut arranged a few meetings with potential managers, the first of them being Cliff Bernstein and Peter Mensch of Q Prime, who managed Metallica, Def Leppard and others, then as they do today. I went to Tom’s office and they were late, so I passed out on Tim’s couch waiting for them. For the record, I’m not sure if I was high or not. What I do remember is that the meeting didn’t go well. ‘Guns N’ Roses just doesn’t have a musical enough sound to be a band that we’d consider representing,’ one of them, I’m not sure which, said. ‘I sat there, pretty dumbfounded.’
As Zutaut’s determination to sign the group turned into an obsession, Hamilton was suddenly replaced by Zutaut’s associate Alan Niven, who was charged with the responsibility of managing the band as success finally beckoned. ‘Tom gave me a demo tape and you could hear that Slash could play. In fact I still love some of his playing on that cassette,’ explained Niven. ‘And Axl had that voice: totally distinct, like Ethel Merman on helium. They weren’t going to be a Journey or a Def Leppard, that was for sure. And I wasn’t sure how radio would take to them, if at all. They were far too fucking raw; Great White were considered edgy in those days. But it was a real band, and I ﬁgured that if they could be held together, made functionally professional, and if I could get them to tour, then maybe they could make a mark as an underground band. Maybe even get to gold status in sales and build from there.’
Axl already had a major rock star persona
Despite their anti-authoritative attitude, the band were immediately impressed with the approach that Niven would take with their rock ‘n’ roll excess. ‘Alan Niven was the first guy that could deal with us at face value as we presented ourselves,’ admitted Slash. ‘Without getting squeamish or bullshitting us, he could deal with Izzy and I being strung out. He could deal with Steven being Steven. Duff was always on the even-keel, and then there were Axl’s idiosyncrasies. Axl already had a major rock star persona and was a little bit unpredictable, and Alan handled all of that with a shrug of the shoulders. It was no big deal to him. So we felt comfortable and at ease with him, not feeling like we had to impress him or try and bullshit him into thinking we were something we were not. So that worked great. And he had good ideas, and we looked at where he was coming from and how it related to the band and how it all worked. All things considered, he was just the right guy at the right time.’
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 giving the impression that they had risen from their grassroots independently without being chaperoned by a major label. 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.
‘The idea was to have a live record with thousands of people screaming in the background, thereby making us sound as popular as, or maybe more popular than, we actually were. So yes, we knew from the start that they were going to add an audience,’ admitted Adler in his biography My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, Drugs and Guns N’ Roses. ‘Just so long as it sounded right. We didn’t want this album to sound tinny or cheesy. Geffen’s engineers told us there would be too much shit involved to actually record a live record, so we were told to create the live audience effects in the studio. 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 as kids weren’t really live either.’ Ultimately, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide would serve its purpose, whetting the appetites of the fans while preparing the band for the experience of working on their full-length debut.
The label’s first attempt at bringing Guns N’ Roses to the mass market would come on 20 September 1986 when they were invited to perform at the Street Scene Festival in Los Angeles. But this high-profile appearance would end in disaster. ‘We only got to do four songs before the crowd went crazy on us,’ admitted Rose. ‘We did a song called They’re Out to Get Me, and the kids started throwing sixty-gallon oil drums at the cops. The crowd went fucking bananas. All these kids – punk rockers, heavy metal kids, everyone – just going nuts. If I would have said, ‘Tear up downtown!’ all of downtown L.A. would have been rubble. But the fire marshalls made us stop playing because all those oil drums were spilling liquid into the electrical system and we were gonna get fried if we stayed onstage. That would have been really heavy!’
The second attempt would come exactly a month later when, on 20 October, they were booked as the opening act for a show at the Arlington Theatre in Santa Barbara for Alice Cooper who, after a three-year hiatus from the music industry, was masterminding his long-awaited comeback in support of his recently released album, Constrictor. And even as Cooper paced frantically back-and-forth backstage, overcome with fear that he may have lost his rock ‘n’ roll edge now that he had finally turned his back on drink and drugs, Guns N’ Roses faced a dilemma of their own. ‘Axl failed to show up,’ Niven remembered on his first show with their new client. ‘The band were in the dressing room saying, ‘We can’t go on.’ I said, ‘You fucking get on that stage. I don’t care who sings what but you will do the show.”
Reluctantly, the remaining members took to the stage for what had promised to be the show of a lifetime, but without their frontman to lead the way. ‘At eight o’clock we hit the stage as scheduled,’ recalled Adler. ‘Without Axl, we just did our best and improvised. We did It’s So Easy and Duff sang. After that, we just performed blues jams. We would always include a blazing blues jam in our sets, so we still managed to rock out for the audience, and I don’t think they felt incredibly cheated. Izzy and Duff screamed a few words here and there. Duff’s tech, Mike ‘McBob’ Mayhue, may have sung something too. Bottom line was, without Axl present, we didn’t deliver the true Guns N’ Roses as promised. We just played, packed up our shit, and got out of there. Because of my worship for Alice, and my feeling about what Guns N’ Roses was about, it was one of the most humiliating nights of my life. Afterwards, we were all pissed, and for one infuriating moment, we all considered kicking him out of the band. But we realised there was nothing we could do. The album had already been recorded and Axl was an integral part of our image and sound, so we never actually talked about getting another singer.’
Cooper was not the only performer terrified that evening as Rose who, despite his raucous and arrogant onstage persona, was in truth painfully shy and nervous at the thought of singing at an arena, had suffered from a panic attack and had refused to make an appearance. With the remaining members taking the stage in a state of drunken madness, the band launched into a set that would include a mixture of original compositions and cover versions, many of which had already been part of their shows for the last twelve months. But without their singer leading the charge with his usual confident swagger, the show seemed far from stellar. ‘Axl was always extremely difficult,’ Niven added. ‘He would be late or wouldn’t show up for rehearsals. There was always an excuse.’
Through the ever-expanding repertoire that they had been developing on the live circuit of Los Angeles, Guns N’ Roses already had a plentiful selection of songs to consider for the record and upon hearing the various songs that the band had been perfecting Zutaut was overwhelmed with what he knew could become something truly special. ‘Most of the songs were actually written before I got involved with the band,’ Zutaut explained to Classic Rock. ‘Slash and Izzy were probably the main writers, while Axl and Duff also contributed. I mean, he wrote what is probably one of my favourite songs, It’s So Easy. Before that I didn’t even know that Duff could write a song.’
While 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 serious contender was Tom Werman, whose early collaborations had included Blue Öyster Cult. Having started in the industry working in A&R at Epic Records, Werman had progressed to production with Robey, Falk and Bod’s Kentucky Gambler in 1973. Over the following decade he would work on such acclaimed albums as Ted Nugent’s eponymous debut and Cheap Trick‘s In Color. 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.
‘Werman had recently produced Mötley Crüe’s Shout at the Devil, which sold a few million in 1985, and before that he had made a name for himself producing Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent and Molly Hatchet,’ enthused Slash. ‘But he couldn’t handle us. We never even got to properly meet him. He came to our rehearsal space and we were playing Mr. Brownstone, at jet-engine decibel levels.’ 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 developing material for their latest album Crazy Nights. ‘We worked with Spencer Proffer on our demo tape, then Paul came to us because he was interested in producing,’ explained Rose. ‘Slash had him come over, and I sat down and talked production with him and played him the demo. He wanted to rewrite two of our favourite songs, so it was over right then and there.’ It soon became clear that the relationship between the veteran and newcomers was somewhat fragile. ‘Paul Stanley came down to one of our shows and hung out where we hung out,’ Slash told the L.A. Times. ‘I’m looking at this guy watching what we do. He’s a nice guy but he didn’t have a clue as to what we were doing. Everyone gets the basic idea: They’re a rock ‘n’ roll band. But they don’t get the formula.’
According to Stanley, his experience with Guns N’ Roses proved to be somewhat hostile. ‘I went to see their gig at Raji’s, a little dive in Hollywood. I thought the songs they played for me were good but they didn’t prepare me for seeing the band live. Guns N’ Roses were stupendous,’ Stanley confessed in his memoir. ‘I went to see them again at another club called Gazzarri’s, it later became the Key Club. They weren’t happy with the guy mixing their sound and Slash asked me out of the blue to help out…Immediately after my interactions with the band I started to hear lots of stories Slash was saying behind my back; he called me gay, made fun of my clothes, all sorts of things designed to give himself some sort of rock credibility at my expense. This was years before his top hat, sunglasses and dangling cigarette became a cartoon costume that he would continue to milk with the best of us for decades.’
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.
‘I got a call from my manager, Teri Lipman, that I had a meeting set up at Geffen Records,’ explained Clink. ‘I went to Tom Zutaut’s office. Tom, Alan Niven and Axl were there, and they played some records that I worked on. They said, ‘We like this record, we don’t like that record.’ The records that they liked the most that I had worked on were the UFO records, especially Strangers in the Night. That’s the record they really loved. They also played me some failed attempts at some previous recordings that the band had made that no one was happy with. The recordings weren’t right and they didn’t represent the angst and the energy that the band had. It was a little too processed, which was the sound in that day. People tended to make things very processed sounding, very slick, and they were looking for something a little more raw. So they were looking for someone to come in, fix it, facilitate it and capture the Guns N’ Roses sound.’
It wouldn’t take long, however, until the band came to realise that Clink was the perfect producer to capture the raw and aggressive sound they wanted for their debut album. ‘We ﬁnally found this producer who said, ‘I just want to record how you guys sound, nothing more.’ That made perfect sense,’ admitted McKagan in 2020. ‘Hearing those basic tracks, it sounded like us in that room. It was perfect. We really learned how a good song should be written. We had these big riﬀs, but how do you get them to the next riﬀ, and how does the vocal go in? So you hear all the little connector parts on that record, and that was something you really had to work on.’
By the time that Guns N’ Roses were preparing to enter the studio to record their highly-anticipated album, their personal lives had begun to spiral out of control. ‘It was during this period of writing and rehearsing at the Sunset and Gardner Hotel that I started to notice something different about Steven,’ admitted Slash. ‘He would show up at rehearsal a little too elastic; he seemed like he was drink, but he wasn’t drinking anything. I couldn’t quite figure it out because his playing was fine, so I was intrigued. Steven was dating a girl who lived with a roommate on Gardner, just down the street from our rehearsal space. I started to go over there with him every night after we were done practicing and found it to be a pretty heavy scene; it was like time stopped when you walked through the door, everything moving very, very slowly. I got to know Steve’s girlfriend and her roommate, a girl so whacked out that it broke my heart.’
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 been performed at 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.’
I need real sex noises
Steve Thompson, whom Barbiero worked alongside during the mixing of the album, also recalled the event. ‘We’re doing Rocket Queen and Axl comes up to me and says, ‘Steve, I need some sex noises on this.’ Okay, no problem. I think I had tapes of seventies porno movies that I would splice together to get the audio and I’d give him the sex noises he needs,’ he told Rock Talk. ‘He goes, ‘No, I need real sex noises.’ And I forgot her name, she was at the studio, Adler’s girlfriend. And Axl says ‘Okay, let’s mic it up, I’m gonna fuck her in the studio and just record the moans.’ Mark Barbiero is very conservative, he’s like, ‘Are you fucking kidding me?!’ And I felt kinda weird for the fact that it was Adler’s girlfriend, I don’t want to get involved in this shit! And we ended up putting the mics together and they did their thing in the studio.’
The woman in question who would provide her authentic orgasmic screams for Rocket Queen was nineteen-year-old Adriana Smith. ‘Steven was out with another girl. We were all getting really wasted, so I felt I was going to try and get revenge on Steven. Axl was all in for it and we started having sex,’ she said in 2016. ‘It was all craziness. He said something to me about art and making this song and I was drunk. We cleared everyone out of the studio. Dimly lit, there were cushions in the booth, so no one could really see in. There were two guys in one booth and we were in another and I think they got a couple hours of recording of us having sex. It wasn’t really romantic, passionate or hot. It was kinda contrived, but they got some good stuff out of it. I don’t know where those recordings have gone and I don’t have a copy of them.’
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. So it wasn’t easy for me to focus the same narrative and emotion into thirty seconds, and when the red light came on, it threw me for a look; I actually got gun-shy. I remember going at it a few times and getting so frustrated that I just left the studio completely disappointed; the next day, though, I came in fresh and nailed it.’
When Adler finally heard the mix of the song he noticed one significant change; ‘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.’
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 rely on overdubs. They had developed their sound through constant live performances and so it was necessary for the album to reflect this.
‘I ran a pretty tight ship when I was there,’ insisted Clink. ‘I had set hours that I started and everybody was pretty good about being there. Once we found the hours we were going to work, it was all great. Call time was around eleven in the morning out at Rumbo Studios to cut the basic tracks. Everyone showed up around noon and by one o’clock we were pretty much rolling. They were pretty good about showing up on time and being there. I started with Slash around noon and we worked up until eight at night. Axl was scheduled to come in around nine. What happened was nine became ten and ten became eleven. And then we started working around the clock. Axl was typically late. However, I wasn’t sitting around waiting for them to get something done.’
While Guns N’ Roses had gained a well-deserved reputation for debauchery, when it came to their music, they were consummate professionals. ‘We were pretty disciplined about the sessions, but outside the recording studio it was business as usual in our world; partying, fighting, getting into scraps with the police,’ explained McKagan. ‘Half the band slept at the studio sporadically because they still didn’t have beds anywhere else, though I was actually moving in the opposite direction on the personal front. After a period without an exclusive relationship, I started to see a girl named Mandy. She was in a band called the Lame Flames. By spring 1987, as Guns was finishing the record, Mandy and I moved in together. Our apartment became an oasis of stability not just for me and Mandy, but for people around me, like Todd Crew. His band, Jetboy, had just signed a major-label deal. Whenever people needed to find Todd, his band, their management, his family, they called my number. Now that I had an actual phone instead of having to use a pay phone, I was also able to call home a lot more.’
For Adler, the making of Appetite for Destruction was a brief experience. ‘My contributions to the record took six days, start to finish, and I was done,’ he explained in his memoir. ‘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. And it soon became obvious to us that it was obsession for the sake of obsession. Pretty soon the rest of the band just kind of slipped out to go to the bathroom and neglected to come back. We just preferred to be off campus drinking and partying while Axl was driving the engineers and techs out of their skulls.’
As with many of the songs that would make their way onto Appetite for Destruction, one composition that had become part of the Guns N’ Roses setlist by this point that drew heavily from the band’s personal experiences was My Michelle. At the time Rose had been enjoying something of a dysfunctional relationship with a young lady called Michelle Young, a former school friend of both Slash and Tracii Guns and one day while Rose and Young were driving through the city Elton John’s 1970 breakthrough single Your Song began to play, prompting Young to make the flippant remark that she wished someone would pen a track dedicated to her. While his initial attempt to write a tribute had been a generic love song, Rose eventually drew from what he had observed from Young’s turbulent life and redrafted My Michelle into something far more tragic.
Documenting the troubled upbringing of its eponymous heroine and her subsequent futile attempts to find true love while struggling with drug addiction, the song would be far from complementary. ‘I was always high back then,’ Young would confess almost three decades later. ‘So when I heard it and heard the lyrics I was like, ‘Oh, it’s fine, it’s cool, do whatever you want.’ I didn’t really honestly think that the album was going to be that huge or even that the song was gonna be on their album for that matter.’ In a discussion with Legendary Rock Interviews Young would also add, ‘It suddenly became that everyone wanted to be my friend because they wanted to get closer or get to know the band. They thought that by getting tight with me or giving me free drugs that they would get to know the band, because in the song it says I got my drugs for free which again, wasn’t entirely true. I never did my drugs for free; nobody really does anything for free.’
One of the most iconic moments of the album would be born out of a riff that Slash had played as he warmed up before recording sessions. ‘I knew I had to come up with something good because the chord changes were fairly simple and straightforward,’ he explained regarding the opening riff of Sweet Child o’ Mine. ‘I probably use the pickup switch more than anybody else I see, which is because I don’t like to use eﬀects, really, not even a boost. So for the ﬁrst part of that, I was on the neck pickup, and then I clicked into the bridge position for the crazier part. The second part was an overdub, and you can hear the transition, the moment where the ﬁrst half is ending and the second thought is coming in. I don’t mind that; it’s a record. Live, I have to approximate the second half without the wah-wah, because I don’t go on stage with any eﬀects at all, nothing, because I’d just wind up kicking everything oﬀ the stage anyway.’
While many of the songs recorded during the sessions boasted attitude and swagger, Sweet Child o’ Mine was ostensibly a love song that revealed Rose’s tender side. ‘That’s a real love song,’ he admitted in the press release that accompanied the album. ‘I had written this poem; reached a dead-end with it and put it on the shelf. Then Slash and Izzy got working together on songs and I came in. Izzy hit a rhythm, and all of sudden this poem popped into my head. It just all came together. A lot of rock bands are too fucking wimpy to have any sentiment or any emotion in any of their stuff unless they’re in pain. It’s the first positive love song I’ve ever written. I never had anyone to write anything that positive about.’
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.
A standard of the eighties hard rock album was the power ballad, a requisite for any record wishing to break into the mainstream and yet despite Rose’s insistence to include a new song he had composed on the piano Zutaut relented. ‘With November Rain we were almost done recording Appetite,’ he recalled. ‘I get to the studio and Axl is really excited. He sits down at the piano and he plays November Rain from top to bottom and he sings a rough outline of the vocals. And I was stunned. You just knew instantly that it was going to be a really big song. He wanted to add it to Appetite and I told him there was just no way we could do it. We had already kept Don’t Cry off Appetite and now there was November Rain, which was arguably a better song. So we had a huge row over it.’
While Appetite for Destruction was a punk-infused guitar album, by the time the band entered the studio, Rose had already begun to write new material that would be based around his talents as a pianist. ‘There’s a song called November Rain and another one called Breakdown. There’s also a song tentatively titled Without You. Last night, I wrote a whole new intro to that,’ he revealed to Rolling Stone. ‘I’ve played piano my whole life. I took lessons, but I only really played my lesson on the day of the lesson. All week long, I’d sit down at the piano and just make up stuff. To this day, I still can’t really play other people’s songs, only my own. I haven’t had a piano for years. I couldn’t afford one. I couldn’t figure out where I was sleeping at night, let alone try to have a place for a piano. So I had to put it aside and have the dream that I’d get to it.’
Zutaut’s reasoning for keeping both November Rain and Don’t Cry from off the album would be due to the band’s tough image and the aggressive nature of the album, with songs such as It’s So Easy and You’re Crazy proving too much of a stark contrast to the tenderness of the ballads that Rose now attempted to include in the tracklist. With Sweet Child o’ Mine already threatening the credibility of Appetite for Destruction due to its pop sensibilities, even one straightforward ballad could do more harm than good for the band’s image. And while November Rain would eventually become a phenomenal success several years later, for the time being Zutaut was able to reassure Rose that their omissions were for the best and instead focused on delivering an album that never relented when it came to delivering a cocksure rock ‘n’ roll attitude.
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.’
In keeping with the narrative that Geffen had not only approved but also supported any controversy that the band could conjure up to promote the album’s release, Guns N’ Roses insisted that the sexually explicit artwork was obtained with the label’s approval. ‘It wasn’t banned by the record company, it was banned by a lot of stores,’ Rose explained to Headbangers Ball. ‘The record company was actually pretty much into it. It was banned by Warner Bros. They wouldn’t produce the album cover that way, so we had to hire an independent artist to put the album cover together. It’s a Robert Williams painting. He does a lot of shows here in New York and L.A. and all over the world and he’s more of an underground comics artist. That painting sold in 1978 for like ten thousand dollars so now it’s worth a lot more!’
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 the no-nonsense attitude, expectations for the album were not as high as Geffen had for Permanent Vacation. Aerosmith had proved during the mid-seventies that they were capable of producing acclaimed albums filled with hit singles 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 the Jungle, 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.
Edited with graphic news footage
‘It was described to us as a performance piece, which would be edited with graphic news footage and dramatised scenes of the band,’ explained Adler. ‘The shots of us acting were first, and they created a couple of sets especially for the video. One was a big room with a bed and a TV, which was set up in an old dress shop. Another was a display of an electronics store, which they dressed up with TVs for sale in the windows. Then they placed Slash, half-drunk, in front, drinking a forty in a paper bag, looking like a homeless derelict. The following day we shot the live material. We invited all of our friends and filled the historic Park Plaza Hotel with an audience that truly loved us. We played Welcome to the Jungle live, five or six times, to get all the footage needed for the video. My little brother, Jamie, even made the cut. You can see him in the front of the crowd, pointing drumsticks at Axl. It did me good to see my brother Jamie in the video. There was someone who had seen me at my lowest, but had only love and adoration for me. After we nailed down all the shots, we played a complete set for the crowd.’
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.’
Although the label were prepared to take a chance on the band, they were reluctant to challenge the dominance of MTV, but Zutaut knew no such fear. ‘MTV was afraid that if they played GN’R, local cable systems would throw them off,’ he detailed a decade later. ‘So Appetite was up to about 200,000 and it was standing still. I got called up to the president of Geffen’s office and he said, ‘This record is over.’ So I went up to David Geffen’s office and I said, ‘Could you get MTV to play the video for Welcome to the Jungle?’ A couple hours later, he said, ‘They’re going to play it at five in the morning on Sunday as a personal favour to me.’ Even in the wee hours of Sunday Morning, MTV got so many requests that it blew their switchboard.’
Welcome to the Jungle would find a new audience when Warner Bros. optioned the song to use in their fifth and final outing for Clint Eastwood’s hard-nosed detective Dirty Harry. The Dead Pool, released in the summer of 1988, depicted a perverse game of murder involving a list of celebrities, with the latest victim being a drug-addicted rock star called Johnny Squares. Marking an early performance from future Hollywood star Jim Carrey, his character would front a fictional rock group that consisted of members of Guns N’ Roses, while one of the film’s highlights saw Carrey performing in a faux video for the song. ‘For my audition I was put on tape singing an Alice Cooper song,’ he revealed at Eastwood’s AFI Life Achievement Award ceremony in 1996. ‘I went completely nuts, tearing up the office, doing contortions, spitting into the camera. Afterwards, I wondered if I had gone too far!’
It would be somewhat ironic, however, when the studio reached out to Guns N’ Roses with the proposal of using the song on the soundtrack to the film, as the executives at Warner Bros’ were unaware that the band were on the cusp of stardom. ‘The reason the whole thing came about was because someone from the Eastwood camp had us referred to them, as a hard rock band for a song for the movie,’ claimed Slash on Tales of Destruction. ‘They didn’t know what Guns N’ Roses was, where Welcome to the Jungle was going to go or anything like that. So we gave them the song, and then all of a sudden they found out we had sold a million-and-a-half records, the song was sort of a hit and that we were getting to be a pretty popular band, so then they permutated the movie with the song.’
Another irony would come from the fact that the man who had the power to either make or break Guns N’ Roses, David Geffen, had close ties to Slash that went back almost twenty years. ‘We lived off Laurel Canyon Boulevard in a very sixties community up at the top of Lookout Mountain Road. That area of Los Angeles has always been a creative haven because of the bohemian nature of the landscape,’ recalled Slash. ‘It was the kind of atmosphere where everyone was connected: my mom designed Joni’s clothes, while my dad designed her album covers. David Geffen was a close friend of ours, too, and I remember him well. He signed Guns N’ Roses years later, though when he did he didn’t know who I was, and I didn’t tell him. He called Ola at Christmas in 1987 and asked her how I was doing. ‘You should know how he’s doing,’ she said. ‘You just put his band’s record out.’’
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.’
In a later interview Zutaut elaborated on his decision to hide the most radio-friendly offering towards the end of the album. ‘The spirit about Guns N’ Roses was about It’s So Easy, Mr. Brownstone and Nightrain, it wasn’t about Sweet Child o’ Mine,’ he claimed. ‘But record companies tend to want to go for the hits first and fuck the rest. So there had to be a way to hide that. I had learned by then that promotional people don’t listen to the whole album, they just listen to the first three or four songs. I actually taunted one of the heads at Geffen. I said to him, ‘There’s a song on this record that’s going to be a number one hit worldwide.’ And he laughed at me and said, ‘What is it?’ And I said, ‘I’m not going to tell you, listen to the record.’ They never found it.’
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 eighties, inspiring young fans to form their own bands and transforming them into the biggest rock ‘n’ roll stars in the world. ‘Our next album will come out, and it’ll sell a lot, but I don’t think it will be like this, the way things are right now: crazy,’ declared Slash in 1988. ‘But it doesn’t matter. What matters is whether the next album is actually any good or not. As long as the material is all there, I’m happy. We’ll just make the best record we possibly can, as sincerely and as honestly as everything else we’ve ever done, and that’s it. After that, it’s not our problem anymore. I know damn well that the reason Appetite is going where it’s going is because we hit a certain fucking particular place and time and the sparks just flew!’