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 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 seventies 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 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, 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, 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 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.’
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 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.’ 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, 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 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. ‘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.”
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.
And 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.
‘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 highschool 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.’
He was insecure. He didn’t see himself as a sexy, attractive guy
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. 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.’
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.’
According to Duff, 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.
Zutaut 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 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.
‘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.
The label’s first attempt at bringing Guns N’ Roses to the mass market would come on 20 October 1986 when 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.”
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 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 developing material for their latest album Crazy Nights. But 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 had never met a band like Guns N’ Roses before,’ admitted Clink to journalist Greg Prato on the reservations both himself and the group felt upon their initial meeting. ‘Previously I worked on a lot of pop/rock records such as Jefferson Starship, Eddie Money and Survivor and this was a whole other beast. I mean, these were rock ‘n’ rollers and they lived the life. They were the real deal but still great guys. They were very wary of me at first, it was a matter of gaining their trust. They didn’t trust anyone, they had already had some bad experiences and weren’t willing to open up immediately.’
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.’
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.’
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.’
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.
My contributions to the record took six days, start to finish
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.’
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.’
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.
One of the standards 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.’
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.
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.’
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. 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.