In July 1987, the music world was introduced to a band of a rag tag group of musicians who consisted of two guitarists with fuel injected talent, a rhythm section that pummeled your ear drums and a lead singer who was possessed with feral untamed determination who shook the music industry to its foundations. All of this gelled and created a hard rock architecture that has been modeled and copied hundreds of times since but has never been topped. Like a tornado sweeping up everything in its path, the debut album from Guns N' Roses, 'Appetite For Destruction' landed twenty-years ago in a gust of X-rated gale force so crushing that the paths they destroyed are still felt.
'Appetite For Destruction' is nowhere near as ambitious as their follow-ups, 'Use Your Illusion I and II" but it is a once in a generation album that is dark, dreary, grandiose, maddening, rumbling, ethereal and jolting. There's no blueprint for an album of this stature, it could only come about through a deviant birth. The hot-blooded youthfulness aligned with the feeling of fire and desperation in your veins is embodied within these twelve compositions. What made Guns N' Roses so intriguing is you felt this was a passionately precocious band that was ready to erupt at any second. We were mesmerized by their penchant for obliteration. Their lack of inhibition worked to their advantage, only Nirvana cared less. They walked a fine line where women lusted after them and guys wanted to embody them right down to the top-hat and headband. I am not sure if there has ever been a more unforeseen commercial juggernaut than 'Appetite For Destruction' which became the foundation for every hard rock and metal album released in the last two decades. But none of these albums which followed 'Appetite' had the aura of danger or mystery that encircled it. We've all seen the "Behind the Music" episodes where an A&R executive pats himself on the back and they say something along the lines of "From the moment I saw them I knew they would be the biggest band in the world". What they don't show you is the list of artists they felt the same way about but drifted into obscurity quicker than you can say "Nightrain". Tom Zutant said such a thing on the Guns N' Roses "Behind The Music" a few years back and while I am sure he felt that way deep down inside, I somehow doubt he really envisioned this album selling sixteen-million albums ( and that's just in the US). No one could have foreseen these five misfits erupting and leaving ramifications from their destruction which can still be felt two-decades later.
'Appetite' was not on most people's radars until mid-1988 when "Sweet Child O' Mine" soared across the radio and MTV breaking barriers and exhibiting to the world that a rock ballad could have balls. Here is what makes the success of Guns so staggering; they broke every rule in the book and is specifically why this album still feels authentic, genuine and truthful two decades later. 'Appetite' is much like the first person you fall in love with; you may have prettier, smarter and more loving ones later in life but you never forget your first love and in some ways we measure every relationship we have for all eternity to this first love. Much the same could be said about 'Appetite' as rock fans have heralded new genre's of metal and artists over the years, but do you listen to any of them as much as Guns N' Roses? Probably not. The twelve songs that encompass 'Appetite' surge from one to another like hemi-powered drones on a Jersey highway and rumble like an apocalyptic earthquake. The chaotic narrative is broken into two distinctive sides and it's essential that these songs penetrate your senses in running order to fully clench the brilliance that is 'Appetite For Destruction'.
The opening line of this masterpiece is an ambitious artistic statement but even more prevailing than the lyrics is the coupling of Slash's revelatory teasing guitar riff and the Axl's opening bleating screeching howl that initiates a thunderous wall of primal sound unlike any other in the rock pantheon. "Welcome To The Jungle" would be the song that launched a metal revolution that stands unmatched in the two-decades since its release. From the sleazy "Jungle" we're taken on an epic journey to the raw gusto of "It's So Easy" led by the most simplistic but essential bass intro ever laid down on record. Rumors were abound that Slash sang the vocals because no one could believe the monotone delivery was really Axl's. The pulverizing "Nightrain" accentuated by Adler's cowbell opening raged with metallic fury before moving onto the belting "Outta Get Me" before the rhythmic addictive minimalist swagger of "Mr. Brownstone" which makes your veins ache for a fix before climaxing with the relenting surreal and dreamlike anthem "Paradise City" which serves as a remedy for the torture and obliteration of the preceding five songs.
The rudimentary supremacy of side one detonates your senses in a way few albums can match, but it's the flip side I find transfixing with its infuriating look at love which finds the Guns romantic, jealous and yes briefly optimistic. Side two opens with an endearing medley of rebellious proclamations of love initiating with the achingly, brutal and belting "My Michelle" which has a saccharine chorus and viciously penetrating verses that swaps between the sweet and sour. Obsessive fervor takes us over on "Think About You". At its core, there is a romantic sincerity to this song and while it may not seem as vital as the other eleven tracks, it's a power pop anthem that prompts you to think of Joey Ramone's voice; "Think About You" is the greatest song the Ramones never recorded.
The languid and gorgeous "Sweet Child 'O Mine" may be the most unlikely number-one single ever recorded. Where's the piano, the big epic chorus accentuated by a string section and a phrase like "Baby I Need You"? All are absent in this achingly emotive love letter. When Axl gently belts "She's got a smile that seems to me, reminds me of childhood memories" we know EXACTLY what he's singing about, we can feel it and we immediately begin to think a specific time, place or person. There is innocence to the song that truly puts us in a place and time where the world stands still. This is why 'Appetite' has sold sixteen-million copies. How often can you find a song that encompasses the emotional complexities of love? Virtually never. The luminosity of "Sweet Child 'O Mine" is that after Slash's blistering solo they chant "where do we go now". Unlike other bands of the time that provided us the happy ending, GN'R wasn't going to tie anything up in a nice bow, but are asking a tough question of love. What happens when you get the girl and you realize that it's not what you thought it would be? Love is a feeling that can not be defined and is much more convoluted than anyone could ever imagine and one whose journey lasts far longer than a six-minute song.
The unanswered questions of "Sweet Child" segue into thorny emotional fervor on the final three songs on 'Appetite' which deal with a covetous and scorned lover who retreats from their inner emotive self and heads down a path of annihilation on "You're Crazy". Moments earlier Axl was singing from his heart and here he's launching into an assault on someone who has wronged him. Love has turned into raging fury. Moments earlier, GN'R were drowning in their own romantic sincerity and sentimentality but there is a immediate jolting transition which can be heard on the titanic fuzz of "You're Crazy", a anthem in which they are vilifying a former lover. Instead of emotional fervor, they're unleashing introverted emotions like an eruption. The final suite of 'Appetite' is about deconstruction and destruction. After an initial feeling of being saved by the potential of love earlier on side-two, the Guns are now determined to be scorned and ready to destroy the world and everything in their path.
On the album's penultimate track, "Anything Goes" you can hear the acrimony and vivid chaos continue where a hunger is unleashed; the narrator is no longer proclaiming love but is walking to the swaggering beat of their own drummer. They dueling guitar solo on this song is just stupendous. Slash and Izzy, twin sons from different mothers, find a way to channel the anger, frustration and feeling of revenge into a mind-boggling solo where they trade licks as if they trade off twins during a date.
The concluding song, "Rocket Queen" is a proclamation of independence. The ills life offers are led by a bare-knuckle drum beat that is demonic. The ideals of love have been slashed and no sugar is left on the lens for the listener as Axl displays his velveteen rasp, howl and swagger.
The lyrics speak of their naivety while simultaneously proclaiming their independence and ultimately their appetite for destruction. Just when you think apocalypse is fleeting moments away, they pull a 180 and "Rocket Queen" switches gears from a disorderly and disparaging tale into a melodic decree of love. Side two embodies the sweet and sour life has to offer. It's grueling and taxing, but beneath all of the anger, aggression and rebellion is romanticism which can be summed up on the last lines of "Rocket Queen".
How could an album so deeply rooted in chaos and destruction end on a positive note? Call it eternal hope. In 1982 Bruce Springsteen released an acoustic home demo as an album, 'Nebraska'. What Springsteen did with the characters he threw in the car on "Thunder Road" and "Born To Run" and found out where they were seven-years later and he did not paint a pretty picture, in fact some would say it is a bone chilling cold album full of desolate tales. However, the album's final track is entitled "Reason To Believe". Despite the disappointments and desperation of life he found a glimmering ray of hope, it was a small one but sometimes all it takes is a spark to start a fire. This is exactly what the end of "Rocket Queen" is all about. Beneath the acrimony and drama there is a hopeful romantic in all of us. Many people may focus on the big radio hits, but the brilliance of 'Appetite For Destruction' is encompassed in these final lines.
Whether its aggravation, angst, jealousy, love or hope we find ourselves in these songs and hopefully let Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff and Steven bang the anger and aggression out for us so we can take that next step in life into the jungle where we'll hopefully not just survive but find internal peace of mind in our own "Paradise City".
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and can be found at The Screen Door
Guns N' Roses Week: Defiant and Deconstructed