GUNS N’ ROSES (1985–PRESENT). Axl Rose (vocals), Slash (guitar, replaced by Robin Finck, Buckethead, Robert Finck, sometimes together in later years, now Finck), Izzy Stradlin (guitar, replaced by Gilby Clarke, Paul Tobias, Richard Fortus, Ron Thal), Duff McKagan (bass, replaced by Tommy Stinson), Steven Adler (drums, replaced by Matt Sorum, Josh Freese, Bryan Mantia, Frank Ferrer, Dizzy Reed (keyboards since 1990), and Chris Pittman (keyboards, programming, since 1998).
Guns N’ Roses is one of the most famous, infamous, popular, and despised metal bands in metal’s long and rich history. Despite their limited output and strained relationship with fans, the band is one of the key metal bands of any decade since the inception of metal. Led by the enigmatic Axl Rose (William Bruce Rose) the band started out as an amalgam of punk’s anger mixed with a classic glam and a heavy edge, before descending into self-parody and ending up with Axl Rose as the only original member, struggling to release the album Chinese Democracy that he has been working on for over a decade.
The band was formed out of the ashes of legendary Los Angeles metal band Hollywood Rose in 1985, when members Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin, along with L.A. Guns members Tracii Guns (guitar), Ole Beich (bass), and Rob Gardener on drums, formed a new band, a sort of Sunset Strip super-group. When Beich departed, Duff McKagan, formerly of punk band the Fartz, took over on bass, and following the departure of Tracii Guns to reform L.A. Guns, Slash was added on lead guitar. The classic lineup was completed with the addition of drummer Steven Adler in June of 1985. The band soon began playing the L.A. Sunset Strip where their high-energy live shows soon earned them a fanatical following, leading to the band’s initial signing to Geffen Records and recording of the “live” Live ?!@ Like a Suicide, a four-song EP with audience applause added to create ambience. The band took their time in the studio to record their first album, because the band and record label smelled a winner, and also because the band was reportedly heavily reliant on drugs and alcohol at the time, as later confirmed by former guitarist Slash in his self-titled autobiography.
The band’s acknowledged masterpiece is their first full-length album, Appetite for Destruction, a record that was apparently made in a fog of drugs, alcohol, and domestic drama. It is impossible to measure the importance of an album such as Appetite for Destruction. The singles it spawned, such as “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” were metal classics that brought the band a huge non-metal audience and in a way also sowed the seeds of the band’s destruction. Their follow-up Lies EP was notable for its ballad “Patience” as well as the controversial song “One In a Million,” in which Axl rails against “immigrants,” “niggers,” and “faggots” in what one hopes was a tongue-in-cheek manner. Still, the damage was done, and after talk of growing dissention in the GNR camp and the replacement of Steven Adler by former Cult drummer Matt Sorum, Axl announced his most grandiose project yet: a two-record project released individually, called Use Your Illusion I &II. Although fans faithfully lined up to buy the records when they came out at midnight, the band had clearly lost a sense of direction; while containing some good songs and even some classics, the records were bewildering and bloated, with none of the perks of the early GNR sound.
Besides the covers record, The Spaghetti Incident, things grew quiet in the GNR camp for quite some time. After leaving the band acrimoniously, Slash, Duff, and drummer Matt Sorum eventually formed the band Velvet Revolver with former Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland and put out two successful records before Weiland left the band. Former guitarist Izzy Stradlin kept a low profile after kicking heroin and now lives a more sedate existence. Former drummer Steven Adler also kicked hard drugs (as also noted by Slash in his autobiography) and has indicated interest lately in a GNR reunion with all the original members. The band now features leader Axl Rose, with bassist and colonel Tommy Stinson (late of the punk/indie greats the Replacements) along with a floating cast of characters that have included Buckethead on guitar, as well as session drummer extraordinaire Josh Freeze.
After years of fervid speculation, Axl Rose finally delivered on Chinese Democracy (in November 2008). The CD was released exclusively in Best Buy stores in the United States and the album sold well, but nowhere near previous Guns N’ Roses records. While the tanking market for CDs was blamed, and many critics argued over how groundbreaking an album could be after almost two decades of tweaking and re-recording, it may well be that many of the original fans have simply moved on, settled down, and are nowhere near as fanatical as they were during GNR’s heyday. All in all Chinese Democracy may be an excellent record, but after 18 years since the release of the last original album by Guns N’ Roses, many fans may also have asked, “Is that all there is?” But despite the album’s possible shortcomings and its infamously delayed release, the band’s influence on metal has been enormous. In retrospect, they defined the era of the late eighties and early nineties in rock and roll as well as any other band of that time.
Discography: Appetite for Destruction (Geffen, 1987); G N’R Lies (Geffen, 1988); Use Your Illusion I (Geffen, 1991); Use Your Illusion II (Geffen, 1991); The Spaghetti Incident (Geffen, 1993); Collectors Box (Chrome Dreams, 2006); Chinese Democracy (Geffen, 2008).