In 1985, something happened to rock. It had ten arms, ten legs, a top hat and attitude. And it was about to become legendary...
Guns N'Roses, of course. Axl. Slash. Izzy. Duff. Steven... Even their names have a certain ring to them (with the possible exception of Steven, I suppose...). For six years this phenomenal band blazed a trail of fire across the dark skies of rock. The brightest stars in the musical firmament, they shone with untold brilliance. But in 1993 they crashed and burned. Fuelled by drugs and ignited by fame, the flame flickered and died. Guns N'Roses were no more.
They were the greatest band that never were. They had it all, and they threw it all away...
Yeah, yeah. 'Nuff of that already. So what happened?
Guns N'Roses first burst onto the scene in 1985, making their debut at the Troubadour. Veterans of various dodgy L.A. bands (including, in Axl's case, L.A. Guns), the band were a bastard hybrid of punk, blues, rock, metal and pure Sunset sleaze. The combination was electrifying, and they soon became one of the hottest tickets on the Strip. It didn't take them long to get snapped up by Geffen (although they spun the process out as long as possible, not wishing to miss out on any free lunches offered by other hopeful record companies), and their first EP, Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide (1985) was an instant sell-out.
But just what was it about them that was so ?!*@ing great? They drank Jack Daniels by the bucket load and took more drugs than a geriatric ward; they picked fights with their audiences and incited riots and got arrested with almost monotonous predictability. On stage they were a mess, with Axl snaking his hips like a spandex-clad eel undergoing a major personality crisis and Slash and Izzy shambling about in the background like zombies. And yet beneath this sleazy, dangerous, shambolic appearance there lurked true genius.
It was 1987's Appetite For Destruction which really gave the game away. Because it is, without doubt, one of the most perfect rock albums ever made. Every track is a classic, from the gritty, visceral snarl of 'Welcome To The Jungle' right through to the sleazy grind of 'Rocket Queen'. (For those of you who had the album taped onto a C90, that's the one you never got to hear...)
But it wasn't just rock fans who were hungry for Appetite. With hit singles like the metal singalong 'Paradise City' and truly sublime 'Sweet Child O'Mine', GN'R brought rock music to the masses, and showed them that it wasn't crap. They were the saviours of rock, and Appetite was their Bible.
In 1988 they released the controversial GN'R Lies, which spawned another massive hit, 'Patience'... And then things started to go wrong.
Their dangerous, rock'n'roll reputation was an intrinsic part of GN'R's appeal. Wherever they went, it seemed they were a magnet for trouble: if they weren't fighting hecklers, stirring up riots or inciting public disturbances, they were swearing on TV, threatening other rock stars and abusing journalists. And as their fame (or notoriety) escalated, so too did their consumption of narcotix. They were a Molotov cocktail with a match to go, and as the extravagant excess of the 80s gave way to the New Age niceness of the 90s, they were ready to crash and burn.
Sparks first began to fly whilst the band were touring with the Rolling Stones in 1990. Never one to mince his words, Axl declared that if certain people did not quit taking so many drugs, then he would quit the band. Slash managed to curtail his heroin habit, but Steven Adler was not so strong-willed. Consequently, surprise surprise, it was not Axl who found himself out of the band, but poor old drug-adled Adler. He was replaced by ex-Cult drummer Matt Sorum and the band soldiered on, now with new recruit Dizzy Reed in tow.
Then, in 1991, came the GN'R magnus opus: the Use Your Illusions. Not one but four records (this was in the Olden Days, remember, when you could still get vinyl) containing a staggering thirty tracks, including rather lovable covers of Bob Dylan's 'Knockin' on Heaven's Door' and Paul McCartney's 'Live And Let Die'. Of course, with that many songs, some of them were bound to be a bit ropey (personally I could do without UYU I record 1 side 2 and record 2 side 1 altogether but perhaps that's just me). Some songs, on the other hand, were superb. And I like the bloody ballads, okay?
It was at this point, however, that Axl went seriously bonkers, retreating deeper and deeper into his own little megalomanic world. Tempers flared, and shows were delayed by up to three hours because the red-haired wonder refused to come on stage. Eventually, his long-standing buddy Izzy decided that enuff was enuff and quit the band. He was replaced by guitarist Gilby Clarke, but really his departure signified the beginning of the end. An album of punk covers, The Spaghetti Incident? was released in 1993 without anybody really noticing, and in 1994 they recorded a particularly cool cover of 'Sympathy For The Devil' for the Interview With The Vampire soundtrack, but after that... zilch. That was it.
Until now, that is, because despite the fact that none of the band seem to be speaking to each other any more (or, more precisely, speaking to Axl any more - except possibly through their lawyers) they've got a new album out, a long-awaited collection of live tracks called (wait for it) Live Era '87-'93. Catchy.
Axl has a new album out 'soon' (for which read 'the fourth of never'), called Chinese Democracy, a taster of which can be heard on the soundtrack to Arnie's latest turkey, End Of Days. He has also, get this, supposedly re-recorded Appetite, using new musicians. How you remake perfection is beyond me, but then I'm not a deranged gingernut pushing 40 who wants back in the limelight. Sorry Axl, sweetheart. I love you dearly and always will, but someone had to say it.
As for Slash, well, from Alice Cooper to Michael Jackson, he'll record with anyone who'll have him - and as one of the best rock guitarists in the world... ever, I'd say there are probably precious few who'd turn him down. Yup, Stoke On Trent's most famous son has become the original rent-a-celebrity. His band, Slash's Snakepit, formed shortly after Guns' break up, are still going strong, with a new album out this year called Ain't Life Grand. Not sure whether that's supposed to be ironic or not. I saw them at Donington in 1995 and can't say I was exactly blown away: the phrase 'a bunch of session musicians who've never rehearsed together before' were the words which sprang to mind. Still, that was five years ago now. You never know.
Izzy, Duff and Gilby Clarke have all worked on solo projects and are, at any rate, still alive.
As for Steven Adler... who knows?
Fifteen years on, there's no denying the fact that GN'R are still cool. Appetite For Destruction is widely acknowledged as a classic album: it's sold 17 million copies, and shows no signs of slowing down. And unlike certain bands (naming no names) who survive mainly due to the unwavering loyalty of a legion of aging fans who haven't moved on since the 1980s (cough), and who have failed to garner any real new audience since, Guns now number among their fans kids who were a mere gleam in their parents' eyes when Appetite came out. You only have to watch the teenage Slipknot fans at 'alternative' clubs going mental to 'Mr Brownstone' to work that one out.
I'd like to finish up by saying that GN'R are one of rock's most influential bands, but in actual fact, I don't think that's true. How can I say this? Because since their demise, nobody has come close to approaching their level of genius, in style, attitude or music. The death of Guns coincided with the death of glam metal itself, swept away on a sea of unwashed bodies at a Nirvana gig. In fact, if anything, it was probably their phenomenal success which paved the way for the long-haired likes of Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Mudhoney et al. Oh sure, plenty of metal bands still struggle on, but no new challengers have since appeared to knock Guns from their perch. Perhaps they never will.
As you might imagine, the noughties have been a turbulent time for the Roses - would we expect anything less? - mainly dominated by the 'will he/won't he ever release it before hell freezes over' furore over Axl's long long long awaited new G'NR album Chinese Democracy.
But first to arise from the ashes of GN'R's demise was Velvet Revolver, as Slash, Duff and Matt Sorum joined forces with ex-Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland for some 21st century hard rock mayhem. After releasing two albums, Contraband (2004) and LIbertad (2007) the band split in 2008 when Weiland returned to the Stone Temple Pilots. Since then the rumour mill has been running on overdrive, producing ever more unsuitable candidates for the vocalists role. Although Lenny Kravitz woulda been fun...
Meanwhile, over the in the red corner, we had W. Axl Rose and his laboured masterpiece, the album the world never thought it would see, Chinese Democracy.
The noughties got off to a bad start for the ginger whinger, with a string of rescheduled dates cancelled across Europe in 2001. Some things never change, and at the ripe old age of 41, Axl still didn't appear to have grown up, instead retaining his penchant for chucking childish strops at the slightest provocation and cancelling gigs in diva-like hissy fits that Mariah Carey would envy.
Meanwhile, no Chinese Democracy.
Fastforward to 2006, and Axl's hired Guns made a storming appearance at Download, followed by a UK tour, which received mixed reviews from, er, me. We got to hear a couple of preview tracks but guess what, no Chinese Democracy.
In 2007, Axl set a release date: March 6th. March 6th came and went. Chinese Democracy went nowhere.
In 2008, Dr Pepper promises everyone in America a free can of their horrible drink if the album was released that year. And I guess it was free drinks all round because, believe it or not, it was time to don the scarves and gloves in hell because Chinese Democracy hit the shops.
For legendary perfectionist ginger stroppy-pants Axl, making his first 'solo' GN'R album was never going to be easy. Before the band dissolved into a mire of law suits, drug overdoses and infighting, fans had already been disappointed by the huge, sprawling Use Your Illusion albums, which, though definitely shot through with flashes of brilliance, really needed the production equivalent of an editor with a blue pencil to make some ruthless cuts. Add to that the fact that Chinese Democracy had been a staggering fourteen years in the making, and you have a level of hype that cannot possibly ever be met.
So cut to the chase then, what's the verdict? Well, depends what you were expecting, really. If, for the last fourteen years, you've been anticpating a blistering comeback that would blow Appetite for Destruction out of the water, then sorry folks, you're going to be disappointed. But if, on the other hand, you're in the market for a solid, well-crafted rock album, you could just be in luck. And if (like me) you revelled in the pomposity of the 'November Rain' type songs on Illusion, chances are you'll find this album growing on you like a fungus, packed as it is with gloriously overblown epics that wouldn't sound out of place on a Bond film soundtrack.
Stand out tracks for me are definitely 'Street of Dreams' (melodic piano intro, biiiig amounts of wailing over virtuoso geetar work), 'If The World' (slapbass intro that sounds like David Essex's 'Stardust', biiig amounts of wailing over virtusos geetar work) and 'There Was A Time' (Disney choir intro, biiig amounts of wailing over virtuoso geetar work). Okay, so the songs do tend to merge into each other a bit, but this serves to give the album an almost proggy feel, a Steinman-esque concept album centring round Axl's usual inward-looking preoccupations with maudlin self-pity and regret and 'Get in the Ring'-style aggressive paranoia.
In the end, while it may not be Appetite, Chinese Democracy is unmistakeably a Guns N'Roses album, a sweeping soudscape of crashing piano chords, crescendoing strings, wailing guitars and that trademark Axl yowl soaring above it all. Yes, the ginger whinger confounded my expectations again and produced an album I actually like. Trust him to be contrary... Oh well, if he releases another album within the next decade, I'll eat my hat (this time) - perhaps washed down with a can of Dr Pepper?