It’s been said that musical influence occurs in cycles of 20-25 years, creating a direct line between past and present. Consider the prevalence of synthesizers originally heard in the ’80s that dominate popular music today, not to mention the frequently made connection between Madonna and Lady Gaga, whose careers emerged roughly 25 years apart. Rock is certainly not immune to this trend. Even though the genre has had its share of stylistic twists and turns over the years, some cycles are very clear. Take a raw, late-’80s hard rock quintet from Los Angeles that simultaneously recalls The Rolling Stones’ bad-boy attitude, Led Zeppelin’s heavy riffs and Aerosmith’s flair. That description of Guns N’ Roses is a little roundabout, but it’s an apt one. The good thing is that the band is not derivative of any of its influences. In fact, it takes each to the extreme, sparking a fierce new sound that is at its best on “Appetite for Destruction.”
In many ways, Guns N’ Roses was a perfect storm that went from nowhere to the top in the crowded field of mid-’80s glam metal. The band was originally formed as a combination of L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose, two bands that were aspiring for greatness on the Sunset Strip scene in Los Angeles, practically the epicenter of glam metal. Lead singer Axl Rose and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin came from Hollywood Rose and lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich and drummer Rob Gardner came from L.A. Guns. Thus, the original lineup — combined right down to the new band name — of Guns N’ Roses was born. However, this was not yet the “perfect storm.” After playing a couple shows, the L.A. Guns members were replaced for various reasons by lead guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. Slash was probably the key to these changes because he had played in both Hollywood Rose and Road Crew, which had included McKagan and Adler. In any case, the group created quite a buzz playing at famous L.A. clubs, had an EP released by late 1985 and was soon signed by Geffen Records in March 1986.
By the end of 1986, the band was in the studio making what would become “Appetite for Destruction.” The songs were a strange mix of previously written ideas (“Rocket Queen,” “It’s So Easy”) and sudden bursts of inspiration (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine”) that included future key tracks such as “November Rain.” The sessions were filled with 18-hour days from producer Mike Clink, hours of overdubbing and structuring solos from Slash, and nights where Axl Rose cut and spliced tape until sunrise. Heroin addiction plagued every member — a fact that was addressed in “Mr. Brownstone” — but it only seemed to fuel their fire. Everything about the recording sessions suggested that Guns N’ Roses had captured lightning in a bottle. So the album was an immediate smash hit, right? Actually, when the album was released July 21, 1987, it did not make a commercial dent. The original cover art — a surrealist painting with a robot rapist and a grotesque, vengeful monster — had something to do with initial poor sales when it was deemed too controversial. However, the now-famous depiction of the band members in a skull-and-crossbones formation is arguably more fitting. Not only would the album bounce back, but it shows that the band is literally resurrecting rock ‘n’ roll.
It took a while, but Guns N’ Roses more than made up for lost time. The rollicking first single “Welcome to the Jungle” was unsuccessful, but Geffen got MTV to play the music video once on a Sunday at 4 a.m. That was all the promotion the band needed, for the song started a groundswell of support from hard rock fans that led to its inclusion in the final Dirty Harry film, July 1988’s “The Dead Pool.” By August 1988, “Appetite for Destruction” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. By the end of 1988, Guns N’ Roses had three top-10 singles (“Jungle,” “Sweet Child” and “Paradise City”) and the best-selling debut album of all time to its name. This meteoric rise was reflected by their 16-month-long tour to promote the album. Take their trips through the Philadelphia area, for instance. In October of 1987 they played at mid-level venue The Trocadero. By May, 1988, it was the Tower Theater, and by August 1988 it was two dates at the Spectrum.
“Appetite for Destruction” was as much of a critical hit as it was a commercial success. The album had all the flair of glam metal but was rawer and dirtier, sometimes intimately so, including frank takes on their drug habits (“Mr. Brownstone”) as well as on recording sex in the studio (“Rocket Queen”). Rose and Slash echo Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in terms of attitude and distinctiveness. Rose’s ragged high notes and screams form the band’s quintessential sound, but he shows surprising range on songs such as “It’s So Easy,” where his voice becomes an ominous croak. Most of the album’s greatest moments come from Slash. The triumphant hook that starts “Sweet Child” immediately made him a guitar god. However, the most impressive thing about “Appetite” is its confidence. Guns N’ Roses showed they could chug, wail and swing equally well, and sometimes in the same song. This album is not the most ambitious of Guns N’ Roses’ career — that would be the “Use Your Illusion” albums — but its world-conquering sound gave rock ‘n’ roll one of its most inspired creations.