Guns N' Roses - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Guns N’ Roses first appeared on the rock scene in the late ‘80s, heralding a return to an older, hedonistic approach to rock and roll. Their mixture of classic rock songwriting, punk aggression and a visual image blending elements of glam rock, metal and punk, was just what the music buying public was hungering for. As a result, they became massively successful in a short amount of time. Though they were one of the top rock bands in the world, they eventually became the victims of their own success. Some members quit or were fired because of drug abuse, others left as it became apparent that the band was becoming solely a vehicle for singer Axl Rose’s inflated ego. After spending literally millions of dollars and over 15 years to craft a follow-up to the group’s Use Your Illusion (1991 Geffen) albums, the band has gone from a respected torch bearer for traditional rock and roll to a virtual laughing stock of the music industry. Guns N’ Roses continues to exist, though as a band in name only.
The original version of Guns N’ Roses was formed when the members of two 1980s-era Hollywood glam metal bands, LA Guns and Hollywood Rose, joined forces. Singer W. Axl Rose, (real name William Rose) and childhood buddy, guitarist Izzy Stradlin, (real name Jeffery Isbell), were transplants to the West Coast from Indiana and had played off and on together in bands there and in Los Angeles for years before eventually forming the band, Hollywood Rose. When that band fell apart, they joined with former LA Guns members guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich and drummer Rob Gardner to form Guns N’ Roses in 1985. Before the new group could even play any gigs, Guns left to reform LA Guns and was quickly replaced by lead guitarist Slash, (real name Saul Hudson). After one gig, Beich left the band and was replaced by Seattle transplant, Michael “Duff” McKagen. The new line-up gelled quickly and rapidly built up a reputation around Hollywood as a hard charging, hard living group of glam rock outlaws. When the group decided to plan a tour that went up the West Coast to McKagen’s hometown of Seattle, drummer Gardner quit the band and was replaced by drummer Steven Adler, a childhood friend of Slash. As a result of the tour, the band became a tight performing unit and were soon playing to packed houses back home in Hollywood.
At one show at the Troubadour club in LA, they were approached by Tom Zutaut, an A&R executive with Geffen, about signing to the label. The group had been chased for some months by several majors about signing a recording contract, but after demanding (and surprisingly) receiving a $75,000 advance from Geffen, they signed to the label in 1986. Guns N’ Roses recorded and (supposedly) self-released their debut EP, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, on their own Uzi Suicide label in 1986, in a limited pressing of 1000 copies. It was later revealed that the pressing was in fact financed by Geffen, and Uzi Suicide was just a cover to give the band more street credibility. The EP was also advertised as a live recording but it was later revealed to be a bunch of studio tracks the band had recorded with dubbed-in crowd noises. The release of the EP kept the band’s name in the spotlight somewhat while they took a break from playing the Hollywood clubs to concentrate on recording their debut album. The original vinyl pressing of the album has since become a considerably rare collector’s item.
Guns N’ Roses released their debut album, Appetite for Destruction (Geffen), in July of 1987. Though it seems hard to believe now, initially the album sold well only regionally. The album lingered for nearly a year before label founder David Geffen prevailed upon MTV to play the video the band had made for “Welcome to the Jungle.” After playing the clip once, late at night, the network received so many requests that they soon included it in their regular rotation. Soon, the band were getting recognized around the nation and rock stations started adding the song to their playlists. One potential impediment to the album’s widespread sales was the cover artwork. Celebrated underground artist Robert Williams’s work depicted a giant, dagger-toothed monster jumping a fence to attack a robot that has just raped a woman. After receiving numerous complaints, the label and the band replaced the cover with artwork that depicted skull-face portraits of the five band members arranged on a cross. The drawing was based on one of Rose’s many tattoos. Once record stores could feel better about stocking the album – and also because of the publicity the band had generated because of the controversy regarding the original artwork – the album started to sell in huge numbers. “Welcome to the Jungle” was followed up by “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” a ballad that became an even bigger. The group had been opening for bigger bands but as the album quickly ascended the charts, they started headlining their own shows and quickly graduated from clubs to arenas. Eventually, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Welcome to the Jungle,” and “Paradise City” all became Top Ten hits. Appetite for Destruction went on to be a number one album, selling over 28 million copies worldwide. By 1988, Guns N’ Roses were bona-fide superstars. They toured the world and became known as “the world’s most dangerous band,” partly because of their offstage reputation for heavy drinking and drug abuse, and partly because of the rabid response they received from their fans, which culminated in the tragic death of two fans who were trampled to death at the Monsters Of Rock festival in Britain in 1988.
To capitalize on the success of Appetite For Destruction and the surrounding publicity, Geffen released G N’ R Lies in 1988, an amalgam of their earlier Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP and four newly recorded acoustic songs, including the Top Ten hit “Patience.” The band garnered further controversy from the song “One in a Million,” which used a litany of violent, racist and misogynistic epithets in the lyrics. Rose defended himself, the band and the song by saying he wrote it from the point of view of a character and that it didn’t have anything to do with his own personal beliefs. Guns N’ Roses continued to tour off and on through 1989 and then finally returned to the studio in 1990 to begin work on their next album.
Rose had threatened to break up the band on several occasions because of most of the members’ substance abuse. When recording began on a new album, drummer Adler was in such bad shape that he could barely make it through a take. In July of 1990, it was announced that Adler was out of the band. He was replaced by former Cult drummer, Matt Sorum. Around the same time, the band recruited keyboardist Dizzy Reed to be the sixth member. The firing of Adler caused the other members of the band to get their acts (somewhat) together and the band found itself with enough material to fill two albums. Rather than release a double album, the band and Geffen hatched the idea of releasing two separate albums on the same day. Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II were both released on September 17, 1991 and debuted at #2 and #1 respectively on the US album charts. Both albums showed a marked amount of maturation in the band’s songwriting, showcasing influences beyond just straight ahead, hard charging blues-derived rock. The group helped promote the albums with elaborate videos for “November Rain,” “Don’t Cry,” and “Estranged” as well as the 28-month Use Your Illusion World Tour. The tour was marked by several near-riots, usually caused either by Rose delaying the start of shows (sometimes by several hours), by Rose’s angry rants (against either the audience or the security staff of the venue). After a near-riot in Germany, Izzy Stradlin decided quit. Stradlin had already felt estranged after becoming the first member to sober up. Originally, ex-Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro was asked to join the band. When he declined, guitarist Gilby Clarke was asked to take over. Towards the end of the tour, the band added a horn section and back-up singers to flesh out their sound even more.
After touring was completed for Use Your Illusion in 1993, Guns N’ Roses took a short break and then returned with The Spaghetti Incident? (1993 Geffen), a collection of the band performing an eclectic set of covers by some of their favorite bands, including songs originally performed by the likes of The Stooges, Nazareth, T. Rex and the Dead Boys to name a few. A cover of Charles Manson’s “Look at Your Game Girl” was also included at the insistence of Rose, over the objections of his bandmates. The album didn’t sell nearly as well as their other releases, exacerbating tensions.
As the group began to write and record new material, it became apparent that Rose was writing most of the material and insisted on his priority within the group. This led, first to Slash and then McKagen leaving the band – both vowing to never work with Rose again. The two, along with Sorum, would later form the band Velvet Revolver with Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland. Rose was now the sole original member of the band. By the end of 1998, Rose had put together a new version of Guns N’ Roses that now included former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, keyboardist Reed, multi-instrumentalist Chris Pitman and former Nine Inch Nails guitarist, Robin Finck. Rumor spread that the band was working on a new album with the provisional title of Chinese Democracy and that it would have a harder, almost industrial-metal feel to it. This version of the group, along with drummer Josh Freese, contributed one new song to the soundtrack of the 1999 Arnold Schwarzenegger film End of Days titled “Oh My God,” which was meant as a prelude to the new album, but no new album materialized.
In the interim, Geffen released the live collection Live: Era ’87-’93 in 1999. More revolving door membership of the band occurred over the next couple of years with Finck leaving to rejoin Nine Inch Nails in 1999. His spot was taken by Buckethead. Freese also left the band and was replaced by former Primus drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia. Finck returned to Guns N’ Roses in 2000. Rhythm guitarist Paul Tobias was also added to the line-up during this period.
After years away without making any live appearances or producing a new album, Guns N’ Roses finally played a few concerts during 2001 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil and Las Vegas. The concerts were well attended and included a few new songs. In 2002, Tobias left the band and was replaced by former Love Spit Love and re-formed Psychedelic Furs guitarist, Richard Fortus. The group made an appearance at the 2002 MTV Music Awards, and then scheduled a North American tour to help drum up interest for their soon-to-be-released album.
The first stop on the tour was a show in Vancouver, British Columbia. While most of the band showed up, Rose opted to stay behind in Los Angeles, unbeknownst to his bandmates. A riot broke out at the show when it was announced the band would not be playing. Ticket sales on the rest of the tour were spotty. After the band missed another gig in Philadelphia, Clear Channel cancelled the remainder of the tour. Nothing more was heard from the band until it was announced in March of 2004 that Buckethead was leaving the group, causing them to cancel a scheduled appearance at the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil. As a stopgap until Guns N' Roses could deliver a new album, Geffen issued the Greatest Hits album in 2004, collecting the bands singles. Rose was not consulted on the track listing and tried to sue to get the release blocked. Even with Rose unhappy about the release and with no new Guns N' Roses music for over ten years, the album still managed to sell extremely well and eventually earned triple platinum status.
It had taken so long for Rose and Guns N' Roses to deliver a new album that they were now becoming the butt of jokes. Many speculated that a new album would never come from the band but some new tracks were leaked onto the internet in 2006, causing heightened expectations that a new album would finally be released soon. Rose made an announcement that the album would be released by the end of the year, and the group booked a number of gigs in New York City and European. The group gained a new guitarist before embarking on the tour, Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. After the European tour, the group toured North America with new drummer Frank Ferrer replacing Mantia. They cancelled the last few dates of the tour so that the group could finish mixing their long-lost album. Reports circulated that Chinese Democracy would finally be released in March of 2007, but that date passed and there was still no album. The group played a series of shows in Mexico, Australia and Japan with a line-up that featured Rose, Thal, Finck, Fortus, Stinson, Reed, Chris Pitman on keyboards, and Ferrer; but still there was no album in stores to promote. Finck rejoined Nine Inch Nails yet again in 2008 and it was finally revealed that Chinese Democracy would finally see the light of day in November of 2008, to be sold exclusively at Best Buy stores. Miraculously, Chinese Democracy (Black Frog/Geffen) was indeed finally released on November 23rd. The album garnered mixed reviews and, while initially a strong seller, it dropped in sales sharply. Rose hinted that he has more material in the works and is looking to release another album by 2012, but few take stock in what he says after the continual delays associated with Chinese Democracy.