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Guns N' Roses

   Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide (Uzi Suicide, 1986)
      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)
   Live Era: '87-'93 (Geffen, 1999)
     Greatest Hits (Geffen, 2004)
    Chinese Democracy (Geffen, 2008)

Sometimes an album seems like an announcement from the Big Rock Dude in the Sky: its very grooves declare, this is what must be heard now. Guns N' Roses' Appetite for Destruction was that kind of inevitable hit. The album expressed the captive energies of young America in a voice—the unbounded scream of W. Axl Rose—that was both irresistible and a little scary. Guns N' Roses attacked with smarts, snot, and vitriol, cutting through a decade of hairspray with one nasty punch.

This band of journeymen punks and metalheads had gathered in L.A. to fulfill the get-laid-get-rich dream, and had individually tried glam, indie, and whatever came in between without much success. But together, Guns N' Roses redefined hard rock by embracing contradictions: speed and musicianship, flash and dirt. That's why Appetite sounded new—it wasn't any one old thing.

The hard-core rhythm section of Duff McKagan and Steven Adler lit napalm under the butts of riff duelists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, while Rose pinpointed where a punk snarl becomes a metal yell. First track "Welcome to the Jungle" is a Hollywood novel on meth, and what follows never takes a breather: the heroin boogie of "Mr. Brownstone," the poisoned anthem "Paradise City," and Rose's twisted love-hate song to a hooker, "Rocket Queen." That last song, like the massive power ballad "Sweet Child o' Mine," captured Rose's paradox: One of the era's most sensitive songwriters was also a girlfriend-slapping bigot on a tear.

Rose's control-freak ways clashed with his bandmates' bad habits, nearly destroying the band out of the gate. The double EP G N' R Lies made things worse by matching up the group's most tenderoni ballad, "Patience," with the jokey murder ballad "I Used to Love Her" and "One in a Million," in which Rose trashed gays and immigrants over Slash and Stradlin's sloppy guitar sparring. (Lies also contains four pleasantly raw live tracks from a 1986 indie release, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide.) "Million" is unforgivable mostly because it's stupid; usually Rose says the worst with more forethought.

Forethought definitely fed what came next. Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II offered a stunned public nearly three hours of serious exploration and wild fucking around. Interband tensions had destroyed group authorship, and Rose's heroics (as well as drugs, which contributed to Steven Adler's replacement by Matt Sorum) strained his bandmates' good-rockin' chemistry. Critics chided Rose for Queen-like minioperas "November Rain" (from I) and "Don't Cry" (from both discs), but those songs have endured, while Stradlin jaunts like "Dust n' Bones" now seem efficient but conservative. Throughout I and II, it's Rose who takes all the interesting turns. But he still needs his band, especially the adventurous stylings of Slash, to properly negotiate them.

I is the more propulsive record, with Stradlin songs, the Wings/Bond cover "Live and Let Die," and vintage G n' R songs like "Back Off Bitch" tempering the grandiosity of the centerpiece "November Rain." The psycho fantasy trip "Coma" appeals more to Appetite lovers because it's creepy and it rocks. But the lush "Rain" redefines the band—with Dizzy Reed's expressive keyboards giving both Rose and Slash permission to spew emotion, and that hard-rock bottom still bouncing, this song showed how a ballad could be as bloody as a high-speed assault.

II starts in a similarly expansive space and gets even spacier. "Civil War" is a shattered landscape painting; the cover "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" turns Dylan's West into spaghetti. Nastiness and levity (like McKagan's Johnny Thunders paean "So Fine") counter the weirdness of "Breakdown" and "My World" and the extravagance of the riveting, nine-minute "Estranged." Two songs here, however, show that G N' R can still focus to great effect—the cutting "You Could Be Mine" and the plainly inspirational "Yesterdays."

Though endlessly intriguing, the Use Your Illusion albums signaled big trouble for Guns N' Roses. Their lack of cohesiveness represented the state of the band. Stradlin, the cowriter who could best focus Axl's excesses, left in 1991. An enjoyable album of punk, glam, and soul covers, The Spaghetti Incident? suggested that G N' R might be headed back to its spiritual base of shredding rock. But Rose had something different in mind. His growing interest in industrial music and electronica separated him from his bandmates, whose ambitions lay more in the Stones direction. Without officially disbanding, the band began its long dissolve.

Live Era: '87–'93 attempted to keep interest alive as late as 1999, but the scattered recordings didn't do justice to any of their studio versions. At that point everyone, save Axl and Illusion-era keyboardist Dizzy Reed, had abandoned the band. Rose became the antihero of his own internal rock opera, retreating into the studio, hiring and firing scores of collaborators, and occasionally trotting out a strangely shaped new song. A disastrous Axl-led 2002 tour was canceled midway through; his new band panted and sweated their way through an MTV Video Music Awards performance; vocal chords were blown. The unraveling of Rose coincided with his former mates' announcement that they were re-forming without him. Slash, Sorum and McKagan got to rock another day, joining forces for the swarthy multi-platinum glammo insta-sensation Velvet Revolver with new (and moderately less unstable) singer Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots. Sensing a lull in action, Geffen popped out Greatest Hits, an album of crucial singles and a couple of fun cover tunes designed to sell to casual fans looking for something to pop in the players in their Range Rovers.

But Rose, more convinced of his own tortured genius than anyone, was determined to release another record. Lo, the legend of Chinese Democracy, the most delayed album of all time, far eclipsed any of the music on it. Started sometime in 1998 and eventually released in 2008, the album came with the baggage of millions of dollars spent, countless false starts and constant lineup adjustments. Rose's bandmates during this period included Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and Primus drummer Bryan Mantia. The Slash position was filled by Buckethead, a wild jazz-skronko shredder who only appears in public with a KFC bucket on his head and was rumored to have recorded his parts from inside a chicken coop. In 2006, he was replaced by someone called "Bumblefoot."

After cancelled release dates and anticlimactic internet leaks, Democracy finally saw the light of day in the autumn of 2008. It combined glossy industrial-rock, grooveless metal, blooping space noise, fake Pink Floyd moves and buckwild Buckethead solos, all of which were all too clinical and easy—nothing here seemed to represent the turmoil that's supposedly lurking underneath Rose's cornrows. Such a hodgepodge of re-re-re-recording left the album an emotionless blob, with some classic Rose balladry—"So now I wander through my days/Trying to find my ways," from "The Blues" —nearly hidden and neutered behind the monolithic churn.

Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).

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