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Guns N' Roses' 'Appetite for Destruction': Filthy, Sexy, Cool

How G n' R mixed drugs, punk and classic rock to make their brilliantly trashy debut

August 9, 2007 1:35 PM ET
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Guns 'N Roses on the cover of 'Rolling Stone.'
Neil Zlozower

Axl Rose was lying nude inside a Manhattan recording studio's darkened vocal booth, working out some unorthodox last-minute overdubs. Tape was rolling, and he knew something wasn't right. Beneath him was a cute nineteen-year-old stripper named Adriana Smith, who happened to be his drummer's girlfriend. "Come on, Adriana, make it real," Rose barked, pausing mid-coitus. "Stop faking!"

On that warm weekend evening in the spring of 1987, engineer Vic Deyglio had set up a top-of-the-line vocal microphone to capture the sounds of Rose and Smith having sex — and at one point, he had to dash into the booth to adjust the mike as they went at it. "It was like a Ron Jeremy set in there," Deyglio recalls. Smith wanted to get back at Guns n' Roses drummer Steven Adler for cheating on her — and had always liked the singer better anyway. "I would do anything Axl asked me to do," says Smith, now a forty-year-old mom. "He's fuckin' magical." Though she was drunk and giggly that day, Smith eventually gave Rose what he wanted: Her orgasmic moans — which ended up high in the mix on Appetite for Destruction's final track, "Rocket Queen" — are for real. But when Adler found out what had been captured on his band's album, the drummer "fucking freaked out," Smith says. She was haunted by her recording session for years: "I ended up drinking and using drugs over this for a really long time, because I had this extreme shame and guilt and stuff."

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And so it went: one more depraved day in the world of Guns n' Roses. Before they had even finished their first album, the lives of the five band members had become a dark cartoon of indiscriminate sex, property damage, booze and hard drugs.

"It was just hard-core good times," says Slash. "Going out there and doing whatever we wanted." But unlike their poufy-haired peers on the Sunset Strip scene, G n' R managed to transmute their wild times into lasting music: ferocious, sexy hard rock that found common ground between Aerosmith and the Sex Pistols, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the New York Dolls.

Released on July 21st, 1987, Appetite for Destruction went on to sell well over 15 million copies in this country alone, becoming one of the best-selling debuts ever. The album looked both forward and backward: The punky rawness of its sound and the pained artistry of its lyrics made it a bridge between commercial Eighties hard rock and the alternative music of the next decade. But Appetite was also among the last classic rock records to be mastered with vinyl in mind, to be edited with a razor blade applied to two-inch tape, to be mixed by five people frantically pushing faders at a non-automated mixing board "We used classic instruments and classic amps," says the album's producer and engineer, Mike Clink, "Our approach was reminiscent of stuff that was done in the Sixties and early Seventies." Adds assistant mixing engineer Deyglio, who earned a credit as "Victor 'the fuckin' engineer'" on the album: "It could almost be seen as the last of one of those types of records, from Layla to Abbey Road on down. It could be seen as the last great rock record made totally by hand."

The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Guns n' Roses

Guns saw themselves as reviving rock's vanished rebel spirit. "Rock & roll in general has sucked a big dick since the Pistols," guitarist Izzy Stradlin told Rolling Stone in 1988; in the same article, Rose said that he had watched the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter "about a hundred times." "Me, Axl and Slash, we knew what we wanted since we were eleven, twelve years old," says Steven Adler. "And we went balls out for it, and there was nothing or no one that was going to stand in our way. I wanted to be fuckin' Roger Taylor from Queen. We wanted to be like Aerosmith, Kiss, Zeppelin — bands like that."

In 1986, clouds of Aqua Net hair spray hung heavy over the Sunset Strip, as the likes of Motley Crüe, Ratt and Poison saw multi-platinum success, combining an exaggerated version of Seventies glam-rock style with pop hooks and a Zeppelin-like penchant for misbehavior.

By the end of that year, Guns n' Roses had yet to play a stadium show or shoot a video, but they were already capable of creating a major spectacle: Broke, strung out on drugs and angered by their slow progress toward a debut album, they took it all out on a rented house on the former estate of Cecil B. DeMille. An apoplectic landlord summoned the band's A&R rep, Tom Zutaut, and then-manager Arnold Stiefel to the ravaged property one day. "I almost fainted," says Stiefel, whose name was on the lease. "It was Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It was, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. It was so beyond imagining. I couldn't stop laughing." The band had torn the toilets from the floor and thrown them out the window. The scene inside was worse, recalls Zutaut: "People were defecating in the sinks. The holes in the floor where the toilets got ripped off were filled with urine. There were half-eaten Whoppers with mold on the wrappers. They would just get in these drug rages and just go berserk." Zutaut had made his name signing the famously decadent Motley Crüe — but this was worse than anything he'd seen before. The damage totaled $22,000; Stiefel and his partner Randy Phillips submitted it to Geffen Records and then dropped Guns as clients.

Inside the house, one room was left untouched amid the madness. "There was this padlocked door," Zutaut recalls. "You go inside, and there was Axl in this immaculate, perfect room, surrounded by all this squalor. That was the dichotomy of Guns n' Roses." Rose was less interested in drugs and alcohol than his bandmates — but he had his own problems. He was diagnosed as a manic-depressive, and his associates sometimes wondered whether he actually had multiple personality disorder. "He has this very likable little-boy personality, and then he has the demon-dog-from-hell personality," says Vicky Hamilton, an early manager. "The color of his eyes actually changes when he goes into this different person."

It wasn't easy to find managers or producers willing to deal with this group — or vice versa. One rejected producer, Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley, saw firsthand just how difficult the band could be. He showed up one day at an apartment the label had rented for the band on Sunset Boulevard and found Stradlin and Slash nodded out on a couch. When they woke up, they played him some demos, including one of "Nightrain." Stanley liked it but suggested the chorus needed an extra hook. That was it: Rose never spoke to Stanley again, refusing to even look at him. Then Stanley started hearing that Slash was spreading rumors that he was gay — and that he "dressed weird," to boot, "I always thought that was funny," says Stanley. "Because their lead singer was up onstage in a woman's red vinyl jumpsuit with a motorcycle hat and makeup."

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