How G n' R mixed drugs, punk and classic rock to make their brilliantly trashy debut
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."
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."
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."
At the core of Guns N' Roses were two pairs of troublemaking childhood friends. Adler and Slash (born Saul Hudson) skipped junior high together in L.A., while Stradlin and Rose ran wild in the nowheresville of Lafayette, Indiana. Duff McKagan was a smart blond kid from Seattle with punk-rock cred — he had managed to meet Joe Strummer as a young teen and was the original drummer in the Fastbacks while still in high school. McKagan left Seattle to get away from a heavy heroin scene, only to move in across the street from Stradlin — who was both using the drug and selling it.
The musicians spent a long while circling one another on the Hollywood circuit. Slash and Adler played with McKagan in a band called Road Crew and had stints in Rose's group, Hollywood Rose. G n' R took their name from a brief merger of Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, a band led by guitarist Tracii Guns, who had shared a house with Rose and Stradlin. The band pushed Tracii out after a couple of months to make room for Slash- but kept his name. "Hey, man, it's just a band name," Stradlin told him.
The classic Guns n' Roses lineup came together for its first rehearsal in a Silverlake studio in May 1985. "The moment that we fuckin' slammed into our first chord, there was something, and we all knew it," says McKagan. "We were only twenty years old, but we considered ourselves real veterans. It felt like, 'This is the band, this is it. This is what we've all been searching for.'" Before rehearsal, McKagan and Stradlin had helped shape the band's sound by hiding all of Adler's extra drums, transforming his setup from cheesy popmetal excess to punk-rock simplicity.
Rose and Stradlin already had completed some future Guns n' Roses songs at that point, including the minor Appetite tracks "Anything Goes" and "Think About You," along with "Back Off Bitch" and "Don't Cry." which the band didn't release until 1901. (Rose also had aversion of "November Rain" very early — he played it for one potential producer, Manny Charlton, telling him, "That one's for the second album.") But the rest of the Appetite songs came together over the next few months. The group's first songwriting collaboration was "Welcome to the Jungle" — Slash played the main riff for Rose while they hung out in Slash's mom's basement. "I picked up my guitar, standing in front of the couch on one knee, and said, 'Check this out.' and it stuck with him," Slash says. Later, McKagan wrote the song's trippy breakdown, and Slash remembers Stradlin putting together the bridge. "Axl was very open," McKagan says. "He wasn't like, 'I'm the singer, I must write all the stuff." It was serving the musk: it wasn't serving the ego. We didn't have egos yet." "Nightrain" combined a joke chorus named after a cheap brand of wine the band favored and a rough riff Stradlin had introduced. "Izzy had this thing where he'd play, like, half the notes," McKagan says. "It was cool, it was his style. Slash and I would have to figure out what he meant to play."
Before signing their record deal, most of G n' R lived, rehearsed and wrote songs in a cramped, vermin-ridden rehearsal space with no toilet, on the corner of Sunset and Gardner Street. "I can't remember one night that we actually slept quietly there, like, 'Good night, Axl.' 'Good night, Slash,'" says Slash. "It was more like that's where our shit was and that's where you could pass out." At the time, the band got by with a little help from its exotic-dancer friends. "Strippers were our main source of income," Slash adds. "They'd pay for booze, sometimes you could eat, shit like that. Really a great bohemian, gypsy lifestyle. I have great memories of those renegade strippers that took their chances with us." In that space. McKagan and Adler would hold daily practices of their own — they'd spend hours playing along together to funk tunes by Prince and Cameo ("Word Up!" was a favorite), locking in tight and growing comfortable with swinging rhythms that were unusual for hard rock. McKagan says the groove of "Rocket Queen" owes a particular debt to Cameo.
The band signed to Geffen in March 1986, and after months of inaction finally found a manager it could stand in the tough, brainy Englishman Alan Niven, who also worked with Great White. And in quick succession, it found a producer, too: Mike Clink, a recording engineer who combined superb technical skills with an unusual amount of patience. Plus, the group had written one last song: "Sweet Child o' Mine." At the Cecil B. DeMille house, Slash was fooling around with the song's signature riff as a "goofy personal exercise," and Stradlin started playing chords along with it. Unbeknown to either of the guitarists. Rose was listening from his room upstairs and writing lyrics. Says Slash, "If Axl hadn't been there writing those lyrics, chances are that song would have never existed."
The hand rehearsed with Clink for weeks, then entered Rumbo Recorders — owned by the Captain, of Captain and Tenille fame, in January 1987. It spent two weeks laying down basic tracks, with Clink splicing together the best takes with his razor blade. Clink worked eighteen-hour days for the next month, with Slash overdubbing in the afternoon and evening, and Rose cutting vocals till the sun came up. Until he finally ended up with a Les Paul copy plugged into a Marshall. Slash struggled to find a guitar sound — he got so frustrated with a rented Gibson SG that he smashed it through a van window. He spent hours with Clink, paring down and structuring his solos until they were as catchy as the vocal melodies. Rose — mostly a high screamer onstage until that point — unveiled an uncanny vocal range, adding a low harmony part to the opening of "Paradise City" and an unearthly, police-siren-like wail at the beginning of "Welcome to the Jungle." "We had to channel all these voices and figure out what worked," says Clink. "With the intro to 'Welcome to the Jungle.' he didn't just open his mouth and that happened: we tried multiple, multiple takes to make sure it was the right growl." The total budget for the album was about $370,000 — an extravagant sum for a debut at the time.
Five months after its release, by December 1987, Appetite for Destruction had sold about 200,000 copies, with minimal radio airplay. Geffen execs told Zutaut and Niven that the album had done well for a baby band's debut, and it was time to pull Guns off the road and have them record a follow-up. Zutaut pleaded with company founder David Geffen to use his clout to push MTV to add the "Welcome to the Jungle" video. The network ended up playing it one time, at 4 A.M. on a Sunday. The result was an A&R man's wet dream: MTV's switchboard flooded with requests for the clip — and, seemingly, every angry kid in America drove to the mall and picked up a copy. When the "Sweet Child o' Mine" video came out about six months later, female fans came in by the millions. "I remember looking at my monitor and thinking, This sucks, this is really ordinary,'" director Nigel Dick says of that shoot. "And there were some girls from the label who were peeking over my shoulder, and one said. This is so fucking cool.' I quickly readjusted my opinion, because obviously, they thought he was really hot, and the rest, as they say, is history."
In its final verse, the raunchy "Rocket Queen" suddenly turns sweet: "No one needs the sorrow/No one needs the pain/I hate to see you/Walking out in the rain." Rose wails, his voice vaulting up an octave, and Slash ticks in with a weeping solo that feels like a benediction. The idea, Rose has said, was to give the album a happy ending after all of its darkness.
Though they reigned for the next four years as the biggest band in the world, the story of the original Guns n' Roses had a messier conclusion. Adler was the first to go, fired in 1990 by his bandmates, who accused him of heroin use that was out of control even by their standards.
The Cult's Matt Sorum replaced him. Adler never got over what he saw as betrayal and suffered a drug-induced stroke in 1995. "The thing that hurt me the most was that Slash didn't stick up for me," says Adler, who now plays in a band called Adler's Appetite. "We were blood brothers." But last year, Slash flew in from Europe to Adler's Las Vegas home to stage an intervention, trying to get him off cocaine. "That was friendship," says Adler. "That was love."
Stradlin quit in the middle of the tour for the band's second album, Use Your Illusion I and II — in part because he had gotten clean and couldn't be around his bandmates anymore. And in the mid-Nineties, as Axl Ruse started pursuing industrial-rock experiments in the studio, the old band began to fall apart. Rose — who owns the rights to the band name — assembled a new G n' R, spending more than a decade recording Chinese Democracy, an album that has yet to be released.
"It's because of Appetite that it's so hard for him to let go of Chinese Democracy," says Zutaut, who briefly worked with Rose on the album-in-progress. "He made it clear that he was trying to put out a record that would change the world as much as Appetite, and be better than Appetite."
Slash is more comfortable with the legacy of Appetite for Destruction. "When I was a kid, there were these be-with-you-forever albums that represented something in your life." he says. "Whether it was the background music of your childhood or your puberty or whatever — Dark Side of the Moon or Sticky Fingers or Aerosmith's Rocks or Led Zeppelin IV. And we made one of those records, which is all I could ever have asked for. It gives me goose bumps. That's something no one ever can take away from me."