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."
This story is from the August 9, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.
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