Guns N’ Roses did not arrive fully formed on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, howling “Sweet Child o’ Mine” with all the might and charisma that made the song a hit in 1988. They only achieved the proper cocktail of sensitivity and machismo after the five musicians in GN’R’s classic lineup found each other in the mid-Eighties. Long before any of them had even dreamt of the songs on Appetite for Destruction, Indiana natives Axl Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin were cutting their teeth in the bands Axl, Hollywood Rose, and L.A. Guns. Eventually, they united with guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler under the GN’R banner and made history, but it was a long road to get there. The thing the musicians remember most about their salad days now is the determination they had simply to book small gigs at the Troubadour and Gazzari’s.
The members of Guns N’ Roses, as well as musicians like Tracii Guns who played in both L.A. Guns and the first GN’R lineup, have now recalled their wild origin story in vivid detail for a new book that chronicles hard rock’s decade of decadence. Nöthin’ but a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion, by authors and Rolling Stone contributors Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock, presents an oral history of GN’R’s formation in between chapters on Bon Jovi, Skid Row, Cinderella, Mötley Crüe, and other acts who embodied Eighties excess. In the excerpt that follows, the band, as well as musicians who played in the many tributary groups that led to GN’R, explain how the man they knew as “Bill” came to change his name to Axl Rose and front the most dangerous band in Los Angeles.
Izzy Stradlin (bassist, Shire; guitarist, Hollywood Rose, Guns N’ Roses): The first thing I remember about Axl, this is before I knew him — is the first day of class, eighth or ninth grade, I’m sitting in the class and I hear this noise going on in front, and I see these fucking books ﬂying past, and I hear this yelling, and there’s this scuﬄe and then I see him, Axl, and this teacher bouncing off a door jamb. And then he was gone, down the hall, with a whole bunch of teachers running after him. That was the first thing. I’ll never forget that.
Tracii Guns (guitarist, Guns N’ Roses, L.A. Guns): Izzy would always tell me, “You’ve gotta meet my friend Axl.” Or, you know, “Bill,” at the time. He would say, “You guys are gonna get along great. He can scream that way you like it and he’s into Nazareth.” He kept telling me he was into Nazareth. And I was like, “Yeah! I like Nazareth!”
Izzy Stradlin: I was seventeen when I came out to California … I grew up in Florida and moved with my mom to Lafayette, Indiana. I started pissing around with a drum set, met Axl, and we hung out a lot. It was nowhere. We decided to put a band together. It was a bad time, being there. The people, the girls, it was so backward. The girls didn’t even know how to dress when they went to gigs! So the prospects were absolutely zilch. Axl and I were into anything that had a hard, loud beat. I think that’s how we managed with all that was comin’ down.
Tracii Guns: I went to see Shire play at the Roosevelt Hotel, and this guy Izzy was their new bass player. He had on a leather jacket and white cowboy boots, with dyed black hair. I could relate to that right away. I just figured he was a Mötley Crüe fan. So right after they got done playing I walked up and said, “Hey man, I’m Tracii.” He said, “I’m Izzy.” And it’s like, “Okay, cool. We’re buddies now!”
Billy Rowe (guitarist, Jetboy): Jetboy started to go to L.A. in ’83, when I was still in high school. A friend of ours was super into W.A.S.P., but they hadn’t played San Francisco yet. This is pre the first record. So one time we tagged along with her to see W.A.S.P. at the Troubadour. And there was this dude standing outside who had the look that we were all about, that rock ’n’ roll trashy punk look. He was wearing all black, he was wearing the creepers, he had a black leather jacket that he had spray-painted pink with shoe polish. He just had that look that I connected with, that Hanoi Rocks look. And it was Izzy. And we started hanging out. We used to all hang out at Chris [Weber’s] parents’ house.
Chris Weber (guitarist, Hollywood Rose): So I brought Izzy up to my house, I know that my mom called him Jeff, and we started to write some songs together. I don’t remember exactly when this was, but I know that [Aerosmith’s] Rock in a Hard Place was out, because I was really inspired by “Jailbait” for [the Hollywood Rose and eventual Guns N’ Roses song] “Anything Goes.” In the very beginning, me and Izzy were listening to that.
Billy Rowe: One album that Izzy used to listen to a lot was Restless and Wild by Accept. And if you listen to a lot of those songs on that record, especially “Fast as a Shark,” you’ll hear where Hollywood Rose and Guns N’ Roses probably got things like “Reckless Life.” And Axl had that whole Udo [Dirkschneider, Accept singer] vibe. You never read this stuff, though.
Chris Weber: In any case, we wrote some songs, and the way I remember it is that Izzy said, “You know, my buddy’s out here, he’s a singer and I want him to sing for us.” It kind of just became apparent that this guy Bill Bailey was going to be our singer.
Tracii Guns: For maybe six months, it was just, “This guy, Bill, you know, he’s the man. And he’s coming back and we’re going to put the band together, we’re going to be like Hanoi Rocks.” I was like, “Great!”
Chris Weber: Axl had already been in L.A. with a band called Rapid Fire, but then I think he went home to Indiana for a little bit.
Izzy Stradlin: He came out like three times before he stayed.
Tracii Guns: So finally Axl came back out from Indiana, but he was staying with Izzy’s ex-girlfriend, Jane, which was kind of a weird living situation because Izzy was living at my place. It was bizarre.
Chris Weber: You could tell that Izzy and Axl were on this sort of voyage together. That’s what it looked like from the outside. I never really felt like I had that same relationship with them. Maybe it’s because I’m from Los Angeles and they grew up in Lafayette.
Laura Reinjohn (L.A. scenester): Izzy and I picked up Axl at the bus station downtown, and we drove him back to the apartment he was staying at on Whitley. I cut his hair for the first time. He had this long red hair when he got here.
Chris Weber: One day Izzy brought me over to where Axl was living, on Whitley just north of Franklin. It was an old apartment with sort of a sliding elevator door gate. So we go up to the top and just sort of walk along the roof. And as I’m looking out over the rooftop I see this really white guy just laying out in the sun. It was a burning hot day and I just remember he was very white. And Izzy is like, “This is Bill!”
Rob Gardner (drummer, L.A. Guns, Hollywood Rose, Guns N’ Roses): And then they did Hollywood Rose.
Chris Weber: The first band name was AXL. I don’t know who came up with it. It wasn’t me. Probably Axl. But you know, he wasn’t calling himself Axl yet. I don’t think I ever called him Axl the whole time I was in a band with him. He was always Bill. So it was me, Izzy, and Bill, but then there was a small falling out and I remember Izzy telling him, “Look, let’s get the band back together.” But he said, “We have to change the name. I’m not gonna play under the name AXL anymore.”
So then we were called Rose, but we would go to import record stores and we saw that there were other bands in other countries called Rose. So we changed it to Hollywood Rose. We would go back and forth between the names. It’s very Spinal Tap.
Chris Weber: Hollywood Rose played the regular Hollywood places. There was the Orphanage, which was our first gig [in January 1984], there was the Troubadour, there was Madame Wong’s West …
Tracii Guns: Izzy said, “Do you guys want to play with us at Madame Wong’s West?” I was like, “Sure, let’s do a gig together.” And so we were down there during the day, pulling our crap in for soundcheck, and there’s Axl by himself at the microphone, just wailing. I’m like, “Holy shit, that guy can sing!” That’s when I wanted to be close to Axl, when I saw him sing like that.
Chris Weber: Then Hollywood Rose played a show with Stryper at the Music Machine. The way I remember it is something happened onstage, I think I swung around and hit Axl with the top of my guitar. My memory was that he was pissed off. And I wouldn’t be the first person to say that Axl’s got a relatively unique ego. It could be easily damaged and easily inﬂated at the same time. Anyway, nobody got fired, but we kind of disbanded.
Tracii Guns: Somehow Chris Weber was out of the band and then Slash was in the band. And it was funny because nobody knew that we were friends. But they decided Slash was playing guitar for Hollywood Rose. And, you know, cool-looking man, obviously. So that happened.
Steven Adler (drummer, Road Crew, Hollywood Rose, Guns N’ Roses): Me and Slash, we were walking down Sunset Boulevard and we saw this one ﬂyer and it just stood out. …The singer and guitar player, they just looked so cool. It was Rose. Hollywood Rose. It was Axl and Izzy. And we went into Gazzarri’s and we watched them.
Marc Canter (owner, Canter’s Deli; Slash’s childhood friend): Slash and Steven had known each other for years. He was his friend from Bancroft Middle School. They lost touch for a few years after that but then Steven eventually wound up playing drums in Road Crew. And then Duff was in Road Crew for, like, a week, when he first got into town from Seattle.
Duff McKagan (bassist, Road Crew, Guns N’ Roses): I moved down to L.A. in September of ’84. As a punk kid from Seattle, it was total culture shock. Of course I knew about, like, Eddie Van Halen and that kind of guitar playing. And I knew that first Mötley record they had put out themselves. But moving here and seeing all the ﬂyers on the telephone poles and shit … it was a lot of bands, a lot of long hair, a lot of outfits, you know what I mean?
Marc Canter: Somehow he answered Slash’s ad in The Recycler and they started jamming.
Duff McKagan: He had this ad that said, “Inﬂuences: Fear, Aerosmith, early Alice Cooper.” And his name was Slash. So I thought he was a punk rock guy like me. I called him up, we talked on the phone, totally cool guy. Then I went to meet him and Steven at Canter’s Deli. He said, “We’ll be in the left booth at the end.” So I look in the left booth and there’s, you know, basically all this fucking hair! But also, I was wearing like this long red-and-black, like, super-ﬂy pimp jacket with an anarchy A on the back of it, and I had short blue hair. So I’m sure they’re looking at me and going, “Huh?” Slash’s girlfriend at the time, she was a very out-front kind of girl, and she goes, “Are you gay?” I’m like, “No, I’m not gay.” She goes, “Okay, well, maybe we can find you a girlfriend.”
We ended up that night going back to Slash’s mom’s house. We’re hanging out in his room in the basement and drinking vodka and he starts playing guitar. And I’d never been in a room with a guy my age who played guitar like that. But the Road Crew thing, there was no singer, and they’re like, “Maybe you can sing … ” But I had already moved away from home, I was ready for the next step. I wasn’t going to play with some guys who just got out of high school the year before and had a bunch of riffs. Even if they had a fucking guitar player like Slash.
Marc Canter: Slash could never find a singer that was good enough to start playing real gigs at the Troubadour and stuff like that. So he realized he was going to have to pluck one out of a band that was already established. And Rose was already playing gigs, or Hollywood Rose — I guess it kind of went back and forth between the names. So I went with Slash and Steven to Gazzarri’s. I think it was a battle of the bands, it was like a dollar to get in and Rose only played three songs. All I remember is Axl was good and Izzy was good.
Steven Adler: I said, “If we get that singer and that guitar player and a great bass player, we will have the greatest fucking band ever.”
Tracii Guns: My manager, this guy Raz, fired our singer Mike Jagosz because he was being a dummy or something. And then I just hit up Axl. “Hey, you wanna be in L.A. Guns for a while?” And he said, “Yeah.” We did that for a solid nine, ten months before we finally did the gig with London.
Marc Canter: I went to see L.A. Guns when they were opening up for London at the Troubadour. …
Duff McKagan: I saw that show at the Troubadour. Slash took me. And the thing about Axl, I’d seen so many shows by this time. My old band, 10 Minute Warning, we opened for Black Flag when it was Henry Rollins’ first show with them in Seattle. And Henry was the most intense dude I’d seen. I saw him before the show, like, stretching out in his little short dolphin shorts, not talking to anybody, super intense. Ready to fight. And when Axl came out onstage at the L.A. Guns thing I saw that same intensity, but kind of more fucking unhinged. It was real. And the guy was hitting these notes. … I’d never seen anything like Axl.
Tracii Guns: Axl had actually been fired from L.A. Guns by Raz. He was just like, “I’m not going to deal with you anymore.” And so then we got Mike Jagosz back for a second, which is probably when that Hollywood Rose reunion happened.
But at that time, Axl and I were attached at the hip. So we decided we were going to continue playing together, we just had to figure out in what configuration. And then I was like, “Well, Izzy’s not doing anything, why don’t we just add him to the band?”
The initial idea with Axl was “Hey, let’s just write and record and we’ll go out and play new songs.” And somehow we came up with the name Guns and Rose, which was just his last name and my last name. And then within five minutes Axl’s like, “Nah, man, Guns and Roses.” And I’m like, “Yeah, that’s a great band name.”
Excerpted from Nöthin’ but a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the ’80s Hard Rock Explosion by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock. Copyright © 2021 by the authors and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.