The mid-’80s Los Angeles rock scene that gave birth to Guns n’ Roses was a curious thing, neither quite punk scruffy nor given to glam excess, largely populated by hip kids who were too young to remember that Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith had long been completely passé. In retrospect, the original Guns n’ Roses formula seems obvious enough, but no one had ever before successfully crossed the grungy street attitude of the underground Hollywood bands with the polished, riffy sound of the pouf-haired Sunset Strip popmetal bands, and the result was a giant paradigm shift in rock & roll.
But although the tremendous success of G n’ R may have all but erased the few vestiges of the underground rock scene that still existed in Hollywood, the legacy of punk rock continued to thrive, at least as a hip influence: Punk rock codified the underground anti-establishment groove that is now mandatory for any artist harder edged than Whitney Houston, and rock groups as unrelievedly mainstream as Skid Row and Mötley Crüe now consider it more or less obligatory to include Sex Pistols songs in their sets. And with the rise of punk-rooted “alternative” music in the last couple of years, it has become apparent just what that music was an alternative to: G n’ R, who had grown to represent this generation’s ultimate in bloated rock excess.
In The Spaghetti Incident?, an album of mostly punky cover versions of drunkrock classics, Guns n’ Roses reassert their roots in hard-edged rock & roll — some punk rock, some not — the way that U2 tried to with Rattle and Hum when their “authenticity” had become suspect. But in recording half an album’s worth of punk-rock songs, Guns n’ Roses reveal themselves as a glam-rock band, and a good one, as if T. Rex and the Dolls had come out of early punk rather than the other way around.
“Black Leather,” a post-mortem Sex Pistols song written by Steve Jones, sounds better than the original — more bounce, heartier groove — and the tough swagger of G n’ R on this track may be what the original Pistols aspired to before Malcom McLaren pushed Johnny Rotten on them. There are quick, goofy versions of the Damned’s “New Rose” and U.K. Subs’ “Down on the Farm,” which Axl delivers with an English accent as contrived as that of any Orange County hardcore singer; there is a loose, sloppy version of Iggy’s “Raw Power” that would be a hit at any Whisky Jam Night.
Punk rock is sometimes best read as a vigorous howl of complaint against one’s own powerlessness, but Axl doesn’t quite connect to the punk-rock material on Spaghetti as anything but a conduit for pure aggression. He can’t even seem to curse right. In his version of Fear’s punkrock chestnut “I Don’t Care About You,” his is not the fuuuuuuck youuu of Fear’s Lee Ving, the epithet of the misfit yelling at the cop car after it has safely rounded the corner, but the fuck you the tavern bully says as he shoves you hard in the chest. When Chris Cornell sings, “I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you,” in the Soundgarden anthem “Big Dumb Sex,” Cornell’s voice is filled with longing and desire; Axl, reprising that Soundgarden chorus as a tag to the T. Rex song “Buick Makane,” sounds like a guy reading cue cards on the set of a porno movie.
But the Nazareth anthem “Hair of the Dog” is almost a primo Guns n’ Roses song to begin with, muscular riffing, forged-iron arpeggios, enraged lyrics just built for Axl’s manly scream, exactly the sort of thing G n’ R are best at — hipwiggle music, ’70s sounding without being explicitly retro — powered by the sort of glam-groove Slash guitar and oddly baroque Matt Sorum drumming that seem merely overwrought elsewhere on the album. “Buick Makane” works the complex riff until it screams.
Punk-rock virtues are most apparent in the Duff-sung version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which features irregular arrangements, wavery vocals, even a splash of vulnerability. It’s also the one song on the album you will probably fast-forward through in the car.