With guns blazing...

With guns blazing...

When it comes to hard rock, there’s no band as popular as Guns N’ Roses, writes Joel Premkumar, outlining the monumental rise, fall and resurrection of the American band.

Guns N’ Roses (GNR) shot into global stardom, almost overnight, crawling out of the obscure Californian music and club scene in the mid-80s. Just when everybody thought that rock was on its way out, GNR came out with all guns blazing, to put those thoughts to a premature end.

Axl’s scathing vocals and scorching guitar riffs, interspersed with melodic interludes from Slash, combined with raging lyrics, captured the imagination of an entire generation. The sound was fresh, new and rebellious, and carried the band to audiences across the world. Almost anything they did, even negative stuff, added to the band’s popularity. The new bad boys of rock had arrived, and in style.

Their albums sold in millions, tracks topped the Billboard top 100, and the concerts were sell-outs. No other band has had such a dream debut in recent music history. Unlike other one-hit wonders or debut-album cop outs, GNR went on to make several record-shattering albums and regularly produced big-time hits for way over a decade, till a marked decline stared with all the original members leaving the band and Axl Rose deciding to build an all new GNR. This is essentially the story of the monumental rise, fall and resurrection of Guns N’ Roses.


Early days

Singer Axl Rose and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin of Hollywood Rose hooked up with lead guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich, and drummer Rob Gardner of L A Guns and decided to form a band. They combined the names of their former bands and Guns N’ Roses was born in March 1985. After just a few random shows, Beich was replaced by Duff McKagan. Tracii Guns was replaced by Slash, Gardner quit soon after, and Steven Adler took his place.

The band embarked almost immediately on a tour of the west coast which pretty much cemented the line-up. The band then performed at several major Hollywood clubs and got the attention of talent scouts for major record labels. They were eventually signed by Geffen Records in 1986. Later that year, they released the four-song EP, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, which kept the band in the public eye while they went to the studio to work on the debut full-on album.

Although Appetite for Destruction was released in 1987, it took almost a year for the debut album to explode on the global mainstream. Initially, the band released Welcome to the Jungle as a single, with an accompanying music video which languished without airtime. It took David Geffen’s personal intervention to convince MTV to air the video. The single premiered on MTV at 4 am on the afterhours rotation.

Heavy metal and hard rock fans soon spotted the video and large scale requests led to MTV doing a heavy rotation on prime time as well. Sweet Child o’ Mine was the album’s second US single, a love song co-written by Rose for his then girlfriend. This single was what launched GNR to international glory.

The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 and the album reached No. 1 on Billboard 200, riding on the wave of Sweet Child o’ Mine. The band re-released Welcome to the Jungle, and Paradise City, the third video, also did extremely well. The album has since sold in excess of 28 million copies worldwide and counting, including 18 million units sold in the US, making it the best-selling debut album of all time in the US.

GNR embarked on the 16-month-long Appetite for Destruction Tour to promote the album. They did quite a few headlining dates in Europe and the US. In North America, the band opened for major bands such as The Cult, Mötley Crüe, and Alice Cooper through the latter half of 1987. In 1988, the band took their headlining act to more destinations in the US, Japan and Australia. They also opened for Iron Maiden and Aerosmith at various locations.

GNR released the second album, G N’ R Lies, towards the end of 1988. It included four new acoustic tracks and four recordings from their 1986 EP, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide. The only single released from G N’ R Lies was Patience, which peaked at No. 4 in the US, while the album itself reached No. 2 on Billboard 200. The band’s live performances during this period had more than its fair share of controversies and wild incidents.

During a show in Atlanta, Rose assaulted a security guard and was arrested by police. At the Monsters of Rock festival in England, two fans were crushed to death by the crowd. Axl’s attitude and late arrival for shows angered audiences, which resulted in some bottle throwing, and the band exiting the stage. Then, all hell broke loose at several concerts. Riots nearly broke out during a couple of shows in New York State. Axl was wanted by the police for inciting riots. All this, plus substance abuse, led to the band being named ‘The Most Dangerous Band in the World.’

GNR returned to the studio in 1990 to record the third album, during which the band decided to go in for a twin album, which turned out to be their most ambitious project ever. Finally, in late 1991, the band had recorded enough music for two albums. They released Use Your Illusion I and II simultaneously. These simultaneous releases paid rich dividends to the band. The albums debuted at No. 2 and No. 1 respectively in the Billboard charts, resulting in a record for the band as the first ever group to achieve this feat.

Global hits

The Use Your Illusion albums produced several global hits such as November Rain, Estranged and Don’t Cry, which were also accompanied by the most expensive music videos ever made. November Rain also went on to become the most requested video on MTV, eventually winning the 1992 MTV Video Music Award for best cinematography.

The band launched its Use Your Illusion Tour well before the release of the album and continued to tour vigorously even after to promote the albums. The 28-month-long tour which featured 194 shows became well known for its financial success as well as the usual controversial incidents that came to be expected of the band. The tour also marked several collaborations with guest artistes and bands playing with them. This tour is perhaps the longest in rock history. On the flip side, however, the band was set to come apart slowly.

The Spaghetti Incident?, the next album, was released in November 1993. Controversies plagued the album right from the release. The album did not make any major dents on the charts and the sales did not even remotely match that of the Use your Illusions albums. It did, however, signal the beginning of the end for the classic GNR line up.
Between 1994 and 1996, the band began to write and record new material rather sporadically. With claims and counter claims by Slash and Rose regarding who was at the helm of the new album, the entire new material was scrapped.

In December 1994, GNR released a cover of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil. The song, which appeared in the film Interview with the Vampire, was also significant as it was the last song featuring Slash. He quit the band in 1996, and was replaced by Robin Finck. Shortly thereafter, Matt Sorum was fired and bassist Duff McKagan resigned. With that, all the members of Appetite for Destruction line-up, with the exception of Axl Rose, had left the band.

New set up

Several musicians floated in and out of the band, and by the end of 1998, a new version of GNR emerged. The core group included Rose, Stinson, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and multi-instrumentalist Chris Pitman.

Their next album, Chinese Democracy, had been in the pipeline since 1994. From 2001, the band played a few shows in Vegas and Rio, basically a mixture of new songs from the then unreleased Chinese Democracy, and classic hits of the band. The shows continued, including one at the MTV Video Music Awards.

In early 2006, several songs from Chinese Democracy were leaked on the Internet. Despite the efforts of the band’s management to contain the leak, radio stations began adding IRS to playlists, and the song actually reached No. 49 on the Radio & Records Active Rock National Airplay chart and this was the first time an Internet leak had ever reached the top 50.

GNR finally released Chinese Democracy in 2008. The album, pegged as the most expensive album to be produced in music history, ever, with an estimated cost of $14 million, failed miserably.

Guns N’ Roses recently completed their debut India tour with a new line-up including keyboardist Dizzy Reed, lead guitarists DJ Ashba and Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal, lead and rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus, bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist Chris Pitman, apart from Axl Rose.

The inaugural concert in Bangalore brought to light the new and reformed Axl Rose who showed up on time and complimented the audience several times during the show. Axl maintained that he always wanted to play in India, but circumstances had not permitted that in the past.

Guns N’ Roses are definitely one of the greatest bands in rock history, but they certainly need to take a hard look at the direction the band has to take, or they stand the risk of alienating the huge fan base the band has painstakingly built over the years.

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