Sunday, April 30, 2017
The Conversation: 30 Years Of "Appetite For Destruction"
Case in point; Guns N Roses. We sit here thirty years removed from the release of the album that changed rock music, which seems like a good time to take a step back and examine what the album meant, what it still means, and what Guns N Roses actual legacy should be.
I'll start with the easy point. "Appetite For Destruction" is the album that ended the era of hair metal. People can talk all they want about Nirvana, and their influence is undeniable, but it was Guns that first popped the bubble that rock in the mainstream had to be shiny music about strippers and partying. Guns showed, like the Rolling Stones before them, that gritty rock that painted the darker side of life could find a wider audience. I went back recently and listened to "Appetite" again, and what strikes me is that it holds up remarkably well. The songs still bristle with energy, Axl Rose's voice and Slash's guitars slash and burn, and the record finds that difficult balance between grime and polish. It truly is one of those records that comes along oh so rarely.
It is also, I believe, the only good album Guns N Roses ever made. We'll get into this, but both "Illusion" albums and "Chinese Democracy" are far too flawed to be anything but curiosities. And yet, like the Sex Pistols, Guns has achieved a legendary reputation on the strength of one lucky accident of an album.
That leads to our first questions; Why is "Appetite" the only good Guns record, and has the drama and disappointment of the last twenty-nine years yet dragged Guns' reputation down to where it should have been all along?
D.M: Okay, to start off, I have a brief issue with the implication that Guns 'N' Roses only produced one good record. I grant that they only produced one show-stopper, one all-timer in the pantheon of great albums. But I personally am partial to "Use Your Illusion I," no matter how scattershot and weird it can momentarily be. I've hit an age where I don't necessarily need an album to be perfect (and no, I'm not implying that you do,) I merely need it to have three or four great moments that I can defend. Parenthetically, one of my favorite records of all time is White Zombie's "Astro-Creep: 2000," and that record has some real teeth-grindingly bad moments on it. I'm also a fan of Battlecross' "War of Will" and Unearth's "The March," which have some significant holes in them, so this might be a 'me' thing. Anyway, you said it yourself, we'll get into that later, so I won't belabor the point now.
The G'n'R reputation question is one that's tougher to ferret a real answer from, because I think the answers vary wildly by generation. For you and me, who really only to come the band after their historic dysfunction had started, their present legacy in our eyes remains as bizarre and uneven as one can remember. To my in-laws, though (who I use because they're younger than my own parents, and right in that 45-55 age bracket where G'n'R is in the sweet spot,) the band remains a sort of mythic pinnacle, a legacy beyond reproach, an untouchable, unrepeatable totem of their youths. So for them, the history of Guns 'N' Roses remains largely untarnished, with few blights that can't be ignored and no ticket price that's too high to see them again. So, the question of the band's legacy, much as every question about them seems to, results largely in more questions marks.
Which dovetails nicely into your point - that "Appetite" lives right in that sweet spot where it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the soundtrack to a forty-car pileup, the end of hair metal, the signature album of a generation, and, (forgive my liberal use of the Oxford comma,) the part that often gets lost, the early stages of an unprecedented run of success for David Geffen. There's a whole side section we could run into about Geffen and his perfect sense of the next big, genre-defining thing, whether it was Guns or Nirvana or White Zombie. Whether or not you believe G'n'R or Nirvana ultimately was the bigger bullet that killed off the veneer and shiny facade of hair metal (and that's not the debate we're having,) the fact is both contributed greatly, and one man had both on his record label. But that's neither here nor there.
The other thing that's always fascinated me about "Appetite" is the time in which it existed. When we think of Los Angeles in the late '80s, if we're not talking about the breakthroughs of NWA and similar rap artists, everything points to the Aqua-Net infused, hedonistic indulgences of hair metal during that time period. Yet here comes Guns 'N' Roses, a band who certainly looked the part, but didn't play it, and they used to famously pal around with Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction, two more bands who bucked the trend and emerged from the ashes of burning weaves to loom larger than those band ever could (well, RHCP, anyway. Jane's Addiction is a debatable question in relation to the fame of, say, Poison or Motley Crue at their height.) Roughly five years later (granted, a positive eternity in the time frame of musical movements,) Rage Against the Machine releases their first album, which stood a world apart from everything that had come before. The fact that G'n'R straddled all those lines and yet still so dominated their scene is a rare sort of anachronism in and of itself.
My question to you (and I'm not even sure I answered your question,) is, in the process of Guns 'N' Roses killing off their predecessors and ushering in a new generation of younger, hungrier music fans, did they pave their own way to be eliminated from the public consciousness by Nirvana and grunge? Does "Appetite" serve merely as a middle bridge between two great movements? If so, is that why it's the band's only great album? Had their audience already moved on?
Chris C: I suppose my declaration depends on just how much of the smorgasbord of the "Illusions" you enjoy. There are absolutely classic moments on both of them, and you're right that albums don't need to be perfect to be great, but I can't overlook the fact that they're a complete mess of bloat that include garbage like "Dead Horse" and "Get In The Ring", not to mention two different versions of "Don't Cry" (a song I love) just because Axl couldn't decide on what the lyrics should have been. Those albums are the very reason the mind-game of turning a double album into a single album exists. There is an "Appetite" level classic in there, if you cut out the massive amount of fat. The fun part is that no one can ever agree on what the fat is, but we all admit there is a lot of it.
Your point about "Appetite" being the watershed for a generation is quite right. I fully understand the appeal it held for people who were the right age at the time. It still translates well enough to you and me, and obviously to people who came after us as well. It does make me wonder, however, what the landmark album of our generation is. I think we're slightly too young to say "Nevermind" and slightly too old to say "American Idiot". Do we exist in a spot without a north star to look towards?
I do think you're on to something, but maybe not for the reason you think. That dovetails into why "Appetite" is their only great album. Let me explain.
Guns did set the stage for their own obsolescence, but they did so because of their inability to be honest. As gritty and 'real' as "Appetite" appears to be, it's a con job. That is the band Guns was at the time, but not the band they wanted to be. Listening to the "Illusions", it's made obvious that they didn't want to be the dirty saviors of rock and roll, they (Axl especially) wanted to be artists. There's nothing wrong with that, but when you kill off a genre with raw power, and then say you don't care about what you created anymore, it was a signal to the audience to go find something more authentic.
And that's been the reality of Guns ever since. Axl has spent a lifetime collecting paychecks from an album that he immediately moved away from, all the while half-heartedly making an effort to create the music he really wants to. "Appetite" was so big that it stifled the band's ability to ever be anything but that. They all tried with the "Illusions", and Axl tried with "Chinese Democracy", but no one would ever accept anything else. That's why the reunion tour is working so well. It's not complicated. It's Axl and Slash playing the songs that put money in their pockets.
Before asking a loaded question about "Chinese Democracy", let's backtrack to "Appetite" again. Are you a singles or deep cuts guy? Which moments elevate the record from successful to transformative, and what's the one black hole in the middle of it?
D.M: You know, just because neither of us has mentioned it to this point, let's take a moment to recognize that between "Appetite" and the "Illusions," G'n'R did release "Lies." And I mention that only because it's almost universally overlooked in their history (with more or less good cause,) and because I wouldn't feel we were being proper chroniclers of the event without at least mentioning it. Also, not for nothing, but if you go into a store that sells used CDs, and you find some G'n'R in there, yes, there's a 70% chance that it's going to be "The Spaghetti Incident." But that other 30%, without hesitation, is always "Lies." So right in the beginning of the Guns story, there's a fairly blatant misstep, which perhaps we should have all taken as a sign of things to come.
But anyway, that's not what we're talking about. To answer your first question first, I have been scrambling my brain in the last two days trying to determine what the hallmark album of our generation is. And I don't have one answer. I mean, I don't know how old you need to be to identify those kinds of things, but I'm figuring, perhaps generously, 13-16? So for me, that puts it right in the 1996-1999 stretch, and frankly, music was pretty awful then. I've referenced this before, but Kerry King once referred to that period as the time he really didn't want to make sure anymore, because it seemed like the albums that deserved merit weren't getting it, and Limp Bizkit was hugely popular.
For all that though, I did come up with a list of contenders. We were pretty young, but I distinctly remember "Nevermind" being a huge fucking deal. No two ways about that. When fourth graders are talking about your album, you've done something right, especially when the album has been out more than a year already. I think Soundgarden's "Superunknown," just for it's multiple singles (five blockbusters, with two or three other cuts that got radio play) and staying power, in on the list. Rage Against the Machine's "Evil Empire," even though it's not their best work, was a monster when it was released. Hell, even the Offspring's "Smash" might be in their somewhere. As much as neither of us wants to admit it, Marilyn Manson released two popular albums in that stretch, "Antichrist Superstar" and "Mechanical Animals." Outside our normal jurisdiction, Dr Dre's "2001" was a prime mover, one of dozens of rap albums that took over the airwaves for a few years.
Also, not for nothing, but don't overlook Metallica's Black Album. I know it's been overplayed to the point of parody today, and yes, it was released in 1991 when I was eight years old, but that album ruled the roost for years. Years. A pile of singles, whole radio show blocks dedicated to it, late night Metallica sessions on every rock station in every market. In mid-to-late-nineties radio, there were two inescapable truths - Metallica and ClearChannel. That was it, man.
Forgive me, I've gotten far afield. Anyway, Guns 'N' Roses - I have always found interesting the concept of a band that doesn't write the music they want to. it seems so counter-intuitive, you know? Maybe I'm a product of the digital music age, when if a band didn't like what one manager wanted, they could find another, or do it themselves, or at least, there already existed a niche audience for their product, they didn't have to fit a mold. I'm not disagreeing with you about that as far as Guns 'N' Roses goes, though I do wonder if the tail wagged the dog a little bit. Did Axl love "Appetite" when he wrote it, but then the fame and cash started to pour in, and suddenly he decided he was an artiste' that had to give the world more? In essence, was Axl always honest with us (stifle your laughter!) and was it just that something about him changed? Certainly, the "November Rain" video seems like the dream of a self-styled egotistical megalomaniac (love that video, for a lot of reasons, few of them the 'right' reasons,) so is it so hard to believe that Axl simply went mad with power after "Appetite's" success?
Ice-T once described this same phenomenon concerning young upstarts in rap - that the first album is always great because it's gritty and grimy and real and written by a young person with nothing to lose and a terrible life experience. But then the cash starts flowing, and the next time the kid sits down to write his/her second album from his/her swanky penthouse apartment, he/she looks at the hand holding the paper to the table, and the writing suddenly gets not farther than 'ohmygod, lookit my watch!'
Of course, we might be overlooking a very tangible possibility. The history of popular music is soaked to the bone with a deluge of bands who were only good enough to conjure up one really excellent album before running out of material, or at the least, never being able to replicate that success. Admittedly, Guns 'N' Roses was at the very pinnacle of the game when they released "Appetite," but could it be that that was simply their best punch? For all their pompous excess and bullshit, could Axl and his band really have been guilty of nothing besides not being able to replicate the same caliber of album? And if that is a crime (and it may not be,) is that crime all the more magnified when your first album was a true all-timer?
As to "Appetite" itself, I admit I am a singles guy, up through and including "Mr. Brownstone." This is me being overly sentimental about something that deserves little sentiment, but "Sweet Child O Mine," as occasionally hokey and overplayed as it might be, was 'our song' between myself and my high school girlfriend. There's a certain sinister elements to all of the singles on that album, which is probably unintentional, in that all those singles are instantly memorable. I don't know if it's the big choruses or the hooks or what it is, but everyone on earth knows "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child O Mine" and "Paradise City." All of the singles on that album, but particularly those three, magically combined the most laudable elements of arena rock with the fury of the underground, in a way that's been difficult to replicate since. So really, the 'con job' of "Appetite" is that it destroyed hair metal and arena rock on one hand, but cleverly stabbed it in the back and stole from it on the way out.
Side note apropos of nothing. If I had a musical time machine, one of the things I would it for would be to go back to 1986 or so and see G'n'R play those same songs in a crappy dive bar, set against the backdrop of the plastic, teased-hair 80s in Los Angeles. That juxtaposition would have been awesome.
As to the hole in the album, I think anyone who knows me knows what I'm going to say - right after "Paradise City," it goes into "My Michelle" and "Think About You." Gag. For an album that broke the mold of rock as we knew it in the late 80s, they sure couldn't resist the temptation to chuck some ballads in there. Totally unnecessary. "Sweet Child" and "Paradise City" should have, by all rights, been the closest that album ever got to a ballad. Garj.
What about you?
Chris C: I didn't exactly forget about "Lies". The problem is has is one that is really a topic for another time, namely that it's an EP, and EPs are the granola bars of music. They exist, and they are music, but they're never what you want them to be. I realize I'm saying this despite putting an EP on my best albums list last year, but that was the ultra-rate exception. I digress, because there isn't enough room here to fully flesh out this subject. Needless to say, "Lies" was a perfect fulcrum to swing their career, letting us all know they were going to piss off everyone all the time.
Yes, I think you need to be at least in your teens before the music adults are making can truly define your own experiences. That's why I preclude "Nevermind", and "Dookie" along with it. I know that while I was aware of them at the time, I couldn't possibly say they defined our generation. I would like to agree with "Smash", which may not have aged well, but we both agree is a cultural landmark, but it was also from 1994. Damn, that was a good year. I also gave this topic quite a bit of thought, and the best answer I can come up with is "OK Computer", which bummed me the hell out. Come to think of it, given the experiences of our generation, being bummed the hell out by mediocre music that replaced people with computers is a pretty damn apt metaphor for us. I hate to say it, since the album is awful, but "OK Computer" might be the right answer.
I don't know if Axl loved "Appetite" at the time, but I'm pretty sure he would have preferred to be something else. If I remember correctly, "November Rain" and "Don't Cry" were already kicking around, and if they doesn't show Axl had a serious Elton John crush, I'm not sure what else would. I feel like it was exacerbated by the success they found. It wasn't satisfying to Axl to be popular, but be known as an angry and drug-fueled asshole. He wanted respect in addition to fame, and he wasn't going to get that playing the soundtrack to Skid Row (the place, not the band).
The reason Guns was never able to recreate "Appetite" was, to me, because of two things. One of them is the obvious reality that a lifetime of writing gives you a lot more to work with than the couple years you get afterwards. The other is that "Appetite" was a true collaboration where everyone took their best ideas and threw them together in whatever fashion made the best songs. After that, the process became more about the individuals, and none of them were as strong on their own as they were together. Just look at Slash; until he found Myles Kennedy, he spent fifteen years making completely forgettable records no one cared about. And he's SLASH.
You walked into the trap I intentionally set. I actually feel like "Think About You" is one of the more unfairly maligned songs on "Appetite". No one wanted to hear something a bit softer and more melodic, but looking back in hindsight, it does give a hint of where Axl was headed. My low point on the record is "You're Crazy". I just don't see the point or the need for it. Even "My Michelle", which I do like, has a far more obvious identity. "You're Crazy" is the very definition of filler. It pads the running time without a single idea the other songs don't already tackle. The best song, for me, is also what I have grudgingly admitted to myself is Guns' best song overall; "Rocket Queen". It's everything Guns ever was or would be, all wrapped up in one awesome song. It has a sleazy Slash riff, a catchy chorus, an pretentious tone shift, and the recorded sounds of Axl having sex with a band member's girlfriend. Is there anything more Guns N' Roses than that?
I feel like I need to ask a question here about "Chinese Democracy", but I really don't want to talk about it. It's that rare record that gets unfairly branded as terrible, despite the fact that it isn't a good album. I'm not sure if that makes sense. You can address the album if you would like to, but I'm going to sum up my feelings in two sentences. The songs that have Axl being pretentious Axl ("Better", "Street Of Dreams", "Catcher In The Rye", "There Was A Time") are awesome. The rest of the album is a hot mess. Hey, there's the need for an EP!
Anyway, let's wrap this up with a final question. We're now talked about "Appetite" and how it relates to the following thirty years of Guns' career, but let's talk about how it relates to us. All these years later, how well do you feel the album holds up, and do you think it will continue to resonate with you as we move past the ages in which the songs could apply to us? Will we be looking back as fondly at "Appetite" twenty years from now?
D.M: Dammit! What about Rob Zombie's "Hellbilly Deluxe?" I'm just trying to give us a shot at anything that's better than "OK Computer." Ugh. Now I have a bad taste in my mouth.
Let me make one quick aside - I totally get what you're saying about Axl and his songwriting and secret heart of hearts where he wanted to be something bigger than he was. So I think you may have a point about how genuine "Appetite" may or may not be. But let me add this - I don't want to excoriate Axl too hard for trying to stretch his musical wings. The heavier genres of music that I call home are languishing in a very serious lack of that very thing, not only in the talent to write outside the box, but in the will to do so. So I get it - Axl's an easy target when discussing the concept of musicians bullshitting all of us, and make no mistake, deservedly so. But in this case, it could be worse.
I only have one thing to say about "Chinese Democracy." Well, okay, two. First, with all the hype and waiting and cloud of nonsense that surrounded it, that album would have been a flop if it accomplished anything short of establishing a world utopia like the Wyld Stallyns' album was supposed to do in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." Second, somebody else pointed this out to me, and I can't recall who it was, so I beg forgiveness for not being able to credit him/her; "Chinese Democracy" listens like a synopsis of popular music during the time it was being made. There are cuts that sound like Metallica, cuts that sound like Kid Rock, cuts that sound like Korn - you can almost draw a chronology of popular rock just by listening to the record.
Before I get to my final thought, let me toss one thing at you quick to finish up. Why do we love Slash so much as a guitarist? He's great. Period. But he doesn't have a particular sound that's ingrained in his style, and even his style isn't as distinguishable as some of his contemporaries like Van Halen or Hammett or even Angus Young. And yet, if someone asked me point blank, with no time to react, 'is Slash a great guitarist?' I would say yes. And mean it! But why?
"Appetite for Destruction's" current status is a mixed question for me. Does it hold up from a musical standpoint? Sure does. The riffs still bite, the virile arrogance still means something, the songs are still well-constructed, fast-paced and enjoyable. But it's funny we're discussing this now, because I recently, for myself, ranked my top 100 albums for the first time in four years, only to find that "Appetite" had slipped out of it's previous lofty ranking. That doesn't necessarily lessen its impact or longevity, but it may well mean that the album will never mean to me what to did to musical adolescents upon its release. It speaks to a place and an era I never experienced, so there's always going to be some mental separation between me and it, especially since I aged out of my (admittedly minor) teenage rebellious phase, so even that sort of evergreen psychological relationship that people can have with the album is faded. Twenty years from now, I expect it will be much of the same - it will still be a great record, and while I'll be in my fifties then (*shudder*) the people in their sixties and seventies will still dig on it on different level than I do. That may be the fate of nearly every album 'of its time and generation' to be all cliche about it, but I suppose what I'm saying is that I don't think "Appetite" can avoid that. And there's no shame in that, it'll always be the most emblematic album of its time, so maybe it doesn't require a greater legacy than that.
CHRIS C: I will disagree with you regarding Slash. He absolutely has a particular sound. While he absolutely needs a writing partner to elevate his songs, he is one of the greatest soloists in rock history. I can always tell a Slash solo from the first few notes, because his sound is that unique. He is the epitome of fusing the modern rock style with the blues it evolved from. He is the missing link between Jimmy Page and Yngwie Malmsteen, or whatever combination of names you want to use. Yes, he is often overrated, but there aren't many who compare when it comes to being the ultimate lead guitarist.
So I think we come down in the same place when it comes to the legacy of "Appetite For Destruction". At this point, it's reached the status where it will always be legendary because it is legendary, and following generations will embrace it because they've already been told it deserves their acclaim. For us, it was not a seminal part of our youth, but we remember hearing about that experience from the slightly older people in our lives, so I think we're actually perfectly positioned to pass judgment. For me, I say that "Appetite For Destruction" is going to, for better or worse, go down in history as the defining example of what rock and roll in the 80s was. And really, you can't go too wrong with that.