Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Rock band formed in 1985 in Los Angeles. Snake-hipped juvenile-turned-adult delinquent vocalist W. Axl Rose (b William Rose, 6 February 1962, Lafayette IN, but raised as Bill Bailey) and lead guitarist Slash (b Saul Hudson, 23 July 1965, Stoke, England) made a dynamic double act. Slash's black American mother designed clothes for David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth, his white English graphic artist dad was responsible for the sleeve of Joni Mitchell's Court and Spark; he did not let this arty background stop him being every bit as much of a rock beast as rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin (b Jeff Isabelle, 8 April 1961, Lafayette), bassist Duff (b Michael McKagan, 5 February 1965, Seattle WA) and drummer Steven Adler (b 22 January 1965, Cleveland OH). A disregard for conventional notions of taste and decency was plain from the outset (one early name suggestion for the band had been AIDS). Their first single 'Live ?1*! Like A Suicide' soon sold out 10,000 copies when independently released on Uzi Suicide label '86 and was then picked up by Geffen. The debut album Appetite For Destruction with an infamous Robert Wilson 'robot-rape' sleeve rose gradually to no. 1 thanks to an endless debauched touring circus. The swift follow-up G'N'R Lies caused more controversy with the anti-gay anti-black lyrics of 'One In A Million', but singles 'Sweet Child O' Mine' (no. 1 '88) and 'Paradise City' (US/UK top five '89) were the best melodic hard rock since the aesthetic heyday in the '70s of their inspirations/mentors Aerosmith, though this definition still allows Rose's singing to sound like someone undergoing surgery without an anaesthetic.

In fact they had no history of their own, and no taste; they were recycling generations of white bad taste, staying at the top with constant stadium touring punctuated by scandals and riots. Ex-Cult Matt Sorum replaced Adler in 1990; Stradlin went solo in 1991, replaced by Gilbey Clarke; Dizzy Reed added extra keyboards. The Use Your Illusion 1 and 2 double album sets should have been commercial suicide but weren't (no. 2 and 1 respectively UK/USA '91). The public warmed to 'Get In The Ring', wherein Axl challenged the editor of the American rock magazine Spin to a fistfight. The long-awaited bad-boy covers album The Spaghetti Incident (including Charles Manson's 'What's Your Game?', UK/US top five '93) failed in its bold attempt to snatch back 'the most dangerous band in world' mantle from grunge usurpers Nirvana, but it was good of them to make the effort. After many fallings out Axl and Slash finally parted company in early '97.

Stradlin had left because he'd made his pile of money and wearied of the excess; he formed quartet Izzy Stradlin and the Ju Ju Hounds, whose eponymous album '92 almost made the top 100 USA; he played to smaller crowds and enjoyed it more. The Hounds' guitarist Rick Richards had been a member of quartet the Georgia Satellites, formed in Atlanta '80, whose eponymous '86 album had reached no. 5. Slash had formed a quintet Slash's Snakepit with Sorum and Clarke whose album It's Five O'Clock Somewhere charted '95. Meanwhile Axl kept the name Guns N' Roses and was under contract to Geffen/ Interscope for another album. Engineers, managers, producers and musicians have included Tom Zutaut (who signed the original lineup to Geffen), Roy Thomas Baker (who'd worked wirh Queen), Billy Howerdel, drummers Josh Freese and Brian 'Brain' Mantia, guitarist Buckethead and others. Early on New Year's Day 2001 at the House of Blues in Las Vegas some new tunes were unveiled and Axl subsequently hit the road to a rock festival in Brazil; at the MTV awards show in 2002 he played a few tunes, but the subsequent tour ended when his feelings were hurt at not being admitted to a Manhattan nightclub because he was wearing fur (we are not making this up). Meanwhile Howerdel and Freese formed A Perfect Circle and made the album Mer de Noms, which sold nearly 2m copies, and in March 2004 despite a legal threat from Axl the label released a greatest hits package which did surprisingly well. But after eleven years and $13m the Guns 'N Roses album Chinese Democracy had still not appeared a year later. As Jeff Leeds wrote in the New York Times (6 March 2005), 'the more record companies rely on proven stars like Mr. Rose, the less [the music industry] can control them.'

The Dr Pepper company had said that if the album ever came out they would give a soft drink to every customer in America, and finally had to scramble to keep their word. Chinese Democracy was released in December 2008, lavishly over-produced and clearly the end of an era rather than any other sort of landmark. It could not be marketed in China, one of the band's biggest markets, on account of its title. In the USA it entered the Billboard chart at no. 3, sales plunging 78% in the second week, according to the Wall Street Journal. It was sold exclusively through Best Buy in the USA, who bought 1.3 million copies of it from Interscope/Universal/Vivendi, promising not to return any of them. In the first two weeks it sold only 318,000 copies; Rose did not finish a video in time to help promote it, and even refused to do interviews.

Meanwhile, Wal-Mart were cleaning up with the new album by AC/DC; see their entry.