Guns N’ Roses shot to stardom with Appetite for Destruction, the biggest-selling debut in rock history. The album combined Seventies-derived hard rock and a hedonistic rebelliousness that simultaneously recalled the early Rolling Stones, Janis Joplin, Aerosmith, and the Sex Pistols; it also showed off the band’s virtuoso technique and destroy-passersby attitude, as well as rock’s funkiest rhythm section since before disco scared drummers and bassists straight. G N’ R leavened their outrage with songs that bespoke the inchoate emotions of hard rock’s primarily young, white audience.
Raised in a working-class Indiana family, high school dropout Axl Rose had, by age 20, compiled a police record that included charges for public intoxication, criminal trespass, and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. An ELO and Queen fan, the singer became friends with guitarist Izzy Stradlin, and the two joined forces in L.A. in the early Eighties to form a band.
Crafting their name from those of two groups they’d played in, Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, they formed Guns N’ Roses with English-born biracial guitarist Slash, whose parents, both in the music industry, had moved to L.A. when he was 11. With bassist Duff McKagan, whose own past included stealing a purported 133 automobiles, and drummer Steve Adler, the Gunners immediately accrued notoriety for their debauchery — alluding to the band’s heroin and alcohol abuse, their posters featured the legend “Addicted: Only the Strong Survive.”
Releasing an EP under the faux-indie imprint Uzi Suicide, Guns N’ Roses signed with Geffen in 1986, and, with producer Mike Clink (Heart, Eddie Money), recorded Appetite for Destruction. Opening for Aerosmith, the band built a live following; and in September 1988, with wide MTV exposure given “Sweet Child o’ Mine” (Number One, 1988) and “Welcome to the Jungle” (Number One, 1988), the album reached Number One; it stayed there for five weeks and on the charts for nearly three years.
Next came GN’R Lies, a Top Five album that combined tracks from the EP with new songs, notably “Used to Love Her,” with its chorus of “but I had to kill her,” and “One in a Million,” its lyrics disparaging “faggots,” “immigrants,” and “niggers.” Controversy ensued and would not let up. In 1988 two fans died in crowd disturbances at England’s Monsters of Rock Festival, and, Slash shocked television viewers with an obscenity-laden speech at the 1990 American Music Awards. Opening select dates for the Rolling Stones’ 1989 tour garnered G N’ R an even larger audience, but reports surfaced of heroin use by Rose, Stradlin, and Adler, the latter of whom was fired for not straightening out.
In 1990, the band performed at Farm Aid IV and contributed a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to the Days of Thunder soundtrack and an original, “Civil War,” to Nobody’s Child, a project to benefit Romanian orphans; Slash and McKagan played on Iggy Pop’s Brick by Brick and Slash recorded with Dylan, Michael Jackson, Lenny Kravitz, and on a tribute album for Les Paul. But with Matt Sorum, formerly of the Cult, brought in on drums and with new keyboardist Dizzy Reed, 1990 was a year of regrouping.
The following year brought even greater success but no less turmoil. G N’ R embarked on its first headlining world tour and released “You Could Be Mine” (Number 29, 1991) from the Terminator 2 soundtrack. But Rose’s marriage to Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, ended after three weeks amidst allegations of physical abuse, and Rose, after allegedly attacking a camera-wielding fan at a St. Louis concert, was charged with four misdemeanor counts of assault and one of property damage. Rose pleaded not guilty and remained unrepentant about an ensuing riot that left 60 people hospitalized, the band’s equipment destroyed or stolen, and the hall sustaining over $200,000 in damages.
With Rose undergoing psychotherapy (during which he talked about being sexually abused at age two by his father), 1991 saw the simultaneous release of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, both shipping platinum. Due to tension with Rose, Stradlin then left and formed the JuJu Hounds with bassist Jimmy Ashhurst, drummer Charlie “Chalo” Quintana, and ex-Georgia Satellites guitarist Rick Richards (Stradlin’s replacement was Gilby Clarke of Candy and Kills for Thrills). The band then set off on a 28-month tour. Among 1992’s highlights were an MTV Vanguard Award for the group’s body of work and an appearance in April at the Freddie Mercury Tribute, an AIDS benefit that via satellite drew the largest concert audience in history. In 1993 G N’ R released The Spaghetti Incident? , an album of covers that paid homage to the band’s punk roots. Among the tracks was one penned by Charles Manson, for which the band was heavily criticized. By 1994, rumors were proliferating that the band had broken up. Clarke released a solo album, Pawn Shop Guitars, and at the year’s end Slash recorded a solo album with Snakepit, featuring Sorum and Clarke, Mike Inez of Alice in Chains, and Jellyfish guitarist Eric Dover on lead vocals.
None of these solo projects attracted G N’ R-size audiences, and G N’ R itself was falling apart. Slash was convinced to sign over rights to the Guns N’ Roses name to Rose, later to the guitarist’s regret. Clarke was fired. And Slash quit over creative differences with Rose, who insisted on introducing industrial and electronic elements into the G N’ R sound. As the years dragged on, McKagan and Sorum eventually left.
Rose seemed to go into seclusion, but was reportedly writing and recording, and at various points tried to recruit Moby and Youth as postmodern producers. Both declined, and Rose recorded with producer Roy Thomas Baker and a revolving cast of musicians. Finally, in 1999, a new, industrial-flavored song called “Oh My God” appeared on the End of Days film soundtrack.
Then in late 2000, Rose’s management promised a 2001 release for the long-delayed Chinese Democracy. That was followed by a New Year’s Eve concert in Las Vegas where a handful of new songs and a new lineup of Guns N’ Roses was first introduced: guitarists Buckethead, Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails), and Paul Tobias; bassist Tommy Stinson (Replacements); keyboardist Chris Pittman; and drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia. The only holdover from the past was keyboardist Dizzy Reed, who first appeared on GN’R Lies. After another appearance at the Rock in Rio festival in Brazil, the new G N’ R continued touring.
By 2006, when the band did four shows at New York City’s Hammerstein Ballroom plus a couple dates in Rio and Lisbon, G N’ R’s lineup had morphed even more. Rose, Reed, Finck, Stinston, and Pittman remained, but were now joined by rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus and drummer Frank Ferrer (both from the Psychedelic Furs/Love Spit Love axis) and guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal. In June of that year, in Stockholm, Sweden, Rose pled guilty to charges of attacking a hotel security guard by biting him in the leg.
In December, addressing his fans, he predicted that Chinese Democracy would finally hit the stores in March of 2007. But the album didn’t see the light of day until late 2008, when it released as an exclusive at Best Buy. It reached Number Three on the Billboard 200, but the title track never climbed higher than Number 34 on the singles chart. An underwhelming showing, to be sure — and anti-climactic, after such a tumultuous wait.