Twenty years ago, Guns N’ Roses were hard rock’s hottest act. Then things…cooled. A look at the highs and lows of the group’s fascinatingly bumpy career.
Lafayette, Ind., native Axl Rose follows school pal Izzy Stradlin to L.A. Rose sings with various bands, including L.A. Guns. Tracii Guns, L.A. Guns’ guitarist: ”I’d never seen anyone in touch with his emotions like Axl. You could see it in his eyes. When he was sad or having a good time, he wore it on his sleeve.”
Rose, Stradlin, and Guns form Guns N’ Roses. That lineup doesn’t last long. Guns: ”I never saw the angry side of Axl for years, until a sound check. We were supposed to put this girl on the guest list and Axl thought we didn’t. He just lost his mind. Izzy let it go. I couldn’t. I was like, ‘We’re best friends. You can’t treat me like that!”’ Guns is replaced by Saul ”Slash” Hudson.
June 6, 1985
The classic GN’R — Rose, Slash, Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler — debut at L.A.’s Troubadour. Marc Canter, childhood friend of Slash, author of Reckless Road: Guns N’ Roses and the Making of Appetite for Destruction: ”It was lightning in a bottle. Every couple of gigs they wrote a new song. ‘Welcome to the Jungle,’ then ‘Rocket Queen,’ then ‘Paradise City.’ They were ready to just tear it up.”
July 21, 1987
Appetite for Destruction is released by Geffen. It hits No. 1 a year later and ultimately goes 18 times platinum. The band’s hard-living ways make them a controversy magnet. So does the album’s initial cover art, a painting by Robert Williams in which a woman has apparently just been raped by a robot. Williams: ”The band was unheard-of, so I gave them the punk-rock price. I won’t tell you how much; it’s so embarrassing I want to beat my head against the wall. I never got any more. These guys are too busy living that rock & roll life with porn stars and the big houses.” The cover art is later changed.
Sept. 17, 1991
GN’R release Use Your Illusion I and 2, recorded with keyboardist Dizzy Reed and Matt Sorum, who replaces drummer Adler. ”November Rain” is a huge hit. Both albums are later certified seven-times platinum. Stradlin quits amid increasingly fractious band relations. Dave Navarro, Jane’s Addiction guitarist: ”When Izzy left, I got a call from Axl asking if I’d be interested in joining the band. But back in those days, I was simply too intoxicated to show up to anything.” Stradlin is replaced by Gilbey Clarke.
Nov. 23, 1993
GN’R release the commercially disappointing The Spaghetti Incident? Michael Monroe, Hanoi Rocks frontman, who sang with Rose on a version of the Dead Boys’ ”Ain’t It Fun”: ”People say a lot of things about Axl being difficult, but with me he was always alright. When we went out to dinner, he was always on time!”
The band starts on a new album. In his 2007 autobiography, Slash recalls that ”Axl had…rows of Pro Tools servers. Which was a clear indication that Axl and I had very different ideas of how to do this record.” Rose fires Gilbey Clarke.
Publicist Bryn Bridenthal tells the New York Daily News that ”it’s possible to have a Guns record this year. But it’s also unlikely.” Bridenthal: ”In the early years we actually thought we were going to get an album. The guys weren’t communicating, but I figured it would resolve itself.”
Nov. 1, 1996
Geffen announces that Slash has left ”by mutual agreement.” Over the next 18 months, Sorum and McKagan follow him out the door. Axl recruits Nine Inch Nails guitarist Robin Finck, who will play with GN’R on and off for the next dozen years. Rose taps Moby to produce. Their collaboration is brief, and Moby later likens Rose’s mindset to that of ”a beaten dog.”
Rose’s spokeswoman tells The New York Times that he wants to record an electronica-influenced set and is learning to make drum loops.
Geffen is absorbed by the Universal Music-owned Interscope. Bridenthal: ”One of the reasons Geffen folded was that there was no Guns record. I kept hearing that the Universal people were saying ‘Oh, we’ll show everybody how to get a record out of them.’ They couldn’t get it either.”
Nov. 9, 1999
GN’R release a new track, ”Oh My God,” and announce an album, Chinese Democracy, due in 2000. Navarro: ”Axl asked if I would work on ‘Oh My God.’ I went to the studio and laid down a couple of parts. All of a sudden I hear this voice: ‘That sounds pretty good.’ I realize it’s Axl listening on the speakerphone. [Laughs] Which was awesome. Whatever untouchable mystique he had just multiplied by a thousand.”
Chinese Democracy is scheduled for 2001. On New Year’s Eve GN’R play their first show in years, at the Las Vegas House of Blues. ”I’ve been taking a nap for about eight years,” Rose informs the audience.
Former Geffen A&R man Tom Zutaut, who signed GN’R, spends nine months trying to get Rose to complete the album, now being overseen by Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker. ”We got close,” Zutaut later tells a journalist.
Aug. 29, 2002
GN’R perform at the VMAs with new guitarist Buckethead, where they play the ballad ”Madagascar.” MTV Networks president Van Toffler: ”They were great, but I was in the production truck at 11, and they were going on about 11:15, and no one had seen Axl. Not a good thing. He walks in five minutes before they were going on.”
Guitarist Ron ”Bumblefoot” Thal replaces Buckethead, and the band hits the road. ”As far as interaction [with Rose] on tour: tons. We had a lot of fun. It’s the best f—ing roller coaster you can ever be on.”
March 24, 2008
The Asian kingdom of Bhutan holds its first-ever elections. Other countries that have moved toward democracy since the release of the Use Your Illusion albums: Mongolia, Albania, Iraq, and Afghanistan. But not China.
Sept. 14, 2008
Rock Band 2 is released with a new GN’R track, ”Shackler’s Revenge.”
It is reported that Best Buy will exclusively sell Chinese Democracy starting Nov. 23. Bumblefoot: ”People are going to want to hate it just to punish everyone for taking so damn long. But it’s gonna be good.”
Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin, Whitney Pastorek, and Simon Vozick-Levinson