Warning: This post contains graphic imagery and language.
The hard rock bands of the 1980s dealt in shock like it was just another day at the Coliseum, and Guns N’ Roses, thanks to their particular brand of profane lyricism mixed with the screechy panache of frontman Axl Rose, hit music stores with a bang.
The original cover art for the band’s iconic 1987 debut, the (still) bestselling debut album of all time Appetite for Destruction, had shock written all over it: The image, from a painting by self-described “underground outlaw artist” Robert Williams, depicts the aftermath of graphic sexual assault perpetrated by a robot, and an otherworldly, ferocious metal-monster about to devour the mechanical attacker.
On the occasion of the rock album’s 30th anniversary last Friday, EW spoke with Williams, 74, who shed light on some of the lesser-known facts about this controversial, totally over-the-top image, his dealings with Rose, and the early conception of this now timeless record. Read on for highlights.
The title of this 1978 painting, “Appetite for Destruction,” is the source for the title of the album.
Williams, who gained traction while working with the likes of Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and R. Crumb and participating in the art scene of after-hours punk rock clubs in late ‘60s Hollywood, says the painting in question was not done for commission but rather a specific audience. “This was for a select intelligent group that loved this kind of s—,” says Williams. “I made it for the advanced art connoisseurs that came out of the underground in the ’60s and ’70s.”
Painted in 1978, the piece was titled “Appetite for Destruction” well before Rose and his band discovered it. After he agreed to license the image to a then-obscure Guns N’ Roses, Williams later received a call asking if the band could use the name of the painting as the title of their album. He agreed, unaware of just how huge the record would become. “They paid [licensing fees] as an unheard of punk rock band would’ve paid,” Williams remembers. “Not a whole lot at all. They were just, to me, another garage band.”
Rose initially saw the image on a postcard somewhere in Los Angeles.
As with so many perfect unions, this collaboration started off as the happiest of accidents. “[The painting] ended up on a postcard somewhere, and Axl Rose walks down Melrose or somewhere and stumbles across that f—ing postcard, and this thing blows his mind,” Williams remembers. “So he sets out to get in touch with me, and it took him a long time. No one had heard of the band before. It had no previous history.”
As explained in the video below, Rose initially submitted the image as a joke for a cover proposal, knowing full well how graphic it was. But the image seemed to capture something close to the band’s anti-institutional image, and it ended up as the major contender.
Williams tried to convince the band not to use the image.
Due to his experience creating what he terms “questionable” material, Williams was already familiar with trying to defend shocking or sensational artwork. While helping to create the counterculture Zap Comix with Robert Crumb in the ‘60s, he saw several people sent to jail, and knew that this image could be problematic if it ended up on a mainstream album. “This was not for the general public. This was never to go in people’s homes,” Williams says. “There is no sophistication in this f—ing picture. It’s an overdone cartoon for people who like underground comics and understand underground art. But that’s a very small audience.”
Still, Rose and co. were not to be deterred. “His agent called up and said, ‘We would be very interested in this picture.’ And I said, ‘Well, y’know, this is not a good idea. This is too violent. You’re gonna get in an awful lot of trouble,’” Williams remembers. “I said, ‘Why don’t you come by my house and we’ll go through a couple hundred slides and we’ll pick you something that might be a little more palatable?'”
Williams initially thought Rose was female.
“So a car pulls up in front of my house, and this guy gets out, and this other guy gets out I thought was a girl,” Williams recalls. “But it was actually Axl Rose. After I got to see he was a guy, he was a nice young fella. I always liked him. He’s very polite, shy, mild-mannered.”
Eventually, Rose won over Williams, and the artist remembers thinking, “If you have the guts to put this on a f—ing album cover, man, I’m behind you.”
Many retailers across the country refused to sell the album because of the artwork.
“The s— hit the fan. It was an enormous sensation and there was a lot of problems with it. And I’m just sitting here saying, ‘Well, I told you so!’” Williams says of the backlash over the artwork.
In response, Geffen Records prepared a tamer cover option, with Williams’ painting relegated to the centerfold of the liner notes. The alternative cover featured a tattoo-style illustration of a cross with five skulls, each representing one of the bandmates.
According to Williams, the image “has vengeance and justice in it.”
Williams reasoned that there was a story behind the action of the painting, which explained its violent imagery. “We’ve got a girl on the ground that sells toy robots that has been assaulted by another robot,” he says, “and coming up over the fence is an avenging monster to get him. So this picture has vengeance and justice in it.”
Thinking back on the painting 30 years after it caused such a stir, the artist is still happy with the result.
“I’m proud of this. This isn’t the raciest thing I ever did by any means. This is kind of tame,” Williams says. “I do artwork that you’d be nervous if you had it on the wall and your pastor came over.”