How Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Appetite for Destruction’ Hijacked the Music Industry
Maple trees line the roads of Hillsborough, New Hampshire. Shaped into the curved body of a guitar, the old growth can produce a warm tone that’s absent from the ‘80s metal canon.
It does, however, sink deep into the tracks of Guns N’ Roses‘ groundbreaking 1987 debut Appetite for Destruction, where Slash’s ’59 Gibson Les Paul replica bakes a thick layer over Izzy Stradlin’s sticky syncopation. The result is a throwback sound, like early Aerosmith being reborn in the age of modish Van Halen.
For Slash, his tone was the result of American engineering, coupled with his singular desire to blend the blues with heavy metal – rather than shattering the speedometer on his Les Paul. On most of Appetite’s 12 tracks, Slash’s tone feels unlike anything from the period, which defied the sameness of the era it was forged in.
Three decades later, this genre-defining album has sold 30 million units sold worldwide, putting Appetite for Destruction at No. 11 all time. Yet, as legend has it, the project was nearly buried by the risk-averse programmers at MTV, banned by terrestrial radio, and ignored by the Manhattan-dwelling rock critics who held their noses at the scent of Aqua Net hairspray wafting over from the West. Some of the stories behind Appetite’s ascension into the stratosphere are the stuff of legend; other parts are verifiable history that have either been revised, or forgotten by the dead brain cells of those who lived in that cultural milieu.
First, some facts: Appetite for Destruction was never a flop. By October 1987, the album had sold a respectable 150,000 copies, just three months after being released. By all accounts, this was a successful debut. Appetite had taken over the charts by the end of 1988, having then sold 6 million units. It proceeded to pummel the competition during two decades of rumors and high drama, peaking on Sept. 23, 2008, when it reached 18 million in certified units according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
That makes Appetite for Destruction the best-selling debut ever, regardless of genre. The album’s metastasization into pop-culture consciousness, from the point of containment in 1987 to all-out epidemic in 1988, began in the early ‘80s when a farmer in the sticks of Hillsborough handed a flashlight to a 30-year-old guitar maker with bushy eyebrows.
The luthier was an Allman Brothers Band fan who resided in an old trailer in Redondo Beach, behind a guitar shop that employed him. His name was Kris Derrig and, with graying long hair, he began to rummage through a pile of curly maple gathered inside the farmer’s barn. The wood, as described by journalist Matthew Wake, was “old growth, New England fence line” that Derrig would use to build his handmade beauties: Replica 1959 Gibson Les Pauls, hand-painted to a faded sunburst finish.
Jim Foote, the owner of Music Works and Derrig’s boss, suggested he switch the original pickups with the “zebra-style” Seymour Duncan Alnico II Pro version which produced a crunchier tone that was “simultaneously classic and contemporary.” Here’s Stradlin in U.K.’s Sounds magazine, dated April 4, 1987, where he pitches his rock and roll worldview: “Motley Crue was more teen metal. We wanted to go for a more roots-oriented sound than most other bands around here.”
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In 1986, while in the studio recording his parts for Appetite, Slash had grown frustrated with the tone of his Gibson SG. He would record with a B.C. Rich Warlock, Firebird, and two Jackson guitars; each missed the mark. Manager Alan Niven — a witty New Zealander who had fashioned GNR as the new Rolling Stones — would purchase a custom guitar for “curly,” one that cost him $2,500 in ’86. It was a 1959 Les Paul replica, a Derrig guitar made with Hillsborough wood. This would become Slash’s main stick.
“Kris had the brilliant idea that he could make a better ’59 than Gibson,” Niven said. “His logic was that in 1959 these guitars were made on the conveyor-belt system. He thought that the craft of a single luthier applied to a single guitar could exceed that system. He found parts of the period, and built 13 of them before he died.” The Derrig guitar was used to record the overdubs on Appetite, which helped Slash add both heavy-metal attack (like Kirk Hammett’s work on Master of Puppets) and backwoods soul (like an Allman Brothers LP) — industrial yet rural. It’s a tone that Slash could never replicate, the rock and roll equivalent of what jazzman Mezz Mezzrow described as Bix Beiderbecke’s imitable “pickled-in-alcohol” tone.
Slash’s tone was a symptom of the band’s desire to produce an unpolished pistol of a recording. The retro approach worked in their favor, as rock and roll was being reconfigured in 1986. MTV had reduced their rock playlist between 1984 and 1986, during the rise of “classic rock” radio when American hard-rock – except for a returning Aerosmith – was practically comatose. A “classic and contemporary” rock band would fill a gap that had widened in the mid ‘80s. It happened just as contemporary heavy metal was saturating the market to the point of annoyance. Through Guns N’ Roses would initially be classified as metal, they refused the label – a genuine, but also savvy business move.
“The label I think deserves to get stuck on us is ‘hard rock,'” Rose told reporter J.D. Callahan of BAM on Nov. 6, 1987, when Appetite was No. 64 on the Billboard 200. In marketing, they refer to this as a “point of difference.” It became Appetite’s underlying theme: This is roots-oriented hard rock, not heavy metal.
The West Coast media was sympathetic to Guns N’ Roses’ “roots-oriented” DNA. In June 1986, LA Weekly described GNR as “Led Zeppelin II,” while the New York critics mostly saw them as yet another hair-metal band entering an already-crowded arena. The critics, too consumed by the perception of L.A. as a factory for boy bands, simply didn’t buy it. They ranked Appetite at No. 26 out of 40 albums in the 1988 Pazz & Jop critics poll, an afterthought the same year GNR was arguably changing the flavor of rock and roll.
In June 1987, Billboard‘s No. 1 album was U2’s The Joshua Tree. The other five places were taken by metal bands that drew on the same audience as GNR: Whitesnake, Bon Jovi, Poison, Motley Crue, and Ozzy Osbourne. In other words: Had GNR tried to follow the blueprint of the other metal hitmakers — fashioning themselves as heartthrobs with anthemic, fist-pumping shlock — they would have been a footnote in history.
Guns N’ Roses would hire a recording engineer who had never produced a major album before. Whether this was a strategic move or one of pure street desperation depends on who you ask. The even-keeled Mike Clink (a trainee of Ron Nevison, engineer behind The Who’s Quadrophenia) came recommended as an engineer at the reputable Record Plant. While other producers were auditioned, and a few helped cut polished demos, heavy metal hit-makers like Mutt Lange, according to former Geffen A&R executive Tom Zutaut, were never considered.
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Zutaut said Clink was both a great engineer and egoless hand they could rely on to manage, rather than maestro, the process. “The band basically co-produced the album themselves,” said Zutaut, a 26-year-old baby mogul when he signed GNR in 1986 with a five-figure advance he squeezed from David Geffen in the span of 72 hours. (The figure, again depending on who you ask, was between $50,000 to $75,000.)
“Zoots (Tom Zutaut) and I wanted Mike to record the band because he would let them be who they were – and not, for example, try to sound like a radio-friendly band,” said Niven, who advised GNR between 1986 and 1991. “Bad Company ruled the airwaves at that time. Guns were more raw than that.”
Not that Clink was an insignificant studio tech. Early demos of the tracks that would appear on Appetite for Destruction – including live recordings – were, well, rough. Clink was a difference maker in the studio, no matter how you slice it. Without him, Appetite could have either sounded overproduced or worse, underproduced and forgettable. “We wanted to capture lightening in a bottle, a raw animal magnetism, like a Doors record,” Zutaut said.
This would establish the attitude of the record and allow the band to record freely, stream of consciousness. In order to get there, Zutaut pressured Geffen to give him his own purchase-order book directly from Mo Oston, the CEO at Warner Bros., which distributed Geffen albums. “It broke all the rules.” he said. “But I didn’t know until 7PM if they wanted to go into the studio, and then, whenever creativity flowed, they’d call me to book studio time – sometimes at 4AM.”
Zutaut’s backdoor dealmaking with Geffen and Warner allowed Guns N’ Roses to document their sound in the wild, which incorporated an element of cinéma vérité on Appetite: Real orgasms were recorded during a sexual encounter between Axl and a stripper, for instance, then added to the bridge of the album-closing “Rocket Queen.”
“It was the last record that I know of in rock that was mixed manually without automation,” Zutaut said. “We used an old, warm analog console at Media Sound, in New York.” Vintage, but ultimately modern, Appetite was a classic rock record cut during the heyday of polished Top 40 metal like Def Leppard’s Hysteria, or New Jersey’s Bon Jovi, who had the No. 1 record in 1987 with Slippery When Wet. Guns N’ Roses were trying to tag graffiti all over the rock establishment with an embrace of simple, all-American brutality – like John Rambo parachuting into the jungles of Vietnam.
Their “animal magnetism” embodied the spirit of early rock and roll, aptly described in the Music Journal in 1958 as a “throwback to jungle rhythms” that incited “youth to orgies and violence.” This could have been the tagline for Appetite for Destruction, as GNR ruthlessly chipped away at the shine of ‘80s metal with sinister riffs, R-rated lyrics, and a risqué attitude that moved dark clouds over the fairytale of Tommy and Gina in “Livin’ on a Prayer.”
Appetite was what Axl described in LA Weekly as “depressing,” which turned the American dream into a livin’ nightmare in 1987. It’s what Slash described in a November 1987 issue of BAM as “very realistic” – something in stark contrast with how Nikki Sixx positioned Motley Crue in Rock Beat a month later: “Our reality is a lot of people’s fantasy.”
‘LIKE A SUMMER BLOCKBUSTER’
The authenticity of Appetite or Destruction was chiseled with sharp objects and callused fingers. It was mastered on a manual mixing board and cut with razor blades on two-inch tape that captured everything from the unedited orgasms on “Rocket Queen,” to the precision bumble-bee bass on “It’s So Easy.” Survey rock magazines from 1986 and 1987 (where lipstick and teased hair was still a national habit), then study a few from 1988 – when the same bands look more like bikers, or more masculine versions of their previously feminine selves. Appetite’s success in 1987 wiped the makeup off the faces of ’80s metal bands by embracing the outlaw spirit of the Old West, or ‘50s greaser, rather than the vagina-obsessed teenagers in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
This made Gun N’ Roses a dangerous new drug being sold in Reagan’s anal-retentive America, when conservative John Malone ran Tele-Communications, Inc., a top cable provider in the United States which carried MTV. Appetite caught on fire because it cast a light on the dark corners of Reagan’s faux utopia: AIDS was no longer the “gay cancer,” anyone was at risk, the crack epidemic was beginning to leak into the nightly news, and crimes rates were going up. Clearly, by 1987, Americans were living on the edge. The rogue spirit of American bravado, with the nuclear clock ticking daily, was riding high in both Hollywood and politics.
Appetite fed on the world around it. On July 7, 1987, the the Wall Street Journal front page read: “Which Col. North Will Tell His Story to Nation: The Villain Who Deceived or Hero Who Obeyed?” The answer for young Americans was evident in 1986’s Iron Eagle, where the hero is depicted as rebellious teenager who disobeys the U.S. government. In 1982’s First Blood, Rambo symbolized an unabashed criticism of law and order that bleeds all over Appetite’s fourth track, “Out Ta Get Me.” The image of GNR as lawbreaking punks was captured in 1988’s The Dead Pool, a Dirty Harry film the band makes a cameo in; it remains famous for a scene where Jim Carrey, playing a junkie, lip-syncs “Welcome to the Jungle.” By that point, in the summer of 1988, Appetite for Destruction was penetrating the cultural consciousness like a summer blockbuster.
In an Los Angeles Times review of Guns N’ Roses’ opening performance for the Rolling Stones a the Coliseum in 1989, the reviewer writes, “Rose exhibits a fierce independence that sometimes leads to errors in judgment as he races in a somewhat romantic pursuit of artistic truth.” The description captures the decade’s spirit of Huck Finn adventurism. Just as GNR was breaking, Americans were suddenly feeling more outlaw-ish. While Motley Crue allowed teens to live vicariously through their decadent lifestyle, Axl became the extension of their adolescent rage.
This is typified in 1988’s Young Guns, where Billy the Kid mirrors the duality of Axl as both sex addicted outlaw and naive redneck. In Hollywood, Americans had a reputation for being gritty working-class heroes who smoked their cigarettes with style, like guitarist Izzy Stradlin with his newsboy cap in front of the Rainbow Bar & Grill. In early portraits taken by band photographer Robert John, Guns N’ Roses look like the bikers aping the sex-on-fire appeal of Marlon Brando and James Dean. Appetite was the album for Americans who wanted rebel heroes, not just party animals. It would threaten the rock and roll establishment of gym rats from the East Coast and British showman with an unabashed American grittiness, something that resonated during the decline of flamboyant hair metal.
In the liner notes of Appetite, GNR cheekily thanked the “teachers, preachers, cops, and elders who never believed,” a gangsta move which happened a year before N.W.A. released Straight Outta Compton. The latter may have been a more socially important record, perhaps, but it was Appetite that first highlighted the commercial viability of selling reality through the lens of a “gang,” as drummer Steven Adler often described them.
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In terms of the hometown press, Appetite for Destruction’s hyper-localism made it everlastingly appealing to writers at the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly. They’d spend 30 years promoting GNR as the last great L.A. rock band. But Appetite resonated with everyone from the horny Midwesterner to the blonde bombshell at the Sherman Oaks Galleria and the British working class. When GNR didn’t appear in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years, they told the world that they were the dangerous alternative to smily hair metal bands that entertained, rather than frightened the status quo. The fear made them a hard pill to swallow in the states. So they invaded England, like the Go-Go’s in 1980 and the Ramones in 1976.
“It’s So Easy,” released as a single in the U.K. in June of 1987, was banned by the BBC for darkly ironic lyrics that were too racy during the Thatcher era. Guns N’ Roses’ cultivated bad-boy rep in the British tabloids drew the ire of the censors. This was the whole idea. “My strategy with GNR was the break them in England, like [Tom] Petty, [Jimi] Hendrix, and JJ Cale before,” said Niven, who helped push rumors of Axl being abusive to puppies in the U.K. tabloids. As a preemptive strike in the heart of Britain, GNR would play the legendary Marquee in June 1986 – well ahead of peers in the Los Angeles music scene who weren’t as ambitious or shamelessly American enough to piss all over Fleet Street.
“It was easier to penetrate a small island market then a huge American continent,” Niven said. “And the English press, I knew would connect faster than Americans.” A ban on “It’s So Easy” in the U.K. is verified by Niven, who worked at Virgin Records when Malcolm McLaren was orchestrating the propagandistic rise of the Sex Pistols. (Their single “God Save the Queen” was similarly banned in 1976.) It’s no wonder that Izzy and Axl were stylistically inspired by the sexual fetishism and biker fashion of McLaren and Vivienne Westwood; this move transformed Axl, specifically, from a blue jeans-wearing juvenile from the Midwest into a leather clad, quasi-nude cowboy.
GNR’s aesthetic in the early concert photos by Canter’s Deli owner Marc Canter would sell the idea that this was a pornographic punk band. His photos, along with shots by band photographer Robert John, made a fashion statement that bassist Duff McKagan lived by wearing sleeveless Misfits and CBGBs T-shirts. That reminded fans that Guns N’ Roses were different: They were punk. “(‘It’s So Easy’) would obviously be totally misread and create a ruckus,” Niven added.
Manipulating the music media was part of the equation. Like the Pistols marching towards the Queen’s palace, “It’s So Easy” included lyrics that were taken far too literally. The U.K. press they garnered worked in the band’s favor, as Guns N’ Roses began to conquer England as uncouth scoundrels, rather than clean-cut yuppies – ala Michael J. Fox chomping sushi on the cover of Esquire in 1988, or Jon Bon Jovi in an issue of Tiger Beat magazine from October of 1987. Appetite was trying to erase the appeal of yuppiedom from L.A. to the north of England.
Their antics in the U.K. built awareness back in the states, which was the point, but it still didn’t ignite sales. MTV and terrestrial radio, as late as October 5, 1987, were pushing back against the label’s request to put “Welcome to the Jungle” into heavy rotation.
“In the states, they’re too much of pussies to play the f—ing thing. I think that’s why we came over here instead,” Rose told a crowd of 3,000 working-class Brits at a gig at Rock City in Nottingham, just five days before Whitesnake’s power ballad “Here I Go Again” would become No. 1. Less than a year later, two fans were crushed to death during GNR’s set at the Monsters of Rock festival at Donington Park, and that actually boosted sales of Appetite for Destruction in the U.K.
Invading England and leaving a stain on the island was terrorism by proxy of rock and roll. It was Guns N’ Roses sending a political message back home: We’re coming for you. “It’s So Easy” was never released as a single in the U.S., where the terror was more symbolic.
‘ECHOING THE ANXIETY OF THE AGE’
The original cover art of Appetite was never “banned,” as much as it was used to garner headlines and sell the idea that GNR had gone rogue. This was, of course, a delicious exaggeration. The initial cover includes a malfunctioning robot in a trench coat standing over a defiled woman. Her panties are pulled down below her knees, and she’s topless as if she’s been raped by the crab-like hands of the robot. It was a low-brow painting by artist Robert Williams from 1978 titled “Appetite for Destruction,” which Axl discovered at either a gift shop on Melrose or at Tower Records on Sunset, and then presented to the label as a joke. Zutaut and Niven quickly realized there was a unintended genius behind Rose’s attempt at being an amateur art collector.
With the threat of 25,000 nuclear warheads the U.S. and Soviets had aimed at strategic targets in 1987, he was echoing the anxiety of the age, where Americans were symbolically being raped by corporate America. While estimates vary depending on the source, there were between 30,000 to 65,000 copies of the original artwork printed on the LP, exclusively, which were then sent to record stores that had elected to carry it. The skull-and-cross tattoo design was an option on the purchase sheet, so two covers were printed for record store clerks to choose from – and that apparently screwed things up, as nobody caught on.
The confusing compromise between the label and their distributor, Warner Bros., included covering the cassette with the more commercially viable crucifix art, while the inner jacket would include the Williams painting. It was a messy compromise, but a fantastic PR tactic. It would also prove to be a serendipitous decision, as the skull-and-cross “alternative” had a broader appeal as an art piece, heavy metal comic, bands crest and a way more stylish T-shirt. This second design sold Guns N’ Roses like Kiss for the next 30 years.
In 1986-87, cassettes were the most popular medium for listening to music. At the time, young Americans had more tape players than turntables. It was the age of the Walkman, so Appetite was listened mostly on the cassette. That means that the “robot rape” impact was negligible, in terms of sales, but it did sell GNR’s dangerous appeal – especially to rebelling teens and their uptight dads who had watched the PMRC censorship hearings in 1985, making Guns N’ Roses “too hot for TV.”
Geffen, who already begun to wave the finger at Tipper Gore’s PC lynch mob, understood this. Guns N’ Roses’ team wanted to cause a controversy. They were fully aware that the minimal impact on sales would be recouped by all the buzz. Niven says that 30,000 copies of the original artwork were sold before there was a “ban” by major retailers like K-Mart and record store chains. (Tower Records on Sunset, for example, carried the Williams version until it sold out.) The number is corroborated by Slash in an interview in Rock City News dated January 1988. According to this version of history, LP No. 30,001 was the first one without the Williams art.
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Another “ban” to factor in when considering the rebellious draw of Appetite was the video for “Welcome to the Jungle,” which depicted an uncomfortable reality for the MTV generation. Axl, who refused to smile, is seen in various stages of urban decay – first as the naive hillbilly, then as the sweaty brute in assless chaps, and finally as the psychopath being conditioned by images of war, bikinis and police brutality.
Rose became a sex symbol when photographer Herb Ritts sexualized him in 1991, but prior to that, with his hunched shoulders and baby-corn teeth, he seemed too Indiana – and that actually helped him connect with rural teens in Middle America, the way Metallica appealed to pissed-off teenagers who wore “Metal Up Your Ass” T-shirts.
For MTV, which was launched in 1981 to hook teens who were watching sitcoms in the ‘70s, rock and roll was about showmanship, matching jumpsuits and coordinated dance moves. MTV founder Bob Pittman envisioned it as a “mood enhancer” that eliminated the logical brain with a kind of colorful hypnosis, what Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys described as the moment when “rock and roll and advertising became one and the same.” “Welcome to the Jungle” seemed to be a direct criticism of MTV as orchestrated by the anti-authoritarian minds of manager Alan Niven and Nigel Dick, who directed the video.
It’s hard to say exactly when MTV first played “Welcome to the Jungle,” but sources said an edited, more-PG version of video was put into heavy rotation in January 1988. That followed months of pressure from David Geffen, who called MTV CEO Tom Freston personally to ask for more GNR airtime.
It wasn’t just Geffen; the whole team pushed: Niven pressured executives with mind games, while Zutaut used his gravitas to sell Geffen on GNR. Also, though perhaps on the back-burner, there was the U.K. media, who had dubbed the band the “most dangerous” in the world. All of it worked in concert to finally get MTV’s attention. Besides, in 1987, the network was in desperate need of a ratings draw. They were also being criticized for turning their back on rock and roll. In the 1988 Rock City News interview, published when Appetite for Destruction had sold close to 400,000 copies, Slash was asked by the interviewer: “Are you guys on MTV?” He replied: “No. We gave them the new video.” This was, of course, an exaggeration.
According to both Zutaut and Niven, at some point between August and October 1987, MTV played the video for “Welcome to the Jungle” at 4AM EST on a Sunday night and then again a few times. Legend has it that video “lit up the switchboards” at MTV, making Guns N’ Roses the most requested band on the network. Whether this is history or legend, MTV overnight broadcasts of “Welcome to the Jungle” became a major factor in Appetite’s breakthrough. It may not have taken place, had MTV not been going through a rebranding in 1987 that made room for more hard rock.
‘THE BIGGEST BAND ON THE PLANET’
Ratings were down in 1987, and MTV needed to reestablish their indie cred. Ratt Cinderella, and Tesla were beginning to get more MTV exposure. The old guard at the network was departing to make room for programming directors who wanted to focus on hard rock rather than Top 40 dance music, which the network had begun to cut out of their overall playlist.
“The whole idea here isn’t revamping the format, so much as refocusing it,” Sam Kaiser, MTV’s vice president of programming, said in a Feb. 8, 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We want to get back to the channel’s original mandate, which was to break new artists.” The process of making MTV rock again began in earnest around October 1987, when CEO Bob Pittman was on his way out and Tom Freston – who was sympathetic to Guns N’ Roses – stepped in.
The front page of Billboard from Oct. 11, 1986 read: “MTV: Changes at the Channel; More Rock and New Acts, Execs Say.” The network was reacting to both their audience and pressure from the rock media. In February 1987, Circus reported that only four of the 30 videos in heavy rotation at MTV could have been considered “metal.” Frustrated artists like Ronnie James Dio spoke out: “MTV suddenly seemed to desert us all. The sad thing is when you spend $250,000 on a video and you only see it once.”
On Oct. 24, 1987, Guns N’ Roses appeared on an episode of Headbanger’s Ball, a relatively new metal-oriented show that had premiered on MTV in April and pulled an average rating of 1.3 million viewers a week. It gave GNR a platform to promote their tour with Motley Crue to a mass audience, while giving the PG viewers of MTV a preview of the “next” Motley Crue. In a Jan. 8, 1987 edition of Rock City News, Slash told the interviewer that the Motley Crue tour helped GNR move 18,000 units.
By the end of 1987, it seemed MTV was on board, which boosted sales of Appetite steadily as tour dates continued. An excited Tom Zutaut made a ridiculous promise that he fully intended to keep: “I told David Geffen they were gonna be the biggest and last big rock and roll band,” he said. Between January 1988 and the release of their EP GN’R Lies in November, Guns N’ Roses crossed the tipping point and did in fact became, for a brief moment, the biggest band on the planet.
Ground zero for their acceptance as a mainstream act was the band’s second single, a ballad that followed the playbook of how to inject hard rock into Top 40. Kiss did it in 1976 with “Beth.” Aerosmith’s biggest hits were love ballads, along with their only No. 1, “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.” In the summer of 1988, Guns N’ Roses would release a ballad that infected the Top 40 by targeting a demo that Appetite had mostly ignored in order to be taken more seriously: teenage girls. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” boasted romantic overtones that rebranded Axl as Bon Jovi meets Rambo, and suddenly the Kelly Bundy types were plastering their walls with cutouts of Rose’s buns from rock magazines they were stealing from their little brother.
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Nothing is more endearing the brutish hunk with a broken heart, and Axl sold the classic American archetype in spades. While Appetite for Destruction was dripping with lust, it was never advertised as a record about girls, or chasing girls or tag-teaming girls. This attracted an older female demographic that saw GNR as more adult than their oversexed contemporaries. With the female demographic indoctrinated, Appetite would finally reach No. 1 on the Billboard album charts. It was Aug. 6, 1988 and Guns N’ Roses were on the road with Aerosmith, a band they had once mirrored and now quickly began to overshadow by playing rock and roll as if their time on earth was limited to this very tour.
On Sept. 10, 1988, behind a video MTV would play in heavy rotation that summer, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” also went to No. 1, spending 24 weeks atop of the Billboard singles chart. “It showed a different side of the band,” Marc Canter said. “It’s just the perfect song that will stand the test of time, as well as that whole record.”
To push themselves over the top, GNR make a well-timed debut on the stage of MTV’s Video Music Awards on Sept. 7, 1988. The event was held in their hometown, and found madcap comedian Sam Kinison introducing them with a guttural intensity that makes Jimmy Fallon’s angsty intro in 2002 seem almost wimpy in comparison.
Guns N’ Roses performed “Welcome to the Jungle” by opening with Axl’s excruciatingly intense 10-second screech, where he’d proceed to spin around with his mic stand, and pose by breathing in the adoration as if was his birthright. This was GNR at the height of their powers, fresh off a summer tour with Aerosmith that cemented them as the torch bearers of American rock and roll. At the time, the genre seemed to be overtaken by heavy metal, which accounted for 40 percent of music sales.
By November, about a year after the U.K. media filled their newsstands with Guns N’ Roses-related gossip, editors at Rolling Stone made the band cover stars. New York was still playing catch up, as was much of the nation, when Guns N’ Roses released “One in a Million,” a song from GN’R Lies that leveraged white rage. The single lit up the media during a time in American history where foreigners were portrayed by Hollywood as either mercenaries or welfare recipients. “One in a Million” was seen as an inexcusably racist and homophobic rant by a hillbilly inflicted with toxic levels of masculinity and privilege.
In 1988, however, the song reflected the way a lot of the white working class felt, as well as the film executives who depicted Middle Easterners and Russians as the enemy, and African-Americans as crack-addicted welfare recipients. “One in a Million” struck a chord as a product of the times: Sales of Appetite for Destruction never slowed during the period when the press began to portray Rose as a symbol of Reagan-era bigotry. He became a scapegoat used to mislabel GNR as right wing. A master troll, Rose pumped up the image by brandishing a shotgun and looking every bit like card-carrying member of the NRA on the cover of RIP magazine in 1989.
‘PART OF THE FABRIC OF CLASSIC ROCK’
A decade later, Appetite for Destruction was still selling like hotcakes, mostly because Guns N’ Roses were broken up between 1998 and 2008. The decade was marked by a long tease of reunion rumors, false starts, Axl’s cornrows at the 2002 MTV VMAs, and a 2004 greatest hits collection that was nothing more than a reminder that, for most fans, Appetite represented GNR’s greatest hits. The media’s obsession with the delays, PR stunts and $14 million dollar recording cost of 2008’s Chinese Democracy would essentially make Appetite an artifact of a bygone era when the “gang” was still riding high – like reading an old dime-store novel about outlaws that were later hanged.
In the media for the next 20 years, Rose was being similarly treated for the sins he committed by missing shows, dissing the fans, and holding his old bandmates ransom. That was the perception, unfair but also earned. Rolling Stone described this period, somewhat insultingly, as “The Lost Years” of Axl Rose, when fans began to look back to Appetite or the two Use Your Illusion albums as a kind of nostalgic antidepressant to help them forget Axl’s decision to rebrand GNR as an anti-Communist supergroup, and then quietly disappear into the hills of Malibu.
Even within the Guns N’ Roses bubble, Appetite for Destruction was a more authentic expression than anything else they would release a solo artists or supergroups. The long-awaited Chinese Democracy, an experimental rock record, was lost in the hype and couldn’t dodge comparisons to the more stripped simplicity of Appetite. In the media, it became the dangling carrot that drove fans to purchase Appetite for Destruction as a protest against Chinese Democracy or simply as a byproduct of consumers who were again purchasing classic rock LPs. By the 2000s, Appetite was “classic rock,” and while it was essentially ignored by the radio in 1987, the three singles off the record are now part of the very fabric of classic rock radio.
For GNR fanboys, Appetite had become the symbol of a band that was never designed to last the test of time. At any point between their formation in 1985 and 1996, when Slash faxed in his resignation, any one of the members of Guns N’ Roses could have either died or ended up in jail. The rush to purchase Appetite for Destruction was driven by a logical neurosis, or anxiety that the band could implode at any time, making the album a collector’s item in the wake of tragedy. Even if nobody died, the time bomb that was GNR kept fans on the edge of their seats for three decades, fueled by fantastic stories of romance, greed, self-destruction, and the hopeless feeling for Guns N’ Roses might never reunite again. Of course, that only added to the demand for Appetite for Destruction.
Memories of MTV’s long-ago refusal to play “Welcome to the Jungle,” or their cover art being banned, made GNR the closest thing to the Sex Pistols for fans during the corporate Reagan era. Into the ‘90s, as bands like Poison began to lose their audience, Guns N’ Roses toured stadiums and produced music videos as dramatic epics. “November Rain,” released in 1992 but written in 1986 during the run up to Appetite, became as overplayed at high school proms as “Paradise City” – the third and final Billboard Top 10 single from Appetite – was at pubs. “November Rain” later apotheosized into the best song to hear when you’re wasted, while “Paradise City” remained the sunniest moment during an unsafe and reckless drive to become the best band on the planet. Appetite for Destruction was their travel log between 1980 and 1987.
This is still far more than a hard rock record. Guns N’ Roses’ story was filled with guilt-free turmoil, as they emerged from the dust and bones of scene that was perhaps never meant to last the test of time. That makes Appetite for Destruction an historical document of a lost generation of hustlers with big hair and untrammeled ambition.
No film or book could have told this tale quite as ferociously, turned up to 11. Appetite for Destruction made history as the only album from the so-called “Metal Years” that boasted the believability to be stacked up against the classics – not just the spectacularly dazzling ‘80s metal canon from which it emerged but the records Guns N’ Roses drew from, and then subsequently left in their rearview mirror.
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