Guns N’ Roses Celebrate Cheap Booze on ‘Nightrain': The Story Behind Every ‘Appetite for Destruction’ Song
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“Nightrain” found Guns N’ Roses celebrating their rotgut wine of choice as a hustling, unsigned, flat-broke garage band. In the end, it helped get them the deal that made drinking dirt-cheap Night Train Express a thing of the past.
Tom Zutaut, an up-and-coming 25-year-old A&R man for Geffen Records, reportedly told friends he had to hear only two songs before he decided to sign Guns N’ Roses: “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Nightrain.”
Back then, the band was living communally in a rehearsal space. They would spend the nights in between gigs furiously stapling up flyers for their next show, then indulging in high-content, low-price booze.
“The first time I discovered Night Train wine was on one of these epic nocturnal flyering campaigns – which were best accomplished while drinking from a brown paper bag,” Duff McKagan recalled in his autobiography, It’s So Easy and Other Lies. “Afterward, I was happy to find that the liquor store around the corner from our storage space stocked it. At $1.29 a bottle, Night Train instantly became a band staple. We started piecing together the song ‘Nightrain’ a week later while rehearsing before another flyer-posting outing.”
Slash and Izzy Stradlin came up with the original idea, but when a presumably hungover Slash felt too ill the next day to continue work on “Nightrain,” Stradlin paired with McKagan to build off a craggy, utterly characteristic opening riff. “Izzy had this thing where he’d play, like, half the notes,” McKagan told Rolling Stone. “It was cool. It was his style. Slash and I would have to figure out what he meant to play.”
Axl Rose sets a dingy scene featuring intoxicants, pimps and illicit pleasures along the strip, then Stradlin brilliantly trades phrases with Slash as they race toward the song’s end. Steven Adler completes things with a Will Ferrell-level cowbell performance. The result – and it’s no easy feat – is one of the most propulsive songs on their career-making 1987 debut album, Appetite for Destruction.
“That song has a rhythm to it in the verses that from the start always made me go crazy,” Slash wrote in his autobiography, Slash. “When we had our huge stage later on, I’d run the length of it, jump off the amplifiers and lose it every single time we played it.” Adler felt the same, adding later that “so much adrenaline rushes through me when I play that.”
Legend has it that the song finally came together as the band drunkenly wandered home after another performance on the Sunset Strip. (Rose even reportedly recommended Night Train Express, rather than Thunderbird, another notorious bum wine, from the stage.) That sense of brotherly camaraderie gave the band an ironclad sense of what “Nightrain” should be.
Prospective producer Paul Stanley, for instance, was reportedly rejected after he suggested that Guns N’ Roses add another hook to the song’s chorus. (Rose apparently never spoke to the Kiss star again.) According to Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses, Rose had Jeff Fenster fly out to New York to painstakingly re-record a harmonica part, long after their initial sessions for Appetite for Destruction were over.
Of course, that didn’t mean Guns N’ Roses still couldn’t have fun with it.
Stradlin ended up taking over the vocals for “Nightrain” during an Oct. 23, 1986, opening gig with Alice Cooper, after Rose arrived late to the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was turned away. At first, Slash actually asked someone in the audience to come onstage and fill in. When no one did, Stradlin was left to sing, and he hilariously altered the lyrics – changing “rattlesnake suitcase” to “elephant dick under my arms.”
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