35 Years Ago: Guns N’ Roses’ Classic Lineup Plays First Show
The quintet that rose to fame as Guns N' Roses debuted on June 6, 1985 at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, Calif. What led up to this historic moment, however, remains in dispute.
The autobiographies of Slash, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler offer varying takes. They can't even agree on what car the band took on the tour that began two days later.
This initial incarnation formed from the remains of two volatile local bands: L.A. Guns (guitarist Tracii Guns, bassist Ole Beich and drummer Rob Gardner) and Hollywood Rose (singer Axl Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin). Beich was fired after their first show in March 1985, and replaced by Duff McKagan.
A veteran of the punk bands and the D.I.Y. aesthetic, McKagan said he initially wanted to see who was in it for the right reasons. He told the others that he would use his contacts to book a string of West Coast dates. The plan was to start in Seattle and work their way back down to L.A., with only two actual gigs booked before leaving. "We would figure out everything else, including where we would sleep and how we would eat, on the fly," McKagan wrote It's So Easy: And Other Lies.
While Rose and Stradlin were on board, Gardner and Guns weren't. "I guess they weren't sure whether to take the leap of faith necessary to leave home with nothing but your bandmates and wits to depend on," McKagan added. Though he tried to convince them that he knew what he was doing, the other two backed out, with Guns following Gardner out the door. The tour was just eight days away.
Next, McKagan said he brought Rose to a show by a band called Black Sheep that featured Slash, although he and Axl hadn't always gotten along during the guitarist's brief earlier stint with Hollywood Rose. In Slash: The Autobiography, he said he took the new job anyway because they "worked together tremendously well yet we were a study in polar opposites."
Slash added that Stradlin's involvement was intriguing because of his talent but also because he could serve as "something of a buffer" with Rose. McKagan said he asked Slash to convince Adler, another Hollywood Rose alum, to come along.
Listen to Hollywood Rose Perform 'Anything Goes'
Here's where the stories begin to diverge: Slash recalled that Tracii Guns left the group after a "major falling out" with Rose, and that he was recruited at his day job at Tower Records by Rose. Gardner was still in the group, according to Slash, and the five of them started rehearsing in a space in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Silverlake.
But then McKagan suggested they go on tour without having first established themselves locally. "[O]ur zeal scared the shit out of our drummer," Slash wrote, "so much that he more or less quit the band on the spot." Slash claimed that he suggested Steven Adler because he was "the one drummer that I knew who would leave that night if we asked him to."
Adler confirmed that he got the call from Slash in My Appetite for Destruction: Sex & Drugs & Guns N' Roses, but said it was Stradlin's idea, and that he joined because he was always up for a gig. Adler also said that Slash told him that they had a warm-up show, with the tour immediately following.
Whether Gardner or Adler was present at those rehearsals, Slash and McKagan agree that they instantly clicked. "From the moment the five of us leaned into our first song," McKagan wrote, "we could all hear and feel that the fit was right. The chemistry was immediate, thunderous and soulful. It was amazing and all of us recognized it immediately."
Slash also said that "it just gelled quickly. It was one of those magic moments that musicians speak of where every player naturally complements the other and a group becomes an organic collective. I had never felt it that intensely in my life."
They were different from the more image-conscious, pop-focused bands on the L.A. scene, Slash argued: "That type of calculated rebellion wasn't an option for us; we were too rabid a pack of musically like-minded gutter rats. We were passionate, with a common goal and a very distinct sense of integrity."
Whenever Adler came in – he said that it was two nights before the first show – the other two agree that they had issues with what McKagan called the drummer's "big, huge, overwrought 'heavy metal'" kit. Slash wrote that Stradlin and McKagan removed one of the bass drums, a floor tom and some small rack toms while Adler was in the bathroom. McKagan's version is again slightly different. He says the rehearsal space was equipped with a kit and they dismantled it. When Adler brought in his set, McKagan said they progressively hid the offending parts.
Listen to an Early Demo of 'Shadow of Your Love'
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Adler disagrees. "It's a sweet little story, but at the time, the only thing Slash hid on me was his stash," Adler wrote. "The simple truth is that one of my bass drums was busted. Somebody had fucked it up by dropping it or stacking an amp on top of it."
Still, the drummer also remembers an immediate chemistry. “It was magic from the first day,” Adler later said. “The first song we played in rehearsal was ‘Shadow of Your Love,’ and Axl showed up late. We were playing the song, and right in the middle of the song Axl showed up and he grabbed the microphone and was running up and down the walls screaming. I thought, ‘This is the greatest thing ever.’ We knew right then what we had.”
McKagan believed that the sound was aided by Adler's stripped-down kit: "Without a second bass drum, his frenetic speed-metal beat was cut in half, and instead he and I could lock in and create a groove."
In addition to "Shadow of Your Love," McKagan wrote that "Paradise City" began taking shape during these first rehearsals. Adler said they bonded over covers of the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." A full set was worked out, and they went to the Troubadour. McKagan remembered appearing at the bottom of the bill, opening for Fineline and Mistreater.
Setlist documents seven other songs from that night, only one of which – "Anything Goes" – was released on Appetite for Destruction. Three others – "Reckless Life," "Move to the City" and a cover of Rose Tattoo's "Nice Boys" – surfaced on G N' R Lies, while "Don't Cry" and "Back Off Bitch" eventually found a home on Use Your Illusion I.
"I definitely had a sense that something special was brewing," Adler said. "I honestly don't think it was just me who felt that way, because Thursday night, something permeated the show at the Troubadour and it went pretty well. I remember we played for only about 10 people, and it didn't matter. We were playing for the music, for the sheer excitement of performing live."
Slash's friend Marc Canter took pictures at the show, developing them the next day so that the group could have something to promote themselves while on tour. The following Saturday, Guns N' Roses got together with Danny and Joe, two friends who served as roadies, and then crammed into Danny's car. McKagan said it was a Buick LeSabre, while Slash claimed it was a mid-'70s Oldsmobile; Adler remembered it as Joe's car. But we know this for certain: Storing their gear in a U-Haul trailer, the band began making its way north.
Guns N' Roses, The Troubadour, June 6, 1985, Set List
1. "Reckless Life"
2. "Shadow of Your Love"
3. "Jumpin' Jack Flash"
4. "Think About You"
5. "Move to the City"
6. "Don't Cry"
7. "Nice Boys"
8. "Back Off Bitch"
9. "Anything Goes"
10. "Heartbreak Hotel"
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