How Guns N’ Roses Overcame Self-Doubt to Cover ‘Live and Let Die’
Guns N' Roses have never been shy about admiring classic-rock artists such as AC/DC, Queen and Elton John. On Use Your Illusion I, the band honored another influence, Paul McCartney, with a cover of Wings' 1973 James Bond movie theme "Live and Let Die."
In the April 1992 issue of Guitar for the Practicing Musician, guitarist Slash noted that "Live and Let Die" was a song he and Axl Rose "always loved," much like another favored Guns N' Roses cover, "Knockin' on Heaven's Door." However, the pair's mutual affection for the tune emerged accidentally, during a random conversation.
"We were talking one night about a cover song and that came up, and we were like, 'Yeah! Let's do it!'" Slash recalled. "So I went to rehearsal with Izzy [Stradlin] and Matt [Sorum] and Duff [McKagan], just to see whether we could sound good playing it, and it sounded really heavy."
Still, in a 1990 MTV interview, Rose admitted he wasn't 100 percent sure Guns N' Roses could nail the song. "I thought about it once a long time ago but just thought you would never be able to get that the way it sounds, that well," he said. But when the band eventually started rehearsing and then recording "Live and Let Die," his tune changed.
"We didn't think we were good enough to get it done right, but Slash is doing most of the string arrangements on guitar with a harmonizer," Rose noted. "To me it's like Tom Waits meets Metallica, it's the way I sing it, so rough and scratchy. It's working out really good, it sounds like us."
Listen to Guns N' Roses' Cover of 'Live and Let Die'
Although Guns N' Roses' take lacks the original's signature strings, their cover has no shortage of dramatic flourishes: a tempo that downshifts and speeds up to generate tension; Rose's drawn-out vocal delivery; fluttery, flute-like trills; and Slash's windswept riffage.
To build out the arrangement, the band turned to select collaborators. McKagan's brother, Matthew, contributed horns, while Blind Melon singer Shannon Hoon contributed backing vocals. In his 2007 memoir, Slash, the guitarist also complimented Rose's attention to detail.
"When we did 'Live and Let Die,' it was all synths — those horns are not horns," Slash wrote. "What Axl did there was really complex. He spent hours dialing all that shit in, getting the nuances just right, and I have to give him that."
"Live and Let Die" peaked at No. 33 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached No. 20 on the Mainstream Rock chart. The song was also nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance, losing to Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away."
The band performed the song live from Wembley Stadium on the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, while the studio version appeared on the soundtrack to the 1997 John Cusack movie Grosse Pointe Blank. "Live and Let Die" also remained a staple of the band's live shows.