How Guns N’ Roses (Sorta) Celebrated the Good Life on ‘Paradise City’
Most of the songs on Guns N' Roses' groundbreaking debut album Appetite for Destruction take a dark, despairing look at the dangerous underside of life.
And none of the songs, going against the mid-'80s trend of using synthesizers in hard-rock songs to make them for accessible for pop-conditioned ears, features much more than the basic guitars/bass/drums/vocals setup that had been in place for rock 'n' roll records since the '60s.
"Paradise City" was the exception to both. Sorta.
The sixth song on the band's rafters- and industry-shaking album, which came out on July 21, 1987, was one of the few Appetite songs that gave some breathing room, for a little while at least, to the gutter-level observations found elsewhere. And the mood-lifting synth, played by Axl Rose, that underlines the song pushes it toward a more open-ended space than the claustrophobic and harrowing corners found in tracks like "Welcome to the Jungle," "Nightrain" and "Mr. Brownstone."
Like many of the songs on Appetite for Destruction, "Paradise City" began as a group collaboration, and it was one of their first. According to guitarist Slash, who related the story in his 2007 autobiography, the band – Rose, Slash, guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler – was returning to its home in Los Angeles from a gig in San Francisco in a rented van. There was alcohol and acoustic guitars involved, and they eventually led to the song's familiar riff.
Soon, Rose started singing the song's refrain, and everyone started to chip in, adding musical and lyrical amendments along the way. Slash preferred his own chorus – "Take me down to the Paradise City / Where the girls are fat and they've got big titties" – to the one that the rest of the band favored and was eventually used: "Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty."
it wasn't long before the band had the seeds for one of its most popular songs. And it's one that more or less celebrated the good life rather than uncovered the druggy despair of the Los Angeles streets that they were better known for. Though that relatively festive chorus often belies the darker undercurrent found in the verses. "Strapped in the chair of the city's gas chamber / Why I'm here I can't quite remember / The Surgeon General says it's hazardous to breathe / I'd have another cigarette but I can't see," Rose sings at one point.
"The verses are more about being in the jungle," Rose told Hit Parader in 1988, a nod to the fight-to-survive mindset heard throughout Appetite. "The chorus is like being back in the Midwest or somewhere." (Rose, like the other members of Guns N' Roses, wasn't a Los Angeles native. He was from Indiana.)
Watch Guns N' Roses' Video for 'Paradise City'
Guns N' Roses smartly play off this dichotomy with a bit of musical juxtaposition: The singalong choruses (the song starts with one rather than a verse) are delivered with a smooth arpeggio. The verses, in almost direct contrast, are tougher and choppier, as Rose spits out the words over chugging, distorted guitars.
The riff itself has roots in other bands and songs, including Hanoi Rocks, one of Rose's favorite bands and whose former guitarist Nasty Suicide appears in "Paradise City"'s video (which captures them onstage from a pair of performances during their breakout year), and Black Sabbath, whose "Zero the Hero" from 1983's Born Again was noted in the book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Songs of All Time as an influence. Guns N' Roses have never directly acknowledged these similarities, but the lines from earlier hard-rock bands to their own music have never been hidden.
Clocking in at almost seven minutes, "Paradise City" is the longest song on Appetite for Destruction, a fact somewhat concealed by the track's final couple of minutes, when it kicks into double time and essentially turns into a harder and faster kind of beast – almost a different song at that point.
No surprise that the song was pulled from the album as its fourth single – following "It's So Easy," "Welcome to the Jungle" and "Sweet Child o' Mine" – in November 1988. The edited single followed "Child" and "Jungle" (after it was re-released in October 1988 on the heels of "Sweet Child o' Mine"'s No. 1 showing) into the Top 10, making it all the way to No. 5. (It climbed to No. 6 in the U.K., where Guns N' Roses were quickly repeating their U.S. success.)
As with many of the band's songs from this fertile period, "Paradise City" almost immediately earned its classic status. The song has served as Guns N' Roses' closing concert number for most of their career, and has been named by Slash as his all-time favorite song by the band.
It's infiltrated pop culture too, showing up in video games, at sporting events, in movies (Tom Cruise sings the song at the beginning of 2012's Rock of Ages), in trailers and even on that terrible "metal" album Pat Boone released in 1997.
By the time "Paradise City" was making its way into the Top 10, Appetite for Destruction had already logged five weeks at No. 1 on the album chart and was on its way to selling more than 30 million copies across the globe. The album remains the biggest-selling debut LP ever. It signaled Guns N' Roses' dominance at a time when rock 'n' roll desperately needed a band to kick it back into shape. They were more than happy to oblige.
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