Let’s set the scene, shall we? 1987. The music scene is littered with the following: cheesy 80’s pop a la Madonna, The Bangles, Tiffany, Starship; new wave bands trying desperately to hang on to any sort of relevancy a la Duran Duran, The Pretenders, The Cars; white guy rock a la Huey Lewis & the News, Steve Winwood, Peter Gabriel, Bruce Springsteen; U2’s brilliant The Joshua Tree; and the hair metal scene dominated by the likes of Bon Jovi, Motley Crue (I refuse to put the umlauts in their band name), Whitesnake, Europe, Poison. With the exception of U2 and the Beastie Boys (know this, I will try to find a way to reference the Beastie Boys in as many reviews as I can), shit music dominated the airwaves and MTV. Until, that is, late in the year, when a band, straight from the gutters of LA, skyrocketed straight through the hearts of listeners and critics alike with a middle finger held high on one hand and a bottle of Jim Beam in the other. Guns ‘n Fuckin’ Roses and their debut album, Appetite for Destruction.
Has there ever a bigger kick in the balls to the music scene from a debut album than this one? Maybe, but they are at the head of the discussion. First things first, they named this Appetite for Destruction. Yes, it sounds a touch corny over 20 years later, but, you have to admit, it’s a great name for an album. The album art, which should be an optional requirement for these album reviews, more than hints at what’s to come once the music starts. Guys clearly in the hard rock, LA metal scene, but the artwork reminds one of an R-rated graphic novel. Rape machines, death, mayhem, skulls, and a logo with rose vines wrapped around 2 six-shooters (about as clever and pointless as characters in movies talking about what’s happening as the viewer sees it on the screen, in case anyone couldn’t figure it out). Then you put the key in the ignition of this new car, turn that bad boy over, put it in gear and hold on for dear life. No seat belts allowed for this ride.
“Welcome to the Jungle” – Let’s get right to it. Not only is this possibly the greatest song to begin a debut album ever, it may be one of the best opening songs on any album. Period. Yes, that’s a stretch, I know, but think about it just on the debut album level for a second. Name me a more powerful, iconic song to open a debut album than this. “Blitzkrieg Bop” by the Ramones would be up there, maybe “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix as well. Point is, they set the bar at an unbelievable height right out of the box and, in many ways, never achieved these heights again. “Welcome to the Jungle” gives you a crash course in everything you need to know about this album. Phenomenal guitar work by Slash and Izzy Stradlin, a rhythm section that absolutely grooves, and Axl Rose. His vocal range and showmanship were unparalleled. The lyrics, like their logo, do speak for themselves. Here’s the thing – on this song and the rest of the tracks, he says things that hadn’t been said before. Now, these lyrics, with their drugs, misogyny, and fear, are the norm now, but not in late 1987. Even the metal of the day was fairly tame, lyrically speaking. Guys basically wanted to look good and have kick-ass guitar solos. The worst that lyrics got were such powerful tomes as “Talk dirty to me” or “Walk on the wild side”. Lead singers didn’t say things like “I wanna watch you bleed”. Axl did, then he grunted as if he were a porn star in the throes of a fake orgasm. Yes, we’ve all heard this song a million times, but there’s a reason. It’s a phenomenal track. And you’ll hear it another million times, so get used to it.
“It’s So Easy” – When I first heard this back in the day, I thought they had a second lead vocalist. This just doesn’t sound like the same person who sang the previous song, but it is. Axl is amazing on this and I love this song. This may be blasphemous, but this song is the closest they came to punk (before you start, I don’t even want to hear about The Spaghetti Incident) both musically and, especially lyrically. Musically, it’s a fairly straightforward song, free of guitar pyrotechnics, and the lyrics read as if they’re out of Punk 101. “I see you standing there/you think you’re so cool/why don’t you just/fuck off.” I can’t help but say again, there was nothing going on like this in popular music, at the time. Nothing.
“Nightrain” and “Out Ta Get Me” – Both songs are more indicative of what their contemporaries were doing at the time, but you can’t deny that both of these songs have something that just about every song on this album has. A killer hook. Each song has that tasty, juicy riff that sticks in your craw, if you let it. To have 3 or 4 on one album is great, to have about 10 of them is almost unheard of. The problem listening to these two songs, in particular, now is that you can already hear Axl’s paranoia creeping into his lyrics. Obviously, this gets much worse as time goes by, but you can already hear this was going to be a problem.
“Mr. Brownstone” – Musically, this picks thing up a notch again. This just absolutely grooves like a muthafucka. Axl sounds just fantastic on here. He really shows off his range on this track. As for the story told within…I’ve always been fascinated by drugs. Not to ingest for myself, because, for the most part, I was always a bit scared (this doesn’t include alcohol, mind you. Let’s not get too carried away). But I’ve always had a fascination with movies and music that showed and talked about drugs and drug abuse. Whether it be Leonardo DiCaprio whacked out on heroin in The Basketball Diaries, Al Pacino burying his nose in a pile of booger sugar in Scarface, or every Cheech and Chong movie ever made, I’ve never been able to take my eyes off the screen. Same for music. This song would be great even without the subject matter. But Axl is about as subtle as hitting someone over the head with a sledgehammer to get their attention.
“Paradise City” – Now we’re talking. The band brings you in kind of slow, they start with the chorus, in essence, and then the whistle blows and we’re off and running. They use a fucking whistle to kick it into gear. Are you kidding me? Yet, it works. I know, I know, the lyrics in the chorus are epitome of cheese, but I don’t mind as much as I feel I should. For the first time since the opening song, the band really gets to let loose here with about 2 minutes left. From Steven Adler’s drumming (later kicked out for doing too much Mr. Brownstone) and Duff McKagan’s bass work to Axl to Slash and Izzy’s tandem fret work. This sounds like a band at their peak in those last 2 minutes, like a fine-tuned blues or jazz band that’s bringing the house down at the close of a show. But the show must go on.
“My Michelle” and “Think About You” – See “Nightrain” and “Out Ta Get Me” above. Good, but not great. What follows is out of this world.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” – I’m paraphrasing, but I’ve heard it said somewhere before, that all truly classic songs exist somewhere in the universe. You just have to be talented and lucky enough to find them and bring them to the masses. I feel this way about this song. It’s as if the musical gods reached down to Slash, somehow made it through that ridiculous top hat and thick curly locks of black hair, and guided his hands and fingers to create this amazing riff. It is just about a perfect song and perfectly executed. They don’t rush into it like most of the songs on this album. Instead, they let it breathe with that glorious riff. Axl finally slows down enough to let his vulnerability come to the forefront, and the listener benefits. The guy singing this song actually sounds sincere, honest, and heartfelt. In that sense, this song almost doesn’t feel at home on this album, but, in reality, without it, this album would lose some of its dignity. It possesses just enough emotion to balance out the paranoid facade that constitutes the rest of the album. The real star is Slash. This is his best guitar work. He makes the guitar sing in his solos. And you can’t say enough about his opening riff. Amazing. This is, hands down, the best song on the album and the glue that holds it together.
“You’re Crazy” and “Anything Goes” – Unfortunately, following that song up is damn near impossible. It’s almost as if they knew that when they sequenced the album and put these two songs after “Sweet Child”. They’re OK at best, but “Anything Goes” is probably the worst song on here. Come on, Axl. You sound so good on “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, then follow it up two songs later with “Panties ’round your knees/with your ass in debris/doin’ dat grind with a push and squeeze/tied up, tied down, up against the wall/be my rubbermade baby and we can do it all.” Holy shit, that’s awful.
“Rocket Queen” – A very worthy closing track and one, I feel, that has been underrated over the years. I really like this song. The thing with “Rocket Queen” is that it hints at how this band will sound on the Use Your Illusion albums. The long, multi-part song with a little sour, a little sweetness, a little filth. Think “November Rain” without the overblown guitar solo. It ends the album, not so much with a bang, but with a tease of things to come.
Reminiscence factor on this one is 7.5 out of 10 for me. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to this album a hell of a lot when it came out, but it was done more in our high school locker room after football practice on a boombox turned up to 11 than on my own. I really got back into it about 10 years later and had forgotten how good it was. I also forgot how crazy Axl Rose was at the time. We just didn’t see it in full bloom until a few years later.
Overall, I give this album an 8 out of 10. It would be higher if it weren’t for a couple subpar songs not on the level of the rest of the album and some of Axl’s lyrics. Damn, sometimes you want to go back in time to that little boy growing up in Indiana and give him a hug.
Finally, I have a theory about Guns ‘n Roses and this album, so hear me out. I think there’s an eerie similarity to this band and Mike Tyson. Both came into this world, so to speak, right about the same time. Both had unbelievable debuts and were acts that displayed so much power and rage. They were shot out of a cannon onto the world stage, scared the living shit out of people for all the right reasons, and looked invincible. But the demons slowly took over, paranoia settled in. Drugs, women, money and power corrupted and compromised what made them so great to the point where they became caricatures of their former selves. Now, 20+ years later, with all that’s happened to both Tyson and Guns ‘n Roses, there’s nothing that even resembles what once was so great…like this album. It doesn’t necessarily diminish the power of this album, but it makes you wonder what could have been if they would have made a few better choices and maintained the hunger you hear before you. It’s kind of sad, really.