Guns N’ Roses’ landmark debut album, Appetite for Destruction, turns 30 this week. The record has become a staple of our cultural lexicon, inspiring countless bedroom shredders and rock critics. It resonates as one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time, and resuscitated the floundering genre at the peak of its hair metal bloat.
More than just a commercial and artistic achievement, however, Appetite elevated five talented street urchins to godlike status. As an older, slightly tamer Guns N’ Roses plows through a reunion tour, the album continues to perpetuate the mythology behind the Most Dangerous Band in the World—if only in fans’ imaginations.
Its cult congregates online and swaps high-quality video of a band that spent prime years in the shadows, ducking your speculation. As a response to the internet age, the band has become dependable, visible, precise onstage, and louder than ever.
Let’s talk about the album
Praising Appetite purely on its technical merits is tired and practically disingenuous at this point—but I’m going to do it anyway.
Guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin deftly trade serpentine riffs and explosive solos, slinking through each song at a simultaneously urgent and laidback pace, recalling the bluesy twin guitar attacks of the Stones and Aerosmith. Drummer Steven Adler offsets the pyrotechnic fretwork with deceptively swinging beats and thunderous fills, while bassist Duff McKagan cuts through the sonic boom with his groovy, minimalist bass licks, honed from years of studying punk progenitors like the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls.
And what more can one possibly say about Axl Rose? The strawberry blond from Lafayette, Indiana, doesn’t function as a singer so much as a vocal contortionist, twisting his voice to replicate a police siren on “Welcome to the Jungle” and quivering with unmatched ferocity on “Nightrain.” His pseudo-baritone at the beginning of “Mr. Brownstone” is deceptively cool; his banshee wail at the end of “Paradise City” transcendent. He sounds equally sincere in the schoolyard taunts of “It’s So Easy” (“I see you standing there / you think you’re so cool / why don’t you just fuck off?”) and the heartwarming coda to “Rocket Queen” (“Don’t ever leave me / say you’ll always be there / all I ever wanted was for you to know that I care”), which is the only reason both sentiments can exist on the same album. For 54 minutes, 12 songs, one album, the most powerful vocalist in the world could do no wrong.
Appetite for Destruction plays like a requiem to the band’s historically debauched L.A. lifestyle, bursting with odes to substance abuse, indictments against authority figures, and plenty of regrettable misogyny. It was, in short, the antidote to the contrived glam metal scene that dominated the first half of the decade, and it paved the way for the stripped-down, hyper-aggressive grunge storm that would ironically render the band irrelevant just four years later.
All good things must come to an end
Guns N’ Roses sounded too good to last on Appetite for Destruction. Drug abuse, volatile temperaments, and frequent lineup changes quickly sunk the band, which followed up its debut with 1988’s Lies EP and 1991’s massively successful double album, Use Your Illusion. A 1993 cover album, The Spaghetti Incident?, marked the group’s last release until 2008’s Chinese Democracy, largely a product of Rose’s studio tinkering and dozens of hired guns (no pun intended).
At every juncture, these guys have sought to recapture their former glory. So have their fans.
In the years following his band’s meteoric rise to the top, Rose disappeared from the public eye for nearly a decade. Fans took it upon themselves to track him down; the best they could do was scrounge together a handful of photos from “the wilderness years.” The singer finally resurfaced, pudgy and cornrowed, with an unrecognizable backing band, for Rock in Rio 2001. He offered periodic updates about the band’s forthcoming album. Primitive file-sharing sites leaked scraps of half-finished material purportedly from the album.
In 2008, Guns N’ Roses finally released Chinese Democracy as a Best Buy exclusive, and the rest of the world… didn’t seem to care much. The album debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard chart behind Kanye West and Taylor Swift. David Fricke gave it a respectable four out of five stars in Rolling Stone. Months later, it occupied the bargain bins of used record stores across the country.
They resumed a proper touring schedule in 2010, and stateside fans jumped at the opportunity to catch them for the first time in years. But attendance gradually dwindled as they downgraded from arenas to amphitheaters to, finally, clubs and theaters on 2012’s Up Close and Personal Tour. The marketing suggested this was a rare opportunity to catch the group in an intimate setting, but the writing was on the wall: People simply didn’t care about the “new” Guns N’ Roses.
Appetite for secrecy
Fast-forward to April 1, 2016. The newly reunited Guns N’ Roses featuring Rose, Slash, and McKagan performed a surprise show at the Troubadour in Hollywood. No cell phones were allowed at the gig, but a handful of grainy photos and short videos emerged, to the delight of hysterical fans. The same day, the band announced a massive North American stadium run that would officially kick off the ongoing Not In This Lifetime Tour.
Suddenly, people cared about Guns N’ Roses again.
The band leads the list of highest-grossing tours in 2017. Rose and McKagan have granted exactly one interview since embarking on the reunion trek last year, on Brazil’s Globo TV. This tight-lipped approach is a testament to the group’s enduring popularity and ability to thrive on secrecy. Suddenly, GN’R fanatics were commenting on YouTube videos about the quality of Rose’s vocal rasp (there’s an entire forum dedicated to tracking this rasp over the years) and freaking out if he wore cowboy boots instead of sneakers. Fans wondered every night whether the band would welcome Adler onstage for a song or two. L.A. Weekly published an exhaustive long-form called “Where’s Izzy,” in which Art Tavana dutifully attempted to track the only member of the band more notoriously reclusive than Rose.
For the first time in almost 25 years, the real-life Guns N’ Roses nearly matches the Gn’F’nR that fans have built up in their heads for so long. However you slice it, the band sounds mostly phenomenal on its reunion tour. That’s good for Axl and friends, as it saves them from the undying scorn of internet trolls and cynical music bloggers. (God knows we don’t need any more “Fat Axl” memes.) It’s great for us, because we’ve waited patiently—some of us literally our entire lives—for this moment.
Cheap video-editing tools allow fans to upload nearly professional footage of the band on any given night, rendering useless the notorious jeers about showing up two hours late or walking offstage after three songs. The petulant reputation is being fixed up: Anybody can see that Guns N’ Roses is out to make amends for the past on this tour, showing up on time to masterfully deliver two-and-a-half-hour performances every night, without fail.
The bittersweet irony, of course, is that we’ll always be a little disappointed by this reunion. How could we not be? Rose is 55 years old; no amount of vocal dynamism or humble penance can make up for the fact that he and his bandmates squandered their prime years because they never learned how to get along.
A reunion tour also destroys the myth that bolstered the band for so long. Whenever Rose would invite McKagan or Stradlin onstage for a night, or Adler would sit in with Slash and Myles Kennedy, fans came tantalizingly close to seeing and hearing what a legitimate reunion would sound like. Still, we never quite got it. We clung to the belief that if the band did reunite, it would be every bit as spectacular as we’d hoped.
Now, that bubble has burst. They sound great live! But with this reunion also comes the devastating realization that we’ve reached the final frontier. Unless Stradlin or Adler miraculously rejoin the fold (which seems unlikely, but then again, I also didn’t expect to be writing about any sort of GN’R reunion in 2017), this is the closest we’ll get to the band’s glory days. Time waits for no one, not even self-destructive geniuses.
Where do we go now?
This is no longer the young, bloodthirsty rock band that revitalized an entire genre and inspired rabid fandom among a generation of listeners. They’re also not a bunch of strung-out, accident-prone junkies who throw public temper tantrums when their water bottles aren’t precisely room temperature. They are, in short, everything we could ask for in 2017: a punctual, razor-sharp group of veteran musicians who delight in playing through their own catalog with virtuosity.
Guns N’ Roses rewrote the rock music rulebook 30 years ago with Appetite for Destruction. Now its members are content to celebrate their past. We’ll just have to use our illusion for the rest.