Sometimes, even Slash emerging from the ocean to perform a guitar solo can't save them
It’s thirty years since Guns N’ Roses released their first LP, ‘Appetite For Destruction’. Thirty years. That feels like both a really long time ago and yet also rather recent.
Could the youthful band that blasted out ‘Paradise City’ really be middle-aged men now? Surely that’s not possible. On the other hand, is it really only thirty years ago that this kind of embarrassing macho-misogynist-mediocrity was not only acceptable, but also hugely popular? That doesn’t feel right either.
Regardless, GnR’s pearl anniversary is the perfect time to look back and try to understand the band. Were they actually any good, or a joke that went too far? The best way to answer this question, of course, is to watch their music videos.
1. Welcome to the Jungle (1987)
Few bands have shown up quite so fully formed as GnR. With this, their second single, they pretty much said everything they needed to say; in fact if they had stopped right here things might have been all right.
The concept is a bit hard to follow (which, as we shall see, is a recurring theme with GnR videos), but essentially it acts as a dating video that introduces the band and their various personalities. You’ve got Slash, the personable charmer you’d like to get pissed with. Then there’s Axl, the pretty-boy womaniser who’s also a bit of a prima donna. And then there’s… well, actually, the rest don’t get much of a look in.
To demonstrate these qualities we see Slash drinking from a brown paper bag outside an off license (because that’s cool), Axl ogling a woman wearing tights with a black seam down the back, and the rest of the band banging away on their instruments in front of a mildly-enthused crowd.
What this video does convey though is an air of excitement. Yes, it’s self-absorbed; yes, it’s utterly and unashamedly idiotic; and yes, Axl does look like Avril Lavigne at the end of a three-week PCP bender. But for all that, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ is at least fun to watch.
2. November Rain (1992)
Released in 1992, the video for ‘November Rain’ is ridiculous and it would take a book of Norman Mailer-length to unpeel all its ludicrous layers. For a start, it’s nine (NINE!) minutes long, so the following is only a taster menu from its buffet of bullshit.
First, the band and their entourage arrive at a church. Axl is getting married, looking like a pageboy whose skipped bath-time for 6 months. Slash is best man, of course, and does a massive solo instead of the traditional speech (the solo is pretty rad, actually). Then it starts raining. Then Axl’s wife is dead, and it’s no longer a wedding – it’s a funeral.
Basically, ‘November Rain’ is what happens when the worst clichés of ‘rock and roll’ behaviour are left unchecked. What does that mean in real terms? It means a statue of Jesus crying blood (presumably because he’s thinking ‘did I really die for the sins of these idiots?’). It means Axl doing his best Elton John impersonation at the piano, accompanied by an orchestra conducted by a Weird Al Jankovic lookalike. It means someone jumping through a wedding cake for no reason.
‘November Rain’ is bad, but worse was still to come.
3. Estranged (1994)
By 1994 the GnR of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ was well and truly dead, leaving only a bloated, stinking embarrassment of a corpse; a corpse that let out gaseous emissions such as ‘Estranged’.
Not only is the song so monumentally boring it can induce the sonic equivalent of snow blindness, but the video is also incredibly confusing. First a swat team arrives at Axl’s house. Then he leaves his body. Then a dolphin flies – yes, flies – out of a jumbo jet. Then Axl dives off an oil tanker into the ocean… I’m not making this up.
Whereas ‘November Rain’ had a certain charm to it – a so-bad-it’s-almost-good vibe – the same cannot be said of ‘Estranged’. This is just bad-bad, like John Lydon’s butter advert or anything Ben Elton has done since 1989.
Even Slash emerging from the ocean to perform a solo can’t save ‘Estranged’ – that’s how bad it is.
When I first decided to write about GnR’s videos I thought I’d have a good laugh at their expense. But now I just feel a bit sad. Seeing them in sequence, which compacts seven years into just over 20 minutes, shows a band on the way down; the songs get longer, the drum kits get bigger, but the quality is in terminal decline. What started out as radioactive material with ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ quickly decays into the leaden ‘Estranged’.
Why? Three words: Axl Rose’s Ego. As soon as the band became more about Axl trying to make serious artistic statements than about having throwaway fun the whole thing turned into a toilet-clogging turd.
I like to think of GnR as being the musical equivalent of Las Vegas; a fun place at first, but one that quickly becomes a cocaine-fuelled capitalist nightmare. You can visit Las Vegas for a day, much in the same way as you can listen to GnR’s first album, but don’t stay any longer – you’ll definitely regret it.
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