Being one of the most iconic rock n’ roll bands in history, Guns n’ Roses’ tale is a story full of passion, impressive hairstyles, wild attitude, and great music. The uniquely outstanding vocals of their main singer, Axl Rose, dynamic guitar solos, as well as melodic and sensitive ballads, are all main characteristics of the band. This, however, came along with epic fights, scandals, addictions, and all sorts of problematic behaviour. The band reached the peak of its success at the beginning of its career. But as American society was evolving, rock n' roll began to be outdated, as did Guns N' Roses, as its main representatives at the time.
Guns n’ Roses (GnR) were first founded in 1985 by combining two different rock bands in Los Angeles, the L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose. The new band included members of both the original groups. However, this collaboration soon started to fail. The members of the L.A Guns would gradually quit, or get fired, by the front-man of Guns n' Roses, Axl Rose, and were replaced by members of the original Hollywood Rose. From their initial lineup until today, the group has changed more than 20 members (bandmembers.org, accessed 23/3/2022), some of whom only stayed with the band for a very short time, as depicted in the following graph.
Wikiwand.com (n. d.). Guns n’ Roses members over the years [graph]
In 1987, Guns n' Roses released their first official album “Appetite for Destruction”. Although “Welcome to the Jungle” was the first single to catch the attention of rock fans, the poetic ballad “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was the first song that gained massive popularity and made the band famous all over the world. “Paradise City” and its video was the third single release, and when that happened, the band’s fame skyrocketed. The song reached no.5 in the US, and the album no. 1 on the Billboard200 (Craft, 2012). “Appetite for Destruction” is still the best-selling debut album in the US, and the 11th best-selling album ever in the US (Schaffner, 2021).
With the release of their first album, Guns n’ Roses started to be considered by some as one of the best rock bands ever. "Appetite for Destruction” shook the world in an era when pop ballads and dance music were dominant in the music industry (Craft, 2012). Along with their members’ (especially Axl Rose’s) disturbing behaviour, it helped consolidate the image of a dangerous band, or of the hard-rocking bad boys. This attitude would be present in every aspect of the band’s actions and throughout its whole career. Their provocative and unpredictable behaviour was expressed both on and off stage, as well as through their music. According to the Rolling Stone magazine, the band initiated multiple fights, even in the middle of their live performances (Tannenbaum, 1988).
Rockrooster.gr (n. d.) Axl Rose at the back of a police car [photo]
The most indicative case is the St. Louis incident: during a live performance in St. Louis, Axl noticed an unauthorized photographer near the stage, dived into the crowd and attacked him. The incident caused a riot in the stadium, in which several people were injured. GnR were thus considered as personae non-gratae in St. Louis for many years to come (Kampisi, 2020). The band often gained adverse publicity for their lyrics too. For instance, in the song “Rocket Queen”, which is part of the album “Appetite”, Axl is recorded having sex in the booth with one of his bandmates’ girlfriends (Darden, 2021). The band has further been accused of sexism, as misogyny is evident throughout their works. In "I Used to Love Her", for instance, the lyrics recite:
"I used to love her, but I had to kill her
I used to love her, ooh yeah but I had to kill her
She bitched so much, she drove me nuts
And now I'm happier this way"
In “GNR Lies”, the song “One In A Million” caused public outrage because of its homophobic and racist content:
"Immigrants and faggots
They make no sense to me
They come to our country
And think they'll do as they please
Like start some mini-Iran
Or spread some fucking disease
And they talk so many goddamn ways
It's all Greek to me"
Furthermore, the inclusion of a song written by mass murderer Charles Manson in “The Spaghetti Incident” sparked further controversy around the band’s name.
In 1988, GnR released their second album “GNR Lies”, which received discrete success. The biggest hit on the album was the love ballad “Patience”, which reached number four on the Hot100 chart. In 1991, after Adler was fired because of his addiction to substances, the albums “Use Your Illusion I and II” were quite successful, but not as much as their previous works. The “Use Your Illusion” albums diverged remarkably from the original “bad boys” image that the group tried to nourish originally: in those albums, in fact, Axl was in total control of the music production process, and emphasized diversifying the band’s sound instead of embracing the group’s hard-rock side. During that period, GnR concentrated on the production of love ballads such as “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged”. In some of these songs, Axl is backed by a full orchestra (Craft, 2012), which further diverted the band's new product from the identity it previously pursued. The other band members would not approve of all of their front man’s choices, which created an extremely tense environment.
Ke.Mazur/WireImage (1991). Guns N’ Roses performing in 1991 [photo]
The album “The Spaghetti Incident?” was released in 1993 and was considered their worst work up to that point. Critics and fans expressed their dissatisfaction with the record, which is considered “incoherent”, “rowdy”, and “chaotic” (Wiederhorn, 2020). The decline in the band’s sales and appeal fueled the already existing frictions among its members. The most intense dispute was the one between the two most iconic members of the band, Axl Rose and Slash, which led to the departure of Slash from the band. In 1997, the rest of the band’s members were replaced, leading to Guns n Roses consisting of Axl Rose and a whole new set of musicians. In 2008, the group released the long-anticipated "Chinese Democracy”, yet the multiple postponements of the release, combined with the fact that no original GnR member participated in the album, had already predisposed the fan base negatively (Alderslade, 2018).
As mentioned above, the increased tendency to produce great emotional ballads and dismantle the group's self-portrait was detrimental to the group's internal cohesion, leading to GnR never reaching their full potential. Although “Appetite for Destruction" set the bar high and established the band in the consciousness of mainstream hard rock fans as one of the primary representatives of the genre, the following albums diverged significantly from that. GnR was one of the last hard rock bands, and their divergence from this form of music left a void in the mainstream rock fan base (Elwes, 2017). That void would be filled by the emerging rock genre of grunge, and its primary ambassadors Nirvana.
Guns n Roses. Wallpaper flare. [photo].
Despite their ballads and their inconsistencies, GnR can still be regarded as an original rock n' roll band. Their dangerous and attacking rhythm, their unapologetic attitude and the use of electric guitar as a solo instrument are some of the genre's most distinctive characteristics (Russell, 2017). The band was not prone to denounce any specific political or societal concerns (Craft, 2012), as it would instead express a general wrath towards the system. The youth would use its rebellious songs to channel their anger and defy the behavioural rules set by the middle class. GnR's lyrics are primarily violent, idealizing a life of drugs and sex. They are also misogynistic, racist and homophobic (Giraldi, 2007).
As intriguing as the fact that "Sweet Child o' Mine" and "I used to love her" were written by the same person may be, these messages did not fit in with the evolving society of the time. As the cultural and political context changed, and “America was seared with division” (Elwes, 2017), new musical styles began to bloom. For instance, in 1988 the rap group NWA released the iconic album “Straight Outta Compton,” which would highlight the issue of racial segregation among Americans, and give voice to an audience that rock music did not historically represent. In a new neo-liberal world, rock n’ roll and its frivolous messages were outdated, and so, naturally, it died. Guns n’ Roses were its final act.
www.bandmembers.org. Accessed 23/03/2022
Alderslade, Merlin. “In Defence of Chinese Democracy: Why the Whole World Got Axl’s Masterpiece Wrong.” Www.Loudersound.Com, www.loudersound.com/features/in-defence-of-chinese-democracy-guns-n-roses-misunderstood-gem. Accessed 29 Nov. 2018.
Craft, Kevin. “Guns N’ Roses’ Soft-Rock Legacy.” Www.Theatlantic.Com, www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/05/guns-n-roses-soft-rock-legacy/256729. Accessed 4 May 2012.
Darden, Tomika. “Guns N’ Roses Axl Rose Recorded Himself Having Sex With a Bandmate’s Girlfriend and Featured the Audio in a Song.” Www.Cheatsheet.Com, 11 Oct. 2021, www.cheatsheet.com/entertainment/guns-n-roses-axl-rose-recorded-himself-having-sex-with-bandmates-girlfriend-featured-audio-in-song.html.
Elwes, Jay. “How Guns N’ Roses Killed Rock’n’roll.” Www.Prospectmagazine.Co.Uk, 17 July 2017, www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/how-guns-n-roses-killed-rocknroll.
Gaar, Gillian. “Guns N’ Roses.” Https://Www.Britannica.Com, www.britannica.com/topic/Guns-N-Roses. Accessed 27 Mar. 2022.
Giraldi, William. “In the Jungle: My Axl Rose Years.” River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative, vol. 9, no. 1, 2008, pp. 71–86. Crossref, https://doi.org/10.1353/rvt.2008.0008.
“Guns N’ Roses Band Members.” Www.Bandmembers.Org, www.bandmembers.org/guns-n-roses.html. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.
Russell, Robert. “Characteristics of Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.” Ourpastimes.Com, 15 Sept. 2017, ourpastimes.com/characteristics-of-rock-n-roll-music-12257433.html.
Schnaffner, Lauryn. “Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction: 16 Facts You Probably Didn’t Know.” Www.Loudwire.Com, 21 June 2021, loudwire.com/guns-n-roses-appetite-for-destruction-facts.
Tannenbaum, Rob. “The Hard Truth About Guns N’ Roses.” Www.Rollingstone.Com, www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/the-hard-truth-about-guns-n-roses-56711. Accessed 17 Nov. 1988.
Wiederhorn, Jon. “28 Years Ago: Guns N’ Roses Release ‘The Spaghetti Incident?’” Www.Loudwire.Com, 23 Nov. 2020, loudwire.com/guns-n-roses-the-spaghetti-incident-anniversary.
Kampisi, Antonis. “Axl Rose: 10 Φορές Που Ήταν ο Μεγαλύτερος Κάφρος Της Ροκ.” Www.Rockrooster.Gr, 6 Feb. 2020, www.rockrooster.gr/axl-rose-10-fores-poy-htan-o-megalyteros-kafros-ths-rock.
“List of Guns N’ Roses Members.” Www.Wikiwand.Com, www.wikiwand.com/en/List_of_Guns_N%27_Roses_members. Accessed 24 Mar. 2022.
Ke.Mazur/WireImage (1991). Guns N’ Roses performing in 1991 [photo]. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/may/08/guns-n-roses-remove-song-homophobic-racist-language-one-million-reissue-album
Guns n Roses. Wallpaper flare. [photo]. https://www.wallpaperflare.com/guns-n-roses-wallpaper-mshzp