Groundbreakers: Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite for Destruction is the perfect hard rock album
Before your metal blog-induced hypertension causes a blood clot to travel to your brain, I want you to take a minute, breathe in deeply, and relax. More importantly, though, I want you to pretend with me. Pretend that you haven’t heard “Sweet Child O’ Mine” at literally every single sporting event ever. Pretend that your weird uncle Ross doesn’t think that Slash is literally the best guitarist ever. Pretend that your mom didn’t conceive you while listening to “Rocket Queen.” Pretend that Rock of Ages never happened. Hell, pretend that Chinese Democracy never happened, and definitely pretend that Axl Rose isn’t perhaps the biggest asshole in rock music. Let’s just wipe the last three decades and innumerable lineup changes off the slate and travel back to the heady days of late ’80s glam, when sleaze ruled the Sunset Strip and two young bands called L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose were about to about join forces. It’s 1987, and Guns N’ Roses is poised to earn the title of “Most Dangerous Band in the World.”
Yes, forgetting all that is a tall order, as is asking you to imagine that you haven’t heard the singles, such as the adrenaline-pumping “Paradise City” and the depraved “Welcome to the Jungle,” a million times. But beneath the endless hype, years of accrued bad taste, and embarrassing live performances is a timeless, perfect hard rock album that earns every single bit of praise it has been given. As Christa Titus of Billboard Magazine put it, “Appetite for Destruction appealed to rock music’s various listeners because the band incorporated metal’s forceful playing, punk rock’s rebellious themes, glam metal’s aesthetic, and bluesy guitar riffs that appealed to purists.” The riffs deliver, the drumming is nuanced, and Rose’s variegated, lusty vocal work is the ultimate complement for each of these tracks.
Dropping like an atom bomb in ’87, Appetite for Destruction opened with the instantly recognizable, hair-raising guitar work of Slash and Izzy Stradlin on “Welcome to the Jungle,” warning listeners that this was a rabid, snarling beast of a rock album. The next eleven tracks delivered gourmet cut after cut, chock-full of high-flying guitar melodies invoking the best of Thin Lizzy and NWOBHM, sweltering bass work from Duff McKagan going to to toe with the warmth and force of anything in metal at the time, and an understated percussive complexity (seriously, listen to that snare-heavy drive in “Out Ta Get Me”) from Steven Adler, all jacked up with piss and vinegar from the volatile Axl Rose. To this day, the slide guitar, talkbox, weird pitch changes in the vocals, and derisive lyrics all sound too unfocused, too chaotic on paper, yet there isn’t a single missed beat on the record. Pick any of the twelve tracks and you’ll find a massive hook and a tasty melody to get your head moving.
Take the aforementioned “Out Ta Get Me” for example. If you’ve only ever heard GNR’s greatest hits, you owe it to yourself to listen to this song to find out just what makes the album so wonderful. Driven by a punk-rock riff that gets punctuated by some left-field triplets from Adler during the pre-choruses, the song is a villainous anthem for Axl Rose to lay out the virtues of his sordid lifestyle with particular flair. Yes, Axl’s vocals are a divisive factor, but his cat-scratch soaring wails and throaty barks capture a wide range of hues and tones. As the Scorpions-inspired guitar licks kick in after the tasteful solo, Axl caroms dangerously between good cop and bad cop in a far more convincing manner than any of the metalcore bands that would follow in the decades after. The song ends on a massive, catchy guitar interplay accented by a double-time rhythm that drives the whole thing to a fist-pumping, bottle-smashing climax. It’s heavy, catchy, and endlessly singable; it’s quintessential GNR.
Part of that appeal is undoubtedly due to the meticulous recording process behind the record. Legend has it that Slash spent every day in the studio for a month straight overdubbing, re-writing, and paring down his solos to the bare essence of rock; his work ethic was matched by Axl Rose’s perfectionism, with Rose allegedly recording every single vocal line on the album one by one, refusing to move on if the sneer and grit weren’t delivered with just the right mix of sensuality and venom. Mike Clink’s 18-hour recording days paid off, though. Appetite for Destruction sounds pristine, thick, clear, and undeniably heavy. This is a rock album with both balls and depth, one in which you can get lost in the myriad forking guitar lines or simply bang your head to Duff’s hammering bass lines.
Surprisingly, it took the listening public some time to grapple with what they were hearing. Initial reviews panned the record as too sleazy, too derivative, too controversial; Dave Ling of Metal Hammer famously thought it merely a synthesis of the very best elements of Hanoi Rocks and Aerosmith. But the towering riffs on “Rocket Queen,” shimmering leads on “Think About You,” and compelling melodies on “You’re Crazy,” not to mention a grueling 16-month tour cycle, inevitably convinced listeners that Appetite was something special. Today the album remains the best-selling debut record of any band in the US, with an impressive 18 million copies hocked, and tops any number of greatest rock or metal album lists. Its hard rock legacy is undeniable.
Its impact on metal, however, may be a bit more difficult to decipher. Sure, the band’s DNA is evident in endless hard rock bands, from Five Finger Death Punch to Airbourne, but why does Appetite for Destruction earn its place here in our Hallowed Hall of Groundbreakers? For one, it’s difficult to not see Metallica‘s Black Album, the biggest metal record of all time, as a torchbearer of the GNR legacy: huge riffs, massive sound, and commercial production all wrapped up in a metal package. Hell, the two bands would pair their undeniable appeal for a massive 1992 tour that saw Axl Rose utterly drive Metallica crazy and teach them a thing or two about touring. To that end, the band’s live legacy of inciting riots and driving crowds nuts make them the clear progenitors of punk-inflected acts as diverse as Every Time I Die and Dillinger Escape Plan, the latter inheritors of the most dangerous band mantle. Even beyond the live domain, where for almost a decade GNR reigned as kings, the band’s influence persists, largely through that unorthodox marrying of punk vitriol and NWOBHM melody. While thrash is often cited as the progeny of the classic melodic riff and punk aggression, Appetite for Destruction is a far more convincing synthesis of the two styles than just about anything else released in the 80s. Or afterward, for that matter, and it’s impossible not to hear a little bit of Slash and Axl in metal’s new school of trad and mathcore bands. Though the individual members who performed on Appetite have gone on to collaborate with metal luminaries far and wide, injecting their own signature sounds into acts like Velvet Revolver and Nine Inch Nails, the amalgamation they performed of rock’s greatest attributes continues to be widely duplicated but never matched in scope or grandeur.
In 2017, it’s impossible to hear a big, meaty riff with booze-soaked lyrics and not think of Axl, Slash, Duff, Steven, and Izzy smiling down. So next time you find yourself rocking out to Mutoid Man or Audrey Horne, just remember who taught them how to swing.
Groundbreakers is the Toilet ov Hell’s Hall ov Fame where we induct some of the most important and influential metal albums of all time. Catch up on previous entries into this hallowed bowl.
Neurosis – Souls at Zero
Death – Symbolic
Fear Factory – Demanufacture
Voivod – Killing Technology
Today is the Day – Temple of the Morning Star
Avenged Sevenfold – City of Evil
The Moody Blues – Days of Future Passed
Acid Bath – When the Kite String Pops
Ministry – The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Taste
Vulcano – Bloody Vengeance
Sleep – Holy Mountain
Kreator – Pleasure to Kill
Kayo Dot – Choirs of the eye
Thin Lizzy – Thunder and Lightning
Type O Negative – Bloody Kisses
Bathory – Hammerheart
Blind Guardian – Imaginations from the Other Side
Black Flag – My War
Brujería – Matando Güeros