Guns N' Roses' Soft-Rock Legacy

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The new rock hall-of-famers had a bad-boy image—but did their most successful work on mushy ballads.

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Guns N' Roses performs after being inducted into the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame. / Reuters

Writing about Guns N' Roses isn't like writing about most bands. It's more like writing about Michael Jordan: It's impossible to separate the man, or the band, from the legend. You can't simply discuss Jordon's on-court accomplishments as measured by statistics and other career accolades. You also have to account for his reputation as the most clutch performer in the history of sport, the fact that he was the first athlete to become synonymous with a single brand (Nike) and the way his name was once synonymous for being the best at something (e.g. Barry Bonds was the Michael Jordan of baseball, Steve Jobs was the Michael Jordan of personal electronic devices). LeBron James can amass scoring titles and fill highlight reels for years, but he'll still be just a basketball player. No one is going to start referring to Lena Dunham as the LeBron James of mumblecore films. It just isn't going to happen.

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Guns N' Roses, whose induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April will be aired this Saturday on HBO, presents a similar problem. Such a persistent and overpowering mythology has formed around the group that it's difficult to analyze their musical catalogue without first noting that during their heyday (roughly 1986-1992), GNR was the baddest band on the planet and pushed rock-star debauchery to new heights. In 1992, British music journalist Mick Wall wrote book titled Guns N' Roses: The Most Dangerous Band in the World, and that moniker stuck. In 1991, The Independent ran a story titled "Just say Yo; Guns N' Roses put sex and drugs back into rock'n'roll" detailing the band's substance abuse and unpredictable onstage behavior. In that same story, lead guitarist Slash succinctly sums up the problem with the media coverage GNR tended to receive, saying "The problem with our relationship with music journalists is that they don't write much about our music."

The band's wild onstage antics and notorious abuse of alcohol and drugs were real, and that's why a one-dimensional reputation persists. But caricaturing Axl, Slash, Izzy, Duff, and Steven Adler as just a bunch of drunken, drugged up bozos who only produced hard-edged rock songs neglects a critical part of the band's musical legacy. The truth is GNR excelled at and invested a lot of effort into composing very un-dangerous ballads, and these songs constitute an important part of the band's oeuvre.

Consider the following description that appeared in an Associated Press story about the band's induction into the hall of fame: "Guns N' Roses came out both barrels blaring and their debut album Appetite For Destruction shook a music world that at the time was consumed with pop ballads and dance music." There's no denying that the vast majority of the songs on Appetite For Destruction are blues-based rock punctuated by raw, sometimes offensive lyrics. But the aforementioned statement, like so many others about the band, fails to acknowledge that it was a pop ballad, not a hard-rock bruiser, that partially accounts for that album's wild success.

Appetite sold 18 million copies in the United States alone largely off of the extreme popularity of "Sweet Child o' Mine," a soaring ballad off the album's B-side that made audiences swoon in the summer of 1988. "Sweet Child" is the only GNR song to reach No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and two months after Geffen released it as a single, Appetite reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart for the first time.

"Sweet Child o' Mine" is Guns N' Roses most iconic song, and it crystallizes a fundamental truth about Guns N' Roses: These five purported bad boys wrote very catchy love songs. Slash composed the now-famous opening riff as a joke during a practice session, but Axl Rose liked it so much that he put a melody to it and penned lyrics about his then-girlfriend Erin Everly. It would end up being GNR's most popular song and remains a mainstay on rock radio today. Over the years, some band members have expressed their uncomfortable relationship with the song's success, feeling that its popularity somehow detracted from the band's hard-rock image. Slash even went so far to say "I hated that song with a huge passion for the longest time," while acknowledging it as the band's biggest hit.

In spite of group's professed dislike of ballads, the only single from GNR's next album, an eight-song EP titled G N' R Lies, was the love song "Patience." Like "Sweet Child," "Patience" was proof that the group excelled when they decided to embrace their soft sides. It's a musically catchy tune that never devolves into emotional sap, and it ended up at No. 4 on the Hot 100 chart, making it their second-biggest hit at the time.

While "Patience" was the most popular song off Lies, critics and fans paid as much if not more attention to the track "One in a Million," a fast-paced acoustic rant that received well-deserved criticism for its use of racial and gay slurs. "Patience" may have been the best song off the group's sophomore effort, but "One in a Million," a product of bad taste and a lack of restraint, only served to enhance the group's out-of-control image.

That image fell apart with the release of a trio of pompous music videos off the Use Your Illusion I and II albums, effectively destroying GNR's street cred as bad-boy rockers and paving the way for punk-loving alternative bands to replace Guns as the most relevant rock outfits in mainstream music culture. The Use Your Illusion albums were made at a time when the band was fragmenting, and Rose was exerting increased control over the creative direction. Instead of choosing to embrace GNR's hard-rock roots, Rose focused on diversifying the group's sound. He brought in a full orchestra to back him on certain songs and invested considerable creative energy in conceiving and creating music videos for the semi-connected love ballads "Don't Cry," "November Rain," and "Estranged."

According to interviews, some recorded long after those albums were pressed onto vinyl, other band members were not completely comfortable with the group's new musical direction. Speaking on the VH1 program Behind the Music, Slash made it clear that he and his band mates had no interest in playing with a horn section, but it was something that Rose wanted. And drummer Matt Sorum, who was brought in to replace the drug-addicted Steven Adler, joked that the group's new musical direction was a turnoff, recalling that his feeling at the time was "I was kind of hoping to join a badass rock and roll band...What's with the piano?"

The image of a hard-rock band turned soft was cemented by the video for "November Rain." The bloated nine-minute production contains bizarre iconography, including a statue of Jesus crying blood, and makes Slash seem like a clueless buffoon and Axl like a man more interested in pining for a lost love than rocking out. With a $1.5 million tag and overly scripted narrative, it seemed like the type of video fans could expect from '80s pop stars like Michael Jackson or Madonna, not the band that was supposedly on the vanguard of hard rock. Chuck Klosterman sums up the video perfectly in his book Fargo Rock City as "probably the most unpunk video ever made."

Of course, the Use Your Illusion albums went on to sell millions of copies, and the accompanying tours attracted sell-out audiences around the world and contained some of the group's most memorable live performances. But the damage to group's reputation was done. In the early 1990s, the pop music landscape was shifting underneath the group's feet. By 1992, GNR was no longer the coolest rock band on the planet, and heavy metal was no longer in vogue. The group's musical direction and video ambitions became fodder for jokes, while grunge music became the preferred musical style of mainstream hard rock fans. In what had to feel like salt in the wounds to diehard GNR fans, grunge's most famous star, Kurt Cobain, made no effort to hide his distaste of GNR's music or its front man.

So the question that remains is what is Guns N' Roses true musical legacy? Once you get past the hedonistic image that the group consciously projects, what can be said about the songs they left behind?

There's no denying that GNR's early music was some of the greatest hard rock ever produced. But after Appetite, some of the Guns' best songs—"Patience," "Yesterdays"—were ballads. Six of the songs off of the band's Greatest Hits album are ballads. And if GNR truly was the most dangerous band in the world—whatever that means—then why did they go to such lengths to produce a trio of artsy and edgeless music videos? It was that type of elaborate pomp that their work was said to have initially displaced.

Perhaps the shift stemmed from a desire on Rose's part for some old-school, unattainable-to-him idea of respectability. In a move that seems consistent with his overdramatic personality, Rose skipped the band's hall of fame induction ceremony this year, opting to instead pen a grandiose letter explaining his motivations for doing so—a self-important, overlong gesture not unlike his more indulgent music videos.

At the hall-of-fame induction ceremony, Slash, Duff McKagan, Adler, and Sorum performed three tracks off Appetite that show the band's range as musicians: the love song"Sweet Child O'Mine,"the hard rock tune "Mr. Brownstone" and the epic "Paradise City," which oscillates between hard sung verses and a bluesy, wistful chorus. It bears mentioning that they did not play any material from Use Your Illusion I or II, two albums history has not judged particularly well.

Appetite For Destruction is still one of the greatest hard rock albums of all time, but it also stands as a testimony to GNR's unfulfilled potential. Axl and co. never produced anything quite as memorable after it. What they did do is take their music and artistic ambitions in a markedly different direction, leaving behind a complex musical legacy that can't be summed up by simply painting the group as the ultimate bad boys of rock.

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Kevin Craft is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, and Arlington Magazine.

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