Guns N' Roses' Soft-Rock Legacy

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.

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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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