Twenty-five years ago this week Guns N’ Roses’ first album, Appetite for Destruction, was released. It begins with Axl Rose whispering “Oh My God,” a phrase, which, depending on the tenor and setting, can mean one of two things: pious affirmation of the divine or, bluntly, Holy Sh-t. The Gunners’ lead singer occasionally dabbled in religious iconography but his meaning here is the latter, though it’s unclear what exactly the brief prologue refers to. It could indicate the absurd culture of sex and drugs (and rock and roll, but less so) in Hollywood, Calif. in the mid-to-late-1980s–the “jungle” of Appetite’s first, and best, song, Welcome to the Jungle. Then again, it could just be Axl being weird and overdramatic, which is, at the core, pretty much what Axl has turned out to be.
In 1987, when Appetite was released–or, if you’re a music purist, in ’88 when it started to gain mainstream attention–no one outside the world of academia cared about postmodernism. Consequently, it wasn’t yet understood that ascribing meaning to art is the jurisdiction of the receiver, not the creator. And yet, Axl’s foreward is the best way I can think of to describe one’s reaction upon hearing the record for the first time. Oh. My. God!
Appetite for Destruction is the most jarring album in the history of popular music. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks rivals it, certainly, but there is an appreciable Britishness to Johnny Rotten et al that prevents the album’s message from achieving universality–and anyway, the Pistols weren’t the only punk band with crossover appeal to emerge in the late-1970s. By contrast, in 1987 there wasn’t a single other band like GnR.
More than enough said about the hair metal that neutered rock and roll in the 1980s. Suffice it to say Appetite was the antidote to the vapidity of Bon Jovi, Motley Crüe and Def Leppard. The delay-heavy, repeating B-flat and siren-scream that opened Welcome to the Jungle heralded a new kind of musical aggression. It was rude and crude–and overflowing with gratuitous swearing (my favourite curse: when Axl proclaims in Out Ta Get Me that he is “f—ing innocent.” Chances are, whatever the accusation, Axl wasn’t anywhere near innocent). My Michelle is about a crack whore, Mr. Brownstone about a drug dealer (and It’s So Easy, one sheepishly acknowledges, is blatantly misogynistic). And through it all, the piercing, screaming, yet somehow still strangely melodic voice of Axl Rose (the slick guitar work of Slash, too, though I’d argue he played a subsidiary role in the band).
And yet in many ways, GnR was, in 1987, nothing more than a glorified hair metal group. They looked the part–Axl, bassist Duff McKagan and soon-to-be-fired drummer Steven Adler all wore ridiculous coifs (keyboardist Dizzy Reed, who joined in 1990 and to this day plays in Axl’s bastardized band, still wears that look)–and we all know image is at least as important as aural substance when it comes to rock and roll. They certainly weren’t averse to milking the hair metal weapon of choice–the power ballad–either. Sweet Child O’ Mine isn’t really much more than that when you think about it (and it’s worth noting the majority of Gunners singles from the subsequent three albums–I refuse to acknowledge The Spaghetti Incident – were minor-key, sappy tracks). Their live shows were massive stage productions, as pyro-filled and commercialized as the glammiest of glam bands.
What one can say about Gun N’ Roses is that they represented rock music in transition, from the cheap artifice of the late-1980s to the very palpable honesty and anxiety of early-1990s grunge. The Gunners were influenced by Scorpions and at the same time foretold Nirvana. They had one foot in each camp – no small feat, since music acts that double dip stylistically more often than not sully the good name of rock and roll.
And you can’t argue with numbers: More than 30 million copies of Appetite for Destruction have been sold in the last 25 years, making it the best-selling debut album ever. Appetite for Destruction is certainly one of the most beloved works in the history of rock–and a critical hit as well, a perennial maker of best-albums-ever lists.
Twenty-five years removed from its original context, the album still works–even if it does sound a tad outdated, at least it is far less so than its contemporaries. It teases and excites, and sometimes it makes you laugh because it’s so ridiculous. And it is the main reason why rock fans still pay attention to corn-rowed, fat Axl, why we pay good money to see a band that only retains the Guns N’ Roses moniker on a legal technicality and why– worst of all–so many of us still dream of a reunion that will never happen. For one more chance to hear what Oh My God sounds like.