Saturday, August 3, 2013

An Ode To Appetite

Twenty-six years and a few weeks ago, Appetite For Destruction detonated in the middle of the music industry and blew the whole fucking thing up. For those who did not live through the 1980s, but have only experienced it vicariously in the form of occasional waves of nostalgia for things like leg warmers, Atari, and Bananarama, the profound influence that Guns 'n' Roses's debut album had on popular culture is probably lost, but for those of us who were reared in an era whose pervasive messages were "say no to drugs" and that "sex can kill you" (HIV/AIDS was still a largely misunderstood disease and spoken of darkly because of its association with the gay community) Appetite not only represented a reassertion of capital ROCK. capital N. capital ROLL. but an unapologetic celebration of everything wrong and bad for you. 

For lovers of rock 'n' roll, the musical landscape in 1987 was particularly fallow. Van Halen's decision to incorporate synthesizers three years previously on what would turn out to be lead singer David Lee Roth's swan song with the band, 1984, was a bizarro version of Dylan going electric in 1965. The image of rock god Eddie Van Halen, he of the signature guitar solo ("Eruption") and dizzying fret work, goofily standing at a keyboard on the band's video for Jump was a true "what the fuck" moment. 1984 was followed by the even more mainstream 5150 with Sammy Hagar now at the helm, but by then, the floodgates had opened and a wave of "hair metal" acts who blended the glam rock aspect of bands like the New York Dolls and KISS with Van Halen's lighter metal sound flooded the charts with a parade of male musicians in teased hair and spandex, churning out vacuous anthems to sexual longing that equated women with cherry pie while guys desired nothing but a good time.

Mainstream popular music was even worse. The punk rock movement had expended itself, morphing into "new wave," with its artificial sound and empty lyrics. One time rock gods like Robert Plant, Don Henley and the Jefferson Airplane were producing limp material devoid of any of the power and potency of their seminal work. [1] Mainstream acts like Michael Jackson and Phil Collins ruled the airwaves with catchy hooks and slick production, a perfect reflection of America in the 1980s, where everything was superficial, anodyne, and safe. But the guts of what we know as rock 'n' roll was largely missing. Bands like Aerosmith were reduced to piggybacking onto the crossover success of Run-DMC and newer bands like the Beastie Boys were providing a proto-version of lowest common denominator "rap-rock" that would be perfected by bands like Limp Biskit a decade later. [2]

Against this backdrop, Appetite felt (and still feels) like an auditory enema, a middle finger thrust in the air from the first note of Welcome to the Jungle to the last bar of Rocket Queen. The album's sound is defiantly in your face, the lyrics on everything from Mr. Brownstone to Nighttrain tell unapologetic stories of drugs and debauchery, of daughters who sell their bodies and everywhere, a dystopian world of charlatans, crooks and cheats. That the album's original cover art was adjudged as too offensive (its image of a just completed rape soon to be avenged was too much for the brass at Geffen Records) was just the first tip off that this album represented a paradigmatic shift in music. The language is raw and the vibe driven by a band already at the height of its powers, from Axl Rose's jaw dropping vocal range, to the double headed guitar attack of Slash and Izzy Stradlin and the unremitting backbeat of Duff McKagan and Steven Adler. 

Appetite was unquestionably aided by the dominant medium of the time - the music video. Watching Welcome to the Jungle, it is impossible to take your eyes off Rose, lithe and coiled like a cobra, tattoos stretching up and down his arms and projecting a primal energy into the familiar tale of a small town kid who loses his way in the big city. The band's look was pure rock 'n' roll - leather pants, no shirts, cigarettes and booze - the antithesis of the glammed up gender bending of acts like Bon Jovi and Poison. Whereas those bands sprinkled their videos with frizzy haired ladies lifting their tops, Slash hid under a gaggle of curls and a signature top hat, Stradlin', McKagen and Adler all had their heads down, long, matted locks obscuring their faces while a sonic landscape bombarded your senses. 

As the tide crested, Appetite became a broader statement against popular music. It was not just that Guns 'n' Roses proved that there was a place for something other than the three minute pop single, their in your face attitude harkened back to the early days of Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and other bands who unabashedly embraced the rock 'n' roll lifestyle. Songs like Paradise City and Sweet Child 'o' Mine were instantly recognizable and iconic, the raw stuff of teen angst, rebellion and innocence lost. In short, everything that rock 'n' roll is supposed to be when you're 16, fucked up, hate your parents and want to rebel against something, anything. 

Like other eras in rock, this one ended almost as soon as it started. As Appetite churned out one hit after another, the band toured almost non-stop for the better part of two years. As their popularity grew, so too did Rose's ego. Shows would routinely start late (or not at all), there were fights with fans, the media, and anyone else in the band's way. Pure rock 'n' roll to be sure, with its trashed hotel rooms, litany of groupies and endless nights of boozing and drugs, but not sustainable. A slapped together follow-up, G'n'R Lies, stirred controversy because of Rose's use of the "n" word on the song One In A Million and even as Appetite sold north of 15 million albums in the U.S., the band was already on the downslope of its ride atop the charts. By the time the uneven Use Your Illusion I & II came out in 1991, Adler and Straddlin had both left the band and the music drifted into self-indulgence, with full choruses and orchestral maneuvers, over the top videos and yet more erratic behavior by Rose. 

For all intents and purposes, the end of the Use Your Illusion tour marked the band's end. Another album, The Spaghetti Incident, was released in 1993 to little acclaim and by 1996, all the original band members but Rose had quit. Rose himself would fiddle with various lineups and make sporadic public appearances over the next decade. The long awaited Chinese Democracy came out in 2008, but the band by that point was simply Rose and a group of skilled collaborators who could sound like the original line-up but in reality were not much more than a talented tribute band. 

While many argue that grunge snuffed out the rock revolution G 'n' R launched, I take a slightly different view. Where Appetite was a reaction against the conservatism of the Reagan era, the nihilism of Nevermind was in the same church, just a different pew from this rock masterpiece. Nirvana happened to break just as a slice of Gen Xers entered a job market and adulthood that offered little in the form of stability or potential. Instead of pushing back against the moralism of Ronald Reagan's America, Cobain was writing against an uncertain societal backdrop experiencing the first uncertain steps of a post-Cold War world. That grunge burned out so fast is in part a reflection of the fact that the economy boomed so quickly after bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden broke big. Without something to rebel against, the message being sent was suddenly devoid of any power. 

Like Hendrix before them and Nirvana after them, had Guns 'n' Roses only released this one single album, their place in the annals of rock 'n' roll history would be secure. Today, more than 26 years after its release, songs from Appetite are still in wide play on radio stations, in sports arenas and yes, strip clubs worldwide. It should be no other way. 


1.  Indeed, the rebranded "Jefferson Starship" produced what at least one survey deemed the worst song of all time - "We Built This City."

2. I'm well aware that the Beastie Boys went from "Fight For Your Right" and the other teen boy anthems of "License To Ill" to rap icons on "Paul's Boutique" and "Check Your Head" but please, don't try to convince me "Brass Monkey" is anything other than an embryonic version of "I Did It All For The Nookie." 


  1. Amen. And thank you for this.

    1. Any album that was both the soundtrack to my freshman year of college and something I still listen to on a regular basis is pretty amazing.

  2. If you think about it, Appetite for Destruction also marked the end of an era. As this album came out, the CD was coming into its own. With it, the death of the cassette tape and, more importantly (at least in the teen angst category), the death of the mix tape. Within a year or so of Appetite's arrival, the homemade soundtracks of teenage girl life--tapes made especially for besties, boyfriends and crushes--would be a relic of the past. And one of the last songs I've got to believe every 16yo girl added to her crush tapes: Sweet Child o Mine. By the time another would-be mix tape must came out from GNR (November Rain, of course) cassettes had pretty much breathed their last breath.

    One last flash of brilliance with Knockin' on Heaven's Door. Almost Appetite-worthy.

    But, seriously, excellent analysis, counselor.

    1. So true. People under the age of what, 35, will never know the effort and thought that had to be put into a proper mix tape. Oh, those were the days. Even though GnR's time at the top was brief, to have created a musical masterpiece like Appetite is a laurel enough to rest their collective heads on.

      Thanks for reading!


  3. You're welcome (for reading). For those of us who didn't have dual tape decks, a perfect mix tape was all the more taxing... waiting at the radio for the must-have song to come on and hitting record at just the right moment (and those radio DJs talking into the prelude, good grief) or borrowing a friend's tape player and hoping the recording onto your tape didn't sound so bad (or that a pesky sibling didn't interrupt the complete non-tape silence required to almost pull this feat off).

    I have to wonder, yes seriously, if the end of the era of musical thought that came with mix-tape-making also closed an outlet teens and almost-adults had for expressing their feelings to others without as much of the awkwardness of face-to-face or the missed tonality of the written word. -JM