Guns N' Roses: Band, Myth, or Total Shit?

Constantly surrounded by an air of impending disaster, they have all the stability of a pilot-less rocket tearing stripes of flaming hairspray across the sky. But isn't that the whole appeal?

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Apr 6 2016, 9:00am

Deep down, everyone has something they love but struggle to justify exactly why. Whether it’s pork scratchings, the film Spanglish, or a prejudiced mate from primary school – we all cling tightly; devoted to things that really, when all is considered, we should probably leave behind us. For me, the struggle goes back the best part of fifteen years, which I’ve spent trying to justify the credibility of my infatuation with Guns N’Roses, against a tide of hate and comical jibes from anyone born after 1990.

My true passion for Guns N' Roses all started on one long summer’s day in 2003, when my then chubby fingers mercilessly pummeled on the keys of my parent’s oversized desktop computer. Using a website called Freewebs, I created gnronline.freewebs.com. For those unaware of the lingo, my 12 year old self had created a Guns N’Roses fansite. So while I usually try and articulate my thoughts using more developed terms, I introduced myself as follows: “Hi and welcome to Guns N’Roses online, the ultimate Roses fan site!! I set up this site because I am a really big GN’R fan and I think they make the best music the world has ever seen!”

Looking back on it, that short statement probably counts as one of the most genuine things I’ve ever written about music. Because, when it was announced that a band close to the original Guns N’Roses lineup would be appearing at Coachella in April, I could almost taste the same particular excitement as it churned into a sweet, sickly taste on the roof of my mouth. That familiar rush of exhilaration that came from listening to Guns N’Roses started to course through my veins once again; the sense you might get when riding in a rally car without a seatbelt sharpened through my nerves.

I still have vivid memories of the last time I saw them play, at Reading Festival 2010. The only noise louder than the swelling boos was the voice of Axl Rose, telling the organisers to go and fuck themselves. All my friends went back to the tents without me. “This is shit,” they said. “I know,” I replied, “it’s perfect.” It echoes 2016's sentiments about their return: "Here's why I'd hate a Guns N' Roses reunion" wrote Stereogum, "It's gonna suck" said MetalSucks, and "Why?" thought the collective consciousness of Twitter.

Image via Wikipedia

But what is it about Guns N’Roses that makes them so easy to hate? I guess it comes down to the fact that the group have existed long past their sell by date. Constantly surrounded by an air of impending disaster, they have all the stability of a pilot-less rocket tearing stripes of flaming hairspray across the sky. Arriving late if he shows up at all, out of breath, overweight and wearing white leather jackets and cowboy boots that’ve been stitched from the male mid-life crises of yore –Axl Rose is the dysfunctional dad of rock frontmen, leading a group whose line-up has changed more times than most top-tier football clubs.

From drummer Steven Adler’s firing in 1990 over heroin addiction, to Slash’s departure in 1996 citing Rose’s “visionary” tendencies as the catalyst, Axl’s ego has been detonating this project from the inside since day one. There aren’t many bands out there who have a separate Wikipedia entry listing the fifty plus musicians who have formed part of the group – and there are even fewer with a chart delineating exactly when each member joined and left. But that’s exactly the sort of thing that exists on the List of Guns N' Roses band members Wiki-page, which seems to suggest Axl Rose has spent the past ten years or so treating lead guitarists like bad sandwiches.

Look at the data and I’m sure one thing will strike you: see that fat pink vein running along the top of the graph, at once the lifeblood and the succubus? That’s where Axl Rose has been gradually disassembling and re-assembling his own Empire. It’s almost like the entire history of the band has essentially been one long revenge reshuffle, which is perhaps why so many people have lost interest in the group. Not me, though. I live for this shit. See, the continual line-up shifts are the irrepressible joy that beats at the heart of this whole hot mess. When I think about it, it’s also exactly what makes this original line-up reunion a worthy cause of exception and awe.

When it comes down to it, Guns N’ Roses have never really been a band. They’re a myth. A modern pulp fiction of arrogance, alienation and self-interest. Implosion is part of the act and there is no Guns N’ Roses without the constant threat of walk-offs, punch-ups and freak-outs. They are a band caked in a history of coke, hairspray and collagen. They are torn from the darkside of the American dream – the side that twists ambition into greed, the side that smells of burning leather and turns friends into enemies. They are an ongoing saga of drugs, violence, hurt, and tight leather trousers that’s been written into sunset strip folklore. And we’ve finally got the original cast back together. What is there to hate?

To understand the significance of this reunion, you have to appreciate how short-lived any sort of “golden era” for Guns N’ Roses actually was. The group's debut album Appetite For Destruction – which was released in 1987 and I will gladly describe as an absolute 10/10 all-time world-beating album – is the only full album that features the original lineup and, tellingly, their only full album which is actually any good. Yet this inconsistency, which is the source of so much dislike for them, is part of the party. Listen to “Welcome to the Jungle”: those first shattering, reverberating chords weren’t introducing a legacy act. That isn’t the sound of a band who will maybe move onto producing an experimental electronic album later down the line. No, that’s the sound of a train that left the station already derailed. The album’s title was a self-fulfilling prophecy – a band so hungry they were destined to eat themselves whole.

(Image via Wikipedia)

Of course, this whole examination of what makes them so dislikeable had disregarded that Axl Rose is clearly a vile human being. A soulless egomaniac whose self-destructive tendencies are perfectly showcased by the very real pain he has caused those around him. His story is one case where even “Sympathy for the Devil” doesn’t cut it. Yet this is a defence of the feeling in the pit of my stomach right now. This reunion might look worse than a motel room orgy after a Harley Davidson convention. This reunion might sound worse than seagull fellating a cattle-prod. But it’s happening. It matters. For all your misgivings, this band is the screaming bloody product of the arse-end excesses of the 20th century – when the most powerful country in the world still was the most powerful country in the world. This: this is a big deal.

Accepted wisdom was that Guns N’Roses would never reunite. These guys historically loathe each other. James Murphy might have detailed the pleasant enough sounding coffee that led to an LCD Soundsystem reunion, but lest we forget that as recently as 2012 Slash claimed Axl “hated his guts.” Following addiction, lies, manipulation and a terrible punk covers album called The Spaghetti Incident, we thought they had turned against one another for good. However it ends up playing out, the very fact the original Guns N’Roses line-up will be playing on festival stages this Summer is a bizarre miracle in of itself.

If you are approaching Guns N’ Roses with criticisms aimed at some secondary concern like, I don’t know, their music, then you’ve got to re-wire yourself. That’s not what this is about. By usual medical standards all the original members should probably be dead. The band certainly shouldn’t have existed beyond their first album, either. Yet somehow they survived. It’s this unnatural existence that makes the prospect of this reunion thrilling. Against all the odds, Guns N’Roses are back for another round. And if that doesn’t convince you, take it from Axl himself.

Get in the ring, baby. This is our time.

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