Guns N' Roses have a greatest hits out, but they won't be celebrating together. Controlling and paranoid, Axl Rose made a bad situation worse. John Robinson has the lowdown
Saturday March 13, 2004
Within a few years, Guns N' Roses will have ceased to exist in the way they understand it now. There will have been paranoia and egomania, they will be flying on separate aircraft from their singer, and ultimately, their bass player's pancreas will have exploded. In June 1987, however, all is well, and the band arrive in London in the grand rock'n'roll manner, heralded by controversy and a widely-reported contempt for small dogs.
This, from Los Angeles, branded "dog killers" and "worse than the Beastie Boys" by the Star newspaper, is the classic line-up of Guns N' Roses: drummer Steven Adler, bass player Duff McKagan, one guitarist called Izzy Stradlin, another born in Stoke-on-Trent called Slash, and their singer and frontman W Axl Rose.
It is this last who is destined to linger longest in the public imagination, who nearly 20 years later will still be working on a third "proper" album, Chinese Democracy, a record with a constantly shifting cast of personnel, and no foreseeable release date.
As they arrive to play a short residency at London's Marquee Club, however, the band have just finished their first, called Appetite For Destruction, which will shortly redefine the heavy rock landscape, go on to sell 20 million copies worldwide (even today it sells 100,000 a year in the UK alone) and bring them enormous success, very quickly indeed.
Raw, nasty and real, Appetite may have marked a turning point away from the hairspray metal of Motley Crue, may have energised the record-buying public like no album would until Nirvana's Nevermind, may contain the songs that make up a sizable chunk of their new greatest hits album. More than that, though, this was an album born out of the cocktail of personalities and bad habits which would ultimately destroy them.
"It was always likely to be a volatile situation when you had the characters that you had, the alcohol, the drugs and the success," says Jo Cosbert, then the band's UK label manager. "In 18 months, the band exploded, and those guys crashed and burned every night anyway."
"This lot went from playing the Marquee to headlining Giant Stadium," says rock photographer Ross Halfin. "One day you're a car thief. The next you're a wanker with $40m in the bank."
As they rolled up to play their London shows, though, this level of financial reward was ahead of them - Cosbert remembers the group shambling into the WEA offices to beg fish and chips. A taste for every other aspect of rock'n'roll was something they already had well in hand.
A particular handful in this respect was McKagan. Nicknamed "The King Of Beers" by his band, he wore a custom belt of Budweiser tins to be prepared for any alcoholic emergency, while his tastes also ran to the more exotic.
These days, Mark Plunkett manages Ronan Keating. In 1987, he was the young bass player of Yorkshire rock group Little Angels, and remembers what confronted them as they arrived to support Guns N' Roses.
"The dressing room at the Marquee was just one room backstage, and the support band had to use the same one as the main band. We skulked in and literally the first thing we see is Duff McKagan, with a needle hanging out of his fucking arm. We were like, 'Oh, OK then, here we go...'"
Drugs were just one manifestation of the rock'n'roll aesthetic that Guns N' Roses had mastered in Los Angeles. Living in a rehearsal space in near poverty, the group dealt drugs, ate seldom, drank vagrant's choice Night Train wine, and had sex with women willing to overlook their other obvious shortcomings for the lure of their charisma.
Musically, they had developed a rock act so raw and unpalatable to mainstream venues that they booked shows in strip clubs. Even signing to Geffen and recording Appetite For Destruction could not initially change their ways, or their fortunes.
Managed by a one-time LP importer from New Zealand called Alan Niven, whose real hopes were for another of his charges, Great White, they made a decision to release a single from the stalled album called Sweet Child O' Mine, for which Halfin would take the cover shot, on location at their communal home.
"I thought, 'I'm not going out there,' so I didn't turn up," remembers Halfin, "and this bloke phones me up absolutely furious. So I got them to come to a studio and they turned up with about 50 hangers on, girls... I'd never seen anything like it, like a Rolling Stones entourage, and they were this... nothing band."
If it's possible to chart the start of the band's problems from any point, it would have to be here, on the eve of their greatest success. Always held to be something of a mystery (Cosbert remembers little of him other than he was "wrapped up in his own world": his then British PR Barbara Charone that he was "charismatic, but a little bit odd"), the following 18 months of incredible success didn't just turn Guns N' Roses into superstars, they saw Axl Rose turn from a troubled but essentially stable rock'n'roll frontman into a caricature of excessive, egocentric behaviour.
On a night out with Slash and Rose, Halfin recalls the singer being friendly, even grateful for how his pictures had turned out. Several months later, things had changed dramatically.
"Then the record went huge, and off they went, like a rollercoaster," says Halfin. "All that ego started coming from Alan Niven - his view was 'fuck everyone', and that rubbed off on Axl. His insecurity just became this massive ego."
Generous views of the situation cast Rose simply as a perfectionist, an admirer of shrewd operators like Mick Jagger, and anxious that having got so far, his band shouldn't blow it. Others simply noted that his "control issues" were running rampant, to the detriment of the band's once tight bond.
He struck out at trusted allies - the song Get In The Ring, from Appetite follow-up Use Your Illusion, threatened former Kerrang! journalist Mick Wall, among others. Meanwhile, having threatened his band into some semblance of sobriety ("When we say we're not doing drugs," declared Slash privately, "we mean we're not doing heroin. But we're doing everything else..."), his behaviour became the more intolerable in the cold light of day.
Shows were held up while Axl consulted his psychic. Riots started as he dived into the crowd to fish out illegal photographers. He hired, at a cost of £175,000 a week, a private plane to travel in, lest he not want the company of the rest of the band. A young photographer was thrown through a plate-glass window in a Rio hotel when he tried to take a picture of the band.
In 1990, he fired Steven Adler (Halfin claims, because Adler had sex with Rose's fiancée Erin Everly, then shot her full of heroin), and put the other members under contract. In late 1991, Izzy Stradlin left when he was told he could no longer step forward when taking a guitar solo: Slash by 1996, when Rose employed a school friend who told him what to do on stage.
In what might be seen to be the ultimate controlling act, he finally bought the legal rights to the name.
Steadily, all the triumphant, controversial progress of Guns N' Roses the rock'n'roll band has dwindled to nothing, the gaps between events ever-widening. The owner of the name is apparently still toiling on a masterpiece that no one will hear and, what's more, reportedly extremely angry that a greatest hits collection is just about to provide a reminder of the legend to which his new work must try to stand up.
"The best thing that Axl can ever do is not to release that new album," says Ross Halfin. "It'll be the emperor's new clothes. Like when they played live a couple of years ago - you just start to think, 'Well, where are the others?'"
Jo Cosbert, meanwhile, is more sanguine. "As long as none of them died, things were always going to be interesting," she says. "And thank God, none of them have..."
· Guns N' Roses Greatest Hits (Geffen) is out on Monday
~Source : The Guardian