Appetite for Destruction at 30: Looking Back at the Album That Changed Everything
Growing up in L.A., loving rock & roll and coming of age in the '80s, it was almost impossible not to get sucked into the decadence of the Sunset Strip metal scene. Whether you favored the rebellion of punk, the androgynous glamour of new wave or were simply an FM-radio-listening classic rock fan, what was happening in this city and especially on the Strip at the time had an almost amusement park-like appeal. It was a scene full of excess and visceral expression.
As an teenaged female, I found the “hair metal” genre and its bounty of bad boys in makeup and leather particularly seductive. Like many young girls, I made the leap from liking Duran Duran to Mötley Crüe (and all the bands that came in their wake — Ratt, Cinderella, Skid Row, etc.) fairly quickly.
But by the time Guns N' Roses’ Appetite for Destruction came out in 1987, a lot of us had started to grow weary of the Aquanet-drenched audaciousness of it all. I was in high school and had started making weekend trips to the Strip to flirt with or just look at all the femme-y fellas who crowded the street to “flyer” for their gigs. Talent for puckered poses, as seen in their Xerox'd handbills, rarely equaled talent for playing instruments or songwriting. Even a lot of those who could actually play and achieved success started to seem cheesy. MTV was devoting more and more airtime to bands with big hair and spandex, with more pop-friendly “metal” acts like Bon Jovi and Poison (Slippery When Wet and Look What the Cat Dragged In both came out in 1986) in heavy rotation. The Crüe had gone glam the year before too, ditching the pentagrams and pyro for glittery scarves and doing a big ol’ schmaltzy ballad (“Home Sweet Home”).
In L.A., there was anticipation for Appetite even before its release thanks to the notoriety of L.A. Guns and, to a lesser extent, Hollywood Rose, the two bands Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin and Tracii Guns fused to form GNR. The band quickly gained fans and were touted around town as badasses, with the songs to back it up — a welcome alternative to what many were starting to view as vacuous, pretty-boy rock. Guns were not pretty (even if they were sexy) and their music was decidedly more menacing and multi-faceted than their peers. They emerged from the Strip, and performed there often, especially after Tracii left and Slash joined, but they were able to play more diverse locales than their peers thanks to their bluesier vibe and the cred provided by Seattle punk vet Duff McKagan on bass. They played Scream in Downtown and Raji’s in Hollywood, released a raw and raucous EP, Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, and solidified their reputation for highly entertaining if sometimes volatile live shows.
So the first time I popped GNR’s full-length debut into the cassette (yes, cassette!) player, there were expectations attached. I know that’s not true for a lot of Appetite's most fervent admirers, whether they be people my age who weren’t immersed in the L.A. music scene at the time, or younger fans who discovered the record years later. But the thing is, Appetite is so damn fierce that it kinda doesn’t matter where you come from referentially when you give it a listen the first time, or the hundredth.
Axl’s wail may have been an acquired taste for some, but it was unique even while it recalled the high-pitched power of past metal greats, complementing Appetite’s sonically robust instrumentation and shameless lyrics. It was like a slap in the face the first time I heard it, even as a punk and goth fan. There was a lot to feel uncomfortable about, too, especially as a woman — from the Robert Williams "robot rape" art inside (which was supposed to be the cover at first) to the sexually explicit overtones in songs like “It’s So Easy” and “Rocket Queen.” Go figure, these were my two favorite tracks — the former, a ragingly repetitious ode to rock-star bravado that rang a little too true, and the latter, an ironic groupie love anthem that both celebrates and objectifies and includes real moans from a girl Axl had sex with in the studio, before a genuinely sweet coda that concludes the entire album with a glimpse of heart and humanity.
“Sweet Child O' Mine” offered a similarly beguiling break from Appetite’s severity and sleaze, and it’s one of the tracks that still holds up today (even though it's one of the most overplayed songs on the radio). “Paradise City,” McKagan’s wistful number about L.A., offered just the kind of grand arena sing-along the band needed to put out as the third single, winning them more fans and showing their accessibility beyond the Strip.
I’d venture to say that when it comes to track order, GNR’s debut is flawless, a caustic and catchy blueprint for how a new band should reveal new material on record. If “Rocket Queen” was Appetite’s perfect ending, then “Welcome to the Jungle” (also about Los Angeles) was, of course, the ideal opener, an urgent and brutal immersion into GNR’s wild world, where sinful pursuits can lead to pleasure or pain or both. Was it a true depiction of L.A. or a fucked-up fantasy that played on clichés about our city, the lifestyle, and those who travel here looking for it? As someone who was just starting to dip my toes into this world at the time, I’d say a little bit of both. That could be said for the record as a whole, as well.
Axl teased his hair like everyone else at the time in the “Jungle” video (and sometimes on stage), but anyone who listened to this debut when it was new, all the way through, knew immediately this band and this record weren’t like the rest. Appetite was a much-needed game-changer, both in the Los Angeles scene and for music in general, opening the floodgates for other unapologetically fierce music makers to be heard, from nostalgic bluesters like The Black Crowes to art-driven heavy hitters like Jane’s Addiction to, ultimately, the glam decimators themselves, Nirvana. It made the hair-minded acts of the day look like wimps and heavier metal acts seem like cavemen. It brought danger and mystique back to rock music, the kind we hadn’t seen since the Stones, Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin were in full swagger and The Ramones, Sex Pistols and Iggy Pop were raising hell.
Thirty years later, Appetite for Destruction holds its own right alongside the best records from those legendary artists, a scorching snapshot of the moment when the pendulum rocked back (again), and the desire to get dark and cause some damage once again needed to be satiated.
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