Guns 'N' Roses' Appetite For Destruction and N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton arrived in the summers of 1987 and 1988, respectively. Titanic records, they foreshadowed the more confrontational music of the '90s. Both tell parallel tales of Los Angeles as the Reagan era turned to the Bush 41 era; Compton, the struggles and fantasies of inner-city youth, Appetite, slices of life from aspirant out-of-towners staring at the stars with their feet in the gutter.
In short, Appetite is the white man's Compton.
Nothing since has seriously challenged Straight Outta Compton as hardcore hip-hop aggression's template. The title track remains an anthem 25 years later. "Fuck tha Police" directly encapsulates the gritty, violent, nihilistic rejection of authority pervading the record. It's a protest song devoid of optimism and so unsettling that the FBI went straight to Ruthless Records (the label founded by Eazy-E and N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller) with their complaints. "Gangsta Gangsta" is a night in the life tale of partying, an awesomely genuine banger.
But while Compton has been thoroughly dissected in its role in bringing gangsta rap mainstream, and affecting the styles and sounds of a generation of kids, the cultural impact of Appetite for Destruction hasn't been as widely analyzed.
Sure, Appetite, tells a different story, but with no less grit, violence and nihilism. It's the tale of the big city transplant shaking off small town blues in search of something resembling meaningful existence. As we learn on the opening track "Welcome to the Jungle," however, the city is not an oasis of acceptance, but a cold and impersonal wasteland where hustlers will take you, women will leave you and drug-fueled paranoia is a lifestyle.
Indeed, L.A. was a hard place in the late '80s. The crack epidemic was raging, and gang and drug-related violence sent the city's homicide rate to an all time high. Meanwhile, Sunset Strip glam rock bands were living (and overdosing) on the spoils of huge record deals while Hollywood gutter punks slept five to a shitty apartment because no one could afford to pay the rent.
It's been said that most people who beat a path from Kansas (or wherever) to Los Angeles can't even make their second month's rent. As it turns out, being the prettiest actor in Topeka doesn't count for a lot in a city which attracts the top one percent of beauty from everywhere, especially when most seats are already occupied by the children of the beautiful people. As Gloria Beatty says in They Shoot Horses, Don't They?: "They got it all rigged before you even show up."
What this means in practice is that to "make it" in any meaningful sense, you've either got to be incredibly tenacious, too stupid to know any better, or so desperate that your options are to succeed or to die.
Appetite For Destruction is Guns 'N' Roses as combination of all three. Drug habits create desperation. Sure, there's a short list of romantic junkie heroes with Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders smack (pun intended) at the top. Less idolized is the guy currently nodding underneath the highway overpass, or the band as depicted in heroin-ballad "Mr. Brownstone."
"Rocket Queen" is the emblematic track of the "too stupid" set. While it's arguably the most touching song Axl has ever done, ultimately it's about a girl who thought she was going to rule the universe by playing rock shows in outer space. There's also a disturbing naïveté in bringing your drummer's girlfriend to the studio and having sex for sound effect noises, as Axl reportedly did for this track.
As for tenacity? Well, that's pretty much everything else on Appetite, as the album is a series of tales from the band's club days. Say what you will about what G&R has become, they made it because they hustled, never took no for an answer, and possessed a scrappiness exemplified in the fact that they made the best-selling debut record of all time for a mere $370,000.
In the end, Straight Outta Compton and Appetite for Destruction are two albums telling tales of the ugly side of the City of Angels, each of which impacted its listeners for many years to come. While one is from the native south and the other from the transplanted north, both paint similar pictures of hedonism and misery existing side by side in L.A., and remain apocalyptic masterpieces.
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