It’s June, 1989. I am eleven years old.
It’s towards the ass end of the school term, probably the last week of school before the break, and it’s a glorious summer day in Devon, and no-one, least of all the teachers, gives a shit anymore. The borderline sociopath headteacher that also runs the 10 and 11 year old class with an iron fist has spent most of the last few days holed up in the staff room watching the cricket – if Louise Thompson is to be believed, he stands while watching, a cricket bat in hand, as if he’s invented the Wii sports cricket sim 17 years early, or more likely as though he’s drunk. When I come to leave the school in a couple of weeks, I’ll unaccountably shake his hand, tears not quite held back, in as pure a display of Stockholm Syndrome as you’ll ever see, but right now I’m supremely comfortable and secure in my undying hatred and contempt for him and all he stands for.
Anyway. It’s summer and school’s almost out, so ‘class’ is outdoors. ‘Class’, in this case equating to ‘fucking about as much as you want’ within pretty wide parameters. ‘Ed’ (of RoboCop fame) is here. So is ‘Bev’. ‘Ed’ has brought with him, by prior arrangement, a battered twin speaker cassette radio. ‘Bev’ has The Prize – a cassette tape she’s borrowed from her impossibly cool 16 year old sister. They assure me I’m going to love it.
They have no fucking idea.
‘Ed’ hits play, and within seconds, there’s drums and guitars like I’ve never known, singing and language I’d have thought would be heavily restricted if not banned outright, and a primal energy that bypasses all intellect and speaks – no, howls – directly to my gut.
GnR Lies changed everything.
The crowd roared like a pack of wild bears (yeah, wild bears, fuck you, I was 11). I pictured a dust filled stadium in the middle of the desert, a merciless sun beating down upon a surging sea of drunken hairy flesh, rippling, tidal, alive.
“HEY FUCKERS! FUCKEN GUNS AND FUCKEN ROSES!!!”
The drums attacking like gunshots and then everything, two guitars and bass cranked to infinity, hitting the same pattern, blistering pace, raw fucking attitude firing from the speakers. And that’s before the first vocal even kicks in. As soon as it does... man, I’m living a new life. I’ve crossed over.
Nothing will ever be the same.
So ‘Lies’ started it. Through ‘Bevs’ older sister, next came Skid Row, then W.A.S.P. (about whom more soon). And, you know, I was eleven, still with one foot in the pop world. There was a memorable period where one of my 3 c-90 cassettes had Skid Row’s debut on one side and New Kids On The Block ‘Hanging Tough’ copied on the other. I have no intention of defending that, though I can’t help but marvel in passing at the suppleness of the mind that could listen to the closing strains of ‘Hold On’, fast forward, flip, and then nod along with equal pleasure to ‘Big Guns’.
Something had shifted though, for sure, something seismic, and within a few months, pop had been uprooted completely – if the guitars weren’t cranked to truly antisocial levels, the hair wasn’t long, if there were no leather jackets or swearing or attitude then brother, you were no longer playing my song. NKOTB got recorded over (with I think Bon Jovi ‘New Jersey’, though that may be wrong), much to the fury of my sister, and I renounced my former taste will all the proto-fascist zeal of the true believer convert.
It was 1989. It started with ‘Lies’. Of course it was going to end up with ‘Appetite’.
It took a while though. For starters, Noel Streak let me down. At the start of term we’d made friends in the top set maths class we’d both somehow fluke tested into, and he’d promised me if I gave him a blank tape he’d get it recorded for me. This was early in the September term of ’89. By February ’90, with me asking him every single week in every single maths class, I got the distinct impression that I wasn’t going to get my tape back any time soon.
Lucky for me, ‘Ed’ had it on vinyl. One loan and serious nagging of mum later, and it had been transferred to c-90. Of course, I don’t need to tell you that the running time was such that the whole album didn’t quite fit on the 45 minutes of tape, and the last song had to be put on the other side. Luckily, ‘Lies’ 8 tracks ran short.
I wasn’t allowed to listen to the album that night. It was too late. So I took the tape to my room, stayed awake until mum went to bed, then got out my headphones and jacked in. And holy fucking shit. From the opening of ‘My Michelle’, that gentle picking guitar pattern that held so much menace, the second guitar melody line, that ominous bass step off, the sinister cymbal washes, I knew...
Wait, what? Oh, right. Yes, that deserves an explanation.
So some of you with a passing familiarity with the text might fairly be pointing out that the opening song on Appetite For Destruction is not so much ‘My Michelle’ as it is ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. And you would be correct, at least in the narrow, literal sense. But it’s 1990. We’re not digital, we’re analogue, and my mum, God love her, is as analogue as it gets. She’s so analogue, in fact, that when a band in a fit of branding genius slightly ahead of its time decides to label it’s vinyl release not ‘Side A’ and ‘Side B’ or ‘Side 1’ and ‘Side 2’ but ‘Side G’ and ‘Side R’... Well, it’s dogs and cats lying down together. Confusion reigns supreme. And I end up with a C-90 where the album is recorded the wrong way around.
Only, here’s the thing. Turns out I didn’t. Turns out, in point of fact, that I ended up as being one of the very few fortunate people who actually had Appetite For Destruction the right way round.
Think about it. We open with ‘My Michelle’. The guitars and cymbals swirl with sinister intent, slowly building, and when the pattern ends, there’s a snare hit the likes of which you haven’t heard since ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ (or if you’re 11 years old, fucking ever) and BAM! The song erupts, an out-of-control freight train of a riff, sparks flying, rage ringing out of every tortured string, and then the literally screaming vocal, impossibly, inhumanly high, kicks in;
‘Your Daddy watches porno/now that mommy’s not around/she used to love her heroin/but now she’s underground...’
I mean holy fucking mother of God could there be a more brutal, direct statement of intent that that, a stronger slap in the face? This is Appetite For Destruction, motherfucker – get on board or get the fuck out of the way.
So I’m lying in the dark of my single bed, 11 year old eyes clenched shut, wanting to block out everything except the enormous sound engulfing my brain. And next it’s ‘Think About You’, and I never knew a love song could be so fast, so loud, and the closing minor key flurry leaves me breathless, as love becomes desperate longing, need, and then of course it’s the intro to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, and I’m convinced I’ve heard the greatest guitar playing I’ll ever hear – a conviction that holds true and unshaken right until the final guitar solo of the same song, when Slash effortlessly takes his place in the all-time rock guitarist hall of fame with a solo so sublime, so perfect, that I will be able to hear it long after I go deaf.
We’re only three songs in.
Next is ‘You’re Crazy’, which of course I know from ‘Lies’, but here it’s twice the pace and 11 million times the volume and I’m lying flat on my back head-banging, even though it doesn’t really work, because I can’t fucking not. And then it’s ‘Anything Goes’, a song that for years I assume is about losing your virginity (because of the opening line ‘I’ve been thinkin’ ‘bout, thinkin’ ‘bout sex/ Always hungry for somethin’ that I haven’t had yet’ – and yeah, go ahead and laugh if you must, but again, I was 11) with the sleaziest guitar sound I’d ever heard.
Then it’s ‘Rocket Queen’ – more menace, more razor wire vocals and lyrics, the closing coda singing love but sounding hate, brutal. And then, and then...
…after all that, after the stall has been well and truly set out and the manifesto read, then and only then, they drop The Big One. You are finally ready for ‘Welcome To The Jungle’.
I’m not one of those people who says point blank that ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is the greatest rock n roll song ever written. What I will say, with the seriousness of a heart attack, is that any discussion of a potential ‘greatest rock n roll song’ that doesn’t give serious consideration to ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ is not a conversation worthy of your time.
It’s fucking amazing. The intro is like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’ finally grew some hair on its balls, and when the snare booms and the main riff kicks in, if your head ain’t nodding along, you’re already dead. Everything you’ve heard over the last side of music is distilled to its rawest essence here, on one single track; the desperate, hungry, gaping need, the brutality, the rage and frustration of someone just smart enough to see the size and shape of the bullshit they’re stuck in without being quite smart enough to see a way out, the displacement of that rage onto another (‘You can taste the bright lights/ But you won’t get them for free’ indeed), that helpless fury lashing out with venom and razor sharp observation, cutting deep and sparing no-one. And that’s all before Slash unleashes another laid back masterpiece of a solo, not a note misplaced, every single bend and flurry perfectly timed and chosen, and the breakdown before the final chorus pounds the toms and Axl screams with the conviction of the damned
‘YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE? YOU’RE IN THE JUNGLE, BABY! YOU’RE GONNA DIIIIIIE!”
And we’re off to fuck you city with ‘It’s So Easy’, crunching, crushing dead eyed nihilism as Axl’s vocal drops into near-human range for the first time, and the raw ugliness of the LA scene is ripped from California and beamed directly into the mind of an 11 year old boy in North Devon. Everything is fucked, everything and everyone is ugly, and the narrator’s own paranoia feels dangerous, infectious.
From there, we’re given the flip side of the same scene, this time in anthem form. ‘Nighttrain’ is a rollicking celebration of getting shitfaced and rolling out (ah, but doesn’t the darkness come back in, towards the end, as another mind blowing guitar solo takes the riff to the minor key, and the refrain turns ragged, desperate - ‘I guess I guess I guess I never learn’)?
‘They’re Out To Get Me’, ostensibly written about the LAPD but actually about my year 7 Geography teacher, takes us to ‘Mr. Brownstone’, another riff you have a hard time believing was written by mortals, rather than just hewn from the cliff face of the raw universe.
And then... then you have to turn the tape over for the grand finale – ‘Paradise City’.
For the next two years, I would listen to that recording of Appetite For Destruction at least once a day. The contours of the songs are etched into my brain, and I can drop the needle and hear the whole thing, with perfect clarity, any time I want. It is in a real and direct sense a part of me. Example? I wrote this whole thing without listening to the album once. Well... without playing it, anyway.
Appetite For Destruction is an ugly, loud, rage fuelled, misogynistic, drug induced, and yes, flawed album. No surprise - It was made by arrogant and deeply flawed men, in a time and place when casual misogyny and rape culture were even more deeply ingrained than they are now. It’s not that this album couldn’t be made today – it’s more than it probably wouldn’t. And genuinely, I take that as a sign of progress, and I’m grateful for it.
But there’s something else too, something this album has that not just redeems it but makes it transcendent. See, the ugly truth that ‘Appetite...’ exposes is this: flawed, broken people sometimes make great art. And this is one of those times. Because all the ugliness and bitterness and spite and hate and bile and, yeah, horror (see Jim? Told you it’d fit in), are heartfelt and honestly expressed. Axl Rose is clearly a deeply unpleasant human being, but you really don’t need a trial to prove it – he convicts himself in every line of this record. And that has value. It exposes ugly truths that go beyond the individual. It exposes a cultural rot that is real and deep and puss-filled and toxic and gross. The fact that the author is apparently at best indifferent to, and at worst actively embracing that rot matters not a jot. In exactly the same way that Conan Doyle’s faithful representations of the views of the time expose, like a raw nerve, the vile and reprehensible hypocrisy of the Victorian age and attendant class structure and values, the lyrics of Axl Rose stand as monument to the nihilistic, misanthropic ugliness of the Hollywood rock scene of the mid to late ‘80’s. You feel it on a visceral level, and the album allows you, for forty seven minutes, to see the world though that myopic lens, and it’s disturbing and exhilarating (and in part disturbing because it’s so exhilarating – so raw, so vital – like a really good horror movie or novel, say). That he also has a voice which is (or was) one of the greatest instruments in rock music, and no small skill at song writing, is not in opposition to that fact. The one facilitates the other. And you wouldn’t need to know a single thing about Use Your Illusion or Chinese Democracy to know how this story ends – the inevitable tragedy/farce that Guns N Roses will become is written into the very DNA of the band.
They were always going to burn out, rise too high, too fast. All of their wishes would be granted, and the same flaws that drove them to make this record would tear them to pieces – just add money and fame, results guaranteed. There’s an inevitability to it that borders on natural justice. They got, in the end, exactly what they deserved. Appetite For Destruction - The clue’s in the name.
But oh my loves, how bright the flame did burn in 1990. Bright enough to shine clear across a continent and an ocean, sending sparks into the belly of an 11 year old boy in a tiny village in North Devon, ensuring his world would forever be bigger, louder, and angrier. It burns here still.
‘Lies’ was the beginning. But Appetite For Destruction will always be the album that made me.
NOTE: This essay forms the third part of a trilogy. The Book That Made Me, concerning my exposure to Stephen King’s IT, can be found here, and The Movie That Made Me, concerning the greatest movie ever made, can be found here. From next month, I will be producing monthly essays in a series entitled ‘My Life In Horror’, where I will talk about the movies, books and music that warped my mind as a youth. Consider this the necessary throat clearing, if you will – where I cough up the final phlegm-gem of my snot-spit Holy Trinity for your consideration.
About Kit Power
Kit Power lives in Milton Keynes, England, and insists he’s fine with that. His short fiction has been published by Burnt Offering Books and MonkeyKettle Books, and his debut e-novella ‘The Loving Husband and the Faithful Wife’ (plus short story ‘The Debt’) was published by Black Beacon Books in January 2014. E-novella ‘Lifeline’, a thematic sequel to those tales, will be released on August 16th, and his debut novel (currently called ‘The God Issue’, but that may well change) is due out in Autumn 2014. Those of you who enjoy near-professional levels of prevarication are invited to check out his blog at http://kitpowerwriter.blogspot.co.uk/
He is also the lead singer and chief lyricist for legendary rock band The Disciples Of Gonzo, who have thus far managed to avoid world-conquering fame and fortune, though it’s clearly only a matter of time. They lurk online at http://disciplesofgonzo.com/