It may have taken several months for the wider world to cotton on, but when Guns N’ Roses’ epochal debut album, Appetite For Destruction, landed, on July 21, 1987, it was a fully-formed masterpiece – the best of “two years’ worth of music,” as bassist Duff McKagan later put it – largely honed in clubs and dive bars around the States. By the time they were ready to go into the studio to record, they’d “got it down pretty quick to the version of the songs we wanted”, Duff said. “All of our songs were really fed by the reaction we got from our audience, playing and trying out stuff during those club days.” With a number of Guns N’ Roses outtakes and demos that came to light in the Locked N’ Loaded reissues of Appetite For Destruction, more parts of the story have emerged.
Demos and early recordings
A take on Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin” surfaced on the Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP, showing that GNR had their sights firmly set on stealing the crown from their predecessors. And they even dipped into their own past, testing the resilience of songs such as “Shadow Of Your Love,” which stretched back to Axl Rose’s brief period as singer for LA Guns.
Aerosmith, however, was a particular touchstone in the studio, as Appetite… producer Mike Clink later revealed, recalling his first meeting with the band, during which they “showed me some of the pop records that I worked on that they didn’t like”. But Clink drew on his previous productions, along with classic Aerosmith albums, to help take GNR’s rough’n’ready sound into the mainstream: “I was taking all of those experiences and bringing them together with the blueprint being the Aerosmith records.”
A Clink-produced 1986 Sound City version of “Mama Kin” is even more frenetic than the one overdubbed with crowd noise for the … Suicide EP. Further Guns N’ Roses outtakes from Sound City reveal tears through The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” plus “Heartbreak Hotel,” an Elvis classic from the first wave of rock’n’roll, suggesting that the group weren’t just looking to past masters for songwriting influence, but that Axl had been eyeing rock’s greatest live performers while honing his own stage persona.
“How do you put that on a record?”
After years of honing their songs in the clubs, GNR was more than ready for the studio by the end of 1986. Alongside the raw, punky songs from their early days, they had bona fide anthems in the making, among them “Welcome To The Jungle” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” But Axl wondered how they would capture the band’s raw energy in the studio.
“We knew the way we were on stage, and we knew that the only way to capture it on the record was to make it somewhat ‘live’: doing the bass, the drums, and the rhythm guitar at the same time,” he later recalled, noting that they recorded Appetite… “a bit faster than you play it live… so that brings some energy into it”.
The 1986 Guns N’ Roses outtakes show the band feeling their way towards the untrammeled versions that would subsequently appear on Appetite For Destruction: “Welcome To The Jungle,” “Nightrain” and “Out Ta Get Me” have all the energy, but just a fraction less of the speed of the final versions, while “You’re Crazy” is attacked with such ferocity that it threatens to spill out of the group’s hands, the needle pushed right into the red throughout.
Remarkably, however, the songs themselves are all complete, and GNR were prepared to do what it took to capture the magic.
“It was an extension of the five of us as a collective”
“The writing process wasn’t arduous or like pulling teeth,” McKagan later said. “It was just something that happened.”
Among the Guns N’ Roses outtakes recorded during the making of Appetite For Destruction, acoustic versions of “You’re Crazy,” “Move To The City” and a track labeled “New Work Tune” reveal how the band built their songs from the ground up. “If something sounded good, then we embraced it and started to build on it,” Slash said. “Here’s a riff, somebody else came in with their part, someone else had another idea and – bam – that was the song.”
Revealing another reason why the electric outtakes sound so well-honed, Slash recalled, “Whenever I got to the bridge section or the lead section, I heard the same thing I heard the first time we wrote the song… the structure and the melodies were all there from the get-go and that’s been the mantra. Guns N’ Roses’ songs came together as a pretty spontaneous band.”
“We did the whole album by getting it on the second or third take, that’s where the spontaneity comes from,” Slash would assert. “If you don’t get it by then you’ve lost the feel of it.”
Two songs that would go on to define GNR in the 90s – “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain,” both of which appeared on Use Your Illusion I – were originally written during the Appetite For Destruction sessions. The group held them back, however, feeling that they would be better saved for when they had a bigger audience. The results were that Appetite… became, as Guns biographer Stephen Davis put it, “the hardest rock album since Led Zeppelin’s blistering Physical Graffiti”.
Among the wealth of Guns N’ Roses outtakes from 1986 are piano and acoustic demos of “November Rain,” giving an insight into how the iconic ballad was created. That and “Don’t Cry” weren’t the only songs saved for later. The 1986 Sound City sessions also include a rip through “Ain’t Goin’ Down No More,” an instrumental track that was later re-recorded and featured on the Guns N’ Roses pinball machine, which began to surface in arcades from the summer of 1994.
“Trying to survive”
Duff once said, “If you tore apart the songs on Appetite… and asked who wrote what, I think you might get five different stories. You absolutely hear Izzy’s influence, you hear Slash’s guitar style, you hear the rhythm sections, and Axl coming on top of it all with his sort of f__k-em-all mentality. Everybody had their thing that they brought to the song.”
The Guns N’ Roses outtakes on the super deluxe and Locked N’ Loaded box sets help unpick the threads, pointing to the end goal: not only one of the greatest rock albums in history, but arguably the greatest debut album ever.
For Slash, Appetite For Destruction told a deeper story, of “what this band went through in Hollywood, trying to survive, from the early 80s to when it was finished”.