After the world had waited four years for Guns N’ Roses to release their Use Your Illusion albums, it was a surprisingly short two-year gap between those records and the release of the group’s fourth, The Spaghetti Incident?. The fact that it was a covers album surely helped the timeframe, while its title – an obscure in-joke that outsiders would never have understood – suggested that, on a record that found the group paying tribute to their musical heroes, GN’R were out to please themselves, whatever anyone else’s expectations.
Not that The Spaghetti Incident? didn’t have plenty for fans to get their teeth into. Firstly, its tracklist offered fans a revealing insight into the (mostly old-school punk and hard rock) acts that first turned GN’R onto music. Additionally, it gave Axl Rose and co free rein to pay homage to their idols in the best possible way – by cranking out some truly incendiary rock’n’roll in their honor.
‘We were this huge band, but nobody knew our roots’
The album’s genesis dated back to the protracted studio sessions for Guns’ multi-platinum behemoths, Use Your Illusion I and II. It’s been well documented that this lengthy studio lockdown took its toll on the band, so, “to alleviate the pressure”, as Slash later told Rolling Stone, GN’R began tearing through covers of songs they all knew and loved, and ensured the tapes were rolling.
Yet, while the band accrued much of the material for The Spaghetti Incident? this way, some of the songs’ components were laid down much later. For years, received wisdom told us the parts played by rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin (who departed after the massive Use Your Illusion world tour) were re-recorded by his replacement, Gilby Clarke. However, in a 2015 interview with Songfacts, Clarke categorically denied this.
“A lot of people think I erased Izzy’s parts,” he said, “but actually that’s not true. Izzy didn’t play on a lot of them, so I just got to put my parts on songs that were [otherwise] already recorded.”
‘We couldn’t put everything we liked on’
Elsewhere, some of the music came together while Guns were on tour. Their impressive version of The Skyliners’ 1958 doo-wop classic “Since I Don’t Have You” was cut on what should have been a day off. Instead, the band ventured into a Boston studio with a young engineer who could hardly believe he was helming a Guns N’ Roses session.
“Axl sent cassettes around and we went into a local studio, set up our own gear and cut the song,” drummer Matt Sorum told Rolling Stone.
“I remember it being one of the best sessions. The crew was stuck somewhere and the engineer was a young guy who got called in and showed up at the last minute. I’ll never forget the look on his face when he saw it was [Guns N’ Roses] in the studio – he was like, Oh, s__t!”
Guns’ regal, Mott The Hoople-esque reshaping of “Since I Don’t Have You” opened The Spaghetti Incident?. Stylistically, however, it was atypical of the record’s content, which consisted primarily of punk and hard rock numbers from the mid-to-late 70s.
Axl Rose later explained the band’s choice of source material in a Rolling Stone interview: “It’s the energy and the defiance that punk had and that it didn’t really hit the mainstream all that much,” he said, “And we are, like it or not, in some ways in the mainstream, so we’ve got to bring certain songs to peoples’ attention.”
As The Spaghetti Incident? revealed, Guns set about their task with gusto. Rose was instrumental in selecting numbers such as Nazareth’s crunching “Hair Of The Dog” and a vigorous take on UK Subs’ “Down On The Farm,” while Duff McKagan took the mic on tanked-up versions of The Damned’s “New Rose” and a suitably ragged, yet glorious take on Johnny Thunders’ achingly sad “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory.” Everything was performed with energy, commitment, and heart, and where swaggering renditions of New York Dolls’ “Human Being” and The Dead Boys’ nihilistic “Ain’t It Fun” were concerned, GN’R arguably even surpassed the originals.
‘We wanted people to look into punk’
Moving over a million copies in North America, The Spaghetti Incident? peaked at No.4 on the Billboard 200 and went platinum elsewhere – impressive results for an album with no tour behind it.
The record even gained praise from the most unlikely of sources. Notoriously hard to please, The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave The Spaghetti Incident? a rare A- rating and confessed, “I remain impressed even with the excitement worn off.” Rolling Stone, meanwhile, declared, “Guns N’ Roses reveal themselves as a glam-rock band, and a good one, as if T.Rex and the Dolls had come out of early punk rather than the other way round.”
Long after the album’s release, the group have kept faith with the songs they so vividly reimagined for The Spaghetti Incident?. “Down On The Farm” was aired during the Chinese Democracy world tour, while McKagan and Sorum’s side project, Neurotic Outsiders, often performed selected songs from the tracklist. More recently, “Attitude,” “Raw Power” and “New Rose” have featured in shows during GN’R’s rapturously-received Not In This Lifetime… tour.
“We couldn’t put everything we liked on the record, like Motörhead’s ‘Ace Of Spades’, but we did our best and it was fun,” Duff McKagan told Vive Le Rock in 2013.
“At the time, we were this huge band, but nobody knew where our roots lay. We wanted people to hear our record, go back and look into punk and put the puzzle together.”