How to follow the biggest-selling debut album in US history? This was the question posed to Axl Rose and Guns N’ Roses following the enormous success of their 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction. Their response was a typically lavish gesture – the 1991 release of two double albums on the same day, September 17, 1991 – Use Your Illusion, Volumes I and II. Rose had every reason to be confident: the band had been through a purple patch creatively and he knew he had an ace up his sleeve in the nine-minute power ballad “November Rain,” a song he’d been holding back since the early 80s.
“November Rain” showed the world a different side of Rose. Here he left his raunchy rock persona to reveal a hitherto unexpected sensitivity. Musically, the song was an opulent take on the piano balladry of mid-70s Elton John, supercharged by a passionate vocal from Rose, a massive-sounding string arrangement, and a soaring Slash guitar solo. Rose’s love of Elton John may have surprised many, but it’s been speculated that “Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the Elton epic that kicked off 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road was a major influence on “November Rain.” John’s impact on Rose was confirmed when the GN’R singer inducted the British singer-songwriter into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994, claiming, “For myself as well as others, no one has been there more for inspiration than Elton John… When I first heard ‘Bennie And The Jets,’ I knew I had to be a performer.”
Rose knew that “November Rain” was special and was determined to wait till the right moment to do it justice. He’d made it clear to Rolling Stone back in 1988 how much the song meant to him, suggesting, “If it’s not recorded right, I’ll quit the business.” Interviewed by Music Enthusiast, former Guns N’ Roses’ guitarist Tracii Guns confirmed that Rose had been working on the song for many years, “When we were doing that EP for L.A. Guns, in like ’83? He was playing ‘November Rain’ – and it was called ‘November Rain’ – you know, on piano. Way back then, it was the only thing he knew how to play, but it was his. He’d go, ‘Someday this song is gonna be really cool.’ And I’d go, ‘It’s cool now.’ ‘But it’s not done’, you know, he used to say. And, like, anytime we’d be at a hotel or anywhere, there’d be a piano; he’d just kinda play that music. And I’d go, ‘When are you gonna finish that already?’ And he’d go, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’”
There had been attempts to record the song during the demo sessions for Appetite for Destruction, including a 10-minute piano demo that shows how fully formed Rose’s vision for the song already was. Rose had also played the song for a potential producer, Manny Charlton, before telling him, “That one’s for the second album.” Legend has it that one version Rose worked on was 18 minutes long. Eventually, he pared the song down and added a painstakingly written arrangement, after which it was deemed ready for Use Your Illusion I.
Following a self-titled EP and the fan-favorite mini-album G N’ R Lies, both released in 1988 – the band really got down to work on a follow-up to Appetite for Destruction in the summer of 1989. Writing sessions in Chicago proved particularly productive, “Izzy has brought in eight songs – at least,” Rose said in 1990. “Slash has brought in a whole album. I’ve brought in an album. Duff [McKagan] knows everybody’s material backward. So we’ve got, like, 35 songs we like, and we want to put them all out, and we’re determined to do that.”
Speaking to Kerrang! in 1990, Rose underlined his perfectionism, “I was writing these ballads that I feel have really rich tapestries and stuff, and making sure each note, in effect, is right. Cos whether I’m using a lot of instrumentation and stuff or not, I’ll still write with minimalism. But it has to be right; it has to be the right note and it has to be held the right way, and it has to have the right effect, do you know what I mean?”
The Use Your Illusion albums were immediate hits, selling more than 14 million copies combined and claiming the top two spots on the Billboard 200 album chart. It represented a genuine creative progression for the band, the 30 tracks across the two albums represented a newfound maturity and a much broader range of music. “November Rain” not only provided the Guns N’ Roses’ albums with a centrepiece, but it also became a massive hit when released as a single, reaching No 3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No 4 in the UK. The success of the single was fuelled by its unforgettable video, one of the most expensive ever made and MTV’s most requested video of all time. In 2018, it reached another landmark: More than one billion streams on YouTube.
The care that Axl Rose had taken over “November Rain” had paid off. He had created a rock ballad for the ages.