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How ‘November Rain’ Became One Of Rock’s Greatest Ballads

From acoustic demo to an epic promo video, the history of ‘November Rain’ traces the creation of one of rock’s greatest ballads.

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Photo: Geffen Records

You think ‘November Rain’, you think: a tiny white chapel, a hugely expensive video, a wailing guitar solo at the edge of a cliff. You think: impassioned vocals, one of the longest songs to hit the charts – and the most ambitious moment in Guns N’ Roses’ career. In short, you think: arguably the best rock ballad in history.

Though it took until September 1991 for the song to be released, on Use Your Illusion I, ‘November Rain’ had by that point been in Axl Rose’s arsenal for almost a decade. Former Rose bandmate and LA Guns guitarist Tracii Guns has recalled that Axl began working on the song in 1983, while the recent super deluxe and Locked N’ Loaded editions of Appetite For Destruction have revealed that it was once considered for release on GNR’s incendiary debut album.

The ‘November Rain’ piano demo

Captured at the 1986 Sound City sessions, during which the band worked on material considered for Appetite For Destruction, a 10-minute ‘November Rain’ piano demo sees Axl laying down the basic framework of the song. Built on just piano and vocals, the demo is entirely recognisable as the ‘November Rain’ that the world would come to know, from the stately piano intro to the gear-shifting outro – just without the strings or Slash’s coruscating guitar solo. The backing vocals are, however, present and correct, along with Axl’s fully committed lead, which edges towards the final version – arguably the most emotive singing of his entire career.

The ‘November Rain’ acoustic demo

‘November Rain’ was also tried out as a far shorter acoustic guitar demo, clocking in at five minutes. Apparently, tentative versions of this incarnation were performed at early GNR gigs. The 1986 Sound City demo version of this arrangement is driven by fingerpicked guitar and gentle percussion, while Axl finds his way around the song, sometimes repeating the “I just keep on walking” refrain. This version finds a gentle conclusion, but, comparing the two, it’s clear that ‘November Rain’ was built for piano.

The ‘Use Your Illusion I’ version

After five more years and painstaking recording sessions, ‘November Rain’ finally saw the light of day on 17 September 1991, when it featured as the centrepiece to Use Your Illusion I. On 18 February 1992, ‘November Rain’ was released as the album’s third and final single. It subsequently reached No.3 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and hit No.4 in the UK, making it the band’s highest-charting single since ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’. It was also the longest song in history to enter the Hot 100 and would sit in the Australian Top 10 for 22 weeks.

Clocking in at 8.58, the final version of ‘November Rain’ took much the same shape as the earlier 1986 piano demo. But with the band’s parts worked to completion and a full string arrangement – orchestrated by Axl himself – bolstering the song, ‘November Rain’ was finally ready. Axl’s impassioned delivery stands among the finest of his career, while the breakdown, which begins at 6.48 and quickly soars with Slash’s iconic solo at the 7.09 mark, elevated the song to truly epic proportions.

The promo video

Adding to its grandeur, ‘November Rain’ received a video that cranked the Epic dial up to 11.

Seeming more like a short movie than it did a music promo, the video was conceived as the middle part of a trilogy bookended by the videos for ‘Don’t Cry’ and ‘Estranged’. Starring supermodel and Axl’s then girlfriend, Stephanie Seymour, it followed on from where ‘Don’t Cry’ left off: Seymour had saved Axl from suicide, and now the two were getting married.

Taking in the couple’s doomed wedding (with Slash’s guitar solo performed outside a church in the New Mexico desert), the band hanging at the Rainbow Bar And Grill on LA’s Sunset Strip, and a live performance of the song at The Ritz in New York, the video took for its inspiration a short story, ‘Without You’, written by journalist and author of the short-story collection The Language Of Fear, Del James.

With a budget totalling around $1 million, the ‘November Rain’ video ranks among the most expensive music promos ever made. While it might not have had the same career-boosting impact of the ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ video, at the time of its release, ‘November Rain’ quickly became MTV’s most-requested video of all time – and, on 14 July, officially hit one billion views on YouTube. An integral part of the song’s history, the video has helped the song not just become one of Guns N’ Roses’ definitive moments, but arguably the greatest rock ballad in history.

Listen to the best of Guns N’ Roses on Apple Music and Spotify.

Format: UK English
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