They had the look, the attitude – and they definitely had the songs, among them ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’, ‘Paradise City’ and the unstoppable ‘Welcome To The Jungle’. But despite the huge buzz surrounding Guns N’ Roses in Los Angeles, when they released their debut album, Appetite For Destruction, on 21 July 1987, the wider world barely noticed.
Speaking to the BBC in 2016, Tom Zutaut, who’d signed the band to Geffen in 1986, recalled Ed Rosenblatt, then president of Geffen, telling him that, with sales of just 200,000 after several months, Geffen were “walking away from this record”.
“I said, ‘This record’s gonna sell millions,’” Zutaut recalled, but it didn’t help that radio and TV stations wouldn’t play it. The band were preceded by their reputation as “the choicest side of lowlife rock’n’roll to emerge out of LA” since Mötley Crüe, as Mick Wall had described their Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP in Kerrang! “Nobody in America wanted to know about them,” Zutaut said. “People wanted them to just disappear.”
An alleged blacklisting by media mogul John Malone seemed to put the final nail in the coffin. MTV were afraid to play the band’s video for ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, which followed the album, on 28 September, because Malone had reportedly told them, “If we play this band, he’s gonna drop us off his cable systems.” After Zutaut visited Geffen label founder David Geffen and convinced him to put a call in to MTV himself, the cable channel found a spot: 4am New York time, 1am LA time, in the hopes that no one who knew Malone would be awake and watching.
The video, which opens with Axl Rose playing his Midwestern roots to the hilt, chewing some wheat as he disembarks from a bus at the corner of 6th Street and South La Brea Avenue, in LA, was largely focused on a performance of ‘Jungle’ filmed at the iconic 80s hard rock club Scream, then held at the Park Plaza Hotel. Capturing the raw immediacy of an early GNR show, the video also had shades of A Clockwork Orange, with its spliced footage of “ultraviolent” riots and police brutality – and a straitjacketed Axl being tortured with them. It was the sort of thing that upheld Malone’s belief that the band posed “a threat to good Christians”.
To celebrate their hard-won victory, the band threw a party while awaiting the early-hours broadcast. While the musicians and friends indulged in their rock’n’roll excesses of choice, Tom Zutaut bought “bucketloads” of cookies and milk for some sustenance. “Before the video comes on, maybe like 11 at night, there’s a knock on the door and it’s the LA Country Sheriffs,” Zutaut recalled. Before letting them in, Zutaut ensured that any incriminating evidence had been disposed of. All the authorities saw were girls and boys “sitting there with milk lips and milk chins, eating cookies and watching TV”. “We have no idea why your neighbours are complaining,” they said.
The video aired – and that was assumed to be that. But when Zutaut woke up in the morning he had countless messages waiting for him. When he went into the office to speak to Al Coury, Geffen’s head of promotion, Coury was so frantic he “sounded like a gremlin on steroids”.
“Basically,” Zutaut recalled, “he says, ‘The MTV switchboard blew up last night. Too many phone calls came in, it sparked the thing and it melted.’” The channel had never had so many calls – and requests for the ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ video continued into the following day. “Every kid in America is calling them requesting this video,” Coury told Zutaut, “and they know there’s no way we could have paid that many people to do it.”
Giving into demand, MTV added the ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ video on rotation, giving Guns N’ Roses the global exposure they deserved. After that, everything changed. Two hundred thousand album sales? Sure – but make that every week. The album topped the Billboard 200 and became the best-selling debut album ever in the US, where it was eventually certified Diamond; Appetite has since also gone multi-Platinum in several other countries.
With sales now totalling over 30 million around the world, and the band in the middle of their highly anticipated Not In This Lifetime… tour, it seems the public well never lose its appetite for GNR.
Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction super deluxe and Locked N’ Loaded box set reissues are out now and can be bought here.