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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

An appetite for Guns N’ Roses: how the hard rock band shaped my life

We chart the ups and downs of his relationship with a band he first encountered in the summer of 1987, as he awaits their F1 closing gig

Guns N’ Roses, from left, Duff McKagan, Slash, Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler at the start of their career in 1987, the year they released their debut album Getty
Guns N’ Roses, from left, Duff McKagan, Slash, Axl Rose, Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler at the start of their career in 1987, the year they released their debut album Getty

It was the summer of 1987, and a 14-year-old me was, like many summers, visiting my father, who lived in Montreal, Canada, for the holidays. I loved the atmosphere of that city – part American brashness with its skyscrapers and gleaming malls, and part French cool, with quaint brasseries on narrow streets lined with locals smoking on their doorsteps and chatting away in the local brogue. Montreal also had MTV, and the local equivalent, Much Music.

This was a thing of wonder to a teenager from the grey North of England, where such ­exoticism was something you saw in American high-school movies and heard about in Dire Straits songs. I think MTV did exist in the United Kingdom at this point, but not among my friends and I. We were still excited about the launch of a fourth terrestrial channel a couple of years previously.

Satellite or cable were something straight from the pages of sci-fi as far as my family were concerned. I recall my stepdad bringing home a gleaming white Sky mini-dish at some point in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and being told in no uncertain terms by my mother that she would not be sullying our house with that eyesore. So it was only this century, when the combined effects of Sky’s monopoly on the English Premier League and ill-health severely curtailed her ability to watch Manchester City that a satellite dish was finally hoisted on the wall of Newbould Towers.

In exotic Canada, however, I could watch MTV to my heart’s content, and it just so happened that this was the summer that Guns N’ Roses were starting to bubble over. They weren’t a big deal yet, but Welcome to the Jungle had made it on rotation on music channels, and I remember being blown away the minute I heard it. Axl Rose’s unearthly opening scream, the chugging guitar intro, then bam – straight into four minutes of punk-metal mayhem. I bought the album immediately, and can honestly say it was the first time an album truly shook my world.

Guns N’ Roses, with original members Axl Rose, left, and Slash, perform in Los Angeles in 1985 Getty
Guns N’ Roses, with original members Axl Rose, left, and Slash, perform in Los Angeles in 1985 Getty

It changed everything. I was at that age, of course, so naturally, before you knew it, the polite young boy my mum knew and loved was morphing into a snarling teen, growing and bleaching his hair, picking up cowboy boots and a bizarre array of DIY “sleaze rock” outfits from charity shops, and playing Appetite for Destruction on continuous loop.

Over the remainder of the summer, I voraciously read everything I could about this incredible new band and their Los Angeles contemporaries. I even picked up a copy of the rare Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP, which would never release in the UK, save as one half of the gap-plugging Guns N’ R Lies mini album at the tail end of 1988, and a couple of ­compilation albums featuring early demos of the band’s material among a slew of other underground acts of varying degrees of quality.

On returning to school in the rainy North of England in September armed with this new musical secret, I was treated like some kind of ancient soothsayer bearing mystical gifts of unknown, and incredible music. There were the others too – Faster Pussycat, LA Guns, Smashed Gladys – but that Guns N’ Roses album was the game changer that opened the floodgates to the rest, and there wasn’t a single dud among its 12 tracks.

When the band embarked on their first UK tour that October, it was fortuitous that a school friend had parents who were on holiday, and a lenient older brother. This allowed my little gang of four to fake a study session sleepover for a “school project,” don our best bandannas (and in one case a silver lame trilby hat as I recall) and take the bus into Manchester to catch the local leg at the Apollo Theatre – and what a gig it was. With support from Faster Pussycat too – what more could you ask? The ­energy, the aggression that made up the album was amplified – turned “up to 11”, to quote another well-known band from the genre.

It wasn’t long before the band were the biggest thing since The Beatles, and once Sweet Child O’Mine took over the world’s airwaves when it released as a single in August 1988, even your gran could sing along to them. But I knew I’d been there first.

In all honesty, my obsession with Guns N’ Roses didn’t last that long, though plenty of others’ did. A cobbled-together mini album that I already had half of in 1988 wasn’t sufficient to keep me from moving on, as teenagers do. By the time they finally delivered a disappointing second album proper in 1991, with a new drummer who couldn’t replicate the swinging style of Steven Adler that set the band apart from the rest of the LA scene of the time, I wasn’t even interested. I’d already moved on to the introspective cod philosophy and pseudo literary pretentiousness of the goth scene, as befitted a kid about to embark on an English degree, and the colourful bandannas, rock ’n’ roll cliches, and cowboy boots had morphed into black. A lot of black.

And then Nirvana blew up. Guns N’ Roses were relegated to a footnote in my cultural development. They were victims of their own between-­album-inactivity and the birth of a new movement that made the preened hairstyles, pouting, and vibrant outfits just seem kind of futile. The kids had moved on, while Guns N’ Roses argued over their next album and sacked their members. I did buy a copy of Chinese Democracy in 2008, just to see how things were going for Axl Rose and his travelling band, but I remember so little about it, I guess it didn’t have the same effect on mid-30s me as Appetite did for 14-year-old me. Their 1993 The Spaghetti Incident? completely passed me by.

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But I’ll always be grateful for Appetite for Destruction. Not only was it perhaps the most seminal album of my youth, but it shaped what I have become. I really believe that the excitement of introducing this unheard of, otherworldly sound to my peers, was crucial in making me decide at university that I wanted to write about music for our student paper, ultimately moving on to a staff role at a local listings magazine and spending the next 20 plus years largely in entertainment journalism.

The strange name of Faster Pussycat, meanwhile, whom I would never have encountered without Guns N’ Roses, led to me investigating the Russ Meyer movie they were named after, and ultimately developing an unhealthy obsession with 1960s B-Movie Hollywood exploitation fare that survives to this day. This in-turn led to me seeking out other films from genres that would never get a look in at your local multiplex – foreign-language, surrealist, seven-hour Polish primitivist features, and even bad, wear and anti-movies. I dedicated much of my degree to writing about them, rather than the classics I’d anticipated studying at the beginning of the course.

So, I’m not the world’s biggest Guns N’ Roses fan, though maybe I was for six months in 1987. But I’ll be checking them out on tonight for the first time since that debut UK tour. All reports ­suggest this almost-original line-up still packs the same punch 30 years later, and they’ve become one of the world’s most successful touring bands after many years in the wilderness. With 60 per cent of the original line-up now back in the fold, it may be the closest I get to quite literally reliving my youth this year, although this time I won’t need a fake study session, or a student bus pass.