Last night I sat and watched Guns N' Roses in New York: Live at The Ritz 1988 - a bootleg DVD of a famous concert recorded as an MTV special just after Guns N' Roses had released its breakthrough debut album, Appetite for Destruction.
I consider Appetite for Destruction to be the greatest rock record released in my lifetime - which is to say it's the most special to me; the most relevant. I remember the impact of that album, its initial bite, every time I play it. It's also an album I still play - not just a nostalgic favourite to ponder; it's a record that gets better the more you play it.
There are plenty of clips of the Ritz concert on YouTube, but this was the first time I sat down to watch the entire show. I saw Guns N' Roses in Auckland in 1993 - I was still very much a fan but the pomposity of their double album Use Your Illusion I and II and the change of lineup - augmented with sexy saxophone ladies and backing singers - was far closer to the ego of W. Axl Rose than to the fire and attitude of the original quintet.
The original Guns N' Roses was everything a rock band - especially for that time - should be. They were lifted up above and beyond the other hair-metal/glam bands of the time. Deservedly. Guns N' Roses might have had the look, the attitude, the image, the "bad-boy" appeal making them desirable to men and women with the cliché that the men wanted to be them and the women wanted to be with them - but, most importantly, these guys had the chops. They could play. They were sloppy too - which is important.
There are several mistakes throughout the Ritz concert - guitars out of tune, a couple of fluffed drum-fills, some improvised sections - risks - that don't always pay off. And this all helps the feel of the concert - makes it real. Guns'n'Roses was a good band - a great band - and part of the reason the band was so great was because it offered a vital, raw, visceral experience.
Steven Adler used to be written off as sloppy, a drunk, a junkie. He of course - due to all of those things - has now (mostly) written himself off. But he was a great drummer - the Ritz concert shows him in fine form. Those sloshy hi-hats driving the beat - he might be metal's Charlie Watts or Ringo Starr; underrated, maligned and for no real reason. Listen closely: this is an innovative player who never gets in the way of the song. He also had a great drum sound. I'd rather listen to him than Lars Ulrich or most of the shoebox-beating double-bass drum-hards that followed.
Izzy Stradlin is one of the great rhythm guitar players, important to the band for his songwriting contributions. He's also an anchor on stage - essentially the straight man (however ironic/inappropriate the term "straight" might be in conjunction with this band).
Duff McKagan gives the band a lot of its punk energy and feel. Check out the versions of Nightrain and Out Ta Get Me from the gig. It's Duff driving it - he embodies the punk feel that was an important (often overlooked) part of the G'n'R vibe/look/sound.
Slash might have a limited scope and might be killing his own legacy with everything he attempts to do post-GNR but hear (and watch) him in context. He is a huge presence - uber-cool - and he is the most distinctive, influential guitarist of his generation. He can widdly-widdly (that solo to Nightrain is a ripper) but he can also kick back and play simple. That oily riff to Sweet Child O' Mine is something every guitarist has a go at; a signature sound. And Slash has several signature riffs/solos - his voice is felt as a guitarist. In that sense you can draw a line - there's Hendrix and the Yardbirds gang (Clapton, Beck, Page) then there's Eddie Van Halen. After that it's Slash - and he's been the lasting presence in rock guitar. Really it's only Jack White that follows - and, well, he's not exactly breaking new ground.
Axl Rose lives inside every song during the Ritz performance, the way a lead singer (for this style of music) must. His sashaying snake on roller-skates dance might have some obvious antecedents (cf: Jagger, Mick and Tyler, Steven) but it's his move-set; he owns it. And that voice - as much as it polarises - watch him in his prime, he's a great rock vocalist.
Live at The Ritz is an important document - it's a simple, sweaty gig from a simple, sweaty rock band. Every song is a hit - it's essentially the Appetite album (minus a couple of songs) and an early version of their Knockin' on Heaven's Door cover. It's a band with the world at its feet. It's a band with nothing to lose and everything to prove - an arrogant nonchalance pervades it. There's a unity though - a solidarity in this group providing/creating a group-sound. It was always vulnerable too, always fragile. We know that it fell apart and it's easy to see why - but this moment, frozen in time, shows them to be the best.
Now, let's start a rumour because - well, why not?
I believe that despite all the bad blood, the comments directed toward one another from Axl and Slash, that the original Guns N' Roses lineup will re-form and tour. I believe this. I think it will happen. And I think it should happen.
Appetite for Destruction is the best kind of masterpiece: created for the need to put a lifestyle down on paper, on record. The distillation of influences - if it's not that good then there would be several albums that sound like it. But there are none that come close. This is perfectly imperfect rock'n'roll created by the imperfectly perfect rock'n'roll band of the 1980s.
The 1990s might have killed Guns N' Roses - and what's left of the legacy might be getting chopped up by all of them now (I blame Slash the most) but I think they'll give in and re-form. Not only that - I think they should.
What do you think? And since we're just dealing with a hypothetical here - would you be interested in seeing the original Guns N' Roses? Would you like to hear Appetite for Destruction in its entirety played live?
And while I'm interested in your opinion/s, let me end with this fact: Guns N' Roses was the last great rock'n'roll band - the last to deliver on record and live, the last to live the lifestyle and go from zero-to-hero (and back again).
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