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Why are Guns N’ Roses Playing So Much Chinese Democracy Material on Their Reunion Tour?

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Update, 11:39 a.m.: Reader Simon Y. has reminded me that Bruce Dickinson performed the Blaze Bayley-era Maiden tune “The Clansman” at Rock in Rio in 2001. So, at least one time sixteen years ago, Dickinson sang some Bayley shit. I don’t think this changes my point, but I apologize for my error nonetheless.

I’m on record as liking Chinese Democracy, and the nine years (!) since its release has done nothing to make me appreciate it any less (if anything, the opposite is true).

I’m also on record as being a fan who is really enjoying the Axl/Slash/Duff reunion. I had my doubts that it would be anything besides a mediocre nostalgia trip, but the band is really on top of their game, and the shows they’ve been putting on have been tons of fun.

That being said, I cannot for the life of me quite wrap my head around why the band is still performing so much material from Chinese Democracy despite the fact that neither Slash nor Duff had anything to do with it.

When a band such as Guns N’ Roses reunites with old members, it’s fairly traditional for them to stop playing material from any album or albums on which those band members didn’t appear. Black Sabbath never performed “Neon Knights” or “The Mob Rules” with Ozzy; Bruce Dickinson and Rob Halford have never been made to sing any Blaze Bayley or “Ripper” Owens-era material; when KISS brought back Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, they stopped playing songs from the extensive period during which those guys were out of the band; Vince Neil has never sung “Hooligan’s Holiday,” and as far as I can tell, C.C. DeVille only had to play “Stand” live once before everyone realized that was a bad idea. There are exceptions, of course, but they’re few and far between, and when they occur, it’s usually for the span of just a single song — Korn, for example, having been playing “Coming Undone” from the Headless See You on the Other Side, but that’s the only song they’re doing off a Head-free album.

But Guns N’ Roses are playing four-five songs off of Chinese Democracy each and every night: the title track, “Better,” “This I Love,” “Madagascar,” and “There Was a Time.” (Since reuniting, they’ve also sometimes performed “Catcher in the Rye,” too, although that track hasn’t been included on recent set lists.) That’s more than a third of the album. It’s also nearly half an hour of their total show — time which I’m sure fans would prefer they spent playing more classics. Fans may or may not get to hear “Patience” or “Don’t Cry” when they attend a GN’R reunion show… but they will definitely hear “Madagascar,” during which Slash doesn’t even take a solo, ceding all lead guitar duties to Democracy holdover Richard Fortus instead (who is admittedly an extremely talented guitarist whether handling rhythm or lead duties). And that’s not even getting into the band’s hits which they’re not bothering to play at all, like “Out Ta Get Me,” “Bad Obsession,” and “Pretty Tied Up.”

This decision is, in a word, bonkers.

Don’t forget: Chinese Democracy did not light the world on fire. Attending these shows, it’s clear that the vast majority of fans either don’t know or don’t care about these songs; along with the multiple covers the band plays every night (another odd, unnecessary flourish), they are usually accompanied by a mass rush to the bathroom or bar, as well as a noticeable number of concertgoers actually sitting in their seats. There may be some hardcore fans sprinkled here and there who are way into these numbers, but they’re in the minority.

And, hey, look: every Guns N’ Roses show lasts three hours or more. So it’s not like fans are getting screwed or anything. The set is not lacking for GN’R oldies. But, again, survey ticket buyers and ask what they’d rather hear, “This I Love” or “Dead Horse,” and I guarantee that “Dead Horse” will win in a landslide. Hell, survey ticket buyers and ask what they’d rather hear, “This I Love” or “Welcome to the Jungle” twice, and I suspect that “This I Love” would still be licked.

So why are GN’R even bothering with these tracks?

It’s not to help their record sales: the week the band reunited, they sold a whopping 103 more copies of Chinese Democracy than they did the previous week, and the album has yet to see a week-to-week sales increase of more than 111 copies. Which may sound unimpressive, but is downright embarrassing when you realize the album’s weekly sales routinely fail to break double digits (as of this writing, no single week has seen more than 85 copies of Chinese Democracy sold since July; from September 7 to October 12 of this year, the album has sold, on average, 46 copies every week). And, hey, not every album can be The Black Album, but those numbers are noticeably weak. So it’s not as though fans who ignored Chinese Democracy because Slash wasn’t on it are hearing these songs now and seeking out the record.

(It’s probably not helping matters that the Slashified versions of the Chinese Democracy songs generally don’t sound very good. “Madagascar” is okay, because, again, Slash is not at the forefront of the song, and the new intro to “Better” is so good it makes me wish it was part of the original recording. But for the most part, with these songs, Slash is falling into a trap he’s always avoided in the past: playing really fast but not actually getting anywhere. For the first time in his career, he’s trading structure for showing off. I’d speculate this is his attempt to compete with the flashiness of Buckethead’s Chinese Democracy leads, but that’s pure conjecture. In any case, Slash isn’t doing these songs any favors.)

What it ultimately seems to come down to, then, is this: Guns N’ Roses are playing these songs because Axl Rose wants to. Maybe because he really loves the material, or maybe just to stroke his ego; it’s interesting that Slash and Duff are performing Chinese Democracy material, but Rose isn’t singing any Velvet Revolver material, even though one could argue that, legalities of their brands aside, Velvet Revolver laid as much claim to being Guns N’ Roses as Chinese Democracy did. If it’s the former, hey, I get it, but either cut down the number of Democracy tracks or cut out all the goddamn covers (would anyone cry if they didn’t play “The Seeker” or “Black Hole Sun”?). If it’s the latter, well… just cut it out altogether (or at least demonstrate a sense of humor and play “Sorry,” which is basically a diss track about Slash).

Either way, hopefully, as time goes on, the band releases a new album, and they’re forced to introduce more old songs into their setlist to please audiences that have heard “Yesterdays” a trillion times, and this will be less of an issue. For now, though, it’s irritating, if not exactly the end of the world.

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