APPETITE FOR DESTRUCTION: THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY RETROSPECTIVE
Like most guys, I will never forget the girl who popped my cherry. Her name was Georgia, and she was a couple of years older than me. One day she approached me and my friend Jonathan in the school gym.
“Wanna hear something cool?” she asked it. The answer, of course, was “yes,” and so she quickly led us to a dark corner of the gym, away from teachers’ prying eyes. She popped a cassette into a small tape recorder, and while she cued it up, I picked up the cover, examining the art in awe: it was a cross. With skulls, dude. It’s dangerous, potentially lethal but almost certainly toxic. I probably shouldn’t even be touching it.
Then the music started. It definitely wasn’t like anything I’d ever heard before, but the part that really got me, right from the get go, was when Axl screamed “FUCK!” I was still pretty young, and idiotic as it sounds now, I had no fucking idea that anyone ever cursed in music. Gordon Lightfoot, this was not. This was very possibly the most important album of my life.
This was Appetite for fucking Destruction.
Look: GN’R were my gateway drug. If not for them, I’d have never listened to Metallica, and if I’d never listened to Metallica, I’m pretty sure I’d have never listened to Megadeth or Anthrax or Slayer, and if not for Slayer, well… I’m sure you see where this going. Without GN’R, I’m not sitting here writing this right now. God forbid, maybe I’m a professional asshole, or something.
All of that being said… I’ve struggled for weeks now about what kind of “big statement” I can make about Appetite for Destruction. I can tell you how it was so different for its time from Poison and Cinderella and yadda yadda yadda, but there’s no point. Nirvana killed Poison and Cinderella, not GN’R, and besides, I never really wanted Poison or Cinderella dead anyway: they were morons, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t fun. (And, besides, the truth is this: it’s fucking hard writing about your favorite album – I have an entire book’s worth of ideas about things I’d like to discuss, and almost no objectivity with which to organize them.)
What I can say is this: even if some of it is, admittedly, a little dated (the high pitched “ahh-ahh-ahhh”s on “Jungle,” for example, is distinctly 80’s – which isn’t to say I don’t love ’em), Appetite remains not just one of the most popular rock albums of all time, but one of the most popular albums of all time, period. More than 16 million sold, and the fucking thing is still good for a hundred thousand copies every year, with pretty much no promotion whatsoever. That’s what we call “a bona fide fucking classic” right there.
So what gives this album its continued mass appeal? Part of it, of course, is Axl’s undeniable star appeal and the fact that at a time when every frontman was showing off about how nuts they were, Axl was completely and certifiably fucking crazy. “Axl Rose was screaming because he was scared,” Chuck Klosterman has asserted, and it’s certainly worth considering, especially when one considers the fate of Chinese Democracy. But either way, when Nikki Sixx wrote about life on the street, we got “Wild Side,” and when Bret Michaels spoke about sex, he gave us “Talk Dirty to Me;” by contrast, Axl wrote the pure poetry we know as “Out Ta Get Me” (a phrase which, Axl maintains, was not a product of his own paranoia but of Izzy’s) and “Anything Goes.” In other words: this guy had a very different viewpoint than his contemporaries.
And part of it is Slash, of course. It’s like everyone but him had forgotten how to play a good old fashioned bluesy solo, a solo that told a story and wasn’t just mindless shredding. And it’s so, so, so filthy… you can actually hear his fingers sliding along the guitar.
And, of course of course of course, part of it is just the fact that the songwriting is, in every way, totally killer. Slash and Duff both clearly knew how to write awesome ready-made-for-the-arena riffs, and combined with Izzy’s goddamned perfect sense of songcraft and Axl’s inimitable sense of melody, this album is just fucking full, front to back, of great goddamn songs.
But if the ability to write great pop metal was all this album had, it’d be Dr. Feelgood. What sets this recording apart, then, is the way that it feels ALIVE. Thank God Mike Clink’s production is so damn crisp and Michael Barbiero’s mixing is so perfectly and clearly distilled; you can really listen to this album a couple of hundred times, just concentrating on one musician per time, and have a different experience. Part of it is that the album is so aurally dense (Axl’s Queen megafandom at play, perhaps) that there are still little flourishes to discover upon a trillionth listen two decades after the album’s initial release – personally, I just noticed the “ooohhh”s Axl added beneath the bridge (“It’s so easy but nothing seems to please me”) on “It’s so Easy” a few years ago and the vocals just beneath the conclusion of Slash’s awesome solo on “Sweet Child O’ Mine” all of five minutes ago. To repeat: THERE IS SOMETHING I NOTICED ON THIS ALBUM FOR THE FIRST TIME JUST FIVE MINUTES AGO. You could argue this just makes me dense, but somehow I don’t think so. I don’t feel like there’s a part of “Cherry Pie” or “Freak on a Leash” that will reveal itself to me upon closer inspection in the coming years.
I mean, listening to this thing with a pair of good headphones is a revelation. The whole AC/DC two-guitar-players-doubling-the-same-riff thing is pretty much par for the course in 80’s rock, but GN’R mix it up a little – even when Slash, Izzy and Duff are all technically playing the same riff, they’re never really playing it the same way; they’re all doing their own little thing, adding their own little flourishes – and yet, somehow, it all clicks together pretty perfectly. A lot has been made of all the spontaneity and happy accidents that went into making this album – how “Paradise City” was written in the back of a van during the band’s very first tour together, how Slash wrote the main lick for “Sweet Child” as a joke before Axl and Izzy turned it into a song, how “It’s So Easy” was supposed to be a nice little Brit-pop ditty until Slash, in Axl’s words, “raped it” and turned it into the scuzzy rocker we all know it to be today. Of course, by the time the band recorded these songs, they’d already been playing them live for a couple of years – but, by Slash’s own admission, no one ever stopped to work out their parts. Everyone just kinda, y’know, figured it out on their own. Maybe that’s why the recording still feels so live, and why the whole album still moves like a living, breathing animal – why, even though it was carefully rehearsed, it sounds totally unrehearsed, as though it were all written and recorded on the spot. If Master of Puppets is a train in perfect control moving full speed ahead and Reign in Blood is a train about to go faster than full speed, right off the rails, then Appetite is a train going about half speed, just kinda chuggin’ along while everyone on board parties.
In the end, I think Chuck Klosterman put it best in his book Fargo Rock City: “Appetite for Destruction is the singular answer to the question, ‘Why did hair metal need to exist?’ After all the coke and the car wrecks and the screaming and the creaming and the musical masturbation and the pentagrams and the dead hookers, this is what we are left with – the best record of the 1980s, regardless of genre. If asked to list the ten best rock albums of all time, this is the only pop metal release that might make the list; it’s certainly the only Reagan-era material that can compete with the White Album and Rumours and Electric Warrior. Appetite for Destruction is an Exile on Main Street for all the kids born in ’72, except Appetite rocks harder and doesn’t get boring in the middle.”
Well said, Chuck. Well said.