Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction, was the darker, grittier response to Sunset Boulevard’s glam-rock scene. The LP’s unique sound helped move it away from the sea of spandex and hairspray in which it was spawned and make it a staple found in nearly every hard rock fan’s collection, alongside classics like Led Zeppelin II or Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
Released on July 21st, 1987, Appetite for Destruction features the bluesy hard-rock ethos of Aerosmith blended with an aggressive punk undertone amid splashes of metal and ’70s bar rock — a concoction that owes itself to the unique blend of musicians who made up the band.
While not as technically proficient as some his contemporaries, Slash’s guitar playing was fluid and full of feeling; Axl Rose’s unique voice and amazing range was unlike any other singer at the time; Duff McKagan’s punk-inspired bass playing gave the music a raw sense of urgency; Izzy Stradlin’s rhythm guitar cleverly weaved in and out of Slash’s leads; and Steven Adler’s workmanlike drums let the other members shine.
Amazingly, Appetite for Destruction was not a huge success out of the gate. In fact, the album took more than a year to top the charts, only after the singles “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” received heavy rotation on MTV and started to impact radio in 1988. It topped the Billboard 200 in August 1988 and has since become one of the best-selling rock albums of all time.
Like most things that are worth doing, the making of Appetite for Destruction was a hard-fought battle. The band faced a myriad of problems, including excessive drug and alcohol use within the group, the search for a producer, and an increasingly impatient record company.
In his biography, Slash talked about the search for a producer, which boasted such casualties as Tom Werman (who had produced Motely Crue); Spencer Proffer (who actually did do some recording with the band); Mutt Lange (of Def Leppard fame), and Paul Stanley of KiSS.
Stanley made it to the meeting phase, but Guns N’ Roses didn’t agree with the KISS icon’s ideas for changing some of the songs. Imagine “Welcome to the Jungle” with a chorus that was “more memorable, more singsong, more anthemic — in a word, more like a KISS song.”
Luckily, while A&R man Tom Zutaut was searching for the right person for the job, the band had time to write and perfect most of the songs that would end up on Appetite for Destruction (as well as an early version of “November Rain” that would, of course, later be released on Use Your Illusion.)
Little-known producer Mike Clink (who had worked on several Triumph records at this point) was eventually chosen to produce the album, and with Clink at the helm, the group first recorded “Shadow of Your Love”, which did not end up making the album. But the songs that did make the final tracklist are the stuff of legend.
The opening of leadoff track “Welcome to the Jungle”, with Slash’s echoing guitar and Axl Rose’s intense scream, sets the mood for the whole album: a harsh, aggressive, and raw tune echoing the streets of downtown Los Angeles. The song’s video, depicting Rose’s journey from small-town Indiana to the harsh streets of Los Angeles, added an air of danger and mystique to the band.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” started out as Slash doing what he describes as his own version of fingering exercises, as Axl Rose sat in his room listening and writing lyrics as an ode to his then girlfriend and future wife Erin Everly.
Despite the popularity of a ballad like “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, the lyrical and sonic heart of the album came from songs like “Nighttrain”, “Mr. Brownstone,” and “My Michelle” — odes to hard partying, drug dealers, and fast women, rather than love and romance.
“My Michelle”, specifically, has a very dark feel to it, with the guitar using dissonants and minors to create a feeling of tension. The lyrics discuss an old friend of Slash’s and “tells the facts of her upbringing verbatim,” with lyrics like, “Your daddy works in porno/ Now that mommy’s not around.”
The notorious closing track “Rocket Queen” features actual sex sounds from an in-studio encounter between Rose and an on-again off-again girlfriend of Adler, a fact that the drummer was not too happy about. The song provides a fitting ending to the album, with the sexy, gritty first half of the song contrasted with the softer ballad-like second half, capturing the vibe of the entire LP.
As a complete work, Appetite for Destruction is arguably the greatest debut hard-rock album of all time — a perfect combination of melody, grit, and sweat that hit at the exact right time the music world needed it.