The newest class of nominees to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was announced today, and as usual the list is split between old-school pioneers who did very little rocking (Freddie King, the Spinners), classic rockers (Heart, Donovan, the Small Faces), rappers with a bit of rock swagger (Eric B. & Rakim, the Beastie Boys), and a band I don’t care for but whose success is an unfortunate fact of life, like world hunger (the Red Hot Chili Peppers). There’s also one shoo-in (Joan Jett), a couple of who-doesn’t-love-funk-and-soul entries (War, Rufus with Chaka Khan), the obligatory disco nod (Donna Summer) and one mild head-scratcher (the Cure).
But there’s one brand—er, I mean band—that stands out. I’ve had my issues with the Hall of Fame in the past, but I’ve got to give them the nod when they get it right. Guns N’ Roses is an obvious choice for enshrinement in this hallowed rock memorial. No band more deserves to take its rightful place alongside such rock legends as ABBA, Bob Marley and Genesis—although not for the reason you might be thinking of.
People try to put us d-d-d-down
Many of the actual rock acts in the Hall of Fame—Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, U2, the Rolling Stones, Metallica, even the recently shuttered R.E.M.—embody one of the core values of rock and roll, as succinctly framed by the Who: “Hope I die before I get old.” The bad news is, they proved the truth of that adage the hard way—by contradicting it.
Every one of those bands, you see, did get old. They didn’t live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse. They lived fast, got winded, kept going, slowed down, refused to call it quits, and eventually pulled over to the side of the road to gasp and wheeze and maybe toss up their macrobiotic lunch. They didn’t die young, and when they do shuffle off this mortal coil, no amount of embalming fluid and powder will make their corpses “good-looking.”
Some of them, like R.E.M., managed to summon enough juice to cross the finish line with at least a sliver of cred intact. But the vast majority of them morphed into Fat Elvis before they had the sense to leave the building. U2 long ago succumbed to arena-rock pomposity. The Rolling Stones resemble a gaggle of shambling, sybaritic zombies, random body parts sloughing onto the stage during the Viagra anthem “Start Me Up.” Metallica … well, the less said about St. Anger and the aptly titled Death Magnetic, the better.
So many artists have ignored Neil Young’s classic warning (“It’s better to burn out than it is to rust”) that surrendering to vanity, ego and one’s own press clippings has become the new rock and roll standard. And no band has lived up to that credo better than Guns N’ Roses.
Talk about living fast: GNR shot out of the gate with what is inarguably the best debut album in rock history. Appetite for Destruction has a few lags, but it established a benchmark that the band’s hair-metal “peers” of the time—L.A. Guns, Tesla, Warrant, Cinderella, etc.—could never hope to reach, let alone surpass.
But with all due respect to Cinderella, that’s not saying much. The inconvenient truth about Appetite is that it represents a peak that even rock’s heaviest hitters couldn’t touch. AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, Van Halen the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Stooges, KISS … none of them have recorded an album as muscular, as feral, as dense with rocket-launcher riffs and as rippling with chaotic sex and energy. Forget the Scorpions—with Appetite, Guns N’ Roses rocked you like a hurricane: swift, brutal and out of control.
Knock-knock-knockin’ on Heaven’s doah-woah …
That alone would be enough to induct the band into any Hall of Fame worthy of the name. But GNR clinched their place in the Rolling Stone Hall—I mean, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame by skipping over the years of adequate-but-not-great albums that usually follow such a debut and diving straight into the inevitable third act of so many Hall of Famers: bloated self-parody.
Two years after Appetite, the band threw a curveball with G N’ R Lies, which consisted of a dubious live “bootleg” and a handful of middling acoustic tracks. In 1988, this apparently amounted to a rebellion on par with punk rock. The band sneered in the liner notes that they’d recorded an acoustic cover of the Appetite rocker “You’re Crazy” as if this was a Molotov cocktail through the window of the Cleaver household. Remaking one of your own songs? With acoustic guitars? Ooh, you bad boys!
Oh, sure, a couple of lines from “One in a Million” got Axl Rose accused of misogyny, racism and homophobia. But in retrospect the notable thing about Lies is that it foreshadowed the self-indulgent excess that would sink the band three years later.
From the petulant “How dare you criticize me?” belligerence of “Get in the Ring” to the cringe-inducing “November Rain,” Use Your Illusion goes off the rails in such spectacular fashion that it’s tempting to hope Rose and company are failing on purpose. Double album? Check. Pointless if faithful cover of “Live and Let Die”? You got it. Even more pointless and laughably grandiose cover of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”? Right here. Schlocky power ballads overstuffed with orchestral pomp, stretching on for ten minutes? Take your pick! Lyrics that aim for philosophical depth but instead make you want to claw your eyes out? Ohhh, yeah. (“The power-hungry go shopping in a human grocery store,” indeed.)
One in a million
But wait, there’s more. The sea change that took place in pop music, and rock in particular, in 1991 has been laid almost entirely at the feet of Kurt Cobain, and it’s true that from the very first moment the opening chords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” jumped from college radio onto the mainstream airwaves, the androgynous pouts and puerile posturing of Poison and the rest of the hair-metal brigade were no longer entertaining and instead revealed as kind of sad.
But if any band could have led a successful counter-revolt and kept the stringy-haired, leather-pants-clad masses from sliding into irrelevance, it was Guns N’ Roses. Alas, by the time Nevermind fired the riff heard ’round the world, GNR had squandered any authority it once possessed. In 1987, Guns N’ Roses were lauded as the saviors of rock and roll; a mere four years later, they symbolized everything rock and roll needed saving from.
Having recorded one of the most arresting hard-rock albums ever, they had nowhere to go but down. And oh, what a drop. Use Your Illusion I and II made Guns N’ Roses a cautionary tale for ambitious rockers everywhere. And that, above all else, is why they deserve to be immortalized in rock’s greatest mausoleum.