11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Ignore the haters; just because Axl Rose is a loony hermit, it doesn’t mean he’s made a bad record. Phil Alexander sees method in his madness…
Guns N’ Roses
THE KNIVES HAVE BEEN OUT for the best part of 17 years. Quite possibly since 1991 when W Axl Rose, having enjoyed chart-topping success with twin-double albums Use Your Illusion I and II, announced that he would no longer appear in photographs with other members of Guns N’ Roses – his old friends Izzy Stradlin and Slash included.
Axl’s decision to distance himself from his own band looked like the act of a megalomaniac. Then, of course, Guns N’ Roses as a band fell apart and Rose retreated to the studio to work on an album whose absence simply added to its legend. Like Brian Wilson’s Smile, except that, unlike the Beach Boys and in spite of 90 million album sales, Guns N’ Roses had never been a critics’ band.
Yet Guns N’ Roses were a band that mattered, emerging from the underbelly of LA’s clubland to provide an instant antidote to the vapid, MTV-friendly poodle rock of the late ’80s, and helping to restore rock’s streetwise sensibilities. Their first UK shows at London’s Marquee in 1987 and their subsequent headline tour of half-full UK theatres (Aerosmith were due to top the bill but cried off; Guns forged ahead regardless) provided ample evidence of the band’s initially reckless abandon. Thinking back to those shows, your correspondent recalls the excitement shared by both crowd and band, the latter having yet to enjoy even the slightest modicum of success in the US.
As Appetite For Destruction struggled to make any kind of Stateside impression (its first month’s sales were less than 20,000), it was the UK that welcomed Guns with open arms, providing them with a springboard from which to vault back into America. Meanwhile, their debut album’s title was to prove prophetic, as their antics transformed them from five guttersnipes peering from the cover of Kerrang! into outraged tabloid fodder – the new Pistols, no anyone? The overall effect of that rapid ascent was both dehumanising and de-stabilising – to the point where, two years after the release of Appetite, the band’s initial spirit of mischief had dissipated. In its place stood an increasingly isolationist penchant for excess designed to blot out the boredom and pressure. It was as if the excitement had simply been sucked out of them.
Close to 20 years on from that turbulent time, the splintering of the original band of Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan and Steven Adler (the drummer being the band’s first casualty, jettisoned in 1990) remains etched in the minds of a generation of rock fans. Guns N’ Roses was their band. Now it is Axl Rose’s. And for many, absence has not made the heart grow fonder. Rose’s appearance at the Download festival at Donington Park in 2006 met with mixed responses and open hostility from certain sections of the crowd, who spent much of the show audibly demanding Slash’s return.
Slash’s absence has been a key factor in the scepticism directed at the current incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. No matter that Stradlin wrote vast chunks of the material on the Illusion albums, Slash remains the band’s totem. Moreover, he was a stabilising brake on Axl’s eccentricities during the band’s rise. In fact, the worldly-wise guitarist from Stoke-On-Trent, whose mother counted David Bowie as a personal friend, added balance to a band whose singer was a firebrand tearaway who’d sung in church and been sexually abused. On reflection, their differences were what made Guns N’ Roses work.
Despite the odd comment in the press, Slash has sought to remain the diplomat. Quizzed about Chinese Democracy in the new issue of MOJO magazine, the guitarist states: “I would like to get my hands on a copy at some point. Someone played me the single down the phone. It sounds good. Axl’s voice still has that unique spirit and it was great to hear that.” His comments ensure that the door is not closed on a return to the band.
Meanwhile, Chinese Democracy is an Axl Rose solo album by any other name. It’s certainly an individual vision: a first listen suggests vast, bewildering and orgiastic in equal measure. First listens, however, can be deceptive. While Rose’s own vocal style is the epitome of the hard rock banshee, his formative influences include the dramatic, sophisticated pop of Elton John, Queen and ELO. With those influences more to the fore that ever, the most triumphant moments of Chinese Democracy are also its most melodic.
At the album’s core lies a track formerly known as The Blues, now more romantically re-titled Street Of Dreams. Led by Dizzy Reed’s piano, it showcases Rose’s maturing vocal style with a performance that is both rich and surprisingly soulful. If Axl has previously considered November Rain to be his crowning glory (a track so epic, it has survived French And Saunders’ best efforts to mock it), then Street Of Dreams – which benefits from a gargantuan arrangement from Elton strings guru Paul Buckmaster – provides a suitable rival.
Equally impressive in terms of melodic sus is Catcher In The Rye, a radio-friendly track that has bears a distinct Wings influence and the stamp of Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker (initially in the hotseat on this track, but subsequently replaced by Rose and ex-Rage Against The Machine acolyte Caram Constanzo). Elsewhere, Madagascar is another moment of high melodrama, again aided by Buckmaster’s strings plus samples from Martin Luther King speeches and Cool Hand Luke.
The sweeping, screeching This I Love – another piano-led affair – has something of a Phantom Of The Opera feel, with a childlike vulnerability lending vindication to some otherwise ham-fisted couplets (“Now I don’t know why / She wouldn’t say goodbye,” begins Rose). Sorry, meanwhile, starts with a Floyd-like guitar motif before Axl delves into a vengeful assessment of an unspecified relationship (“You like to hurt me / You know that you do / You like to think that it’s me / And not you,” he croons with underlying menace, before culminating in the grunge-oid chorus of “I’m sorry for you / Not sorry for me”).
It’s the personal aspects of Chinese Democracy that make it such a fascinating affair. Such has been the album’s gestation period that, as a listener, you can’t help but look for significance in Axl’s lyrical outpouring. At times – as on the coruscating Scraped (“Don’t you try and stop us now!” he commands) – it’s as if Rose is flailing around at an invisible enemy. For all its light and shade, the shuffle-and-riff stomp of IRS underlines that impression.
The heavier material appears initially the least satisfying. The opening title track and the cyber-riffic Shackler’s Revenge (first heard on the soundtrack to the Rock Star 2 game) are in places downright lacklustre. But such is the album’s length (it clocks in at over 70 minutes) that, as you dive in and swim around, the material grows in stature. The Bond-like Latino samba of If The World, for instance, is truly audacious; If There Was A Time is an adult take on Appetite-era Guns; and the preposterously titled Riad N’ The Bedouins has high-octane echoes of Welcome To The Jungle.
Despite the odd nod to the past, however, Chinese Democracy is modern to the point of being too fraught, too compressed in parts. At times you wonder if Rose has spent the bulk of this 14 year-stretch ladling on layers of production gloss. Then again, Chinese Democracy is not an album made with the balance sheet in mind.
“I’m trying to do something different,” he told Rolling Stone when he was cornered at a party in 2006. “Some of the arrangements are kind of like Queen. Some people are going to say, 'It doesn't sound like Axl Rose, it doesn't sound like Guns N' Roses.' But you'll like at least a few songs on there."
Whether this last comment is false modesty from Axl is hard to tell. Certainly, as an avid internet user who allegedly still reads his own press, he is acutely aware of the expectations piling on top of this record (he has been reported as saying “in the end, it’s just an album”). The loading up of the entire record on the band’s My Space page four days before the album’s release is clearly an attempt to dispel the critical flak directed at the band, allowing fans to make up their own mind as to the quality of the music. At the time of writing the hits registered had topped 69 million.
In truth, Axl need not worry. The fact that his management team of Irving Azoff and Andy Gould have convinced him to release the record prior to Christmas will ensure sales that are bound to topple those achieved by fellow hard rock returnees Metallica and AC/DC. Furthermore, for all the negative reviews filed after one solitary, bewildering listen (for security reasons, advanced reviewers were only allowed to hear the album at “playback” sessions at Geffen/Universal’s offices), Chinese Democracy is an absorbing, unashamedly indulgent and at times thrilling piece of work that eclipses the Illusion albums. In the cold light of day, it’s the finest GN’R outing since Appetite.
“Guns N’ Roses fans have every reason to celebrate because this is only the beginning,” teased managers Azoff and Gould in a communiqué issued earlier this month. Significantly, Axl himself mentioned two years ago that he was “working on thirty-two songs”. Chinese Democracy consists of a mere 14. That leaves 18 tracks unaccounted for and presumably enough material for two more albums. After 14 years of reclusive toil and critical sneering, the shocking truth is that Axl Rose may be about to have the last laugh.
Hear Chinese Democracy for yourself here. Or tune in to MOJO Radio tonight – ie. Monday November 24 – at 8.00pm to hear the album in full. MOJO Radio is available on Sky (channel 0182), Freeview (channel 721) and via the radio player on this site.
Posted by Danny_Eccleston at 12:10 PM GMT 24/11/2008