A twin masterpiece, 25 years on

Ahead of their summer UK dates, when the unstoppable Not In This Lifetime Tour brings the resurgent Guns N’ Roses back into London, Clash take a look back at the album that tore the band apart in the first place.

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By the time the ‘Use Your Illusion’ albums were released, the landscape that Guns N’ Roses had conquered had changed dramatically. Their tinderbox debut ‘Appetite For Destruction’ had buried hair metal bands like Ratt and Poison with its electrifying hotchpotch of blues, punk and hard rock. Every bit as reactionary as Nirvana were to be, the group were conservative in approach, looking to the ’70s to rectify the dire course rock had taken. They all owned Aerosmith’s ‘Rocks’ and Sex Pistols’ ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’.

Released together on the same day, ‘Use Your Illusion I’ and ‘Use Your Illusion II’ are essentially a two individual components of a double album in the same vein as the similarly idiosyncratic ‘Physical Graffiti’ or ‘Exile On Main Street’. Often the press pillories them for their opulence, but to do so is to mistake observation for judgement. The albums were designed to be indulgent, with Axl channelling lifelong heroes Elton John and Freddie Mercury, and Slash now undeniably one of the world’s greatest guitarists after returning from the 16-month ‘Appetite’ tour.

The first casualty of this new era was drummer Steven Adler. Ostensibly fired for his heroin addiction (despite the fact that guitarists Izzy Stradlin and Slash were also junkies), Steven was replaced by Matt Sorum, who added a much cleaner attack to their sound. Whether or not this change was detrimental is endlessly debated to this day.

The albums represented Guns N’ Roses’ past, present and future. At least four of the songs were originally recorded for the ‘Appetite’ sessions: Axl’s masterpiece ‘November Rain’ had been kicking about as an acoustic demo and ‘Don’t Cry’ pre-dates the band as an Axl and Izzy song.

Alongside these was a batch of new songs that were extremely experimental in contrast to their debut. At the tonal centre of it all was still Axl and Slash, whose already-eccentric styles were now utterly unshackled. Slash is by turns a flamenco don on ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’, a gritty bottleneck bluesman on ‘Bad Obsession’ and a Tinseltown shredder on ‘Back Off Bitch’ to name a few. Axl was both a lovesick piano balladeer and an incisive social commentator on songs like ‘Coma’ and ‘Don’t Damn Me’. Both are his lyrical apex in a controversial and checkered career.

For all its dizzying artistic highs, ‘Use Your Illusion’ was the death knell for the band. Izzy walked out shortly into the album’s gruelling promotional tour citing Axl’s chronic tardiness to shows as one of the factors. Slash’s cocaine and heroin abuse snowballed to the point where even the Thin White Duke would tell him he’s in a dark place (Bowie dated Slash’s mother). Unfortunately, it was all foreshadowed on the album, which, in its worst moments, became Axl’s vanity project.

Alongside the petty and unlistenable pot-shots at journalists who badmouthed him on ‘Get In The Ring’ was a gratuitous alternate lyrical take of ‘Don’t Cry’. Tacked on at the last minute, to the surprise of his band members, the embarrassing industrial noise of ‘My World’ foreshadowed Axl’s new taste for electronic music and his growing tendency to take band matters into his own hands. For a time, he would be the only original member left performing under their name.

‘Use Your Illusion’ now stands metonymic of their career: tragicomic, extravagant, inconsistent, but at times absolutely perfect.

Released: September 17th 1991
Producers: Mike Clink, Guns N’ Roses

Words: Tim Hakki / @TimHakki

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‘Use Your Illusion I’
1.  ‘Right Next Door To Hell’
2.  ‘Dust N’ Bones’
3.  ‘Live And Let Die’
4.  ‘Don’t Cry’
5.  ‘Perfect Crime’
6.  ‘You Ain’t The First”
7.  ‘Bad Obsession’
8.  ‘Back Off Bitch’
9.  ‘Double Talkin’ Jive’
10.  ‘November Rain’
11.  ‘The Garden’
12.  ‘Garden Of Eden’
13.  ‘Don’t Damn Me’
14.  ‘Bad Apples’
15.  ‘Dead Horse’
16.  ‘Coma’

‘Use Your Illusion II’
1.  ‘Civil War’
2.  ’14 Years’
3.  ‘Yesterdays’
4.  ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’
5.  ‘Get In The Ring’
6.  ‘Shotgun Blues’
7.  ‘Breakdown’
8.  ‘Pretty Tied Up’
9.  ‘Locomotive’
10.  ‘So Fine’
11.  ‘Estranged’
12.  ‘You Could Be Mine’
13.  ‘Don’t Cry’
14.  ‘My World’

• The Gulf War begins, with US air strikes on Iraq
• The IRA launch a mortar attack on 10 Downing Street
• Four police officers are indicted for beating an unarmed driver, Rodney King, in LA.
• Boris Yeltsin becomes President of Russia.
• The Small Faces’ singer, Steve Marriott, dies in a house fire.

Michael Jackson - ‘Dangerous’
U2 - ‘Achtung Baby’
Ice Cube - ‘Death Certificate’
A Tribe Called Quest - ‘The Low End Theory’
Red Hot Chili Peppers - ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’

Guns N’ Roses play London Stadium on Saturday 17th June. Tickets on sale now at LiveNation.co.uk.

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