Civil War: The Making of Guns N? Roses? Use Your Illusion
by Derek Moore,posted Sep 20 2011 8:23AM
By Michael Leonard
To some, it was the ultimate triumph of a band at the top of their game. To others, it was a folly that blew a great band apart. Twenty years ago this week, Guns N' Roses released Use Your Illusion. It was only the band's second full release, but what a release.
Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion 2 were confined to a disc each on CD, but on vinyl they were both double albums, making for eight sides of vinyl. With 4.2 million copies sent to record stores for a midnight release, it was the largest album shipment in history. But such grandeur came at a cost.
All involved admit that Guns N' Roses were on a precipice even so early in their career. Guitarist Slash recently told Total Guitar, "I was just totally obsessed with the creation of the Illusion records and when I got into that studio, I was completely absorbed with everything to do with them, all the time. Because it had been so long. We'd made Appetite [for Destruction] and then toured for years and – for me, and I know for a couple of the other guys – we'd crashed and burned. So we were pulling ourselves out of the quagmire and going back to work."
For singer Axl Rose, lofty ambitions were paramount. "We want to define ourselves," Rose told Rolling Stone. "Appetite was our cornerstone, a place to start. That was like: Here's our land and we just put a stake in the ground. Now we're going to build something."
Slash and Axl Rose may have shared ambition, but Guns N' Roses were not in the best shape to realize it. Slash, to his credit, had conquered a drug problem that had blighted the Appetite glory days. But bassist Duff McKagan had sobriety issues, drummer Steven Adler had gone (replaced by Matt Sorum), Izzy Stradlin was troubled and Axl Rose was becoming more reclusive, only "speaking" to fellow Gunners via management members. Then the band relocated to Chicago to start recording Use Your Illusion.
The sheer scale of the project soon caused friction. Slash admits: "I'd have preferred to do a record with just 10 songs that were a bit more straightforward." While the albums' scope allowed all members to contribute fully, not everything was consensual. A bugbear of Slash's was Rose's introduction of synthesizers to the Guns armory. "I disagreed with synthesizers, and I still do."
Still, it wasn't all bad. Some songs on Use Your Illusion had been around for years and came to impressive fruition. "Dead Horse" was an old Axl tune, "Back off Bitch" was written before Guns N' Roses even formed, "You Could be Mine" had nearly made it onto Appetite, and "November Rain" was written by Slash and Rose in 1986 before Appetite was recorded.
Says Slash: "When Axl and I first played ‘November Rain,' the same guitar melodies that are in the recorded version came through. There was definitely a spark between the two of us. It was hard to arrange that song and ‘Estranged,' because they were so open-ended and we had to cut ‘November Rain.' But those were Axl's epic piano pieces and they were both breakthrough guitar solos for me. Real melody solos, y'know? I had some good sounds and they were melodically very spontaneous."
The tour that followed proved to be one of the most notorious in rock history. Comprising 194 shows in 27 countries over two and a half years, it was mammoth. But tensions were reaching fever pitch. Fan fights erupted at many gigs – Axl Rose once attacked a fan who had a video camera, another fan had a fight with a press photographer.
On the double-headline section with Metallica in Montreal, James Hetfield was burned in a pyrotechnics accident and when Guns eventually took to the stage there were sound problems: Rose ended up storming offstage, sparking a riot that spilled into the streets. In Venezuela, Guns' equipment got impounded as the result of an attempted miltary coup. Meanwhile, Matt Sorum got lost in the Venezuelan jungle for two days in search of drugs. In Chile, an intoxicated Axl Rose was two hours late onstage and a teenage fan was killed outside the stadium in the melee.
The Use Your Illusion tour was as outrageous as Spinal Tap, but without any hint of humor. And with seven additional musicians onstage (eight, including keyboardist Dizzy Reed), it was all far removed Gun's punk-metal roots in L.A. By the final date in Argentina in July 1993, Guns N' Roses seemed shattered, musically and emotionally.
Izzy Stradlin, writer of some of Illusion's best riffs, had bailed out just after the albums were released. Slash saved his next songs for his Snakepit debut album. Apart from the all-covers album The Spaghetti Incident? (1993), it was the end of Guns N' Roses as most fans knew and loved them.
It's for these reasons that Use Your Illusion is possibly hard to love. But despite intense friction due to over-ambition, Slash came out smiling.
"That was the first time I had enough money to buy some new guitars. I was like a kid in a candy store, because there was so much material and I wanted all kinds of different guitar sounds, just whatever my vision was for that song. As tumultuous as it was to make those records, the one thing I really enjoyed was those three weeks doing guitars [and] just having a great time down at the Record Plant."
Grand album projects can go both ways. The Beatles "White Album" was a triumph: each member excelled, even if they were on poor personal terms at the time. Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway only proved that Peter Gabriel was so domineering, the band would have to split. With Guns' N' Roses Illusion, it was maybe a bit of both? James Hetfield was cutting when he told Rolling Stone in the aftermath, "Guns N' Roses is a guy… and some other guys." As the AllMusic guide puts it: "Use Your Illusion is a shining example of a suddenly successful band getting it all wrong and letting its ambitions run wild."
"There's a lot of good crap on those Illusion records…" is the only perspective Slash chooses to put on it.
Imagine if the sprawling whole was redux'd, as Slash wanted, to 10 killer songs? If so, maybe Use Your Illusion would be a record that made Guns N' Roses, instead of breaking them.
More Slash and Guns N'Roses:
Civil War: The Making of Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion
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