Guns ‘n Roses’ Use Your Illusion at 30
September 17, 2021 marks 30 years since Guns ‘N’ Roses made the most audacious step of their career up to that point, and released two new albums of all new material on the same day - Use Your Illusion 1 and Use Your Illusion 2.
Guns and Roses sprung up out of the LA hard rock and metal scene, lumped in with bands like Motley Crue and Poison, with their long hair and leather clothes. However, GnR were far more street-wise and dirty. Their image was less about being made up and coiffured; theirs was “lived in” - from the squalor and grime of the city’s seedy underbelly. This made them far more threatening to the parents of suburban middle American teens, and it meant that their records sold by the truckload. Their debut album “Appetite for Destruction” was a slow burner upon release in 1987, but when the now-iconic ballad “Sweet Child O’Mine” was released after the record was in stores for almost a year, the band’s success took off like a rocket.
In Australia, Guns n Roses were the preserve of the metalhead community. At the time, the cool surfie kids at my high school didn’t listen to that sort of music - they were all into Midnight Oil and INXS. Only the socially awkward types who wore black jeans and flannelette shirts listened to heavy metal. “Appetite for Destruction” was the album I played at low volume or in headphones, lest my mum heard the swearing in it, and confiscated the tape.
Something happened between the release of “Appetite...” and “Use Your Illusion..” though. There seemed to be a cross pollination of the tastes of each of the sub-groups at school and all of a sudden the surfies are now listening to Metallica. This meant that expectation for a new GnR album, which felt like forever since their last album, was at fever pitch.
When the Use Your Illusion albums were released in 1991, it seemed like an overcorrection of sorts. The band essentially copped out on a proper followup to “Appetite for Destruction” with what really amounts to little more than a double EP - a reissue of their debut “Live *?@! Like a Suicide” on side 1 with 4 new acoustic songs on side 2, a record called “G’n’R Lies”.
What we were treated to, after nearly three years of hype, rumour and scuttlebutt, was 150 minutes of new music, which also included a couple of songs that were drip fed to the public as part of film soundtracks (“Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was in Days of Thunder, while “You Could Be Mine” was the signature tune attached to Terminator 2: Judgement Day). They were never intended as a double album, however their titles and artwork almost beg you to treat them as one complete piece.
Collectively, the two albums run the gamut of styles, from pounding punk rock, to country, blues, sneering vitriol, multi-part epics, heartfelt ballads, and an ill-advised attempt at rap music. No fewer than six tracks clock in at over 7 minutes long, the longest being “Coma” at over 10 minutes long, which comes complete with a defibrillator solo.
Most record stores were offering deals and discounts to customers to buy both records together, as my local store did and therefore, upon release, both albums hit the top of the ARIA album charts at the same time. Although, there is only room for one title at the #1 spot, and so UYI 2 scored that spot, with UYI 1 at number 2. For the next 18 months, both albums were rarely out of the Australian top 50 album charts, although Use Your Illusion 1 seemed to hang around longer.
Thirty years on, with the band about to tour Australia again in November (pandemic permitting), have the albums stood the test of time?
History shows us that being self indulgent enough to release two very long albums in one go at that point was a bad idea - with grunge just around the corner, waiting to consign the pomposity of hair metal into the past. That said, what we’re left with is a collection of songs that, when taken together, are as wild and as careering an experience as any of the classic double albums like The Beatles’ “The White Album” or Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk”. In its own way, like those albums, some songs deserve to be removed, some edited.
There is still no forgiving vocalist Axl Rose’s rant against rock journalists, abusing them by name in “Get In The Ring”. There was no need for the alternate lyric version of “Don’t Cry” on UYI 2 when the original version is perfectly decent. The subtle beauty of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” didn’t need to be bludgeoned to death with Axl’s heavy handed arrangement of it, and times have changed now such that the misogyny of “Back off Bitch” really doesn’t belong here anymore.
The risks the band takes are, more often than not, rewarding. The sprawling, multipart suites of “November Rain” and “Estranged” are still beautiful; the 10 minute total-recall-nightmare of a drug overdose “Coma” is still chilling; and “Civil War” is still poignant. They still sound most at home on the pounding rockers, like “Right Next Door To Hell”, “Shotgun Blues”, “Double Talkin’ Jive”, “Pretty Tied Up”, “Locomotive”, “You Could Be Mine”. Axl’s breathless savagery on “Garden of Eden” is every bit as bracing now as it was then.
Most surprising however, is how comfortable they sound being bluesy and occasionally vulnerable. When Axl relaxes the reins a bit, and lets Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan a bit of room to play, you get outstanding tracks like “Dust and Bones” and “14 Years”. When Rose lets his guard down we get songs like “Dead Horse” and “Yesterdays” which show a gift for melody which he is rarely given credit for.
If one is to take the two albums as a unified whole, across 8 sides of vinyl as my copy is, the whole thing runs out of steam on UYI 2, where it feels like things like the overlong country rock experiment “Breakdown” were just thrown in just to make up the numbers. Was a cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” truly necessary? What was the point of the 86-second closing track “My World” where Axl tries on his best Ice T impression and comes off sounding like sour milk?
It is revisionist of me to try and edit these albums down to a single album. There’s more wheat than chaff on this record. However it's up to each listener to determine that. We have Spotify and Apple Music now, we can all make our own playlist of the highlights and make our own perfect version of the album. As it stands, its a perfect example of the decadence and excess of the time, just before it all came crashing down.
Oh well, whatever, nevermind…