People can take many angles when assessing the legacy of Guns N’ Roses. Some choose to analyze the band’s ascent to the top of rock and roll’s mountain. Others dwell on their (relatively short) run atop said mountain. Many prefer to harp on the band’s much-publicized downfall because, well, people like train wrecks. A select few even like to dive into the GNR-but-not-really-GNR, Chinese Democracy era.
Each of these approaches the band from a different angle, and each of this is certainly a fair approach, considering Guns N’ Roses’ tale easily ranks among the most winding, multifaceted in the annals of pop music. But each only tells a portion of the story, thereby underselling the legacy of Guns N’ Roses, which just so happens to be coming back through Houston on Friday as part of its Not In This Lifetime Tour (GNR played NRG Stadium in the summer of 2016; this week’s show is scheduled for Toyota Center).
Sure, Guns N’ Roses ascended faster than it probably needed to, which made its members overnight rock stars prone to overnight rock star behavior. And their run at the top was abbreviated by in-fighting, drug use, ego and Axl Rose’s almost crippling perfectionist tendencies. The years since the band disbanded have been wrought with trading barbs in the press, semi-reunions, and finally, a full-fledged world tour that not only features much of GNR’s original lineup (Izzy Stradlin is out, while Steven Adler has guested at a number of shows), but one that has been well-received and relatively devoid of drama.
GNR’s place in the all-time rock pantheon is a tricky one. They certainly haven’t had the staying power of a Metallica or Rolling Stones. They didn’t really define a genre like Nirvana, a band that ironically enough kinda ended GNR’s run as the biggest band on the planet. Hell, they aren’t even really considered a classic rock outfit the likes of Aerosmith or AC/DC, despite the band’s peak taking place 30 years ago.
That said, and to bring this home to Houston, GNR is to the all-time rock pantheon was Jose Altuve is to the current state of Major League Baseball. Neither is regarded as the best in one particular silo, but in ranking near the top of every silo that applies, each should be considered the best in their respective industries. And that is what makes GNR arguably the best – and, more importantly, unquestionably the most unique – rock band of all time.
Rock music is littered with bands who can safely be described as being loaded with personality. The Beatles had their issues. As did Led Zeppelin. Hell, Metallica made a documentary about their beef, essentially resulting in a group therapy session on film. But GNR, man, GNR was something else altogether because of two noteworthy personalities: Axl Rose and Slash.
The former a Midwest kid who adopted the persona of a charismatic, hell-on-wheels spitfire; the latter a laid-back California dude by way of London who could make love to a guitar like few before him. The result was Appetite for Destruction, one of the most influential and successful (Platinum 30 times over) rock albums of all time. G N’ R Lies – pretty good as rushed stopgap releases go – followed suit, paving the way for Axl’s two-album opus – Use Your Illusion I and II.
Oddly enough, the Use Your Illusion set (which was sold separately, because commerce) marked both the commercial high of GNR, while signaling the band’s descent as well. The two debuted at Nos. 1 and 2 on the Billboard albums chart and eventually moved more than 30 million copies combined. They delivered hits for days, most notably “November Rain,” which marked GNR at its tightest and most musically cohesive.
Turns out, a little band called Nirvana released a little album called Nevermind the week before Use Your Illusion I and II hit shelves (yes, new music used to hit shelves). And while “Smells Like Teen Spirit” took a while to catch on, by 1992, Nirvana was the biggest band in America and grunge was the nation’s new musical movement. GNR was still relevant for sure, but the band’s impact had begun to wane. This is somewhat of a shame, considering that – while a bit bloated and self-indulgent – GNR’s Use Your Illusion set is far more well-rounded and focused than its predecessor and one of the best rock double-sets ever released.
By 1993, GNR released a half-assed covers album – The Spaghetti Incident? – and the run was over. The band didn’t tour in support of the album, and shortly after, GNR pretty much disbanded. And this is where things get interesting.
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Grunge, like the GNR run before it, would eventually pass, and once the dust settled on the Nirvana-led run, people still wanted to hear from Axl Rose and his bandmates. Despite the in-fighting, delayed or outright cancelled shows, and Rose's petulant behavior, fans still clamored for the band.
A completely revamped lineup – Rose still in, everyone else out – sufficed well enough, though it wasn’t the same. Chinese Democracy, easily one of the most anticipated albums of all-time, failed to deliver, though it must be said that Chinese Democracy isn’t nearly the disasterpiece that many portrayed. Rather, it was a perfectly fine rock record done in by expectations, impatience and preceding material from GNR that no album could measure up to.
I never thought we’d get Axl and Slash back on stage for a one-off appearance, much less a full-blown world tour that has now spanned five continents and nearly two years. Whether it was money, maturation or simply the ability to swallow one’s pride in giving the fans what they want, GNR is back and, by all accounts, kicking ass. Show reviews trumpet a return to form, Slash is doing his thing, Axl (for the most part) is hitting the notes of yesteryear.
The Not In This Lifetime Tour is a fitting end for one of rock music’s most notorious bands. No one could have expected the band’s debut would vault them into the rock stratosphere, just as few expected the band could return to form some 30 years later. Perhaps GNR was always best when defying expectations. Or maybe they’re just closing the book one of the best, most tumultuous, and yes, most complicated stories in music history.