Seventeen years. That’s how long it’s been since the release of the “Use Your Illusion” albums, the last new offering of original songs by the once-dominant hard rock band Guns N’ Roses. Come Nov. 23, a reconfigured edition of the group will release the long-awaited “Chinese Democracy” album.
A lot has happened since the two “Illusions” sets dropped on Sept. 17, 1991. Back then, Miley Cyrus hadn’t been born, Beyoncé was 10 and Fall Out Boy’s Pete Wentz was 12. Not only weren’t Britney, Christina and Justin not pop stars yet, they weren’t even members of the New Mickey Mouse Club yet.
By 1993, the original Guns was going out with a whimper. They put out a middling CD of cover songs and soon fell apart, leaving singer Axl Rose the lone original member. Rose then cloistered himself in studios, recording and reworking songs, like a tattooed, modern-day Brian Wilson, who could never get the Beach Boys’ “Smile” album just right.
“Smile” was released as a Wilson solo project in 2004, but by then Wilson had a cult audience. With “Chinese Democracy,” Guns is gunning for the big time. Anticipation is high. Dr. Pepper will be giving away those promised free cans of soda. Will listeners vote “yes” for Rose’s self-styled “Democracy?”
One thing that helps Guns N’ Roses is they’ve never been entirely off the radar. A few Rose-led editions of the band have toured and even brought back memories of the early 1990s when Rose again caused fans to riot. This time he didn’t even have to show up!
A 2004 greatest hits album sold well, while former Gunners Slash, Duff McKagan and Matt Sorum founded Velvet Revolver. Even drummer Steven Adler reclaimed the spotlight by appearing on “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” (hey, it’s something). Guns N’ Roses itself became a revolving door for so many musicians that an entire Wikipedia page was created to list ’em all. And like Wilson, Rose remained a news fixture simply because he wasn’t releasing records. Other artists should be so lucky.
Illusions of the past
Since Guns N’ Roses stopped making albums, an entire generation has grown up without them as an ongoing force. The UK’s Guardian even compiled a tongue-in-cheek list of 100 cultural milestones since the group’s last album.
Guns N’ Roses first connected with songs like “Paradise City” because they offered an edgier alternative to frothy hair metal. But by late 1991, alternative bands were offering an edgier option to Guns. The rise of alternative rock ended the careers of ’80s rockers like Warrant, Great White and Motley Crue, who were instantly embalmed as relics. Guns N’ Roses weathered the alt onslaught, but (pardon the pun) the bloom was starting to go off the rose.
When Billboard began using the music sales tracking system SoundScan in late 1991 (in lieu of its less accurate phone surveys), the charts changed dramatically. Rap and country became far more dominant, pushing rock to the sidelines. Guns N’ Roses expressed dismay to Howard Stern about this. Soon, people started wondering whether rap and hip-hop were supplanting rock.
None of this can directly be said to have caused the original Guns N’ Roses to implode. But it didn’t help. That was the trouble on the left. The trouble on the right came from Rose himself. He insulted band members on stage had a friend record over Slash’s guitar solo on “Sympathy for the Devil” (their Rolling Stones cover from 1994’s “Interview With the Vampire” soundtrack). This caused the remaining band members to defect in protest and ended the classic lineup of Guns N’ Roses.
The irony of irony
Alternative music did leave the entertainment industry an appreciation for irony, which — ironically — would help set the stage for the return of Guns N’ Roses. Irony meant Sonic Youth could embrace Karen Carpenter and Patti Rothberg (remember her?) could wear a Styx T-shirt. Irony expanded pop music’s vocabulary, so by the mid-1990s you had scads of hipsters kicking up their heels to previously unhip swing music like Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. It also gave hard-rock haters a chance to appreciate Guns on a kitschy or nostalgic level.
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Sometimes there’s a fine line between irony and appreciation. When Regina Spektor repeatedly name checks Guns’ “November Rain” in “On The Radio,” is she being ironic or paying tribute? Whatever the case, Spektor makes clear that the band’s music speaks to a new generation (Spektor was six when Guns released their 1986 debut EP).
While Rose sat on the sidelines, rock became less of a force than ever. Sure, bands like Good Charlotte charted, but it was MTV-approved dance pop and “American Idol” that really ruled. Still, there’s more irony: Guns’ reemergence probably got an unlikely boost from TV when “Rock of Love” and “The Surreal Life” made ’80s rockers cool again. They don’t make ’em like Vince Neil or Tommy Lee anymore. And there sure hasn’t been another Axl Rose.
Kurt Cobain once called Rose’s bad boy routine dated and boring. Maybe it once was. But Rose’s prickly persona seems almost refreshing in an era when so many rockers march in politically correct lockstep.
That leaves “Chinese Democracy” as the wild card. So far, things look promising, since the lead single, “Chinese Democracy,” has topped the iTunes Music Store chart in several countries, including the U.S. and the UK. Fans also seemed relatively positive about tracks from “Chinese Democracy” when they were leaked online. Now the question is whether a Slash-less Guns N’ Roses can produce another classic album. We’ll know Nov. 23.
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