Music History

30 Years Later, We Realize Use Your Illusion Is Axl Rose's Magnum Opus

On-and-off bandmates Axl and Slash are on the road again and coming to Dallas on Sept. 1. We look back at Use Your Illusion, 30 years later.
On-and-off bandmates Axl and Slash are on the road again and coming to Dallas on Sept. 1. We look back at Use Your Illusion, 30 years later. Kevin Winter / Getty Images
In honor of both Guns N’ Roses’ return to North Texas on Wednesday, Sept. 1, two weeks ahead of the 30th anniversary of the release of Use Your Illusion, it's worth revisiting the album that marked both the artistic peak and beginning of the end of Guns N’ Roses — and taking a closer look at the creative madman behind the album.

There’s a definite correlation between occurrences of madness as a byproduct of genius, but, if reversed there’s a case to be made that there’s a little bit of genius behind frontman Axl Rose’s definite madness.

Not many memorable albums emerged from the morally lax hairspray-and-spandex-clad Sunset Strip music scene in the mid-1980s that would be classified as “genius,” but if any artist was able to defy the odds and rise above the filth while simultaneously capitalizing on the grime, it’s Guns N’ Roses.

In Rob Tannenbaum’s 1988 Rolling Stone profile “The Hard Truth About Guns N’ Roses,” Rose discussed growing up in Indiana, a time which included being arrested “over 20 times.” Despite his high IQ, Rose said he was told by a psychiatrist that his behavior was indicative of psychosis. Well, that explains a lot.

Despite all the controversy Rose has embroiled himself in over the years, his place in the rock pantheon is as secure as Steven Tyler’s or Mick Jagger’s. Guns N’ Roses’ debut album Appetite for Destruction and its grimy no-holds-barred attitude is regularly featured on lists of greatest debut albums, greatest rock albums and greatest albums of all time.

But here’s a hot take: Use Your Illusion is much better than Appetite for Destruction.

GNR released twin albums on Sept. 17, 1991. Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II not only exceed Appetite’s scope and abilities, they’re an ambitious glimpse into the furiously creative mind of Axl Rose.

After Appetite’s runaway commercial success — topping the Billboard charts in 1988, one year after its release  — Guns N’ Roses released the 33-minute mini-album G N’ R Lies, featuring one side of previously released faux live cuts and another side of acoustic material, including the hit “Patience.” But the pressure was on to release a full-length followup

In between the release of G N’ R Lies and the recording of Use Your Illusion, founding drummer Steven Adler was fired from the band because of his rampant drug abuse and was replaced by Matt Sorum of The Cult. It’s a change that could have doomed the band, as Adler’s extraordinary feeling gives the songs on Appetite a sort of rock ‘n’ roll swing that most rock bands of the time sorely lacked. Only one song for Use Your Illusion was completed before Adler’s dismissal, the sweeping disc II opener “Civil War,” the recording of which purportedly took as many as 30 takes due to Adler’s inebriation in the studio.

Despite his essential contributions to Appetite for Destruction (supposedly he provided “Sweet Child O’ Mine” with its optimistic tempo, helping prevent it from slouching into the trappings of a conventional ballad), it’s hard to imagine Adler’s loose, feel-driven style of drumming driving the train on Use Your Illusion’s more technically intricate songs. Sorum’s heavier hand helps steer careening rockers like “Locomotive” and “Double Talkin’ Jive,” while still being able to swing when needed, such as on rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin’s bluesy vocal showcases “Dust N’ Bones” and “14 Years.”

Sorum’s entry into the band was a baptism by fire. His debut with the group was a headlining performance at the Rock In Rio festival in front of 140,000 people. In addition to Sorum, the band added full-time keyboardist Dizzy Reed to add texture and color to Rose’s ever-expanding compositions. The next phase of Guns N’ Roses was around the corner.

In contrast with Appetite’s practically pure back alley filth, Use Your Illusion is an explosion of styles and sounds — the result of a band not in the midst of a turbulent lineup change, but one completely uninhibited by audience expectation, commercial expectation and personal ills. If Appetite for Destruction was an album that put Guns N’ Roses on the map by allowing them to rage against the commercial insincerity of hair metal on their own terms, who would stop them from doing it again?

Use Your Illusion is a record so overabundant in its riches that it inadvertently held fans over for 17 years until GNR released their next album of original material, 2008’s much delayed (and subsequently mythologized) Chinese Democracy. One can similarly reappraise Chinese Democracy after divorcing it from the years of hype that resulted in the album becoming a punchline, but let's leave that for another time.

The so-called “classic” era of Guns N’ Roses only made three studio albums of original material (four if the two halves of Use Your Illusion are counted separately), and while the band did release a fifth album  — 1995’s The Spaghetti Incident — it was composed solely of covers.

Those three original albums yielded 50 songs and four hours of music. That’s more playing time than Creedence Clearwater Revival’s entire discography. And guess what? Two and a half hours of that — 30 of those 50 songs — are solely on Use Your Illusion.

The record is not a sterling artistic statement free of any kind of missteps or excess. Could it have been condensed to one album? Probably. That might have even helped its reputation over the years. But Use Your Illusion stands as it is, warts and all. The “ideal single-disc version” of Use Your Illusion is a debate that has likely been held in record stores and parking lots alike the world over. One of the biggest questions is whether “Get in the Ring” is worth keeping.

Rose’s impassioned rant against various specifically named music critics at the climax of “Get in the Ring” remains simultaneously amusing and embarrassing, more or less defining Illusion’s warranted overconfidence. It’s an act of pointed aggression that practically no other musician would consider immortalizing on a record. In some ways, it’s a statement of boldness and a flag of unfuckwithability that Axl planted when no one else would (or needed to).

One adversary to whom Rose challenged to “Get in the Ring” was Spin magazine founder Bob Guccione Jr., who publicly accepted Rose’s challenge, only for Rose to later back out after learning that Guccione Jr. had nine years of fight training.

Double albums often feature an overabundance of ideas: The Beatles’ White Album, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk and the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. Duality is a recurring theme across Use Your Illusion, not necessarily lyrically, but in the way the album was presented and pieced together. In addition to being recorded concurrently, released on the same day, sharing artwork and bearing the same name, Use Your Illusion’s two different colored halves mirror each other artistically in other ways: both have an 8+ minute piano-driven epic and an 8+ minute hard rock epic; each features a nearly identical recording of the ballad “Don’t Cry”; each has songs written and sung by a member of the band other than Rose (Stradlin handles the bulk of these duties, with three songs on I and one on II, along with bassist Duff McKagen’s only vocal showcase “So Fine”); and perhaps, most notably, each record features a cover of a '70s classic rock staple. Wings’ “Live and Let Die” on I, and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” on II.

“Live and Let Die” is given a nearly identical arrangement to Paul McCartney and co.’s original version, with the string and horn parts handled by Slash and Stradlin’s guitars, keyboardist Dizzy Reed’s piano, and Rose himself playing synthesizer. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” on the other hand, is given a grand, power ballad-like treatment that greatly expands upon Dylan’s original spare folk tune.

It would be easy to delineate the two halves of Illusion with generalities on their respective track listings — one can say I is heavier and more similar to Appetite, while II is more ambitious and eccentric — but there are enough exceptions that the entirety of the album flows cohesively and generally avoids getting stagnant. While most of the band’s forays into unorthodox instrumentation land on Use Your Illusion II (such as the banjo-and-piano-driven “Breakdown” and ominous sitar intro of “Pretty Tied Up”), it also contains two of the most straightforward and ferocious rockers the band ever recorded: “Locomotive” and the smash hit “You Could Be Mine.”

Freeing themselves up from the standard palate of rock ‘n’ roll sounds allowed Rose to expand his songwriting and further incorporate balladry alongside GNR’s usual snarl. If there’s anything that separates an Axl-penned ballad from those of his hair metal “contemporaries," it’s that most bands of the period offered up disingenuous ballads as a way to showcase a supposed emotional range.

Axl Rose’s ballads never really feel like they are, though they are ballads by definition due to their musical scope and slower tempos. “Estranged” does not evoke the lighter-swaying schlock of Poison's “Every Rose Has Its Thorn,” but feels anguished and calamitous. In “Estranged,” Slash’s guitar playing is massive, evoking the weeping, restrained playing of Michael Schenker on UFO’s “Love To Love” (one of the reasons GNR picked producer Mike Clink to helm Appetite and eventually Use Your Illusion was due to his work engineering UFO’s live album Strangers in the Night). Slash’s contribution to the song is so crucial that in the album’s liner notes, he is thanked personally for “the killer guitar melodies.”

Of course, the most notable ballad in the Guns N’ Roses oeuvre is the nine-minute mini-symphony “November Rain,” which remains the longest song in history to enter the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 chart (peaking at no. 3). Putting aside its opulent video, “November Rain” is sort of the power ballad to end all power ballads. It’s longer, grander, and much more commercially successful than nearly any song that would land on a “That’s What I Call Power Ballads” CD. The song’s defining orchestration was arranged and performed by Rose himself, using what is described in the album’s liner notes as a “keyboard orchestra.” Most of the piano playing across the entire album was handled by Rose as well.

Despite having written “November Rain” well before the days of Appetite, Rose realized that including those songs on the band’s debut would interfere with their mission statement and smartly left them off. The closest thing to a “ballad” on Appetite is “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which easily could've slipped into sappy lighter-waving territory but is elevated by the band’s steady groove and galvanized by Axl’s childlike sincerity, resulting in one of the most iconic rock songs of all times. Whenever tempted with the conventional option, Axl and co. go above and beyond.

“November Rain” is so far and beyond GNR’s typical ambitions that one can argue that one of the biggest missteps on the entirety of Use Your Illusion is that the song doesn’t close the record but is tucked halfway on disc I. It feels like a misuse of the song’s climactic emotional heft.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Use Your Illusion’s unrestrained explosion of creativity and ambition, some moments on the album feel redundant and/or repetitive. “Garden of Eden” and “Perfect Crime” are essentially the same song, “Don’t Damn Me” feels like an impatient run-through of “You Could Be Mine,” the alternate version of “Don’t Cry” feels like an unnecessary interruption of the album’s final leg, and the chugging riff of “Pretty Tied Up” is perfected on the very next track as the massive, seemingly unstoppable runaway engine of “Locomotive.”

Like other groups whose peak recorded output was cut short — Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles — GNR's place among the greats is cemented. Fortunately for them, it was a feat accomplished without being forced to bear the weight of tragedy as those other bands

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The album’s actual closing track doesn’t quite stick the landing either. The minute-and-a-half industrial bark “My World” is a cast-off experiment that should've been between tracks on any other place on the record, but for some reason ended up being Illusion’s closing argument, after the alternate lyric version of “Don’t Cry” (little did we know that “My World” clumsily foreshadowed the improved industrial sounds that would reappear on Chinese Democracy 17 years later). It’s almost like Axl Rose was so preoccupied with simply releasing the wealth of material that he forgot to order it in a manner that would aid in the listening experience.

The cracks were already beginning to show.

While GNR’s forefathers the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith suffered from combustible personalities and practically unlimited access to illicit substances, neither group was operating at the sheer horsepower — in performance and lifestyle abuse — as Guns N’ Roses.

On Nov. 7, 1991, less than two months after Use Your Illusion’s release, Stradlin abruptly quit the band after Rose nearly incited another riot mirroring his infamous incident in St. Louis in which he beat up a fan for filming the show. By tour’s end in 1993, Guns N’ Roses had played its final show of the millennium, and by 1997, Slash, McKagen and Sorum had departed as well.

As we all know, Rose spent the next two decades attempting to move GNR out of the shadow of its departed members with little success. After he finally buried the hatchet with McKagen and Slash in 2016, three out of five of Guns N’ Roses’ classic lineup reunited to return to their deserved stadium rock glory.

Like other groups whose peak recorded output was cut short — Nirvana, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles — GNR's place among the greats is cemented. Fortunately for them, it was a feat accomplished without being forced to bear the weight of tragedy as those other bands. Guns N’ Roses were eventually able to set aside their differences and celebrate the beauty of their body of work by sharing it with their fans in concert more than two decades later. The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana were never able to do that.

After all, nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain.
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Vincent Arrieta
Contact: Vincent Arrieta