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Earlier in the year, we asked you via our website and social media what you thought Guns N’ Roses’ greatest song was. This list, which featured in issue 315 of Classic Rock, is a celebration of those choices, with a crack team of Classic Rock writers and editors plus guest contributors including Alice Cooper, Ayron Jones, Michael Monroe, Larkin Poe, The Cult and more guiding you through the 50 best tracks by the world’s most dangerous band. With fans still reeling from Axl & co.’s triumphant Glastonbury and Hyde Park shows, there’s no better time to salute the song’s that define them.
50. Shadow Of Your Love (Single B-side, 1987)
Written by Axl Rose and Izzy Stradlin during their Hollywood Rose days, along with Rose’s friend and Stradlin’s future sometime replacement in GN’R Paul Tobias, this is the fastest song in the GN’R canon. Originally slated for the Live ?!*@ Suicide EP (hence the faux crowd noise mixed onto the track) and introduced by Rose’s ‘1-2-3-4’ count-off, it proceeds over a breakneck 3:05. Rose claimed Thin Lizzy as its influence, but really Shadow Of Your Love owes a much greater debt to Motörhead. In fact Slash’s bottleneck-guitar contortions recall ex-Lizzy man Brian Robertson’s standout contributions to his solitary album with Lemmy’s troops, 1983’s Another Perfect Day. PR
49. You Ain’t The First (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Guns’ hit the back porch with this whisky-soaked shit kicker.
Corey Taylor (Slipknot/Stone Sour): “I know a lot of people – including myself – have huge issues with the Use Your Illusion albums. To me, had they trimmed the fat and consolidated it into twelve or fourteen songs, it would have been bulletproof. But there’s just something about this song that makes it so good to listen to – like you can practically hear the booze in the air. When you put it on, you don’t have to get warmed up to hit any of the good notes and you don’t have to know all the words – it’s a huge ‘fuck you’ to the chick that stormed out and ruined your life. To me it was a great middle ground between GN’R Lies and Use Your Illusion. You can just hear they’re just hanging out – you can practically smell the smoke in the room. As a kid, that was so fun to hear that it took me out of the rest of the album. There are some great songs across those two albums, but that song in particular, I can just put it on and drive.” RH
48. Oh My God (End Of Days OST, 1999)
The GN’R that recorded this rattling slab of distorto-metal from the soundtrack to reviled Arnold Schwarzenegger movie End Of Days was unrecognisable, musically and physically, from the band that had dominated the first half of the 1990s. Slash, Duff and Izzy were gone, leaving Axl lord of all he surveyed. It was probably for the best – there’s an unfathomable chasm between Appetite For Destruction and Oh My God. The first original Guns song in eight years, it was a shock to the system at the time but it’s aged well, even if the presence of four (!) guitarists – NIN’s Robin Finck, Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro, ex-Circus Of Power man Gary Sunshine and Paul Tobias – pointed towards the overkill that would define the reconfigured Guns N’ Roses. DE
47. Catcher In The Rye (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
This intelligent, insistently melodic song opens with mellow electric guitars and piano, and Axl Rose vocalising in the reverb-soaked distance. Ahead lay darkly humorous lyrics about madness and violence, Rose drawing on his revulsion for JD Salinger’s titular book, and the pernicious effect Rose thought it could have on weaker-minded souls. Most notorious among these of course was John Lennon’s murderer, Mark Chapman; the song fittingly offers some pleasing, Beatlesy tribute sequences, thick with chiming piano chords and some Hey Jude ‘nah-nah-nah-nah’s. An early version with a nixed guitar solo from Brian May isn’t difficult to unearth online. GM
46. Chinese Democracy (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Written by Axl after he found himself moved by the final scenes in Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama epic Kundun, Chinese Democracy was first played live a whole seven years before its namesake album finally emerged. It’s no Welcome To The Jungle (what the hell is?), but as far as album openers go it’s still a riotous, full-throttle rager, bouncing along for a breathless 4:43 minutes as bursts of noodly solos fly out all over the place. With contributions from two backing vocalists, three keyboard players (including Axl) and no fewer than five guitarists, it also might just be the record’s most collaborative track. MA
45. Move To The City (Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP, 1986)
A track that may as well have been marinated in sleaze, Move To The City repurposed Aerosmith’s Mama Kin to recount the teenaged Axl Rose’s journey from Lafayette, Indiana to Sunset Strip – wailing sirens, rumbling gutter-boogie riff, barely audible horn section and all. Another carry over from their Hollywood Rose days, it surfaced as the third track on the self-released Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP. The crowd noise, overdubbed on to the EP’s tracks to excuse the band’s own amateurish production, was lifted from recordings of the 1978 Texxas Jam festival, headlined by none other than a zonked-out Aerosmith and with Ted Nugent and Van Halen also on the bill. PR
44. Shackler’s Revenge (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The first official Chinese Democracy release, owing to its inclusion in the videogame Rock Band 2, Shackler’s Revenge received a lukewarm reception upon arrival. For many, its Nine Inch Nails-goes-glam-metal stylings felt at least a decade out of step with the rock scene at the time, while its unenviable standing as the first proper preview of a Slash and Duff-less Guns record had old-school fans turned off even before pressing ‘Play’. Which is a shame, because on its own merit Shackler’s Revenge is a fun ride, despite some weighty subject matter owing to the song’s lyrics tackling America’s school shooting epidemic. MA
43. I.R.S. (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Axl was talking about I.R.S. as far back as 2000, when he broke cover to give a rare interview to Rolling Stone magazine, and an early version was leaked three years later via New York Mets player Mike Piazza. That title might nod to the Inland Revenue Service, but I.R.S. – a mercurial mix of woe-is-me ruefulness and venomous defiance set to music that slips from stripped-down restraint to punk-metal howl – was reputedly inspired by the barrage of lawsuits Axl faced in the 90s, not least from former wife Erin Everly and ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour. ‘Read it, baby, with your morning news/With the sweet hangover and the headlines, too,’ sneered the singer, proving no one does ‘spiteful’ quite like him. DE
42. Right Next Door To Hell (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
GN’R needed a banger to open the first volume of their simultaneously released third and fourth albums, and this throbbing punk rocker about hard times and bad people more than fitted the bill. Coming in on Duff McKagan’s trademark chorused bass, a guitar riff that’s a close cousin of Appetite For Destruction-era album cut Mr. Brownstone and a born-to-do-it beat from new drummer Matt Sorum, Right Next Door To Hell was a co-write between Rose, Stradlin and their mate Timo Caltia, a Finnish songwriter, who supplied the chorus tune. The title alludes to Rose’s 1990 fracas with a female neighbour at his luxury condominium block, after which he was arrested and then quickly released. He promptly gave away the apartment in an MTV contest, as you do. GM
41. Madagascar (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Grandiose and ambitious, Madagascar sees Rose in fine, gravelly voice and on familiar lyrical ground, vulnerable yet defiant in the face of ostracism. Musically, though, this is a development from earlier GN’R. A co-write with keyboard player Chris Pitman, and with orchestrations by Marco Beltrami, it opens with French horns, an insistent string motif, then progresses on a mid-tempo, almost trip-hop groove. It kicks up another notch when the big Stairway To Heaven-style guitar riff slams in, and the scale is amped up again with audio clips of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have A Dream’ speech, and dialogue from bleak ‘outsider’ movies, Vietnam war flick Casualties Of War and serial killer thriller Seven among them. GM
40. Back Off Bitch (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Back Off Bitch represented revenge served cold: the song had been written by Rose in the early 80s and was a staple of GN’R’s early club sets. But the take recorded for Use Your Illusion I found the singer spitting the lyric like his wounds were fresh (“I’ve found out I’ve had a lot of hatred for women,” the singer told Rolling Stone in 1992). Set up by the meanest of descending licks and the singer’s macabre chuckle, the track remains an outlaw classic, even if Slash admitted in 2018 that the gang-chanted chorus has grown more problematic: “Some of the songs were sort of sexist in their own way, but not to be taken that seriously.” HY
39. Reckless Life (Live ?!*@ Like A Suicide EP, 1986)
“Hey fuckers! Suck on Guns N’ fuckin’ Roses!” As far as first impressions go, Slash’s slurred introduction to the opening track on his band’s live-in-the-studio debut EP is a doozy. A turbo-charged update of an old song dating back to Rose and Stradlin’s pre-GN’R band Hollywood Rose, Reckless Life wasn’t so much a song as a manifesto: ‘I lead a reckless life, and I don’t need your advice,’ Axl snarled, fangs dripping with venom, over a racket that was equal parts Aerosmith, AC/DC and the Sex Pistols. GN’R may have been deep in the gutter, but they had their eyes on the stars even then. DE
38. Live And Let Die (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Wings’ all-time classic James Bond theme gets the never-knowingly-understated Axl Rose treatment in this epic blowout.
Luke Spiller (The Struts): “Guns’ cover of Live And Let Die is pretty undeniable. It’s taken from an album where the band were at the height of their powers and were not afraid to be completely self-indulgent, and this song is a testament to that. Not only is it a ballsy statement to cover anything by Paul McCartney (or The Beatles), but to actually nail it and give it a new edge is a real triumph.
"It’s so trashy but yet so big and intentional at the same time. I’ll never forget seeing the video to this song when I was just a kid, and being blown away by the look and sound of the band.
“I feel McCartney is mainly appreciated for his musical legacy, but not necessarily his vocal delivery. Axl is one of the very few people that could ever tackle a vocal like this, and he does it with such ease and finesse. Listen to this now as loud as possible and tell me it isn’t brilliant.”
37. Ain’t It Fun (The Spaghetti Incident?, 1994)
The Spaghetti Incident? is GN’R’s love letter to their punk influences. Here they enlisted another inspiration, Hanoi Rocks’ Michael Monroe, to pay tribute to US hooligans Dead Boys and their late singer Stiv Bators.
Michael Monroe: “I first met Axl when he happened to stop by the video shoot for my song Dead, Jail Or Rock’N’Roll  in Midtown Manhattan. He came up and introduced himself and turned out to be a really nice guy, so we got along great. Guns N’ Roses always acknowledged that Hanoi Rocks had influenced them. Axl told me that Izzy used to tell him: ‘Do your hair like Michael Monroe.’ I saw a little bit of that in some of their early photos and the Welcome To The Jungle video, but Axl has always had his own unique style. “Axl mentioned to me on the phone that he was not that familiar with the Dead Boys material, so I made him a tape of their first two albums. I gave it to him when I got to LA for the Use Your Illusion sessions [Monroe appeared on the song Bad Obsession]. We were driving around Hollywood in Axl’s car, listening to that tape, and when Ain’t It Fun came on, Axl said: ‘Wow, this a great song! We’ve gotta record this for our covers album. We’ll do it as a duet, you and me.’ He immediately called Slash and said let’s get the band together, we’re covering this Dead Boys song...
“The recording of the song was magical. Stiv [Bators, Dead Boys frontman, who died in 1990] was definitely there in spirit. When Stiv and me used to record vocals in the studio, Stiv had this ritual in which he placed a bunch of burning candles in a circle around me and had me sing the vocal inside the ‘protective’ circle . So me and Axl collected all the candles we could find in the studio and made a circle of them around us. We were placed facing each other. Then we lit up the candles and sang the song face to face. In some parts Axl even sounds just like Stiv. I remember thinking that they had the same kind of voodoo.
“I didn’t ask for money for doing Ain’t It Fun. So many people saw dollar signs and got greedy when it came to Guns N’ Roses, which I found quite obnoxious. All I asked was to have ‘In memory of Stiv Bators’ in the album credits and to spell my name right. Axl replied: ‘Yes, of course!’ I was so happy that I was able to do this for my late, dear friend, and to raise awareness of Stiv Bators and the Dead Boys. Now millions of their fans could see Stiv’s name and hopefully find out more about him.” DE
36. If The World (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Layering flourishes of flamenco guitar, hazy strings, a funky drum beat, crunching, metallic riffs and dubby bass lines in the first 90 seconds alone, If The World is a typically stuffed Chinese Democracy cut, yet it’s all engaging and oddly charming enough that it works. Rose’s lyrics dabble in classically bittersweet romantic fare as he croons and cries his way through a song that climaxes in a woozy, dreamy guitar solo amid bursts of orchestral pomp. It’s immediately overshadowed by There Was A Time (more on that later), but If The World is an impressive composition all the same. MA
35. Absurd (Single, 2021)
The first new Guns N’ Roses song in 13 years was nothing of the sort. In a previous life, Absurd was called Silkworm. Written and recorded for Chinese Democracy, and even played live under its original name, this distorted electo-metal hand grenade of a song bore testament to Axl’s love of industrial music – so much so that it was deemed too far out to be included on the album. It was mothballed until the pandemic, when Slash and Duff McKagan re-recorded the guitar and bass for an updated version. Rose’s vivid, bad-trip lyrics – ‘Pussy full of maggots, isn’t that absurd?’ – take aim at some unknown antagonist. Even now, it sounds like nothing else they’ve done. DE
34. Dust N’ Bones (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Izzy Stradlin was the Keith Richards of Guns N’ Roses, the cool rhythm guitarist who sung like he was about to nod out. On the Illusion albums (unlike Appetite), Izzy sang lead on a couple of numbers. Those were his songs, where GN’R sounded more like the Rolling Stones: less hard rock, more rock’n’roll. Dust N’ Bones, the second track on Use Your Illusion I, followed the manic Right Next Door To Hell with a mean swagger. Izzy’s delivery was perfect as he drawled nonchalantly: ‘She loved him yesterday, he laid her sister/She said okay, and that’s all right.’ And in the parts where Axl sang with him, snarling about ‘cold’ women, it’s as sleazy as Guns N’ Roses ever sounded. PE
33. Dead Horse (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
There’s a pervasive narrative out there about grunge’s casual nihilism killing off the party-hearty decadence of the glam era. Except GN’R were way ahead of the game when it came to casual nihilism, as evidenced by Dead Horse’s biting opening line: ‘Sick of this life, not that you care’. Written entirely by Axl, Dead Horse opens with a minute-long acoustic intro before exploding into one of Illusion’s more hard-driving songs. At their best, GN’R sounded like the New York Dolls with a hundred million dollars in their pocket. This was one of those times. KM
32. You’re Crazy (Appetite For Destruction, 1987 / GN’R Lies, 1988)
Axl berates an ex- for being completely fucking bonkers (pot, kettle?!) The song was later reworked in acoustic fashion on GN’R Lies.
Josh Todd (Buckcherry): “You know what? I like the acoustic version of You’re Crazy from the Lies record best. I don’t know that this is the truth, but when I hear that acoustic version I feel like it’s the original way they wanted that song to come across. I love the words and the groove, and I think it’s better slowed down like that. It swings, and it’s way nastier because of where he’s singing it. I really love Axl’s low register. That’s probably my favourite GN’R track. I think it’s sick. It’s just so mean. Axl is such an interesting character. He intimidated me, and that’s what I loved about my favourite rock singers: girls wanted to fuck them, and guys wanted to be them. Axl was one of those guys. I just thought: ‘He’s real.’” HY
31. Better (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
Whether you enjoyed Chinese Democracy for what it was, or find its very existence to be nothing less than blasphemous, most fans at least seem to be able to agree on one thing: Better is an absolute banger. Written in the early 00s by Axl and Robin Finck and played live in 2006 and 2007, the song was practically familiar by the time it appeared on the record. Luckily it absolutely slams, riding along on some seriously chunky riffs that Slash brought an extra edge to when playing the song live upon his return to the fold. MA
30. Get In The Ring (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
In case anyone thought the Illusion-era Gunners had grown too soft, there was II’s seething fifth track, serving as a hard-rock soapbox from which Rose could strafe his perceived persecutors in the rock press. Written by Duff McKagan, originally titled Why Do You Look At Me When You Hate Me? and produced to give the bogus impression of a live show, Get In The Ring was GN’R at their rabble-rousing best. The moment when the lazy, bluesy intro kicks into double time can still thrill, but it’s the singer’s machine-gun rant – tearing into journos from Kerrang!, Hit Parader, Spin and Circus – that made the song notorious. HY
29. Pretty Tied Up (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
It was as if Izzy Stradlin had sensed what was coming, such was the prescience in his lyrics to Pretty Tied Up, from the opening line – ‘The perils of rock’n’roll decadence’ – to the wry observation: ‘Once there was this rock’n’roll band rolling on the streets/Time went by and it became a joke’. All of this from a guy who had quit drugs, and, tired of the circus around them, was about to quit the band. And while Izzy wrote the words, it was Axl who sang them. But while the subtext was complicated, the song itself was simple. As its title implied, Pretty Tied Up was the true-life story of a girl Izzy knew who worked as a dominatrix. And Guns N’ Roses played it just right – down and dirty. PE
28. Yesterdays (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
There was little of the Appetite-era venom in this light country strum, with its rippling piano and a lyric that seemed to suggest rising above old grudges (‘Some things could be better if we’d all just let them be’). And yet, even if you questioned its motives, Yesterdays’ sunbeam of melody proved the perfect partner to Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door during the mellow run on Illusion II’s first side. “We had lost a little bit of the mayhem and punk rock,” Slash wrote in his autobiography. “That was a good or a bad thing, depending on who you asked.” HY
27. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Guns N’ Roses repackaged Bob Dylan’s low-key 1973 hymnal for the hard-rock masses by doubling its length and dialling up the histrionics. They debuted it live at their first ever show at London’s Marquee, in 1987, before chucking a studio version on the soundtrack of the 1990 racing movie Days Of Thunder starring Tom Cruise. After the song reappeared in slightly tweaked form on Use Your Illusion II (the new ‘sniffin’ your own rank subjugation, Jack’ interlude came courtesy of Axl’s actor/ director buddy Josh Richman), it became the definitive version for anyone who wasn’t a Dylan fan. Dylan gave GN’R a papal blessing of sorts in 2009: when asked what he thought of them, he said they were “one of the best rock bands there’s ever been.” Bob wasn’t wrong. DE
26. Used To Love Her (GN’R Lies, 1988)
What if Buddy Holly had sung about killing Peggy Sue? That’s the vibe of this black- humoured ditty that tumbles along on three chords and a wink. Given Axl Rose’s stormy history with relationships, it was tempting to think Used To Love Her drew from real life. But Izzy Stradlin told Superstar Facts that the song was inspired by a “whining, self-pitying” tune he heard on the radio. “We rewrote it with a better ending,” he said. Of course, it wouldn’t be a GN’R song without some controversy surrounding it – in the early 2000s it appeared as evidence in two separate murder cases, as supposed motivation for the killings. BDM
25. The Garden (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
A slice of psychedelic sleaze featuring a sneering guest spot from Alice Cooper (returning the favour after GN’R teamed up with him for a cover of Under My Wheels a few years earlier). If it was any other band, you’d wonder what the hell they were on. But this was Guns N’ Roses, so it’s pretty safe to say ‘everything’.
Alice Cooper: “We took Guns N’ Roses on their first tour, and the very first night, after they played, I told my band: “We’d better be very good tonight.” They had the attitude, the sound, the swagger. I had to send somebody out for bail money on that tour because one or two of them were in jail. So we were kinda like their big brothers and they knew they could call me any time.
“With The Garden, Axl called me at two in the morning: ‘Can you come over to the studio?’ I said: ‘Sure, I’ll be over, but I can’t spend three days doing it.’ When I came in, the scene in the studio was very clean. Axl was there, and maybe Slash or Duff, and everything was ready to go. The lyrics were there. I listened to the song three times and said:
‘No problem’. Axl didn’t have to describe what The Garden was about. Being a lyricist, I saw where they were going with it. I got the imagery. To me, ‘the garden’ was where you go to pick the drugs you want. To give Guns N’ Roses credit, as dysfunctional as they were at points, they really had clever ideas. Like any hard rock band, they were blues-based, and The Garden starts out like a more modernistic take on that, with the psychedelia coming through in the lyrics. But it was still a very ‘street’ sound.
“Slash has said Axl had been trying to sing like me and they decided to get the real thing. There’s a certain amount of cynicism and dark humour in what I do. I think that’s why they wanted me on the song – they wanted it a little sinister. They just said: ‘Do it the way you would do it.’
“Axl might have given me a couple of pointers but we nailed it pretty quickly – in two or three takes – and I was surprised when he went: ‘Yeah, that sounds great.’ I didn’t hang out afterwards. I just said: ‘Guys, I know you’re gonna stay up for three days, so I’m gonna go home’. We could laugh about that, because they understood I’d been there once, too.
“I’ve sung a lot of different bits with a lot of different people, but it’s always great to be on a classic album. Use Your Illusion is not just another album. It’s an album that will go down in history.”
24. This I Love (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
The penultimate track of Chinese Democracy finds Axl Rose in full-on power ballad mode. Movie music maestro Marco Beltrami handled the lush orchestrations, with strings, woodwinds, piano, and a Slash-channelling guitar solo from Bumblefoot among the sounds underpinning the singer’s pained, heartfelt vocal – one of his best – about a lost love that just won’t die. It was written in the early 90s, purportedly about Rose’s ex-fiancée, supermodel Stephanie Seymour. Their relationship was tempestuous, and the song is suitably freighted with pain, regret, torment. Rose described it as one of the heaviest things he’d ever done, and he wasn’t kidding. GM
23. Out Ta Get Me (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
In 1986, A&R men were sniffing around the band’s door – a door broken down that year by the LAPD, as they sought Axl Rose to answer for – as Duff McKagan put it in his memoir – “a bogus rape charge” (which was subsequently dropped). McKagan was terrified that such scrapes with the law would deter the labels. Fat chance, with a riff and chorus as hooky as the one on here. The F-bombs fly in their defiant, paranoid, and rocking tale of hidin’ out and layin’ low, with GN’R playing the role of persecuted rock’n’roll outlaws to perfection. How could we resist? GM
22. Double Talkin’ Jive (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
It’s no easy feat to play the tough guy while dressed in hot pants and a tuxedo jacket while smoking from a fancy cigarette holder, but Axl pulled it off when he sang Double Talkin’ Jive during a televised show in Paris in 1992. It was Izzy’s song, but Axl turned it into a vendetta against Warren Beatty, the actor who had briefly dated Axl’s ex-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour.
Axl also expanded the song’s title to Double Talkin’ Jive Motherfucker, adding extra emphasis to what was already the most badass thing on the Illusion records. With the band blasting away, Izzy’s voice sounded suitably twisted as he recounted his experiences of being ‘fucked up and outta place’. The surprise coda with rolling thunder fading into gentle acoustic guitars only added to the whacked-out vibe. PE
21. Think About You (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
Even Appetite’s supposed second-tier songs were better than most band’s prime cuts. Think About You is a case in point. Written primarily by Izzy Stradlin in early 1985, a couple of months before Gun N’ Roses officially formed, and earmarked for an aborted debut EP, its rocket-fuelled chug disguises an uncharacteristic tenderness. The object of the guitarist’s affections was his then- girlfriend Monique Lewis (aka Angela Nicoletti), a booker at the Roxy club who other members of the band were reportedly besotted with – it’s her face that Axl Rose has tattooed on his arm. Bonus fact: Lewis would go on to marry Hanoi Rocks guitarist Andy McCoy. DE
20. Breakdown (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
One of the really deep cuts from Use Your Illusion II, Breakdown is also one of Axl’s most underrated songs, written by him alone, and with a flavour all its own. He’d whistled on the ballad Patience, a huge hit in 1989, and did so again in the intro to Breakdown, in the manner of a milkman doing the rounds. And yet from this nonchalant opening came a song of real depth, based on a piano riff and stretching out over seven minutes as Axl meditated on rebellion, isolation and a love gone bad: ‘Funny how everything was Roses when we held on to the Guns.’ The ending, with Axl reciting a speech from the cult 1971 movie Vanishing Point, is weirdly brilliant. PE
19. 14 Years (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
What Dust N’ Bones was to Use Your Illusion I, so 14 Years was to Use Your Illusion II – the great Izzy Stradlin song that proved he was the rock’n’roll heart of Guns N’ Roses. This one was co-written with Axl, and again, as with Dust N’ Bones, they sing together in the chorus. But really, the vibe in 14 Years is all about Izzy, the way he sings it, and the way his guitar drives the swinging boogie. In contrast to such epic blow-outs as November Rain and Estranged, it’s all so simple, and so effortlessly cool. Izzy went on to make more great stuff like this on his first solo record, Izzy Stradlin And The Ju Ju Hounds – the second-best rock’n’roll album of 1992 after The Black Crowes’ The Southern Harmony And Musical Companion. PE
18. There Was A Time (Chinese Democracy, 2008)
There Was A Time is about a relationship gone wrong, although exactly who the song is about remains a mystery. It’s been suggested that Axl wrote it about his turbulent relationship with Stephanie Seymour, while others think certain missives in the lyrics are aimed at Slash (‘There Was A Time’ = ‘T.W.A.T.’). ‘I was the one who gave you everything, the one who took the fall,’ Axl moans. Is he talking about taking the blame for Guns N’ Roses’ implosion? Either way, what’s not in question is that There Was A Time is a top-tier Axl composition. Opening with a choral and orchestral flourish that could have come straight out of a Lion King pre- credits (well, he does love his Elton), the song builds to a stirring crescendo featuring swells of strings, a searing but not too flashy solo, and a mighty yelp from our flame-haired diva, nailing those ‘I would do anyyyyythiiiing for youuuuuuu!’s in fine style. MA
17. Don’t Damn Me (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
Don’t Damn Me is a crucial snapshot of a band defiantly holding their ground. They were banging out a song a day, so naturally some of them are a little undercooked. Aside from a bracing, thrashy riff from Slash halfway through, Don’t Damn Me just sounds like the guitarist absent-mindedly warming up, and Axl’s delivery here can only be described as bitch-slap rappin’. But lyrically this is one of Axl’s most insightful and (gasp!) self-aware moments on either album. Don’t Damn Me is fiercely defiant song about sticking to one’s principles, lines like ‘Your only validation is in living your own life, and vicarious existence is a fucking waste of time’ read like The Ballad of Axl W Rose, Poet Laureate of The Teenage Wasteland, and ‘How can I ever satisfy you?’ is probably the most important line of the dude’s whole career. He’s still trying to answer it. KM
16. My Michelle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
The song that opens Appetite For Destruction’s second side is a seemingly vicious, vituperative take-down of a strung-out Sunset Strip wild child: ‘You stay out late at night and you do your coke for free,’ Axl sneers over a syringe-sharp riff, ‘Driving your friends crazy with your life’s insanity.’ Except that’s not the full story. ‘Michelle’ was Michelle Young, a school friend of Slash and Steven Adler. Young was driving Axl to a gig when Elton John’s Your Song came on the radio. “I said I wished someone would write a beautiful song for me,” she told Spin. The singer obliged, though his original, “sappy” lyrics were ditched for altogether more brutal ones. Young’s dad did work in the porn industry, her mum was dead, and she was a drug user, but Axl sang the song with a weird kind of fondness, no less heartfelt in his own way than Elton had been on the song that inspired it. Young thought so: she’d later called this unlikely tribute “My Song”. DE
15. Locomotive (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Shacking up with fellow addict Izzy Stradlin in a Hollywood Hills rental proved surprisingly productive for Slash. The heroin-soaked guitarist not only emerged from the stopover with the epic Coma, but also partnered his housemate to write a second marathon number. Led out by a militaristic Sorum drumbeat with all the momentum of the title, Locomotive’s first curve ball was McKagan’s funk-metal bass line, setting up a scritch scratch guitar riff that nodded more to LA’s new breed like Jane’s Addiction than to Slash’s touchstones of the 70s. According to former manager Doug Goldstein, Rose was furious at being sidelined creatively (“I’d get these phone calls from the studio: ‘Have you heard this song Locomotive yet? How the fuck am I supposed to write lyrics to this shit?’”). Yet the singer channelled his frustration into a seething shoot-from-the-lip vocal that nods to the album title: ‘You can use your illusion, let it take you where it may...’ HY
14. Don’t Cry (Use Your Illusion I & II, 1991)
Written by Axl and Izzy during the earliest days of Guns N’ Roses, Don’t Cry was not included on Appetite For Destruction because the band felt that one ballad was enough, and that Sweet Child O’ Mine was better. That decision made sense. Less so the inclusion of two versions of Don’t Cry on Use Your Illusion I and II, especially as these versions were not much different except for the lyrics. But a great song is a great song – in this case, two great songs. And while November Rain was, in every sense, the big ballad on the Illusion albums, Don’t Cry is subtler, darker, and possesses a deep emotional power, and a doozy of a solo from Slash. PE
13. Mr. Brownstone (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
Don’t do drugs, kids. GN’R’s ode to smack goes from glamorous lifestyle documentary to cautionary tale. When Axl threatened to fire the rest of the band on stage at a show in 1989, this was the song he referenced.
Scott Holiday (Rival Sons): “I am a true blue, OG Guns N’ Roses fan. And by that I mean I was a kid when they came out. They hit me and my friends like such a breath of fresh air, which sounds ironic because they were so fucking dirty! And that’s what we liked. Warrant, Poison and Slaughter and these kinds of bands were like the kings of MTV. And then here comes Guns N’ Roses. The first time they played live on MTV... Axl looked like a homeless person. His teeth were just dirty. They just looked real, and I remember standing up in front of the TV and going: ‘Oh my God...’ and feeling all tingly. I thought: ‘I love this band. This connects with my heart. These guys are dirty like the Stones. Izzy over there – that guy is dirty. He looks like Keith Richards. And the dude with the hair – Slash! He’s shredding and he’s not tapping!’ I lived on Appetite, and I think one of the greatest riffs on that record is Mr. Brownstone. It’s incredible, it’s seminal and it’s important. I love that track.” JD
12. Coma (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
While Rocket Queen had hinted that GN’R could handle a long-form finale, Use Your Illusion I’s parting shot went further, sprawling to a prog- worthy 10 minutes, with enough ideas to sustain it. Principally written by Slash “in my heroin delirium”, reality receded and time felt elastic during Coma, which opened with the thump of a defibrilliator and saw Rose’s OD-confessional lyric decorated with phasing effects, bestial growls and background ER babble (“Okay, we’re starting to lose this guy...”). Meanwhile, Coma’s final straight stood amongst Illusion’s finest moments, with one of Slash’s most melodic solos setting up Axl’s rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness-sounding outro, his dying yelp dovetailing with a wail of feedback, before the final coffin nail was banged in by a brutal thump on Sorum’s snare. Performed live only a handful of times before the reunion, for obvious reasons, Coma is all the more exhilarating for being a relative rarity. HY
11. Nightrain (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
There just haven’t been many other debut albums with first sides as strong as Appetite For Destruction’s, and from its cowbell count-in this rough-hewn diamond is one of the highlights on it. The title is drawn from the band’s early love for low-cost, 18 per cent ABV wine Nightrain, which regularly got them loaded like a freight train and flyin’ like an aeroplane. Cool rock lyrics involving ‘rattlesnake suitcases’ and ‘mean machines’ are allied with a perfectly sleazy, low-slung riff, melodic twin- guitar hook and an irresistible chorus.
The song was cobbled together by Slash and Stradlin on the floor of their rehearsal room, with Rose pitching in later. They say success has many fathers, and Kiss’s Paul Stanley claims he suggested the part that should be that (helluva) chorus. But as with all the best GN’R songs there’s something intangible, beyond the music itself, that adds to the atmosphere. Before Stradlin and Slash trade solos (notably free of the post-Van Halenisms of the period), Rose sings ‘I’m on the Nightrain, never to return’, and the line reeks of authenticity. At their best this band conveyed rock’n’roll oblivion and edge with more conviction than any of their LA Strip contemporaries could muster. From theme to delivery, this is peak GN’R in glorious, four-minute-and-28-seconds microcosm. GM
10. It’s So Easy (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
‘Why don’t you just... fuck off!’ GN’R’s punk roots show on this Appetite rager, inspired by the haters who had it in for Axl even before he became famous.
Ricky Warwick (Black Star Riders/The Almighty): “The first time I heard It’s So Easy I thought: ‘Hang on a minute, have Hanoi Rocks made a new album?’ It had such swagger. It was metal but it was punk rock as well. There was a connection early on because The Almighty’s demos fell into Axl Rose’s hands. He sent a message to our management saying how much he liked it. We played The Cathouse [in LA in 1990], where we met Del James who had been Axl’s tour manager since day one, which strengthened the connection.
“I hung out with them a couple of times on the Use Your Illusion tour, but I didn’t play with GN’R until a 2012 tour when I was with Thin Lizzy. You hear those stories, but I’ve nothing but good things to say about the guy. We were treated brilliantly, and Axl made time to come and hang out with us. There was one great night in Birmingham drinking Jägermeister during which we had a lot of great laughs.” DL
9 Patience (GN’R Lies, 1988)
Like Sweet Child O’ Mine before it, Patience was written by Axl Rose for his future wife Erin Everly, daughter of the Everly Brothers’ Don. Done in a single session, it has the on-the-fly air of a snatched demo. Rose’s mostly reined-in vocal is set to the backdrop of loosely strummed acoustic guitars. Portentously, drummer Steven Adler was sidelined. Slash’s picked solo at 3:25 nods at Mick Taylor’s interjections on the Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic Wild Horses. The more strident coda is rounded off by a wailing Rose stretching the word ‘time’ to seven seconds.
Released as a single in April 1989, Patience was a Top 5 US hit. Rose’s and Everly’s union proved less successful. Having met at a party when model Everly was 19, they got married in a Las Vegas chapel on April 28, 1990. Rose filed for divorce after four months, then reconciled with Everly, only to have their marriage annulled in January 1991. “Erin and I treated each other like crap,” he later observed. “We messed up each other’s lives completely.” PR
8. You Could Be Mine (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Guns N’ Roses were labelled ‘The Most Dangerous Band In The World’, and musically speaking You Could Be Mine might just be the most dangerous they ever sounded. It’s a sneering, antagonistic, edge-of- your-seat rager, packing less-than apologetic lyrics allegedly written in the wake of Izzy Stradlin’s faltering relationship with Angela Nicoletti. ‘When I come home late at night, don’t ask me where I’ve been,” Axl snarls. ‘Just count your stars I’m home again.’
A feminist anthem this ain’t, but it captures the wild and remorseless monster that was GN’R in their earliest years. No surprise, perhaps, given that the song was originally written around the Appetite For Destruction sessions (the ‘bitch slap rappin’’ line famously first appeared inside the Appetite album sleeve). Add to that the fact that the song is inexorably linked to James Cameron’s classic action sequel Terminator 2 thanks to its inclusion in the soundtrack (and Arnie’s brilliant cameo in the track’s promotional video), and you have a perfect slice of early-90s pop culture, wrapped up in one all-time great rocker. MA
7. Civil War (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
Hardly nuanced with its anti-war sentiment, Civil War is nonetheless GN’R’s most finely detailed epic. Born from a riff Slash recycled at soundchecks during the latter stages of the Appetite For Destruction world tour, the band drilled it into shape prior to playing two shows in Australia in December 1988. The recorded version first appeared on the George Harrison-compiled 1990 charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, and was later repurposed to open Use Your Illusion II at a slow burn.
It begins with a sample of Strother Martin’s prisoner governor’s speech to Paul Newman’s titular convict from the 1967 movie masterpiece Cool Hand Luke (“What we have here is failure to communicate...”), and has Rose whistling the American Civil War-era folk song When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Rose’s mourning piano and vocal – ‘Look at your young men fighting...’ – is stalked by layered electric guitars.
At 1:19, Slash’s scything guitar and Adler’s drums kick in, with Rose switching to his hellion howl. Civil War ebbs and crests for near five more minutes, beseeching verses, roared choruses. Rose cites the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK and quotes the manifesto of Peru’s Shining Path guerrilla army. Slash plays up a storm. The concluding 1:38 breaks down to a rolling piano line and Stones-y riffing, paired with a sampled thunderstorm and yet more whistling from Rose. Adler’s only recorded contribution to the Use Your Illusion albums, this was the last GN’R track he played on. PR
6. Paradise City (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
If Welcome To The Jungle presented LA as a dog-eat-dog gladiatorial arena, its Appetite For Destruction counterpart flipped the script. Here, the City Of Angels is an aspirational fantasy playground for down-on-their-luck rockers dreaming of green grass and pretty girls. Rarely has debauchery sounded so damn Californian.
Billy Duffy (The Cult): “Paradise City has it all! From the moment I got turned away from a sold-out Marquee club in London, for a band I’d not heard of but had been encouraged to see by my partner in crime, to having them as special guests on a Cult American tour in 1987, to special-guesting for them a few times once they had become a huge band, one thing remained constant: Guns N’ Roses have always been totally and utterly authentic, the real deal. A true legendary American rock’n’roll band from that great lineage – as real off stage as on it. They lived it as they played it out on stage. Even if they had not remained friends to this day I’d have always had the greatest respect for these guys and always will.” DE
5. Rocket Queen (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
The last track on Appetite For Destruction is essentially two killer songs for the price of one. The first is a blast of snake-hipped rock’n’roll with an uncharacteristically funky undercurrent (Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante claimed Axl told him Guns were trying to copy his own band). The second is an escalating, heartfelt tribute to the Rocket Queen of the title: Axl’s friend Barbi Von Greif, who by all accounts acted as a one-woman support system through some tough time. But it’s the bit that joins the two parts that sealed Rocket Queen’s notoriety. The groans and squeals that erupt as Slash peals off a fluid solo aren’t staged; Axl persuaded one of the band’s friends, Adriana Dawn Smith, to have full sex with him in the recording booth while the tape rolled (the fact that Smith was Steven Adler’s fiancée didn’t seem to trouble him). “Apparently there was three and a half hours of audio on the reel-to-reel,” Smith told Classic Rock in 2007, adding that she “directed” the coitus. The greatest debut album of the decade had got the climax it deserved. DE
4. November Rain (Use Your Illusion I, 1991)
November Rain was Axl Rose’s magnum opus – a song he sat on for five years, waiting for the right moment to unleash it on an unsuspecting public. When it did emerge, as the centrepiece of Use Your Illusion I, this grandiose, six-tier wedding cake of a song was simultaneously admired as a mark of the singer’s ambition and ridiculed as a testament to his supposed hubris.
Axl said he was inspired to write it after seeing Tommy Lee play on Mötley Crüe’s 1985 hit Home Sweet Home. Guns recorded a 10-minute solo-piano demo with producer Manny Charlton in 1986, which sounds remarkably close to the finished article (“That one’s for the second album,” Axl told Charlton – accurately, as it turned out). The song’s lyrics were based on a short story about a man who loses his girlfriend to suicide, written by the singer’s buddy Del James.
The finished track, clocking in at an emotional eight minutes and 57 seconds, was a behemoth, nodding to both Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding by Axl’s idol Elton John and, in its glorious coda, Derek And The Dominos’ Layla. The track, and its $1.5 million video, was so shamelessly opulent and over-the-top that even the corrosive cynicism of grunge couldn’t hole it beneath the waterline. But it also highlighted the gulf that had opened up between Axl and his bandmates in terms of what GN’R had been and what they could be. November Rain may have been written about the death of a relationship, but it sounded the death knell for the original incarnation of Guns N’ Roses. DE
3. Estranged (Use Your Illusion II, 1991)
It’s no coincidence that the best songs on both Use Your Illusion albums are their longest. Axl Rose was always way more complex than your average Sunset Strip hair farmer, and he pours all that complexity into Estranged, a rushing torrent of emotion that’s not just the best Illusion track but also a high-water mark of GN’R’s entire post-Appetite career.
This is Axl’s song all the way, addressing his turbulent, violent marriage to Erin Everley. “I wrote the song basically about who I am and how I feel, the break up of my marriage with Erin and how I didn’t want it to die,” the singer said. “But also apply it to a lot of other situations or friendships where you knew it had to end.”
At nine minutes and 23 seconds it’s half a minute longer than November Rain. But where the latter song stuffs in as much drama as it can until it’s close to exploding, Estranged ebbs and flows, shifting from stark piano parts to incandescent guitar eruptions that gives it a perpetual forward motion. And it features Axl’s finest vocal performance: when he sings plaintively: ‘I jumped into the river too many times to make it home/I’m out here on my own, drifting all alone,’ you’re there with him all the way. Estranged is more than just a snapshot of Guns N’ Roses at that point: it offered a taste of what they could have become. That wasn’t to be, of course – it would be another 17 years before a new GN’R album materialised, by which time everyone but Axl was gone. DE
2. Sweet Child O’ Mine (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
The breakthrough song that turned Guns N’ Roses into the most successful band of their generation; a bad-boys-with-broken-hearts ballad built on an immortal Slash riff and Axl’s coiled-cobra charisma.
Axl said Sweet Child... was “the first positive love song I’d ever written”, although Slash initially dismissed it as “a joke”. The ‘Where do we go now?’ coda was reportedly suggested by Spencer Proffer, producer of the band’s pre-Appetite demo. Ultimately, its ungainly birth didn’t matter. Sweet Child O’ Mine is the song that took GN’R to the masses.
Megan Lovell (Larkin Poe): “I have such distinct memories of being four or five years old and rolling around our family’s mini- van to Sweet Child O’ Mine. It was always on the radio all the time. That riff is so iconic – it sticks in your memory. It’s a massive ear worm.”
Rebecca Lovell (Larkin Poe): “One of the great things about that song is that it has so many segments. You have the main riff, which is a ballsy move in a ballad to begin with, then you have these vocal sections which are so pop and relatable, then it goes into this kind of Santana section, with these South American-style vibes.”
Megan: “Axl Rose is definitely #goals in a lot of ways in terms of being a frontman. I love the way he would just fling himself into his performances. You knew you were signing up to get a very edgy experience when you went to see them live.”
Rebecca: “My husband’s band [Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown] have supported Guns N’ Roses a lot over the last five years, and I’ve got to meet Axl and Slash a couple of times. They’re really lovely guys. I was really surprised at how chill Axl Rose is in real life.” DE
1. Welcome To The Jungle (Appetite For Destruction, 1987)
One of the greatest album openers ever, Welcome To The Jungle compresses Guns N’ Roses’ entire essence into one ferocious four-minute mission statement. Danger, sex, violence, unhinged guitar riffs and siren-screaming vocals, all amid a clash of metal and pop. And that’s just the first verse.
As Slash said in an interview with Guitar Center: “This represents to me probably the first real Guns N’ Roses song, with Izzy, Axl, Duff, Steven and myself. The first real song we wrote together as a band. That was the product of the five of us taking an idea and making it our own. You can almost hear everybody’s input.”
The initial idea was Slash’s. He’d been playing the stuttering intro riff around the house for weeks, and even when he did it on acoustic guitar for Axl one night, the all-hell-breaks-loose energy of it was contagious. They both sensed it could be something special. The riff got fleshed out into a song in a single three-hour session soon after at Nicky Beats Love Palace Studio in Silver Lake in Los Angeles.
“There was no analyzing this stuff,” Slash said. “Writing a song was something that happened spontaneously. But in that whole discovering-ourselves period from eighty-five through eighty-six, when we were living very haphazardly and getting together and jamming, there was something going on that not a lot of people had. And this song just had that natural feel that was very cool.”
The band navigated the deceptively complex arrangement, snaking through verse and chorus, while the middle breakdown section – which Slash said had a “bluesy, soulful feel” – was borrowed from The Fake, a song that Duff McKagan had written in 1978, when he was a member of Seattle punk band The Vains.
Inspired by the explosive track he was hearing, Axl dived into his a notebook and wrote some vivid memories of a cross-country hitchhiking trip he’d taken a few years before.
“On part of that trip I ended up kind of stranded in the jungle, the Bronx in New York,” he told MTV. “This old black man came up to me and my friend, who were backpacking, and we had like no money, just enough for a couple of Cokes. We’re sitting up on this bridge, and this guy says: ‘Do you know where you are? You’re gonna die. You’re in the jungle, baby!’”
Axl finished the lyrics a week later, while visiting a friend in Seattle, drawing from another memory of when he first arrived in Hollywood in the early 80s, a starry-eyed Indiana kid.
“For young, impressionable musicians who aspired to rock stardom, Hollywood could be as intoxicating as it was for a hot eighteen-year old actress wannabe just off the bus from the Midwest,” Slash said. “And it was a very telling lyric. Just the stark honesty of it. If you lived in Los Angeles, and in the trenches, so to speak, you could relate to it. And knowing Axl, I could relate to exactly where it was coming from.”
The final version of the song, recorded at Rumbo Recorders studios in LA and produced by Mike Clink, maintains the recklessness and electricity of a freshly minted track, with the band locked into a tight, dirty groove, breathing as one five-headed monster.
“Welcome To The Jungle is this high-velocity, high-impact, aggressive delivery,” said Slash. “But there were a lot of emotional subtleties in the song that the band really grasped. If Axl went here, the band went with him. I really love that about the band and the music and how it all came together. There was something magical in all of that.”
The second single from Appetite, it reached No.24 in the UK and No.7 in the US. At the time of its release, MTV were afraid to play the video, fearing its raucous visuals might get them dropped from their parent cable system. Finally, to appease the band’s label head David Geffen, the station aired it during the small hours. Their switchboard overloaded, and they soon added it in heavy rotation.
The track has had a long pop-culture afterlife, appearing in many movies, including The Dead Pool (the band make a cameo in the Clint Eastwood film), The Interview and Thor: Love And Thunder, the Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas videogame, The Simpsons, a Taco Bell commercial and as the unofficial anthem for the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. It remains GN’R’s signature song, a kind of rock identity card that tells us everything about the band.
“We never conformed to anybody else’s expectations or standards or commercial demands or whatever,” Slash said. “No fucking gimmicks. This was rock’n’roll from the street – boom!” BDM
Ayron Jones: “Welcome To The Jungle, that’s my favourite easily. It’s just hard. It’s just one of their hardest tracks ever, you know? Everything about it. It’s equal parts hard classic rock with elements of, like, pop. You know what I’m trying to say? There’s a little sprinkle of pop on there. Not in the sense of like modern pop, but like [sings] ‘nananananana-knees!’ That’s really poppy shit, you know? That’s why I like that song so much. I love that song. Have I played it? No! I’m not touching Guns N’ Roses. All that shit’s hard, man! One of these days I would love to jam with Duff and Guns, though. If I ever get the opportunity to, on one of their tracks, that’d be cool.
“Me and Duff are friends. I hung out with him and Slash backstage when we did Hellfest together. The next morning we hung out in his hotel room, we just chatted. And that’s another one of those cats I know I can call if I’m going through a hard time, and trying to figure out how to handle all this. You know, that guy’s really been through it.”