Appetite for reconstruction: A look back at Guns N’ Roses’ landmark debut album

Guns N' Roses in 1987
Guns N’ Roses in 1987. (Photo: Ross Halfin/Geffen Records)

When Guns N’ Roses’ full-length debut, Appetite for Destruction, came out on July 21, 1987, it met with resistance and controversy. But of course, anything less from L.A.’s resident bad-boy rockers would have been disappointing. At the time, vocalist Axl Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler were the hellions of the Sunset Strip. When they weren’t making music, they partied hard enough to kill most young men — or at least leave them with their heads hanging over the toilet for days.

They drank, doped, fought, and f***ed with the conviction that what didn’t kill them would make them stronger and the realization that they’d probably never make it to 30 — let alone celebrate their greatest album more than 30 years after its release, with one of the most popular reunion tours of the decade.

But the reason why the 18 million-selling Appetite has stood up over the decades — and is getting the deluxe reissue treatment this week, via the Locked N’ Loaded boxed set priced at a whopping $999 — is Guns N’ Roses played as hard as they partied. Sure, their tunes covered subjects popular among other Sunset Strip bands — booze (“Nightrain”), drugs (“Mr. Brownstone”), debauchery (“Rocket Queen”) — but the quality of their songwriting was astonishing for such a young band. Influenced by Black Sabbath, Thin Lizzy, the Beatles, the Sex Pistols, Elton John, and Queen — just to name a handful — GNR cultivated their own daring, infectious, and dangerous blend of melody and mayhem. It wasn’t something they even needed to cultivate — the volatility of Rose’s voice (which veered between raw vulnerability and wide-eyed aggression), the lockstep groove between Stradlin and Adler, the bluesy and blazing guitar leads of Slash … it just was.

In 1985, when Rose, Slash, Stradlin, McKagan, and Adler began writing together, it was clear that they had the kind of chemistry and outsider charisma that bands like their obvious predecessors the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith possessed before them. At the same time, like their heroes, they were regularly drunk or high, and they had a reputation for missing shows or appearing incredibly late, which irked fans and gave their handlers ulcers. Offstage, GNR were even more unpredictable. All this presented a rebellious nihilism that could have backfired, had the band not been able to perform from muscle memory.

“The building we lived in was the first apartment building on Clarke Street, across from the Whisky a Go-Go,” the band’s first manager, Vicky Hamilton, said in Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal. “Once, Steven was trying to help me pick up empty Jack Daniel’s bottles and beer cans while Axl was sleeping on the couch. We woke him up and he was so mad he picked up a heavy wood coffee table and heaved it at Steven with everything on it. Then he started punching him. It was the day before a showcase and I said, ‘Great, you want to kill your drummer the day before an industry showcase. Perfect!’”

Hamilton helped put out fires when she could, but she left before Guns N’ Roses released anything. Randy Phillips took over as manager, but he didn’t last either. Guns N’ Roses’ first manager to last more than a few years was Alan Niven, who realized the group had enormous potential to be rock stars, if only he could get them a record deal and keep them out of jail … or worse.

Niven, who had worked with Mötley Crüe when they were on Greenworld Records, brought GNR to Geffen A&R man Tom Zutaut, who had signed the Crüe and was eager to see what he could do with Guns. So on March 26, 1986, he signed the band for an estimated $250,000. In his memoir, Slash wrote that he spent most of his share of the money on heroin.

“When I first signed Guns N’ Roses, they were a complete mess, but they already had great songs and were a great live band, and you could see that,” Zutaut tells Yahoo Music. “They were doing these unplugged gigs in conjunction with their electric gigs, and they sounded really good and proved that they didn’t need blaring electric guitars to connect. They had real songs.”

To get GNR’s engine fired up, Zutaut paid producer Spencer Proffer $15,000 to record “Nightrain” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which the label planned to use to build support for the band. Beyond the scheduled studio time, Rose, who made many of the business decisions back then, set up impromptu recording sessions.

“I might get a phone call at one in the morning from Axl saying, ‘Hey, we want to go in the studio,’” Zutaut recalls. “The studio would roll out the carpet and they would sit on chairs on the carpet and we’d record ideas. So there was this mindset of being ambitious and inventive long before Appetite was completed.”

As intoxicated as they often were, Guns N’ Roses still wrote well-structured songs that mixed primal swagger with insouciance and volatility. And when they covered other artists’ songs, such as Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” they put their own spin on the music.

“Yeah, they were indulging in whatever, but songs were still just flying out of them — even when they weren’t really trying to write,” says Slash’s childhood friend and early band photographer Marc Canter. “One guy in the band would hear another member practicing in the next room and come over to him and say, ‘Hey, play that again!’ And then he’d pick up an instrument and the two would start working on it. It didn’t matter which one was playing it. You take any one of them out of the mix and they wouldn’t have been nearly as good. Slash used to come up with these funky hard rock riffs, but Axl knew just what to do with them and how to inject melody in there. And Izzy would add his two cents. But when Izzy would come up with a riff, Slash would change it and make it better. Songs just came to them because they were all in agreement of what needed to be done. They were influenced by great music and they didn’t like the way things were going, so they were doing their version of what they thought music should be.”

By the time Guns N’ Roses started seriously working on Appetite, they already had a head start. “Nightrain” and “Sweet Child” were already in the can and just needed to be rerecorded, and a couple of the songs had been written from the bandmates’ previous projects. Slash, McKagan, and Adler had started working on “Rocket Queen” in their group Road Crew, and “Anything Goes” was written for Hollywood Rose, the pre-GNR group formed in 1983 by Rose, Stradlin, and guitarist Chris Weber. In a short period of time, McKagan co-wrote “It’s So Easy” with friend West Arkeen, and Stradlin composed “Think About You.” Then there was “Mr. Brownstone,” which Slash and Stradlin wrote about the dangers of heroin. For a while, they were able to hide their addictions from friends and workmates, but eventually, their dependencies caught up with them.

“All of a sudden, Slash’s personality changed,” says the band’s former personal publicist, Arlett Vereecke. “A few people had told me he was doing smack, but I sort of brushed it off and said, ‘No, he’s just doing coke. Whatever. I don’t care.’ But, of course, smack is a whole different story and I didn’t see it coming. One time, he was here with his guitar tech Adam, and Slash said, ‘Will you make me a cappuccino, Arlett?’ I said, ‘Sure,’ so I made one for him and one for me. He left and came back half an hour later and said, ‘That cappuccino made me sick. It sucked.’ I said, ‘That’s strange. I had the same one. Mine didn’t suck.’ And somebody else who was here said, ‘You know what just happened, don’t you? He just shot up and he’s sick.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ He said, ‘Absolutely. I used to be a heroin addict. I know the signs.’ So we went in his room and looked and found 18 needles and a bag of brown sugar, and that was it.”

Determined to get her friend to kick, Vereecke gathered a group of Slash’s peers and bandmates to support her when she addressed the issue in a quasi-intervention. She called Rose and a couple other people to help her talk to the guitarist. “I said to Axl, ‘You better be here when he wakes up, because I will kill him myself!” Vereecke recalls. “And Axl said, ‘Arlett, he’s been blue before.’ I said, ‘Well, not in my house!’ The only one who could scare him was Axl, so I needed Axl to come. Slash passed out until midnight. And at midnight, he came out all dressed up, top hat and all, and said, ‘Hey! What’s everybody doing here?’ And Axl said, ‘Do not say anything, Arlett. We’ll take over. I said OK.’”

Sensing what was happening, Slash got defensive, then angry. He denied that he had a problem, claiming his use was recreational. “I was in the kitchen and Slash shoved the door open and said, ‘Arlett, did you put your foot in your mouth?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, let me put it in yours!’ And I started slamming him with pots and pans and everything I could get my hands on. After I calmed down, I told him he could go to rehab or stay with me and I would detox him. He chose to stay with me, so with the help of some friends and some heavy-duty medication, we got him through it.”

Of course, it didn’t last. In a fit, Slash threw a hammer through Geffen’s office window, which caused problems for management and the band’s A&R. Fed up with the criminal activity, instability, and attitude of a group that had only released a relatively unknown concert EP (Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide), Geffen president Eddy Rosenblatt threatened to drop Guns N’ Roses. But by that time, the band was on a musical roll.

The group wrote some of their best material, penning lyrics that were often based on life experience and resonated with listeners. Rose wrote “Welcome to the Jungle” about the first colorful experiences he had in New York in 1980, after he stepped off the bus from his hometown of Indiana. And “Out Ta Get Me” was about his inability to stay out of trouble with the police. Other songs were equally undeniable. “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” which was about Rose’s relationship with then-girlfriend and future ex-wife Erin Everly (daughter of the Everly Brothers’ member Don Everly), and “My Michelle,” which Rose wrote about one of Slash’s childhood friends, presented an almost sensitive side to the band. “Paradise City” and “It’s So Easy” were more traditional radio-ready rockers about fast times and hot chicks.

Ironically, some executives at Geffen were actually frustrated that Guns wrote such good songs, since the band was always asking for more time in the studio and more money to record. “They’d use money they’d get from Geffen to buy equipment they said they needed, and then they’d hock it instantly for drugs,” Canter recalls. “Everyone was out of control other than Duff. They had a bunch of great songs, but the band wasn’t really cooperating. Geffen would put them up in an apartment and they would ransack it and get evicted and the police would come. It was a bad scene. You didn’t know if someone was going to die or if someone would go to jail. No one knew what was going to happen.”

Guns N’ Roses started tracking Appetite for Destruction with producer Mike Clink after expressing unhappiness with Proffer’s demos. They talked to KISS’s Paul Stanley, but he wanted to make too many changes to the songs, and Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, AC/DC, Foreigner) proved too expensive. Finally, they settled on Clink (Mötley Crüe, Heart) because the price was right. It was a good move. Clink had the patience to tolerate the band’s unpredictable work habits and the tenacity to work on mixes late into the night. Guns N’ Roses began recording with Clink at Daryl Dragon’s Rumbo Recorders in January 1987.

They spent two weeks tracking the drums, bass, and preliminary guitar. Over the next month, Slash worked on solos and overdubs and Rose recorded his vocals, which took more than a month since he insisted on recording a single line at a time, one song after another. This aggravated his bandmates, who frequently left him alone in the studio with Clink while they ran amok. During this time, Rose decided “Rocket Queen” should begin with sex noises, and since Adler’s girlfriend was hanging out in the studio at the time, Rose suggested he and the woman have sex and record her moaning so they could add it to the album. She consented, and while the result sounds effectively authentic on the record, the move infuriated Adler, further contributing to the tension within the band, Zutaut says.

Guns N’ Roses added last-minute overdubs and mixed the record at Mediasound Studios and mastered it at Sterling Sound in New York City. By the time Appetite for Destruction was finished, in April 1987, Geffen had spent $365,000 on the recording without seeing anything in return.

And then came the album’s first big, public controversy — which had nothing to do with any of the songs. The cover artwork for Appetite was supposed to feature a Robert Williams painting that depicted a mechanical beast that looked like it had ravaged a defenseless woman.

The original
The original Appetite for Destruction cover. (Photo: Geffen Records)

“It’s this picture of a big red monster jumping over a fence, in armor,” Rose explained in a 1986 interview with Rip. “There’s a lot of energy, and there’s like an old man robot, and his brain’s exploding, and he’s smashing little pink robots. I found the painting in a book. … It’s called ‘Appetite for Destruction.’ The picture is really strange; you can’t quite figure out what’s going on, and that always bothers you. But it captures the band. I submitted it to the band as a joke and they all went, ‘This is it!’ The girl, her shirt’s open, she was abused by somebody; I don’t know if it’s the robot or the monster.”

Several major music retailers balked after seeing the proposed cover, so Geffen put the arguably offensive artwork on the inside of the album and replaced the front design with a Celtic cross and skulls representing each of the band members. Finally, Appetite for Destruction was ready for release, and GNR supported it with tours with the Cult and T.S.O.L.

The final
The final Appetite for Destruction cover. (Photo: Geffen)

The shows were hardly hassle-free. Sometimes Rose showed up late, forcing the band to take the stage an hour or more after they were scheduled to play — and sometimes he didn’t show at all. One such incident happened when Guns N’ Roses were supposed to go on after T.S.O.L. in Phoenix, but Rose had gone missing.

As T.S.O.L. prepared to leave the stage after their opening set, Niven coaxed them back on while he hoped that Rose would eventually show up. “I was trying to buy time,” Niven tells Yahoo Music. “Finally, these poor guys in T.S.O.L. came offstage after playing Beatles covers. They looked at me mournfully and said, ‘We’ve played absolutely everything we know. We’re beat. Can we quit now?’ That was the moment I had to walk onstage and say, ‘Tonight’s performance by Guns N’ Roses, unfortunately, will not occur due to a medical emergency.’ Immediately, people started throwing s*** at me and it got ugly fast. The crowd rioted and it spilled out into the parking lot, and at least one car was turned over and set on fire.”

Today, Appetite for Destruction is viewed as one of the most successful, authentic, and abrasive rock ’n’ roll records of the ’80s, and the last great arena rock album before the music business was consumed by more self-effacing grunge bands and less outwardly hedonistic alternative groups. However, Appetite wasn’t an overnight sensation. By October 1987, three months after its release, the record had sold 150,000 copies — a respectable number, but it paled in comparison to many hard rock bands of the era and was disappointing considering the hype that had accompanied the album. Then sales leveled off and executives at Geffen considered taking GNR off the road and putting them back in the studio. The big problem, as it turned out, was that MTV — then a powerful tastemaker for music fans — refused to play the band’s video for “Welcome to the Jungle.”

Zutaut pleaded with David Geffen to convince MTV to play the video. Some favors were extended by the network’s president, Tom Freston, and six months after it was submitted, the network aired “Welcome to the Jungle” at 5 a.m. on a Sunday. The video generated requests from lots of insomniacs and early risers, so MTV shifted it into semi-regular rotation and its popularity soared. Pretty soon it was a priority at the channel, receiving several spins a day. Radio became just as enthusiastic, and thanks to the airplay and a triumphant tour opening for their heroes Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses finally blew up.

As thrilled as they were by their success, Guns N’ Roses were also overwhelmed. Rose suffered from stage fright, and the larger the crowds got, the longer it took him to take the stage. In addition, touring was running the band ragged. Then came the final straw, one year and one month after Appetite’s release, on Aug. 20, 1988, at the Monsters of Rock Festival in Donnington, England. It was intensely hot, there were too many fans at the venue, and security was unable to control the crowd. “When Guns went on, people just stormed towards the stage and got crushed in the rush,” Vereecke says. “Later we found out two people had died, which the guys were just devastated about.”

Zutaut says that the Donnington incident had a lasting effect on Guns, who came to the conclusion that their concerts weren’t mass celebrations — they were chaotic, potentially deadly events. “After that happened, they made it very clear that they didn’t ever want to put themselves in a position where they were responsible for a stampede, where people were injured or killed again,” Zutaut says. “I think mentally they understood that they were not personally responsible, but they were so upset that I think it contributed to the excesses of the band. It’s hard enough when you explode like that and you become larger than life — an icon, a godlike figure that people worship. That, in itself, psychologically messes with people’s heads. But to throw a tragedy like this on top of it. … I think that there are a few ways that people escape it. One is alcohol, one is drugs, and the other one is religion. You become obsessed with one of those three things, and you use it like a crutch to try and survive.”

For a while, it was questionable if the band would survive their indulgences and the disenfranchisement such behavior caused with certain less hedonistic members in their camp. The tension reached a peak during a show at the L.A. Coliseum opening for the Rolling Stones, in which Axl Rose stated, “I hate to do this onstage. But I tried every other f***ing way. And unless certain people in this band get their s*** together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll f***ing ever see. ’Cause I’m tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.”

When Rose left the stage, he was determined to make good on his threat. As David Geffen walked down the steps at the back of the Coliseum, he bumped into Rose. Delighted by the show, Geffen congratulated Rose, who shot back, “’Well, I hope you liked it, f***er, because it’s the last f***ing one!’” Niven remembers. “You should have seen Geffen’s face. I was, like, 15 paces behind, trying to keep up, and I’m waving my hands at Geffen, like, ‘Leave him alone! Leave him alone! Get out of the way! Don’t stop him now!’ And then Axl shut himself off and then went back to his apartment.”

Rose’s sentiments — though perhaps ill timed — were genuine, as was everything regarding Guns N’ Roses, from their adoration of music to their complete adherence to the rock lifestyle. Fortunately, the Coliseum incident didn’t tear the band apart, and the lineup stayed together through all the bumps and bruises. In November 1988 Guns released G N’ R Lies, which featured the Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide EP tracks along with four new songs. That kept the momentum moving forward as sales of Appetite continued to skyrocket. Lies itself went five times platinum.

Though Adler was fired from the band in May 1990 due to worsening dependency and was replaced by the Cult’s Matt Sorum, Rose, Slash, McKagan, and Stradlin managed to maintain a professional relationship through the release of the dual CDs Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, both released on Sept. 17, 1991. Stradlin left later in 1991 and is the only main member who refused to have anything to do with the band’s recent Not in This Lifetime tour.

As good as some of the songs on the Use Your Illusion records were (they would have made a hell of a single CD), it’s Appetite that continues to reign as Guns N’ Roses’ benchmark release. Not only did it feature the band’s best, most straight-ahead rockers, but it echoed the spirit of its time, reflecting a self-destructive batch of talented miscreants barreling along way too fast to see what’s in front of them and too far gone to care.

“There was always drama with those guys and it always seemed like they were on the verge of falling apart,” Zutaut says. “They were who they were, and I think people appreciated that and accepted them as these flawed individuals because what was most important to everyone was that they wrote great songs.”