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In Guns N' Roses' most grandiose hit, Axl Rose sings, "Nothin' lasts forever, and we both know hearts can change." And yet, 30 years since "November Rain" hit the radio, the rock anthem PEOPLE called "larger-than-life" and "surprisingly tender" remains one of the band's defining, fan-favorite compositions.
On the anniversary of the release of "November Rain," we delve into the backstory of Rose's labor of love and explore some of its more obscure pop culture connections, including the moment Taylor Swift became part of the song's history and how it ended up getting played in the Oval Office.
A DECADE IN THE MAKING
GNR fans didn't hear officially "November Rain" until Sept. 17, 1991, when it was released as the 10th track on the double-header rock opus Use Your Illusion I and II, but Rose had started plunking away at the tune on the piano as early as 1983, according to bandmates.
An early version from 1986 "was about 18 minutes long," Slash shared in his eponymous 2007 biography, "so needless to say we really needed to sit down and focus on arranging it."
In one story with potentially questionable historical accuracy, when Rose was on the verge of completing the tortured masterpiece in 1991, he insisted on recording his vocals alone. "Eight days later," according to Uproxx, "they returned to [find] Axl asleep, covered in his own waste and empty pizza boxes."
The song ultimately clocked in at 8 minutes and 57 seconds, though in 2018 the group treated Rose lovers to two early attempts: a 10-minute piano demo and a 5-minute acoustic guitar rendition, both from 1986.
The song climbed to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in late August 1992. It was the band's second biggest hit after "Sweet Child O' Mine," which just so happened to be the other ballad in contention for their 1987 studio debut, Appetite for Destruction. When it reached its peak on the charts, "Rain" was stationed behind Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" and TLC's "Baby-Baby-Baby." Safe to say, it was a roller coaster of a year for love songs.
29 YEARS AT THE TOP
"November Rain" did rule the Billboard charts in one respect — for nearly three decades, it held the record for the longest song ever to make it to the top 10. It was finally dethroned in late 2021 by Taylor Swift's 10-minute, 12-second re-recording of "All Too Well."
And which month did Swift chose to release her extended version? November. Oh the irony!
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty
"THE SOUND OF A BAND BREAKING UP"
Tom Zutaut, the A&R manager who signed Guns N' Roses to Geffen Records, was one of many people who discouraged Rose & Co. from including "November Rain" on Appetite for Destruction. He later told LA Weekly he feared it was "overly complex and could alienate."
And though the song ultimately became one of the group's biggest hits, Zutaut's hunch wasn't entirely off base — though it was the band members themselves who were put off by Rose's increasingly lofty ambitions for their sound.
In 2008's Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N' Roses, Slash deemed the orchestral complexity of the song "all this kind of crap we didn't necessarily want as a band," and drummer Matt Sorum said his gut reaction was, "I didn't really sign up for this — all these ballads. I was hoping to join a badass rock 'n' roll band. I was like, 'What's with the piano?'"
And though NPR (that noted chronicler of rawk) would go on to describe the song as "one of the ultimate hard-rock power ballads," Slash once described "Rain" as "the sound of a band breaking up." Though it's worth noting that, according to The Ringer and Rolling Stone, he also used that turn of phrase to describe the group's cover of The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil," which was released in December 1994. (Around that time, the band embarked upon an extended period of lineup shifts, side projects and internal squabbles that many fans and critics believe signaled its descent.)
"There was just a little too much thinking going on," he told the Baltimore Sun in 1995, adding in Q magazine in 2004 that, "by 'November Rain' it was too much, just too involved ... that's when I started realizing that it was getting out of hand."
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GUNS & THE 'SUN'
GNR members and those close to Rose said he had been hoping to emulate bombastic 1970s arena rock hits like Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and Aerosmith's "Dream On" for years leading up to the Use Your Illusion era.
But Sorum says a less predictable artist had direct influenced the creative process: "We listened to Elton John for inspiration for the drum fills and overall tone," he told Rolling Stone in 2016. "I vividly remember sitting with Axl listening to 'Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me' and Axl pointing out the style of the tom[-tom drum] fills."
According to 2008's W.A.R.: The Unauthorized Biography of William Axl Rose, the singer said in the lead-up to "Rain" that, "If we get that right, I can walk away from this. Because I've done it, man. I can work a stadium now, you know? I've done it." (Even before that, he told Rolling Stone in 1988: "If [November Rain] is not recorded right, I'll quit the business.")
More literally — and especially personally for Rose — rock journalist Del James' "Without You" provided the narrative for the song's 9-minute, 16-second music video. The short fiction story revolves around an addled rock star dealing with the fallout of his infidelity driving his wife to kill herself shortly after their wedding.
Rose wrote in his 1995 introduction to James' The Language of Fear: "For years, we've been thinking about making either or a full-length movie based on 'Without You,' and that kept me focused on not wanting to become the character, Mayne, although I basically was that person."
ABOUT $2,700 PER SECOND
That's the rough cost, in 1992 dollars, of the instantly iconic music video for "November Rain," which premiered on the June 6 episode of MTV's Headbangers Ball.
Totaling more than $1.5 million (or a little more than $3 million in 2022), the undertaking was deemed "a preposterous waste of money" by former GNR manager Alan Niven, according to 2011's I Want My MTV.
Roughly $150,000 of the budget, per MTV, went toward constructing a chapel in the desert for Slash's first solo — yes, as any Guns aficionado knows, Slash has multiple solos in this one song.
When director Andy Morahan talked with Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks for I Want My MTV, he said the mammoth scale of the project even wowed Dutch photographer and music video director Anton Corbijn, who happened to be in New Mexico and visited the set during the filming of Slash's solo.
"After about a half-hour [Anton] said to me, 'Andy, this is incredible. You've got five cameras, cranes, helicopter, this big crew. Is this the whole video?' I said, 'No, it's about 27 seconds of it.'"
For his part, Slash told HuffPost in 2014, "I just showed up for my scenes."
Fun fact: Through Morahan, the video has artistic connections to George Michael, Mariah Carey and Bryan Adams. He also helmed Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go," Michael's "Faith," Carey's "Vision of Love" and Adams' "(Everything I Do) I Do It for You" before stepping in to guide GNR's Illusion trilogy of "Don't Cry," "November Rain" and "Estranged."
At the time, "Rain" was the most expensive music video ever made — though it was quickly surpassed by the $5 million budget of its follow-up, "Estranged." The reigning champ is Michael and Janet Jackson's 1995 space opera "Scream"; "Estranged" now sits at No. 5, and "Rain" is currently No. 26.
Regardless of the naysayers, the extravagant gamble paid off: "November Rain" was MTV's most-requested music video of 1992, and it took home best cinematography and the Video Vanguard award at that year's Video Music Awards. (In a nice homage to John's influence, the Rocket Man joined GNR in a surprise duet that closed out the ceremony.)
In July 2018, it also became the first video from the '90s to surpass a billion views on YouTube, nearly doubling that achievement just before the single's 30th anniversary in February 2022.
Still, Slash wasn't especially personally invested in the "complex" video-making process. "I never paid attention to the rest of the whole production. So at the end of the day, I never really knew," he told HuffPost. "I knew there was a wedding in there somewhere, and I was not into the concept of the wedding."
At the center of any wedding is a bride, played in the video by Rose's then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour.
The supermodel is widely seen as a proxy for Rose's ex Erin Everly. Their volatile marriage had been annulled in January 1991, and the rocker has described the song as being about "not wanting to be in a state of having to deal with unrequited love."
Seymour had previously appeared in the video for Illusion's lead single, "Don't Cry," and was slated to finish out the trilogy, but when her relationship with Rose ended rancorously, she "had other plans so we had to change ours," the frontman wrote in his introduction to The Language of Fear.
That explains the rather odd choice to forego a leading lady in "Estranged" and instead have Rose cozy up to an entirely different kind of scene partner. Morahan revealed in I Want My MTV that Rose told him after the Seymour split: "I never want a girl in a video again. I'd rather go out with a dolphin."
Another perennially confusing element of Seymour's role in GNR's videos and "November Rain" in particular: Why does the bride have a mirror over half her face at her funeral?
Though Morahan claimed to Tannenbaum and Marks in 2011 that he still had "no idea," most fans assume it's because the bride in "Without You" dies by a gunshot to the head.
Either way, the custom casket was just another expensive element of the production, adding $8,000 (nearly $16,000 today) to the bill, according to the Washington Post — interestingly, that's the same reported price tag for Seymour's Carmela Sutera "waterfall" wedding gown, also known as a "mullet dress."
CHANGE OF A DRESS
Nearly a decade after the video for "Rain" dropped, the video and its style's enduring impact was once again on show via the rapid-fire dialogue of the Gilmore Girls.
In the season 2 premiere, Lorelai (Lauren Graham) quipped to daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) that she envisioned a gown like "the one Stephanie Seymour wore in the Guns N' Roses video" for her wedding to Max (Scott Cohen).
Alas, the sartorial homage to Seymour was just as ill-fated as the engagement to Max — when Lorelai married endgame love Luke (Scott Patterson) in 2016's A Year in the Life finale, she opted for a black lacy number accented by white flowers at the waist.
Coincidentally, Seymour's bride changed into a black velvet number for the rained-out "November" wedding reception, so it's not a massive stretch to say Lorelai's wedding still had a hint of the video's rock 'n' roll aesthetic.
A YUUUUGE FAN
For the wildest connection of all, look no farther than America's most renowned residence.
In her 2020 memoir, Speaking for Myself, former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Donald Trump told her and Communications Director Hope Hicks in 2018 that he considered "Rain" "the greatest music video of all time," then queued it up in the Oval Office so the three of them could watch.
The former President's appreciation for the song had crystallized decades before when, according to New York magazine, Trump wanted to finance a Truth or Dare-style documentary about Guns N' Roses and became friendly with Rose the year "November Rain" was released.
Early on in the same year Sanders and Hicks had been called into the Oval, Rose tweeted that the Trump White House was "the current US gold standard of what can be considered disgraceful."
As Rose famously sang, "nothin' lasts forever, even cold November rain" — not to mention famous friendships.