Melody Maker | Feature | 3 September 1988
GUNS N' ROSES
THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW
The interview is scheduled to take place after their show at the Castle Donington Monsters Of Rock Festival. Guns N' Roses have interrupted a major US tour with Aerosmith to play the gig, jetting in on Concorde for just the one day. It's their first visit to Britain for 10 months and it's of double importance in view of the status of the festival – the single most significant heavy rock event on the UK calendar. It doesn't matter that the band appear low on the bill.
The fact that their performance is far from faultless is negligible. Attention quickly focuses upon not what happened onstage, but an incident in the crowd. A few feet in front of the stage, a handful of songs into the Guns N' Roses set, the thin divide between over-boisterous slam dancing and gratuitous violence is broken. Panic spreads and the band decide to disappear into the wings while security men attempt to deal with the situation. The fear that it's a serious problem is supported by the screams of sirens that cut through the damp air. On their return to the stage, Guns N' Roses play a couple of ballads in a deliberate effort to calm the crowd down.
An hour or so later, guitarist Slash, a tumble of jet black curls hiding his eyes, is cuddling up to an almost empty bottle of whisky. Vocalist Axl Rose won't talk, but that's OK. He gives few interviews these days. He's holed up with the rest of the band in the portacabin that acts as their dressing room. The band’s manager, Alan Niven, is hovering nearby as Slash begins to talk.
"Don't get me wrong, we hate to see violence, people getting hurt, and we feel sorry for the kids that are right there in the middle of it," he says. "But a rowdy crowd, a crowd that knows how to rock, is the best. It makes you feel great that people can get that into it and the kind of energy level we're talking about is good for the band.
"That's why we like playing in England. The whole situation is heavier here, work is harder to get, money's tight, opportunities are fewer than they are in the States. So the kids need to have that one release from a rock 'n' roll show. They'll die for it."
At that time, Slash realised that the incident in the crowd had been serious, but he didn’t know the tragic truth of his words. Two young fans had been killed and others seriously injured, having seemingly been trampled beneath the feet of the audience packed in at the front.
After 20 minutes, the interview is curtailed at the insistence of Alan Niven, but another is scheduled to occur in a couple of days time, following the band's return to America. By now, the full extent of the tragedy has had time to sink in.
"It's hard for me to talk about it," says Slash. "We went back to the hotel, had dinner, and learnt about the deaths when we were in the bar. We've sort of been attacked for it, as if we were directly responsible, but with all those people – 100,000 – and the mud, y'know, no one thing can be blamed. Everybody was there for a release, to get away from their jobs, their parents, their problems, to get drunk and have a good time, but then you have this insane inconsideration for others. That ruined what it was supposed to be about – for everybody.
"The Donington gig was our third major open air appearance and there were riots at both the other two. We just go out there and play, try to generate some excitement, but when it gets out of hand, when it fucks up the kids, you get to the point where you don't want to go out and play those kind of gigs."
Aren't these incidents indicative of something about the music or lyrics of Guns N' Roses, or their live performances, that promotes violence?
"I really fucking hope not. It's not one element, it's a vibe maybe. The band does promote a rebellious trip, that's very much what we're about. But fuck, here we're talking about kids buried head first in 10 inches of mud. That makes us feel bad, I can't stress that enough. The thing is, I honestly believe it could have been any band up there on the stage – Metallica, Megadeth, anybody who goes out to kick ass. It's all down to energy, the giving and taking. We give all we can. But that doesn't mean to say that we're not terribly shocked when something like this happens."
What's certain is that this latest incident will do little to alter the perception of Guns N' Roses as the wildest of the youngbloods. Their debut LP, "Appetite For Destruction", released last year and now enjoying a fresh lease of life, contains its fair share of bad language, typically HM sexism and stormy scenarios. There's "Welcome To The Jungle", a song about their home city of Los Angeles, "Out Ta Get Me", which documents the band's countless run-ins with the West Hollywood cops, and "Mr Brownstone", a track written during a period when they were heavily involved in drugs. There's also the very title of the album.
Their reputation, the highly entertaining tales of drunkenness and debauchery, have always gone before them. These are not anecdotes, rather they are day-to-day events. Slash notes that their lifestyle is born out of approaching everything in an almost prehistoric way.
Yet the examples of excesses he offers to prove his point are embarrassingly tame. And that’s not all. As crazy as it sounds, one or two members of the band could be regarded as cute. Really. In the right light. As I click the tape recorder on to begin the interview backstage at Donington, Slash asks if he's allowed to curse and he doesn't mind in the least when a photographer from a tabloid newspaper requests that he takes the cigarette from his mouth. I know he's taking the piss on this one, but he even checks into his hotel using the name "Peter Cottontail".
"We're not mean, we're not nasty, we're decent people," he says. "We're just out for a good time, like five teenagers on the loose."
Moreover, the current Guns N' Roses single, "Sweet Child O' Mine" is a love song, dedicated to Axl's girlfriend. It's designed "for when you close your eyes and think of a chick", and there are other tracks on the LP betraying a more musically melodic and lyrically sensitive side to the band. There are bursts of sweeping keyboards, whorls of acoustic electrics, cleverly controlled rather than purposefully manic guitar solos, a struggle for idealism in "Paradise City" and "Think About You". A growing maturity is apparent in some of the newer songs yet to be committed to vinyl, including "Patience", which was one of the ballads aired at Donington.
"Yeah, maybe it's that we've grown up," says Slash. "There comes a time when you realise and come to understand certain things. Like with the drugs, they've pretty much gone now and that's because we've never met a single person that took a substantial amount of drugs over a long period of time who didn't have to go into rehabilitation or who didn't go down the drain. It just leads to instability and insecurity.
"But we've always liked to think that our music had some soul to it. There are lots of bands who get their clothes and their hair just right, get a couple of songs together and wanna go out in front of millions of people. Their attitude is, like, the songs are easy, they're only three chords, so what do I have to worry about that for? I've no time for bands like that. The songs may only be three chords, but you'd better feel them, you'd better mean them.
"It comes down to being sincere, being honest, being yourself. We're not into some kind of rock 'n' roll fantasy, playing up to a Sid Vicious, live fast, die young attitude. Some of the stuff might sound like cliched rock 'n' roll shit, but it's all true. We've lived on the street, we've been in jail, we've had no money, we've suffered the same as everyone else and people can relate to that. All kinds of people. The whole point of this band is to break down barriers, to get away from the accepted norm for a rock group, and if that means doing things we're not supposed to, then fine."
Whatever problems have continually dogged their career, the tragedies, exaggerations and insinuations, the rumours of splits in the ranks, the alcohol and drug abuse, the placing of too much trust upon their young heads, Guns N' Roses have the potential to take their sweet and sour gut-rot rock a lot further. Oddly, they are very much in an anachronistic tradition, that of Aerosmith and AC/DC, and like both of those bands, their ultimate success lies in their ability to appeal to the kind of person who'd rather sign their soul over to Satan than have to suffer Donington.
But Slash seems to have the whole thing in persepective.
"We're not the best musicians, the best band in the world. If anything, we're the biggest screw-ups in the business. So we're old fashioned? It's because we grew up in the mid to late Seventies, which was a strange transition period in music. That's heavily influenced us to the extent that we are the antithesis of the bland, safe, predictable shit of the Eighties. Like I said before, we're just out to be ourselves and to have fun.
"As for the future, I dunno. It's great that bands like the Stones, AC/DC, Cheap Trick and so on seem able to go on for ever, but I don't know if we will. We've got loads of new material for the next LP, it may even be a double album, and that's all that concerns me. There's none of this, 'Oh, we've gotta do five albums, we've still gotta be in this band at 40’. I can't even picture myself at 24, man. I've only just turned 23. All I know is that somehow we'll manage to live through all the bullshit. That's enough."