I think we can all admit a good percent of 1980s music has not dated well. At all. When looking back at the decade, one can see a clear distinction between the mainstream and the underground, definitely more than in any previous decades. On one side, you’ve got your army of Van Halens, Bon Jovis and Journeys, armed with polish, catchiness and commercial appeal. Standing in opposition are your Pixies, Sonic Youths and Dead Kennedys and their raw, noisy, uncompromising approach. Of course, there are alternative bands who had hits, just as there are mainstream ones who started out on the other side. But for the sake of making a point I’ll go with this over-simplification and state that I personally will always be more of a fan of the second camp.
In fact, it was exactly those alternative bands that convinced me that there was more to the 80s than I Wanna Know What Love Is and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. That made me go back and explore the decade that I’d been closed-minded to and nearly disgusted of. Since then, I’ve slowly and gradually discovered bands to like in both camps – in fact, I think the general rule applies: whatever genre or decade you pick, there’s always gonna be both good and bad music in it. I still can’t quite stomach the power ballads of Bon Jovi or the pop-metal of Def Lepard, but on the other hand I’ve grown to like acts such as U2 or Guns N’ Roses.
Which brings me to the main subject of this article: why Guns N’ Roses? Weren’t they just another hair metal band with the accent put on form over substance? The type that the grunge movement specifically aimed to put an end to in the early 90s? Well, yes and no. It’s true that Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy and Adler had right from the beginning enough commercial appeal to make them a constant radio presence. They had the right image, the right producers and the undeniable gift for a memorable melody. Yet, at the same time, they still knew how to fucking rock. As a guitarist, Slash always had more in common with Joe Perry and Keith Richards rather than someone like C.C. DeVille and it shows – the riffs are memorable and the solos have purposes beyond just showing off. And whether we talk about a ballad or a rocker, the band always had a solid ground to construct on. This is especially true for Appetite for Destruction, which had Izzy Stradlin as its main song-writer.
Perhaps even more important is the element that the other hair metal bands of the time were missing – the punk attitude. However polished and radio-friendly, Guns N’ Roses’ music always had a certain dose of danger and threat to it. Perhaps even enough to please the fans that came from a punk background – in fact, one quick glance at the track-list of their covers album The Spaghetti Incident reveals that the band itself was no stranger to the genre. With The New York Dolls, The Stooges and The Damned as primary influences, you can be sure that that’s gonna manifest in your music in one way or another. No hair metal band could’ve written anything even remotely similar to Out ta Get Me or One in a Million – with Axl in particular giving them an aggressive, paranoid, me-against-the-world feeling not unlike those one gets from listening to The Sex Pistols or Black Flag.
Of course, Axl has always been one of those artists who can just as convincingly push in the opposite direction. Ballads such as Patience and Sweet Child O’ Mine show the more sensible side of him and don’t for a second feel forced or artificial. By the time of Use Your Illusion this sensibility manifested as multi-part epics such as November Rain and Estranged, and while they tend to polarize the fans more, you gotta appreciate the new artistic direction that Axl pushed the band into. They could’ve easily made another Appetite for Destruction, but they didn’t.
This is the type of progressiveness that, along with the aforementioned elements, makes Guns N’ Roses stand out among their contemporaries. Reading reviews of their albums on Rate Your Music shows me that a lot of people who love them do so because it’s what got them into rock music back in the mid-80s. I’m not of those, being born a bit later, but at the same I can totally understand it: they weren’t the most long-lived band, but while they were on few other bands succeeded that well in fusing the rock ‘n’ roll spirit with a pop accessibility.