A Milk Crate Full Of Records: Guns N Roses – Use Your Illusion I & II (1991)

The mid eighties were a glorious time for big hair metal bands. Bon Jovi, Motley Crue, LA Guns, Faster Pussycat, the LA scene was overcrowded with long haired pretty boys that sung rebellious songs about chicks and drinking and fast cars. Then all of a sudden, through the sea of teased, bleached blonde hair came Guns N Roses. Their debut album “Appetite For Destruction” will forever remain one of the greatest debut records ever. It catapulted five men into superstardom and into the glorious excesses of rock n’ roll. Their record label Geffen, wanted the band to hit the studio to write another album. The band just wanted to party and do more drugs.

Finally, in June 1989, the five guys pulled themselves together and left Hollywood to spend some in Chicago to work on some new songs. The idea was they’d get away from the temptations of Hollywood and bond together again creatively. The binding session failed. Izzy Stradlin, often failed to show and Axl Rose drifted by sporadically to jam at the piano. While kicking their heels, Slash and Duff McKagan managed to combine a daily half-gallon of Stolichnaya vodka with an unlikely interest in weightlifting. The session was not all a disaster. “Bad Apples”, “Garden Of Eden” and “Estranged” came from the Chicago session. This defined the direction of the songs. More grandiose, more epic, building from the straight out rockers on “Appetite For Destruction” which troubled Slash and Duff.

The group reconvened in Hollywood where the band got down to playing together again and the chemistry return including a two night session at Slash’s house which saw the tracks “The Garden”, “So Fine” and the angry attack at the media “Get In The Ring”. The sessions also allowed the way for some older tracks to find a home. Tracks like “Dead Horse”, “You Could Be Mine” and “November Rain” all started back around the Appetite sessions were finally finished and ready to record. The band also had “Civil War”, the first song Axl and Slash had written after the Appetite record while on tour in Australia. A war protest song the band was asked to contribute to a compilation album. It was also the first song the band went into the studio to record and it was also the song the pair realised Steve Adler’s drumming (along with his heroin use) wasn’t cutting it anymore and he was replace by Matt Sorum.

The group kept writing as individuals and in small groups while the recording sessions began. The drugs also worked their way back into the group around the time they hit the studio. “I wrote “Coma” in my heroin delirium,” admits Slash. For Axl, “Coma” was written after a drug overdose/suicide attempt. “Writing ‘Coma’ was so heavy I’d start to write and I’d just pass out. I tried to write that song for a year.” But as late comedian Bill Hicks once said. “All the greatest songs ever written were by people real high on drugs”. The two epic ballads that were penned mostly by Axl were “November Rain” and “Estranged”. While Rose maintains he was clean, a drunk and drugged Slash found his mojo working his guitar lines around Axl’s piano refrains. “It was hard to arrange that song (“November Rain”) and ‘Estranged’, because they were so open-ended and we had to cut November Rain.(originally clocked in at 25 minutes!) But those were Axl’s epic piano pieces and they were both breakthrough guitar solos for me. Real melody solos, y’know? I had some good sounds and they were melodically very spontaneous.”

The writing of the albums could be split between the two different albums. “Use Your Illusion I” saw Axl and Izzy write a lot together. “Illusion II” saw Axl write most the lyrics himself. Heading into the studio the band had over 30 songs ready to go. After the basic tracking where the band all performed at the same time in the same room (something uncommon in the 80’s and 90s for recording) the band split up to separate studios for overdubs and final tracking. Axl worked on the synths (to the bands dismay) and vocals. Slash tightened up the guitar parts. Matt and Duff finished off the rhythm section and Izzy Stradlin……disappeared. He slipped away and a week after the albums were released, officially left the Gunners.

The single “You Could Be Mine” was the first track the world got off the album. The soundtrack single for the new Terminator 2 movie. It’s an explosive rock n’roll track akin to the “Appetite” album. The albums release saw 4.2 million copies released to the US public, marking the largest album shipment in history. Keeping in Axl tradition the album was also delayed and release date pushed back. Rose told People Magazine “People want something, and they want it as soon as they can get it….needy people.”

“Use Your Illusion I” kicks off with the punch in the face rocker “Right Next Door To Hell”, written about Axl’s famed fight with neighbour Gabriella Kantor who he hit with a wine bottle and was later charged with assault. Axl uses his words to go on attack a few times within the 30 songs of the two records. “Don’t Damn Me’, “Bad Apples” and “Get In The Ring” take aim at the media and celebrity of Hollywood. “Shotgun Blues” is allegedly about Axl’s public spat with Motley Crue’s Vince Neil. But between the snarls, Rose delivers on his softer, emotional side. Both he and Izzy use music as a way to deal with serious relationship breakdowns. “Estranged”, “You Could Be Mine”, “You Ain’t The First”, “Breakdown”, “Back Off Bitch”, “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain” touch on the heartbreak both men felt. “Back Off Bitch”, being a more spiteful track and comes across as misogynistic. When quizzed about this in the press, Rose’s response was “I’ve been doing a lot of work and found out I’ve had a lot of hatred for women.”

The two albums also contain two versions of the same song. “Don’t Cry” has two versions because while recording the vocals for the first version on Illusion I, Axl came up with another set of lyrics which he also felt matched the song, so recorded them as well. Both albums also have one cover song – Paul McCartney’s Bond theme “Live and Let Die” and Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heavens Door” both becoming live favourites on the Use Your Illusion tour.

The albums featured guests such as Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Alice Cooper and Hanoi Rocks Michael Monroe and the two albums spawned ten singles including the video trilogy “Don’t Cry”, “November Rain” & “Estranged”. The cover is a copy of Raphael’s The School Of Athens. I is colored with red and orange tones – warm colors to reflect the fact the album is more of a rock album despite it’s two epic tracks in the nine minute “November Rain” and ten minute “Coma”. II is colored with blues and purples – cooler colors to represent the softer side to the second album in sound.

“I haven’t listened to the Use Your Illusion albums for so long, I don’t even know what’s on each. I know people like the blue one over the red one… Or maybe it’s the other way around.” -Slash

Use Your Illusion II ended up selling more as I. And for some reason Rose’s personal psychic is thanked in the liner notes, Sharon Maynard and Elton John and Bernie Taupin are credited for contributing half a line of lyrics to the lead single “You Could Be Mine”.

The two albums clocking in at under two and half hours, the joke of the time was you could make one really good mixtape of all the best songs from both albums and ditching the filler tracks.  With thirty tracks on offer, you have to expect filler tracks. Although even some of the weaker tracks have merit, the worse would be the ridiculous 80 second closer to the second album “My World” which does not sound like any other track, does not fit in with the second album and basically goes about to destroy the previous 70 minutes in which the second album delivers quality.

History will look at these two albums as the beginning of the end of the classic Gunners line up. After two years on the road, Rose and the band grew further apart. Tired of his antics, Slash quit followed by McKagen and then, as we all know the 16 year wait for “Chinese Democracy” that was not only delayed constantly for the best part of a decade but failed to live up to any expectation. The running joke that Use Your Illusion could be cut down to make one good album is unfair. Each song is needed on both albums to make the great songs greater and to help us, the audience, understand the insanity that must be Axl’s mind.

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