The Use Your Illusion (1991) double album from Guns N’ Roses recently turned thirty. Considering the drastic changes that have occurred in popular music during the past three decades, it seems like a bygone era of history. It’s hard to believe they were not only a massive cultural phenomenon, but the largest musical act in the world, whose popularity was only surpassed by the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. Appetite for Destruction (1987) had made the world take notice, followed by the Lies Lies Lies EP (1988), which immediately sparked controversy with One in a Million.
Use Your Illusion I & 2 were larger in scale than all previous efforts and exceeded all expectations from fans and critics. Two albums, both of which contained compositions that catered to a generation standing at a crossroads which contained enough of a pop sensibility to achieve heavy rotation on the radio and appeal to a massive demographic. This wasn’t the hard rock group that had been conquering clubs on the Sunset Strip a few years earlier. Their musical prowess had grown by leaps and bounds and they had plotted a course with new directions previously thought impossible.
A contributing factor to this onset of musical growth came in the form of two new members, Dizzy Reed joined the group on piano. Matt Sorum, previously of The Cult, came in as the group’s new drummer, replacing Steven Adler who was dismissed due to an ongoing problem with substance abuse. Slash was candid about the recent acquisitions, referring to the old incarnation of Guns N’ Roses as a “glorified garage band.”
“Video killed the radio star…”
One of the most notable innovations of the time period was the introduction of the music video. Its growing popularity attributed to MTV playing them in heavy rotation guaranteed that music reached the masses in a whole new way. While music has always told stories and enveloped listeners in storytelling and surrealism, the music video was a form of media that was just about as impactful as the introduction of television. Songs came to visual life and played out like the melodramas of the silent film era. Popular music now challenged cultural sensibilities in a whole new way. Nothing would ever be the same again.
By 1991, the format had evolved into a well-produced art form. Guns N’ Roses seemed to have released their magnum opus at exactly the right moment. The band was about to take advantage of recent developments and elevate the music video to new heights. In doing so, not only would the world bear witness to the spectacle that had been orchestrated but the megalomania and hubris of Axl Rose would be on full display.
The summer of 1991 had everything, sun, vacation, and a blockbuster movie that needed a hot single for the soundtrack. Terminator 2 (1991) was the sort of testosterone-fueled action film that earned an R rating and was marketed to children in the form of toys and other merchandise in the same method that Robocop (1987) had been a few years earlier. Arnold Schwarzenegger was an almost guaranteed box office profit, and “You Could Be Mine” off Use Your Illusion II would soon find itself racing up the charts as its popularity seemed to rival that of the movie. Even the cover of cassette single featured Arnold and sold in video stores, which allowed the group to cash in on the film’s popularity. This is also nothing short of genius in terms of marketing.
The connection with the film was established further when the music video landed in rotation. Footage of the band performing played alongside clips from Terminator 2, and a cameo from Arnold himself as a potential assassin stalking the group made for a lasting impression on anyone who saw it. Of course, Arnold doesn’t carry out the deed, as his t-800 vision scans Axl and displays “Assessment: Waste of Ammo.”
It’s no secret that MTV once played music, which comes as a shock to the current generation, who only know it for reality television. “Don’t Cry” echoed the groups’ standing in the world of popular music. For an entire day, MTV played the video in question, and it was the first of a few that illustrated the unbridled hubris of Axl Rose. At the same time, it would take the music video to new heights not seen since.
As a video, “Don’t Cry” comes across as heavily disjointed. Footage of the band playing on a rooftop juxtaposed along a narrative in which Axl appears to be dead and reminiscing about some of the tumultuous moments that made his former life up. One scene features him in a hospital, visited by two incarnations of himself, one of whom wears a kilt which was part of his stage attire (Or lack thereof). Despite the string of events having little cohesion to one another (including Slash driving a car off a cliff only to appear unscathed in the next scene playing a guitar solo), “Don’t Cry” offers a glimpse into the erratic and puzzling behavior that’s often attributed to Axl Rose over the years.
While “Don’t Cry” is certainly open to the interpretations of anyone viewing it, “The Garden” is a statement regarding the isolation and danger that comes from urban existence. In many ways, this seems to be a continuation from the beginning of “Welcome to the Jungle”, which featured Axl as a hayseed (He’s literally chewing on one) stepping off the bus and into a sprawling concrete jungle. “The Garden”, presented mostly in black and white, begins with a montage of the band sitting in various location of isolation. Abruptly shifting to color with accompanying vocals from Alice Cooper, the video illustrates the sleaze and debauchery of the red-light district. The lyric of ‘a crazy man’s utopia’ alludes to the dangers of relocating to the city. The video speaks to the disillusionment that comes from life LA and the burdens that success can bring upon an artist.
A criticism sometimes leveled at the Use Your Illusion albums is that they’re over bloated. To some extent, I can understand this point of view. The grandiose arrangements that are heavily supplemented are somewhat reminiscent of the later material released by Led Zeppelin. Nowhere is this more apparent than “November Rain.” A ballad of epic proportions, “November Rain” features piano from axel, background singers, and accompanied by elaborate orchestration.
If the arrangement felt a bit overloaded, then the video had the lofty ambitions of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). A budget of $1,000,000 was behind the endeavor, and told a story in which Axel literally ‘loves someone to death’. The song coming to life is nonetheless impressive, and features an elaborate wedding ceremony between him and real-life partner at the time, Stephanie Seymour. Not to mention a reception featuring a cameo from Headbanger’s Ball host, Riki Rachtman. The lyric of “Nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain” is followed by a torrential downpour, which spoils the festivities. A funeral march accentuated with the song’s melancholy tone takes the form of an actual requiem
If “November Rain” showed the ambitious direction in which Guns N’ Roses were heading with their music videos, then “Estranged” was confirmation that the group aspired to the heights of artistic accomplishment. As a song, “Estranged” isn’t the typical breakup ballad like “I Remember You” or “Heartbreak Station.” Containing not so subtle hints of trauma induced suicide shows the outcome of agony and isolation, rather than just the usual lament of being abandoned. As a video, “Estranged” is the highwater mark of rock excess and hubris.
With a budget stretched to the astronomical sum of $5,000,000.00, “Estranged” perfectly manages to convey feelings of isolation and the desire to escape the afflictions of melancholy. However, one criticism that I’ll make is this; once again, Axl makes himself the focal point of the scenario. Like so many of the video endeavors, it comes across more as a self-indulgent vanity project than any sort of artistic statement that the song made. Despite this, “Estranged” features many things that hadn’t been done before, and stretched the limitations of what a video could accomplish. From Axl jumping off an oil tanker in the middle of the ocean to swimming with dolphins to symbolize an escape from the wretchedness of reality, its intentions are clear, but are diluted in the ego trig contained in the expression.
The story of Guns N’ Roses entering the 1990s almost plays out like a Greek tragedy. The band who crawled out from the gutter, conquered the world, who would be ultimately done in by ambition and clash of personalities. Although the cultural shift that occurred with the rise if grunge would shift the musical landscape considerably, Guns N’ Roses had the potential to weather the storm. A disastrous tour with Metallica and continuous infighting would lead to the bands’ implosion. Still, Guns N’ Roses remains a force of nature who can’t be ignored and will always be celebrated.