Rock’n’roll was dangerous for three decades. It was a period that began in the mid-1950s with the arrival of Elvis Presley and concluded with the decline of Guns N’ Roses, the glam/punk/metal titans whose partial reunion, after 20 years, was announced last week. True, there were moral panics aplenty around pop music before and after that time, and there will be again. But what marks out that era, and sets those artists as its bookends, is rock’n’roll acting as a vast commercial force, as the undisputed expression and essence of youth culture, and as a lightning rod for a sense of insurrection – a thing with the capacity to evoke amazement, thrills, fear and horror.
Guns N’ Roses first album, “Appetite For Destruction” (1987), remains the largest-selling debut in history: 18m copies in their American homeland, and 30m worldwide. It is a nasty record, in some ways an inexcusable one, from its original cover art based on Robert Williams’ eponymous painting of robotic rape, to the authentic sex noises recorded in the studio for its closing track “Rocket Queen”. Like much of the greatest rock’n’roll, it is powerful because it is unwholesome. It’s one of the most brilliant, exhilarating and transgressive blockbuster albums ever made. At that moment, its creators radiated what the pop writer Simon Price characterised as “fuckinghellness” – the ability to trigger uncontainable excitement and jaw-dropping incredulity at the very fact of their existence. This was rock’n’roll as vicious, screeching mayhem, performed by a group whose image, stage presence and well-documented dedication to the other two parts of the unholy trinity – sex and drugs – suggested a marauding gang of piratical sleazeballs. G N’ R, as they are colloquially known, were an affront to the ears and nostrils of civilised society, a Saturnalia in the flesh and in the speakers. As with the Sex Pistols before them, they instantly rendered redundant almost everything in mainstream rock. You didn’t have to like Guns N’ Roses to be blown away by them. You just had to be aware of them.
If only they had likewise emulated the brevity of the Sex Pistols’ career, and left that one album and its corresponding shows as their entire legacy. “Decline” may be the wrong word to apply to G N’ R; rather, they plummeted. And it is a measure of how high they started that they have been free-falling ever since, through mediocre records, personal bust-ups and notoriously prolonged and costly recording projects. I thought they had hit rock bottom when I saw them – or rather, a band billed under that name and led by caterwauler-in-chief Axl Rose – at London’s O2 arena in 2010. Then, I wrote: “The years exact a toll on all of us, [but] porcine and dewlapped...the former sculpted rock demigod looks like a bloated redneck pimp...[The band] comes across as a weird tribute act, possessed at best of a kind of inadvertent high camp.” The parallels with Presley, the man who heralded the era that G N’ R unwittingly concluded, are striking: for the lucrative residencies in 1970s Las Vegas, substitute the contemporary festival circuit which will be hosting G N’ R’s return. But Presley had at least enjoyed one triumphant resurgence; and even in his time of ruin, he revealed flashes of artistic merit.
Do G N’ R have further to fall? We will find out this April, when at least three of the definitive quintet – Rose, lead guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan (no word yet on guitarist Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steve Adler) – take to the stage at California’s Coachella festival. Assuming they do: Rose is not known for adhering closely to scheduled stage times. The real news is the return of Slash, Rose’s foil, fellow guiding light and nemesis, once described by Rose as “a cancer and better removed”. But in the age of the big-money reunion, all this is standard: a war of words, followed by a lucrative reconvening. The Who did it, the Stone Roses did it, now so have G N’ R; that leaves the Smiths and (occasional rapprochements notwithstanding) Pink Floyd as the last major hold-outs.
My guess is that those gleefully anticipating disaster will be as disappointed as those seeking the sensation of the electrifying early days. G N’ R will likely be competent, professional, play the hits and bank the cheque, and everybody so inclined will have to pretend to themselves that something extraordinary took place. That is how the pop mainstream now functions, and G N’ R, having symbolised the last of its glory days, may well go on to represent just as thoroughly its prosaic present.
Coachella Indio, California, April 15th – 17th and 22nd – 24th