On this day in 1988, Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, “Appetite for Destruction” went to No. 1 after selling five million copies. The album was on the charts for 57 weeks. The success is laudable for a number of reasons: first, it appeared at the end of the so-called “Hair Metal” era, a classification that some would find arguably fits GNR. Second, “Appetite” was a debut album. The success seemed to indicate that the rock and roll listening public was ready for something different.
Guns N’ Roses: a new breed of rock band
“Appetite for Destruction” contains the now-classic singles “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Welcome To the Jungle,” and “Paradise City.” All three songs showcased the talents of every band member and made household names out of lead singer, Axl Rose, and guitarist, Slash.
Musically, US airwaves and music television were still ruled by new wave and rap music. What would come to be known as “grunge” was still an underground movement primarily in the nation’s northwest. Hair metal was still popular, but discerning fans could tell that a change was coming, or that a change was needed to keep rock music from stagnating. Guns N’ Roses was part of the evolution that rock music needed at the time.
The sound of Guns N’ Roses
One of the most obvious elements of GNR that distinguished the band from so many others at the time was Rose’s voice. High-pitched and fluid, the singer’s voice was capable of erupting into sound and just as quickly diminishing to a whisper. His voice also had the capability of lower notes that seemed more like a growl in certain songs.
Of course, Rose was not the first rock singer with a high-pitched voice. The quality of his voice, the attitude and tone with which Rose delivered some lines also made him stand out from other singers.
Likewise Slash’s guitar-playing. The crunch factor, the sheer agility of it was both in audiences’ faces, and beautiful, depending on the song.
In short, the songs were moody, well-arranged, and executed in a manner that made it seemed as though nothing else mattered. Listening to a Guns N’ Roses song (then and now, for many listeners) is like opening a door to another world, one in which the nature of people is put on stark display. The narratives are wrapped around hard-rocking soundtracks that make the words more believable. Even the “love” song, “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” does not remain well-behaved for long. Rose’s voice is a little aggrieved as he sings about his childhood memories and the girl he loves. The expression is candid and vulnerable. But when Rose and the band kicks things up a notch halfway or so through, the sound is anything but tender.
Using a series of vocal techniques (not just screaming), Rose asks again and again, “Where do we go?” The length of time that he holds the notes, the poignancy of the question, both get audiences’ attention. To put it simply, Guns N’ Roses was simply different. Their success at the time makes clear that the band gave audiences what they were missing, whether listeners were aware or not.
“Paradise City” and “Welcome to the Jungle” offered up simple ideas about how the world worked. “Welcome to the jungle, baby/you’re gonna die,” is sung in the segue to “Welcome to the Jungle.” Listeners hear it, and despite the dark truth, they agree and continue to listen. The verses before the segue all allude to the idea that bad things will happen in the metaphorical jungle. “Learn to live like an animal,” is another idea that captures the dark side of simply living in a city with other people.
Guns N’ Roses raw worldview appealed to millions. The music the group provided on their first album was in stark contrast to some of the other pop and rock making its way up the charts at the time. The band’s debut proved them different in a good way, and millions of listeners agreed.