The controversial painting of a woman ravaged by a robot that gives Guns N’ Roses’ groundbreaking debut its name (and original cover art) was but a hint of the boundary-pushing music within. Appetite for Destruction, a dozen songs and 53 minutes, turns 30 on July 21.
Age has not dimmed the album’s power. From the portentous opening of “Welcome to the Jungle,” the Gunners deliver on the song’s threat/promise: “We are the people that can find whatever you may need / If you got the money, honey, we got your disease.”
In your face, nuanced, no filler, Appetite wasn’t an instant chart-topper (it debuted at No. 182 on the Billboard 200 dated Aug. 29, 1987, and hit No. 1 on Aug. 6, 1988), but incessant touring and MTV airplay of now-ubiquitous hits “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and “Paradise City” furthered the buzz that GNR might actually be “the most dangerous band in the world.” And when all was said and done, they were also one of the best-selling: To date, Appetite for Destruction has sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, and at a cost of $365,000 to make, it is now certified 18-times platinum by the RIAA. Since 1991, when Nielsen Music began tracking sales data, the album has sold 5.6 million copies in the U.S. In addition to spending five nonconsecutive weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, it spent a full year — 52 consecutive weeks — in the top 10, from the April 23, 1988-dated list through April 15, 1989.
These days, the newly-ish reunited GNR lineup — featuring guitarist Slash, bassist Duff McKagan, minus classic lineup members drummer Steven Adler and guitarist Izzy Stradlin — don’t presently give interviews. There are rumblings that Rose instituted a NDA/letter from a lawyer strongly encouraging members, as well as numerous former associates, not to speak about the band. Regardless, our new interviews with key players in the band’s history, as well as vintage Guns interviews, reveal details and stories behind the enduring legacy of one of rock’s best-selling and just plain best albums. Appetite for Destruction is an enduring aural portrait of a band and a city on the edge.
In the mid-to-late ‘80s, Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip was a hotbed of big-haired pop-metal bands, many of whom were lured by delightful decadence as depicted and promised in MTV videos. But Guns N’ Roses incendiary, dirty, heavy take on glammy blues-rock was of a different stripe.
BRYN BRIDENTHAL [Former Geffen publicist]: [Geffen A&R’s] Tom Zutaut snatched me away from the Rock N’ Bowl Charity party April 5, 1986, insisting that I had to go to the Whiskey with him to see a band he was signing. He was over the moon about them. The show was intense and I went backstage to meet the band afterwards. Axl, impressive in leather chaps and g-string, was in the far corner. I think sex is a great sell, but fear is even better. I noticed no one was crowding the singer. He felt like a feral cat who might attack at any moment, so of course I walked right across the no-man’s space and introduced myself. The rest of the band was much more approachable.
VICKY HAMILTON [Author, former manager]: All the bands had gotten so girly, as girly as they could possible get, but Guns N’ Roses just felt different, and dangerous. And better. I always thought they had the potential to be huge. Axl had called me when I worked at Silver Lining Entertainment as an agent and said, “You come highly recommended. We want you to book some shows for us.” I was like, “Cool, send me a demo.” He said, “No — can’t I come and play it for you?” I said, “Well, you could if I had a stereo system here.” He said, “That’s okay, I have a ghetto blaster.” A few hours later, he and Izzy showed up with “Back Off Bitch” and a lot of the songs that were on Appetite. I was like, “Shit. This is good.” I actually booked them at [West L.A. Club] Music Machine without even seeing them live.
ALAN NIVEN [Former manager]: First time I saw them was The Troubadour. Summer of 1986. Tom Zutaut was manager shopping. They were still with Stiefel-Phillips [management], but Zooty wasn’t sure how long that would sustain — the band were dismantling a house in the hills that management had rented for them. There was a broken john by the front door. None of the management were at that gig, but they had sent a bouquet of flowers, which I noticed Duff toss with contempt into a trash tin.
BRIDENTHAL: GNR got to Geffen before I did. I plotted world domination with them for about a year — for no money. They were more of a religious belief than a job. At the time, I was at another label that was disappointed to find they couldn’t sue me for working a band not on their label because it wasn’t work. Just fandom. For me they definitely had the real magic and you didn’t have to dig for it. I founded the Geffen Records media and artist relations department in April 1987.
DUFF MCKAGAN [1987 interview]: Finally, at the end of April of 1986, we got signed. There was heavy interest by all the majors, five or six. We were personally dealing with them.
AXL ROSE [1987 interview]: We got two-firm, and a six-album deal. That’s good, because they wanted a lot more, and we didn’t want to be tied for that long. The deal is the best thing we could have fucking hoped for from any label, and we wouldn’t have gotten any more support from another label.
Producers ranging from KISS’s Paul Stanley to Manny Charlton of the band Nazareth were floated as names to helm the debut, but ultimately, a young, unproven producer snagged the gig. Recording commenced in January 1987.
NIVEN: When I signed on, Zoots had lined up Spencer Proffer to produce the band. I was dubious. I asked for a meeting at Pasha [Studios] but Spencer did not consider me of sufficient significance to meet, so he had me meet with his assistant. I became increasingly dubious.
MICAJAH RYAN [Engineer on Appetite]: Mike Clink booked Take One Recording Studio to record guitar and vocal overdubs, where I was the assistant engineer. Mike recorded the bass and drums at Rumbo Recorders. I never saw the band before I started working with them.
NIVEN: For a producer, I wanted someone who would not take the edge from the band, who would not deliver a “polished piece of product.” People tend to forget the perfection in recording lies in knowing the imperfections you have to keep. Tom and I also knew the ego of the producer would be of consideration. Mike [Clink] was really humble and clearly had patience. He had worked with Michael Schenker. That meant he was adept at dealing with the difficult and a very good guitar engineer. He was qualified.
RYAN: We always took Wednesday nights off and started late on Thursdays because the band went to a once a week club called The Cathouse. They were big stars there. I reckon Mike knew he wouldn’t get much out of them on the morning after a visit to The Cathouse. I didn’t see Axl, Slash and Izzy together much during the three months they worked on Appetite at Take One. They were all on completely different schedules; Slash would come in at 11 in the morning to record guitars, then we’d break at 6 until 7:30, for dinner, when Slash would leave and Axl would come in to do vocals until late at night. They only saw each other occasionally as I remember. Izzy spent most of his time listening to a cassette player he had, playing his guitar and waiting for his turn to do overdubs.
ROSE [1987 interview]: We went through so many producers. [Clink] doesn’t necessarily go “I think you should change this,” but he’ll say, “I don’t know about that one part,” but he’ll fucking cause a scene about it so we totally analyze something, so we show him why it works perfectly the way it is or we come up with a better idea. That’s all they wanted, to make sure we are giving 100 percent. Geffen was really worried, but then they heard it and they think we’re great. Tom [Zutaut] told me if I lost my voice it was okay, I could leave my rough tracks.
NIVEN: There was a moment, however, when I did get concerned. Zooty spent two weeks trying to get a mix outa Mike. Nothing was forthcoming. Tom said, “I am beginning to wonder if Mike even has it on tape.” I told him, “Go to Rumbo, select a roll of tape, and send it down to Total Access.” Michael Lardie and I were in the middle of Great White overdubs. We stopped. Stripped the board and set up for a mix. The tape arrived and Michael and I took a listen and twisted a couple of knobs. The band were waiting for news in Zoot’s office at Geffen. I told them: “Ya better come down.” Only Izzy showed. We played our fast mix of “Brownstone.” By the first chorus, Iz was launched out of the studio sofa and pumping his fists. It was there. Clink had it on tape.
RYAN: One day Izzy stopped me in the breezeway outside of the studio and asked me how many records I thought the album would sell. I considered this and thought “they won’t get any radio play because almost every song has the word f**k in it.” So, with an encouraging smile I replied, “Oh, I think you could sell two hundred thousand copies.” Izzy looked disappointed. “I thought we’d sell a couple of million,” he said. We were both wrong.
BRIDENTHAL: At the label, we could taste blood in the water and everyone worked their butts off. But I think the key elements were obvious: fabulous music and great leadership at the label. We wore buttons that said “Patience.” This was clearly a shift in musical taste; it was no teeny pop band. These guys were dangerous, genuine ROCK STARS. The band could be intimidating for an isolated promo or sales rep in the field.
Appetite for Destruction was the title of a painting done in 1978 by artist/cartoonist Robert Williams. Rose brought the image to the band. After retail blowback as a result of the original artwork, the cover was replaced with a tattoo-style cross with the members’ heads rendered as skulls.
NIVEN: Axl showed it to me and said he was joking. I, however, thought his instinct was brilliant and the pair of us drove way out into The Valley to go to Williams’ home to persuade him to let us use it. Tom and I knew it would create a hoo-ha. That’s why we only printed 30,000 units of the original cover and had 30,001, the replacement cover, printed even before the record was released — we did not lose a beat in transition and we got the attention we wanted — you can count on people to grab the wrong end of the stick every now and then.
ROSE [1987 interview]: They were going to ban our record cover. It’s this picture of a big red monster jumping over a fence, in armor. There’s a lot of energy, and there’s like an old man robot, and his brain’s exploding, and he’s smashing little pink robots. I found the painting by accident in a book … It’s called Appetite for Destruction, which is also what we’re going to call the record. The picture is really strange; you can’t quite figure out what’s going on, and that always bothers you. But it captures the band. I submitted it to the band as a joke, and they all went “this is it.” The girl, her shirt’s open, she was abused by somebody; I don’t know if it’s the robot or the monster.
BRIDENTHAL: There were lots of meetings, debating about what was the right thing to do. Politically. Creatively. Morally. Frankly I was all for [the Robert Williams cover]. It was art and had a whole life before GNR wanted to use it album art. The image was sold on postcards in museums/galleries for chrissaskes. It wasn’t a non-sequitur for the band. If [the label] got stuck on a point our go-to phrase was frequently “would the Stones do it”?
Appetite’s initial reviews ranged from good to great, but today, the album is almost universally viewed as a game changer by critics and fans alike.
ALICE COOPER: My favorite song on Appetite for Destruction is “Mr. Brownstone,” something about that song is very, very cool. It just jumps out at me. When we took Guns N’ Roses out, we played Santa Barbara with them when they were pretty much a bar band, and they just rocked. I thought, if they can keep from either dying in jail or in the bathroom from drugs, they’re gonna be unbelievably good.
NIVEN: [Appetite is] authenticity and an anti-authoritarianism that proclaimed the value of every individual, every soul, even the souls of urchins from under the street. A blue-collar grand slam!
BRIDENTHAL: My favorite song is a moving target. It depends on the day and the mood. But now, [Appetite] drives in my Corvette like they were built together. The memories are full range from euphoric to sad, kind of like the music.
RYAN: After the record broke, people would hire me just because my name was on the album, so I was able to provide for my family. That would have been considerably more difficult if it wasn’t for GNR. The song I favored at the time of recording Appetite was “Night Train.” I liked the energy of the chorus.
BRIDENTHAL: The low point was worrying one of those middle of the night calls would be news that one of them wasn’t Teflon after all and had died. The high point was that felt trusted and appreciated. Not everyone in the music biz gets to experience something that huge. Being part of the evolution from zero to Mars is a privilege I’ll always treasure.
Many doubted a reunion would ever happen due to the decades-long Slash-Axl rift. But in 2017, the band is well over a year into their Not In This Lifetime Tour.
BRIDENTHAL: I didn’t think there would be a reunion, but it is big business. And Izzy was always an independent soul. I assume he doesn’t need the grief.
MICHELLE YOUNG [“My Michelle”]: True chemistry and talent have a way of coming back together!
COOPER: I was pretty sure the Guns N’ Roses reunion was going to happen; first, why wouldn’t it? You can only hold a grudge for so long and when you get older, you see grudges don’t work. I don’t know why Izzy’s not in the band; kinda makes me mad a little bit. But I’m glad they’re out there playing, and killing it every night.
HAMILTON: There was so much animosity between Slash and Axl to the point where Axl was throwing people out of Guns N’ Roses shows who were wearing top hats and Slash t-shirts. I never thought it would resolve itself.
NIVEN: No Izzy, No GNR.