Guns N’ Roses’ nine-minute sludgefest “Locomotive” is one of those songs where the title, lyrics and music all match together perfectly.
The theme of the song alternates between a relationship marked by anger and manipulation, and the singer’s inspiration and vision of his life, his “illusions.” The music is true to its name, driving the song forward in steady but disjointed fashion.
The song is less notable than other more emotional long works from the Use Your Illusion albums like November Rain and Estranged, owing in part to its relative simplicity and repetition rather than epic breadth.
Notice I said relative. “Locomotive” exhibits a most careful balance between balls-out energy and technical precision, and all of its changes and pieces of flair, combined with the sheer volume of lyrics building from confusion to frustration to exasperation, and the care it must have taken to get it right in the recording studio, points to a work of great emotional investment and release for the band.
Slash does a great job of weaving short, dizzying guitar solos in between the verses (or even in the verses), building each one seamlessly out of the rhythm part itself and carrying the emotion of the song when the vocals are silent.
Like a few other GNR songs, Locomotive features a very distinctive aspect of the group’s guitar work – two rhythm guitars, in the same register, playing slight variations on the same part and making it sound good. It creates a stereoscopic effect where you can tell there’s two part but can’t really tell the difference. This is not nearly as easy as it sounds on paper, to pull it off requires both a great sense of cooperative verve among the guitarists and a rock-solid rhythm section of drums and bass for them to work off of. It perfectly expresses the paranoia of a song like this.
Appetite for Destruction is a hard-rock classic, but the group really punched their ticket to immortality with their 1991 separately-sold “double album” Use Your Illusion I and II which contained over two and a half hours of music (a length that would qualify as a very long quadruple album in the vinyl days). The artwork famously stole a detail of two anonymous men from Raphael’s painting “The School Of Athens,” and then added contrast to achieve a now-and-then or here-and-away effect.
There was a vague thematic split amongst the two records. The first, colored yellow and red, deals a lot with interpersonal strife (it opened with a track about Axl Rose’s hostile neighbor) and high-energy anger. The second album (themed in cooler blue and purple) focused more on internal discord, angst and disappointment.
The inscrutable narrative videos for “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain” and “Estranged” received beyond-exhaustive airplay on MTV.
In the cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” a spoken-word section is introduced by the dialing of a telephone. My band buddy and I both spent more than an appropriate amount of time playing back the sequence and punching buttons on our telephones to figure out the phone number.
THE BADDEST BOYS IN ROCK
Clawing their way to the top of the over-populated mass of rock musicians in LA, Guns N’ Roses was the real-life incarnation of the band every writer wished they had invented for a screenplay about the music industry. Violence, inexhaustible energy, drug abuse, alcohol, on-stage antics, shady characters and dark pasts – not to mention the loud music, wild costumes, angry lyrics and refusal to conform to pop sensibilities. They were a group who thought that hair metal was getting a little too fashion-conscious.
Frontman Axl Rose was beyond famous for his histrionics, often going onstage late (causing fines for the group) and showing no qualms about leaving early. He also called out rivals onstage and in lyrics, including Warren Beatty, Vince Neil of Motley Crue and a series of music writers savaged in the highly profane track “Get In The Ring.”
Rose was the victim of childhood sexual abuse, which undoubtedly contributed to his violence, impatience, narcissism and volatile relationships with women, and at the height of the band’s success he discussed his psychotherapy regimen being “four or five hours a day” even during touring.
Rose contrasted with lead guitarist Slash, a taciturn and unfazed character whose face was obscured by a massive broomtop hairdo. Funny line from Slash: “As a musician, I’ve always been amused that I’m both British and black; particularly because so many American musicians seem to aspire to be British while so many British musicians…went to such great pains to be black.”
It is ironic that although GNR had inspired me to pick up guitar – aside from the fact that Slash looked so cool with his Les Paul, the sounds they made were just so interesting – I had sort of outgrown them by the time I really started playing the instrument. Their lack of new material all but forced me to move on…after two-plus years of touring in support of the Illusion albums, they released a collection of covers and then more or less just faded away, with the new heavyweights of alternative like Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains filling the void as aggressive stadium rock dissipated into inward angst.
A few years ago I ordered the tab book to Use Your Illusion I (“tablature” is a way of writing guitar fingerings as sheet music, a much simpler way to transcribe and teach songs than asking guitarists to sight-read from conventional staff notation). I had never been able to pull off the GNR sound before, but with the notes in front of me I was shocked at how difficult and intricate the guitar parts were.
It was then that I realized GNR was one of those bands whose key sophistication was distracting you from their own sophistication. In other words, they sounded so good you didn’t stop to think about how hard it must be to sound that good.
The amazing thing about a group like GNR isn’t their onstage energy or reckless lifestyle – plenty of bands before and since have copped the attitude of three chords and a dozen groupies – it’s that when they went into the studio or onstage (late, oftentimes), they managed to be in tune, on time, and always interesting. You could argue the quasi-concept album pairing of Use Your Illusion I and II makes them the most successful prog-rock band in the history of the genre. Sure, Rush has sold more records, but the next barely-legal girl to flash Geddy Lee will be the first one.
I’m not quite ready to put Axl and Slash alongside Lennon and McCartney, but GNR had a talent for combining diverse rock styles into a singular sound that made sense, from typical hard-rock/metal stylings to neo-blues to epic ballads. In this way they were indeed like the Beatles, who combined their muses into a fusional style that sounded neither derivative nor pretentiously avant-garde.
KEEPING IT REAL AMONG THE MADNESS
Given the above-discussed need for a solid beat behind all the activity, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that drummer Matt Sorum came off in interviews as by far the sanest, most stable member of the group. Part of this was selected for – Sorum was lured from The Cult to replace Steven Adler who was kicked out of the band for drug abuse. (If you got kicked out of that band because you were too strung out, you must have had a really serious problem.)
One of the most interesting vignettes about the band to me was the departure of founding member Izzy Stradlin in the middle of the UYI world tour. The rhythm guitarist and key songwriter grew tired of the rock-star shtick and found that getting sober enhanced the contrast between him and the other members.
“Once I quit drugs, I couldn’t help looking around and asking myself, ‘Is this all there is?’ I was just tired of it; I needed to get out…I didn’t like the complications that became such a part of daily life in Guns N’ Roses…When you’re fucked up, you’re more likely to put up with things you wouldn’t normally put up with.”
It goes to show that no matter how big and successful you are, there’s always a price to pay, and you really need to think over whether it’s worth it.
We talk a lot in this space about the alpha male and his key characteristic of defining his world instead of letting it define him. Even among the true alphas, very rare is the man who can get to the top of the world and not wind up underneath it all.