Guns N’ Roses: The Monsters of Rock Return

After 14 years of rumours and false starts, Guns N’ Roses are promising to release their new album. There’s even a ticking clock on their website. Oh well; heavy metal bands never did like to rush things, says Andy Gill

IT MUST HAVE seemed like a cool move at the time, with the bonus that it was an easy way to get free publicity.

Seven months down the line, however, soft-drink company Dr Pepper’s smug show of hip bravado in promising to give a free soda to everyone in America if Guns N’ Roses’ long-awaited Chinese Democracy album got released before the end of the year, may end up costing the company a pretty penny. Because, against all the odds, the notoriously fractious, deadline-dodging hard rock band finally got off its collective rear and announced that the album would indeed become fact rather than rumour this November. “We never thought this day would come,” admitted Tony Jacobs, vice-president of marketing at Dr Pepper (though not, perhaps, for much longer).

To convince the sceptical, and frankly to indulge in a bit of melodramatic self-promotion, the band have placed a digital clock on their official website, counting down the days, hours, minutes and, yes, seconds until the album’s release: the last time I checked it was arriving in 25 days, seven hours, one minute and 34 seconds… 33… oh, you get the idea.

Doubtless there are some fans whose computers will be permanently linked to the website, heavy metal fans being, as a rule, more stubborn in their devotion than the average punter. And hey, you get to hear the title track over and over again, so, given an infinite number of plays, you might eventually be able to make sense of what frontman (and sole surviving founder member) Axl Rose is jabbering on about. At the moment, I’m still trying to figure out the connection between this putative “Chinese Democracy”, the Falun Gong cult, an iron fist and masturbation, these being the most prominent references discernible in the performance, apart from Rose’s repeated claim that “it doesn’t really matter”. One suspects that, in this respect at least, he’s getting close to the truth.

It’s not hard to see why Dr Pepper got caught out by this sudden and uncharacteristic burst of activity on the band’s part. Chinese Democracy has been some 14 years in the making, and rumoured to be imminently appearing for most of that time. It had become something of a standing music-biz joke, akin to “when hell freezes over”. Nobody really expected it to see the light of day, especially since Rose had hired and fired so many musicians during its gestation that it would have surprised nobody if he had gone and fired himself, too. And when/if the album finally appears, it will be the first collection of new, original Guns N’ Roses material since the two bloated double-albums Use Your Illusion I and II were released on the same day in 1991, a hiatus of almost Steely Dan proportions (they waited 20 years to follow up 1980’s Gaucho).

But the Pepper people overlooked the inhuman stamina of heavy metal bands, who are the cockroaches of the music world: unchanged since primitive times, and virtually impossible to kill. Just look at Ozzy Osbourne, who’s sustained as concerted a campaign of serious self-harm as seems humanly possible, yet still refuses to turn up his toes. Pump him full of drugs, pickle him in booze, force him to eat bats, crush him under a quad-bike, and still he’ll get up, scratching his head blankly, and stumble into the next disaster.

Just look at Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, who told me that when he was pulled over in his car and arrested, he was under the influence of nine different chemicals.

Just look at Def Leppard’s drummer: lost an arm in a car crash, and still carried on drumming, regardless.

Just look at Lemmy — no, on second thoughts, don’t bother. Staring at the naked sun would be less harmful.

You see, there’s simply no way of stopping a heavy metal band, if they don’t want to stop. Take the case of Canadian band Anvil, formed way back in the mists of time — well, the late Seventies, at least. But, despite a lack of interest on the part of the paying public, they never considered jacking it in and becoming decorators or IT consultants.

Instead, Anvil plodded gamely on, releasing an album every two or three years, watching their appeal becoming ever more selective, to use the appropriate Spinal Tapism. Until one wonderful day — and frontman Steve “Lips” Kudlow has admitted weeping tears of gratitude and joy that day — film director Sacha Gervasi, an Anvil fan since meeting the band when he was a 15-year-old Westminster schoolboy, told them he’d like to make a documentary about them. The result, Anvil! — The Story of Anvil, has been widely acclaimed as a real-life Spinal Tap saga with a touching subtext of artistic dedication, and looks set finally to secure a grateful trio of superannuated longhaired rockers their day in the sun after three decades of disappointment.

It’s this kind of perseverance against all odds that means no heavy metal band ever truly dies — as the joke goes, they just smell that way. However inactive they may appear to the casual observer, they have never actually quit. Occasionally, you can glimpse the furious underwater paddling required to sustain the surface cool, most intriguingly in the documentary Some Kind of Monster, which Metallica hoped would chart the triumphant progress of their recording the long-awaited follow-up to their Load and ReLoad albums, but which instead revealed a degree of creative bankruptcy so pronounced that they were forced to hire a “performance-enhancing coach”. The resulting album, 2003’s St Anger, was generally regarded as one of the poorest of their career. Five years later, their Death Magnetic was not awaited with quite the same eagerness.

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of playing the waiting game, and playing it long enough. When Aussie rockers AC/DC, the biggest-selling heavy metal band in the world, with album sales in excess of 200 million, signed a huge multi-album deal with Sony in 2002, some observers believed both parties were being disingenuous about their real motives, with the band grabbing one last big pay-day, and the label grabbing the rights to remastered reissues of rock’s most successful back catalogue. After all, AC/DC hadn’t released anything since the patchily received Stiff Upper Lip in 2000. The game appeared to be more or less up.

As the years passed, people simply assumed AC/DC had settled into retirement. Band members would talk of working on a 16th album, but most readers took this with a pinch of salt. The lengthening delay was blamed on business matters, then on bassist Cliff Williams’s injured hand. Another AC/DC album wasn’t so much long-awaited as unexpected. But then, a leisurely eight years on, out of the blue came their Black Ice album, which unlike its immediate predecessor became a global hit. Exactly why remains a mystery: Black Ice isn’t a significantly better or more appealing effort than Stiff Upper Lip, and it wasn’t as if the band had been on the road, stirring up interest. As with Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC’s sole promotional gambit in recent years was the inclusion of one of their songs in the Rock Band 2 videogame — and unlike GN’R, who whetted appetites with a new track from Chinese Democracy, they were represented by the hoary old crowd-pleaser ‘Let There Be Rock’. Sometimes, it seems, simply being absent for long enough is itself enough to spark a revival of interest.

Few bands, though, have been absent for as long as Guns N’ Roses. After a while, it seemed that their productive period had simply been a blip in their longer-term career of inactivity punctuated by bouts of mutual antipathy and recreational drug use on a heroic scale. One by one, Rose alienated the other members until they quit the band.

First to go was guitarist Slash, the main rival to Rose’s dominance, who later admitted feeling “suicidal” when the singer rejected his songs then, without consultation, brought in a replacement guitarist. Slash was followed by the other members, while Rose exerted increasingly dictatorial control over a string of replacements, who had to submit to character analyses by the singer’s guru. The most intriguing new member was the avant-garde rock guitarist Buckethead, so named for his habit of wearing a KFC bucket on his head; one can only imagine the personal quirks of those prospective band members who failed the guru’s supposed “psychic inspections”.

Rejecting his record label’s suggestions that he work with a reputable producer, Rose assumed complete control over the recording process, employing the crew and musicians on costly retainers, but himself appearing less and less frequently at the studio, as he slipped into a prolonged reclusion that made it increasingly unlikely anything would come from the sessions. That something eventually did can surely be attributable, at least in part, to Rose’s new alliance with über-manager Irving Azoff, formidable helmsman of the careers of such as The Eagles, Steely Dan, Christina Aguilera, Seal, Neil Diamond and, more recently, Morrissey. Whatever Rose’s personal foibles, it’s unlikely that a mover and shaker of Azoff’s power would be willing to sit by and let such a potentially profitable project wither on the vine. Just seven months after Rose became Azoff’s client, the album’s release was finally announced.

So it’s now only a matter of days until Chinese Democracy appears. A landmark of sorts, I suppose, but by no means the most eagerly anticipated of comeback heavy rock albums. There’s one that’s been “long awaited” now for over a quarter of a century — and with Robert Plant refusing to get involved, it looks like we’ll just have to wait a few years longer.

Chinese Democracy will be released on Geffen/Universal in 22 days, 14 hours and seven minutes’ time. Roughly.

©Andy GillThe Independent, 31 October 2008

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