Tracer Rounds: The Best Damn Songwriting You Never Appreciated
Can we finally give Guns ‘n Roses their due ~
Brant, 19 September 2016
Things have been a little too heavy lately, and we need to talk about something completely different… So can we just take a step back and spend a few minutes admiring what totally bad-ass, criminally-under-rated, and never-appreciated songwriters the guys from Guns’n Roses were? Sure, we all know the ‘hits’ – Welcome to the Jungle, November Rain, Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, You Could Be Mine, and Sweet Child o’ Mine – and the ‘scandal’ songs like Used to Love Her, or It’s So Easy. But once you get beyond the radio tunes (or heck, even with the radio tunes) the quality of songwriting you get from the band so far exceeds their contemporaries that they’re not even in the same galaxy.
Back in the late-80s, the popular talk was comparing GnR to The Rolling Stones, under the premise that supposedly no other band had conquered the rock and roll world on their own terms to the degree that GnR did. That was typical rock journalist hyperbole, of course. But honestly, the depth of songwriting, quality of musicianship, and production was blowing most other acts at the time out of the water – even GnR’s supposed contemporaries. Motley Crue didn’t figure out how to write a song until their 4th album; Poison never quite did. Ratt’s riffs were impeccable, but aside from the one-off lyrical curiosity like Wanted Man, they didn’t keep up. Great White? Slaughter? Bulletboys? XYZ? Rough Cutt? Firehouse? Please. Don’t embarrass yourself suggesting them.
My Hands Are Tied
These weren’t simple ABAB-Chorus-ABAB-Chorus-Bridge-Guitar Solo-ABAB-Chorus-Chorus songs. It was rare to find a GnR tune that didn’t have at least 3 distinct elements, not counting the solos. Most had 4-5, some more. The intro to Civil War opens with basic fingerpicking on guitar before the song truly kicks in, blasting a bridge that repeats multiple times throughout the song, and could almost pass as a chorus for anyone else, before slowing back down to reiterate the initial chords of the intro, and then a bridge and chorus before a spoken word interlude after the guitar solo that brings yet another piece to the song that is outside the normal verse-bridge-chorus standard. Interweave a couple of killer guitar solos, and heavy wha-pedal riffs between the verse and bridge, and you’ve got a sonic masterpiece – just of musicianship. We haven’t even talked about the lyrics yet – “you can’t trust freedom when it’s not in your hand” and “power hungry selling soldiers in a human grocery store”. It’s as powerful an anti-war song as anything you’d hear from the 1960s, and it was released in 1991, when the only war going on was Gulf I – hardly a hotbed of controversy even at the time.
It would be one thing to catch lightning in a bottle and craft a masterpiece of musicianship and songwriting together. Many bands have that one perfect song that marries the two with a great melody and becomes a timeless song to be revisited regularly even if the rest of the band’s output piled up more crap than a constipated rhinoceros (see also: Dangerous Toys, The Last Goodnight, Tora Tora, Chainsaw Kittens, 30 Seconds to Mars, and Head East). Guns ’n Roses did it 4 times just on side one of Use Your Illusion II – Civil War, 14 Years, Yesterdays, and Breakdown.
Why was their debut album the monster hit it was? Clearly the strength of the singles played an enormous role. But the other songs on the album were hardly throwaways. Welcome to the Jungle kicks in the listeners teeth with a devastating riff cribbed straight from the best of Aerosmith (just ‘turn around’ the riff from Back in the Saddle and see what you get) and lyrics that scared the hell out of any suburban white kid with delusions of running away to the big city. But the entire song ebbs and flows with a verse-chorus structure that’s immediately recognizable, and punctuated by multiple interludes of alternate song structures, like the anti-distortion of “when you’re high you never / never wanna come down”.
Paradise City was a rare single they could release without a language edit (which, let’s be honest, is why they released Nightrain instead of Mr Brownstone), but at 6:40+ it’s one of the longest singles to ever hit the top 40. And there’s not an editable moment in it that could shorten the song. How many radio edits have ever dumped a key riff to shorten the song for airplay? (Yes, I’m looking at you, Stone Roses, for neutering Love Spreads on the radio edit). Paradise City doesn’t have multiple guitar solos, it’s one – all song long. Seriously. Give it a listen and see how many lead lines Slash is weaving underneath Axl’s frenetic vocals rushing the song along. The entire tune moves at breakneck speed not just because of the hyperactive singing, repeating the “I gotta go” mantra that’s a theme throughout the album, but also because Slash is weaving an entirely alternate melody underneath the vocals. It’s not just the 85-in-a-school-zone pace of the tune, though, as the turns of phrase are just as brilliant as any other GnR tune: “Captain America’s been torn apart / now he’s a court jester with a broken heart” demythologizes the place they hope to escape from just as much as the “girls are pretty” gives them something to aspire to. And who wants to be “strapped in the chair of the city’s gas chamber” where the “surgeon general says its hazardous to breathe” – seriously, has the freakin’ Surgeon General ever been feted in song before? C’mon!
Had One Too Many And Now One For The Road
Even the songs not good enough for their mainstream releases that surfaced as bootlegs were better than 90% of what you get on anyone else’s actual albums. Crash Diet – the lamenting of someone who ran themselves off the road – alternated heavy acoustic fingerpicking with panzer-crunch choruses about someone who just can’t put the bottle down, and no one’s sure if it’s irony or self-pity or an uncomfortable projection onto someone else, but it doesn’t matter, given how hard it rocks.
In This Burned Out Paradise
No one did codas like GnR did codas. From Sweet Child o’ Mine asking “where do we go now” to Locomotive insisting “love’s so strange” to the Vanishing Point soliloquy over the solo at the end of Breakdown, GnR knew how to give a listener an entirely new song tacked on at the end, to change your entire perspective on the one you were sure you were just listening to. Rocket Queen kicks off with an erotic, forceful, borderline BDSM cock-in-your-face riff that weaves into a verse of just downright weird hanging chords with vocals that clearly put the girl in her place. After all, if “I can turn on anyone / just like I turned on you” is supposed to be a sexually-charged boast, then clearly, you’re doing her a favor.
No one did codas like GnR did codas.
But if Axl can turn on her, instead of turning her on then suddenly the entire next line – “I’ve got a tongue like a razor” is cutting her down instead of pumping her up. But by the time the guitar solo – and the orgasmic moaning solo accompanying it – fade back into the chorus, the arena rock staccato chords that launched a thousand fist pumps suddenly beget… arpeggiated chords that offer the sweetest apology for the verbal assault just unleashed through through the first 4 minutes of the song. “If you need a shoulder / or if you need a friend” are offered sincerely, not ironically, and “all I ever wanted / was for you / to know that I care” isn’t some idle thought tossed off by text message the morning after a one-night stand (as though texting even existed in 1987), but genuinely expressed to someone whose relationship with the singer is clearly more complex than any tune from Poison, Ratt, Motley Crue, Kiss, or Bon Jovi are going to express for us.
You Can Use Your Illusion / Let It Take You Where It May
If Rocket Queen was an up-and-down encapsulation of a bi-polar relationship, then Locomotive put it all on steroids, cocaine, Jack & coke, and then flipped the record up to 78rpm. With an endlessly-chugging riff utterly worthy of the song title, and bridges and choruses that alternate around the brilliantly-written verses, Locomotive packs more emotion into a single 8-minute opus than almost, well… anyone has in an entire career. (I was at a loss of who to fill in for “anyone” here, but pick ‘em – James Taylor, Kanye, Michael Bublé, Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Barry Manilow, Counting Crows, Gwar – it really doesn’t matter.)
Locomotive was GnR’s update to Layla, only grittier, more emotional, angrier, louder, faster, and pretty much everything else that could be “more”
It’s clear there’s a love-hate relationship here, as Axl swings between “I opened up the doors when it was cold outside / Hopin’ that you’d find your own way in” and “You know I’d like to shave your head / and all my friends could paint it red”. Does he have to “peel the bitch off my back” or just “live and learn and then sometimes it’s best to walk away”. And just when you think it’s time to blow up the entire thing and start over, he admits that “if love is blind I guess I’ll by myself a cane” as the piano takes over, and GnR’s note-perfect counterpoint to Layla devolves into it’s own extended piano-fueled alternate-groove guitar solo, showcasing the best of everything Slash has to offer – the wah-pedal effects that mimic the drums underneath the groove, the lead lines that blend between the piano chords and seem to live within the song, rather than on top of them, and the low-octave dives that mimic the bass line to drive the groove forward while he lets the listener take a breath before his next trick on the frets.
Was it all just Axl and Slash? Hardly. Duff’s basslines were so clear and identifiable, that you could, as Billy Joe noted at GnR’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction “sing along with them.” Izzy’s low-key but unstoppable motor on the rhythm guitar kept every song purring like a finely-tuned muscle car. 4 different guys in the band could – and eventually did – sing. And when GnR dissolved into a puddle of counter-accusations about who screwed up, everyone just kept making music. Slash’s headlong-into-the-fray riffs with either his Snakepit, or with Velvet Revolver reminded you why you fell in love with his playing in the first place. Slither would have fit right into any GnR album with a driving beat that forces your heartbeat to match its pace as you wonder if it’s ever going to stop and let you come up for air.
And Izzy’s first solo album, on which he trades licks with Rick Richards, formerly of the Georgia Satellites, sounded (as one friend characterized it) like “the Kieth Richards solo album you keep wishing he’d make.” Shuffle It All and Take A Look At the Guy would never have worked as GnR tunes, but Train Tracks and Cutting The Rug would fit right alongside Dust n’ Bones in any smoke-filled booze bar on the GnR club circuit at 130am with a sweaty entranced audience all shaking the walls down as one giant mass of rock & roll flesh.
Here’s the crazy thing – I’m 2000 words in, and I haven’t even mentioned Think About You, Pretty Tied Up, Garden of Eden, Back Off Bitch, the 2 versions of Don’t Cry, their note-perfect-and-way-better-than-the-original covers of Live & Let Die, Hair Of The Dog, and Buick Makane (with its awesome segue into Big Dumb Sex). There’s at least another 2000 words I could give you on the calm brilliance of So Fine, the F-U awesomeness of Get In The Ring, the controversy of One In A Million, or the raw power of Reckless Life, and I haven’t even touched anything released after 1994.
You can’t find another hard-rocking band that matched GnR’s songwriting to their grit, musicianship, emotion, and visceral gut-bending nature. You can find bands that do some of those things, but none did them all, as well, as GnR. Rush gives you a great turn of phrase and impeccable musicianship, but in a sterile alien-abduction operation lab where the nearest emotion is feeling bad for the kid who doesn’t quite get all their literary references. NWA gave you the same street-level view of what a disaster the city was for the lost souls trying to survive, but their musicianship was all turntable magic and never translated to a live venue. GnR wasn’t lightning-in-a-bottle. They were a lightning bolt to the musical world that electrified us all and them left just as quickly as they shocked us, leaving us wishing for that tingle just one. more. time…
This week’s soundtrack:
Perhaps their best lyrical tour-de-force… how can you not love “funny how everything was roses / when we held on to our guns”
Game that caught my eye:
After recording our most recent GrogCast, I want to have another look at Bulge 20. You’ll have to wait for the GrogCast to be released to know why 🙂
What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:
Setting up the rest of Airboy’s expansive Order of Battle Pacific: US Marines AAR.
The best thing I read this week:
How well can overly-plugged-in students learn? We really need to find out, and fast.
This week’s poll:
Saying goodnight with an encore… Bayonet 06 – out!