Guns N’ Roses, often abbreviated as GNR, is an American hard rock band from Los Angeles, California, formed in 1985. When they signed to Geffen Records in 1986, the band comprised vocalist Axl Rose, lead guitarist Slash, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan, and drummer Steven Adler. The current lineup consists of Rose, Slash, McKagan, keyboardist Dizzy Reed, guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer and keyboardist Melissa Reese.
Guns N’ Roses’ debut album, Appetite for Destruction (1987), reached number one on the Billboard 200 a year after its release, on the strength of the Top 10 singles “Welcome to the Jungle”, “Paradise City”, and “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, the band’s only single to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The album has sold approximately 30 million copies worldwide, including 18 million units in the United States, making it the country’s bestselling debut album and eleventh-bestselling album. Their next studio album, G N’ R Lies (1988), reached number two on the Billboard 200, sold ten million copies worldwide (including five million in the U.S.), and included the Top 5 hit “Patience”. Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, recorded simultaneously and released in 1991, debuted at number two and number one on the Billboard 200 respectively and have sold a combined 35 million copies worldwide, including 14 million units in the United States. The Illusion albums included the lead single “You Could Be Mine” (also featured in the film soundtrack for Terminator 2), covers of “Live and Let Die” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”, and a trilogy of ballads (“Don’t Cry”, “November Rain”, and “Estranged”), which featured notably high-budget music videos. The Illusion records were also supported by the extensive Use Your Illusion Tour, a world tour that lasted from 1991-1993. “The Spaghetti Incident?” (1993), an album of covers, was the band’s last studio album to feature Slash and McKagan.
Work on a follow up album stalled due to creative differences between band members; by 1998 only Rose and Reed remained from the Illusion-era lineup. After a more than a decade of work and several lineup changes, Guns N’ Roses’s long-awaited sixth studio album Chinese Democracy (2008), was released. At an estimated $14 million in production costs, it is the most expensive rock album in history. It debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, but undersold industry expectations despite mostly positive critical reception. Slash and McKagan rejoined the band in 2016 for the Not in This Lifetime… Tour, which became the second-highest-grossing concert tour on record, grossing over $562 million by December 2018.
In 1984, Hollywood Rose member Izzy Stradlin was living with L.A. Guns member Tracii Guns. When L.A. Guns needed a new vocalist, Stradlin suggested Hollywood Rose singer Axl Rose. Months later, Guns N’ Roses was formed in March 1985 by Rose, rhythm guitarist Stradlin, along with L.A. Guns founders lead guitarist Guns, drummer Rob Gardner and bassist Ole Beich. The band coined its name by combining the names of both previous groups. Rejected names for the band included “Heads of Amazon” and “AIDS”. Their first show, promoted as “L.A. Guns and Hollywood Rose presents Guns N Roses”, was on March 26, 1985. After this show, Beich was fired and replaced by Duff McKagan. Around this time, the band planned to release an EP with “Don’t Cry”, a cover of “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Think About You” and “Anything Goes”; the band demoed the songs during their first radio interview. However, plans for the release fell through, as Guns left the band after an argument with Rose leading to his replacement by Rose and Stradlin’s one-time Hollywood Rose bandmate, Slash. Gardner quit soon after and was replaced by another former Hollywood Rose member, Steven Adler. Slash had also previously played with McKagan and Adler in Road Crew.
The band’s “classic” lineup was finalized on June 4, 1985 when Adler and Slash officially joined. After two days of rehearsals, the band played their first show with the lineup on June 6, 1985. Two days later, the band embarked on a short, disorganized tour of the West Coast, from Sacramento, California, to McKagan’s hometown of Seattle, Washington. The band drove in a separate van and had to abandon their gear when both vans broke down on the way to Seattle, forcing them to hitch-hike up the coast and back home to LA with only their guitars. The so-called “Hell Tour” settled the band’s first stable lineup, with McKagan later commenting, “This trip had set a new benchmark for what we were capable of, what we could and would put ourselves through to achieve our goals as a band.”
Through the band’s increasing presence on the Hollywood club scene – playing famed bars such as The Troubadour and The Roxy – Guns N’ Roses drew the attention of major record labels. The group signed with Geffen Records in March 1986, receiving a $75,000 advance. They had turned down an offer from Chrysalis Records that was nearly double Geffen’s, due to Chrysalis wanting to change the band’s image and sound and Geffen offering full artistic freedom.
In December of that year, the group released the four-song EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide, designed to keep interest in the band alive while the group withdrew from the club scene to work in the studio. The EP release was designed to sooth over the label, who felt the band didn’t have enough songs to record an album. The EP contained covers of Rose Tattoo’s “Nice Boys” and Aerosmith’s “Mama Kin”, along with two original compositions: the punk-influenced “Reckless Life” and the classic rock-inspired “Move to the City”. Although billed as a live recording, the four songs were taken from the band’s demo tapes and overdubbed with crowd noise. Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide was released on the Geffen subsidiary Uzi Suicide, with production limited to 10,000 vinyl copies.
Seeking to record their debut album, producer Spencer Proffer was hired to record “Nightrain” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” to test his chemistry with the band. The band eventually recorded 9 songs during these sessions, including “Heartbreak Hotel”, “Don’t Cry”, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Shadow of Your Love”. The band then recorded demos with Nazareth guitarist Manny Charlton, (which were released in 2018). Paul Stanley of KISS was considered as producer, but he was rejected after he wanted to change Adler’s drum set more than Adler wanted. Robert John “Mutt” Lange was also considered, but the label didn’t want to spend the extra money on a famous producer.
Ultimately, Mike Clink (who had produced several Triumph records) was chosen, and the group recorded “Shadow of Your Love” first with Clink as a test. After some weeks of rehearsal, the band entered Daryl Dragon’s Rumbo Recorders in January 1987 to record their debut album. Two weeks were spent recording basic tracks, with a month of overdubs. The drums were done in six days, but Rose’s vocals took much longer as he insisted on doing them one line at a time.
Guns N’ Roses’ debut album Appetite for Destruction was released July 21, 1987. The album underwent an artwork change after the original cover design by Robert Williams, which depicted a surrealist scene in which a dagger-toothed monster vengefully attacks a robot rapist, was deemed too controversial. The band stated the original artwork was “a symbolic social statement, with the robot representing the industrial system that’s raping and polluting our environment.” The revised cover was done by Andy Engell, based on a design by tattoo artist Bill White Jr., who had designed the artwork for a tattoo Rose had acquired the previous year. The artwork featured each of the five band members’ skulls layered on a cross.
The band’s first single was “It’s So Easy”, released on June 15, 1987 in the UK only, where it reached number eighty-four on the UK Singles Chart In the U.S., “Welcome to the Jungle” was issued as the album’s first single in October, with an accompanying music video. Initially, the album and single lingered for almost a year without performing well, but when Geffen founder David Geffen was asked to lend support to the band, he obliged, personally convincing MTV executives to play “Welcome to the Jungle” during the network’s after-hours rotation. Even though the video was initially only played once at 4 a.m. on a Sunday, heavy metal and hard rock fans took notice and soon began requesting the video and song en masse.
The song, written in Seattle, was about Los Angeles. The music video took place in New York. According to Rose, the inspiration for the lyrics came from an encounter he and a friend had with a homeless man while they were coming out of a bus into New York. Trying to put a scare into the young runaways, the man yelled at them, “You know where you are? You’re in the jungle baby; you’re gonna die!” The song was featured in the 1988 Dirty Harry film The Dead Pool, starring Clint Eastwood, and members of the band had a cameo appearance in the film.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” was the album’s second U.S. single, a love song co-written by Rose as a poem for his then-girlfriend Erin Everly, daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers. Due to the growing grassroots success of the band and the cross-gender appeal of the song, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and its accompanying music video received heavy airplay on both radio and MTV, becoming a huge hit during the summer of 1988 and reaching the top of the charts in the U.S. Slash later commented, “I hated that song with a huge passion for the longest time, and it turned out to be our hugest hit, so it goes to show what I know.” The song was released in Japan as part of the EP Live from the Jungle, which also featured a selection of live recordings from the band’s June 1987 dates at London’s The Marquee, the group’s first shows outside the United States. The song is the highest charting Guns N’ Roses song, and is the band’s only song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100.
After the success of “Sweet Child o’ Mine”, “Welcome to the Jungle” was re-issued as a single and reached No. 7 in the U.S. By the time “Paradise City” and its video reached the airwaves, peaking at No. 5 in the U.S., Appetite for Destruction had reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200. To date, the album has sold in excess of 30 million copies worldwide, including 18 million units sold in the United States, making it the best-selling debut album of all time in the U.S, in addition to being the eleventh best-selling album in the United States.
Guns N’ Roses toured extensively in support of their debut album, embarking on the 16-month-long Appetite for Destruction Tour. In addition to headlining dates in Europe and the U.S., the band opened North American shows for The Cult, Mötley Crüe, and Alice Cooper throughout the second half of 1987. During the 1987 tour, drummer Steven Adler broke his hand in a fight, and was replaced for 8 shows by Cinderella drummer Fred Coury. Bassist Duff McKagan missed several shows in May 1988 to attend his wedding; Kid “Haggis” Chaos from The Cult filled in. Don Henley of the Eagles played drums for the band during the 1989 AMA show while Adler was in rehab.
The band proceeded to tour the United States, Australia and Japan, while serving as opening acts on North America shows by Iron Maiden and Aerosmith. Tim Collins, Aerosmith’s then-manager, remarked, “By the end of the tour, Guns N’ Roses were huge. They basically just exploded. We were all pissed that Rolling Stone Magazine showed up to do a story on Aerosmith, but Guns N’ Roses ended up on the cover of the magazine. Suddenly, the opening act was bigger than we were.”
Guns N’ Roses’ second album, G N’ R Lies, was released in November 1988. It included the four recordings from the band’s 1986 EP Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide as well as four new acoustic tracks. “Patience”, the only single, reached number 4 in the U.S., while the album reached number 2. The album cover, a parody of tabloid newspapers, was modified after initial pressings to remove the headlines “Wife-beating has been around for 10,000 years” and “Ladies, welcome to the dark ages”.
The song “One in a Million” raised accusations of racism and homophobia. Rose denied that he was a racist and defended his use of the word “nigger”, claiming that “it’s a word to describe somebody that is basically a pain in your life, a problem. The word nigger doesn’t necessarily mean black.” He cited the rap group N.W.A. and the John Lennon song “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” as other examples of musicians using the word. Several years later, Rose conceded that he had used the word as an insult towards black people who had tried to rob him, and because the word is a taboo. In response to the allegations of homophobia, Rose stated that he considered himself “pro-heterosexual” and blamed this attitude on “bad experiences” with gay men.
During a November 1987 show in Atlanta, Rose assaulted a security guard and was held backstage by police, while the band continued playing with a roadie singing. Riots nearly broke out during two August 1988 shows in New York State. At England’s Monsters of Rock festival, held that same month, two fans were crushed to death during the group’s set by the slam-dancing crowd. During the first of four October 1989 dates opening for the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum, Rose announced that the shows would be the group’s last if certain members of the band did not stop “dancing with Mr. Brownstone”, a reference to the band’s song of the same name about heroin. Events such as these helped earn Guns N’ Roses the moniker “the most dangerous band in the world”.
Guns N’ Roses signed with a major record label within eight months of the band’s inception, and topped national sales charts weeks after garnering late hours airplay on MTV. Appetite for Destruction is the highest-selling debut album of all time in the United States. Peers of the band in the music industry often spoke highly of the band. Joe Perry stated that the band was the first group to remind him of Led Zeppelin. Ozzy Osbourne stated that Guns N’ Roses could have been “the next Rolling Stones” if the classic lineup stayed together. Country musician Steve Earle stated in 1989 that “Guns N’ Roses are what every L.A. band pretends to be”.
- Axl Rose – lead and occasional backing vocals, piano, percussion (1985–present)
- Duff McKagan – bass guitar, backing and occasional lead vocals (1985–1997, 2016–present)
- Slash – lead and rhythm guitars, occasional backing vocals (1985–1996, 2016–present)
- Dizzy Reed – keyboards, piano, backing vocals, percussion (1990–present)
- Richard Fortus – rhythm and lead guitars, backing vocals (2002–present)
- Frank Ferrer – drums, percussion (2006–present)
- Melissa Reese – synthesizers, keyboards, backing vocals, sub-bass, programming (2016–present)
- Appetite for Destruction (1987)
- G N’ R Lies (1988)
- Use Your Illusion I (1991)
- Use Your Illusion II (1991)
- “The Spaghetti Incident?” (1993)
- Chinese Democracy (2008)
- The Early Days of Guns N’ Roses (1985–87)
- Appetite for Destruction Tour (1987–88)
- Use Your Illusion Tour (1991–93)
- Chinese Democracy Tour (2001–11)
- Up Close and Personal Tour (2012)
- Appetite for Democracy (2012–14)
- Not in This Lifetime… Tour (2016–18)