Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion – The Phantom Edit

The purpose of this article is narrow the 30 tracks from Guns N’ Roses Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II into a single, 12-track, classic rock album. But before we get there, some background . . .

The first concert I ever attended was on December 17, 1991 at The Spectrum in Philadelphia, PA – close to 25 years ago. I had turned 15 years-old earlier in the Fall and was a few months into my sophomore year of high school. At that time in my life, music was important. Of course music remains meaningful to me now, though it does not match the passion and enthusiasm of the 15 year-old version of myself scrawling lyrics in the margins of notebooks during class and eagerly going to the mall to buy new albums at Sam Goody each week. The internet as we know it today did not exist, so being a music fan was a completely different experience back then. The only form of streaming music was taping your favorite songs while they played on the radio. It was a time when MTV still mattered; viewers actually learned about new music through that channel, and video premeires from popular artists were appointment television. I recall making sure I was by a television when Riki Rachtman on a special episode of Headbangers Ball introduced the video for November Rain, an epic, 9-minute power ballad from one of the biggest and baddest musical artists on the planet at the time, Guns N’ Roses.

Watch the video, and soak in the excess. To a teenage boy in the early 1990s, Axl, Slash, Duff, and the gang seemed like aliens from another world. They were unashamed rock stars that were larger than life. Of course Axl is dating Stephanie Seymour from the Victoria’s Secret catalogue, which was the closest thing to pornography readily available to me outside of the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. And of course she appears in the video portraying his bride. And of course Slash walks out of a church in the middle of a desert and rips off a soaring guitar solo while being filmed from a helicopter. It made perfect sense at the time, and it was all so epic and f***king glorious!

So on December 17, 1991, I tagged along with my older brother and his friends to see Guns N’ Roses with Faith No More and Soundgarden. To this day, I am salty with my brother because we missed Faith No More’s set. My brother and his crew had no interest in the opening bands, and I lacked the confidence to leave them and enter the concert on my own. So I waited in the parking lot while they tailgated and tossed a Nerf football around. I finally convinced them to go inside the building and we caught a few songs from Soundgarden, which had just released their second album, Badmotorfinger. Soundgarden did not fit into the rock or metal category, and the term “alternative” was becoming a musical genre. In the months leading up to my first concert in December 1991, the following albums were released:

  • Pearl Jam, Ten – August 27, 1991
  • Nirvana, Nevermind – September 24, 1991
  • Soundgarden, Badmotorfinger – October 8, 1991

Three Seattle bands were about to change the world, and the 1991-version of me was rather unaware. Even though I really wanted to hear the opening acts, including Soundgarden, I was most excited about seeing Axl in person. The Use Your Illusion albums were released a week before Nirvana’s Nevermind. We now know how the story unfolded; the bloated excess of Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II foreshadowed the band’s demise. Axl fell from Rock-God status to caricature, and the band flamed out. Slash and others went on to different projects and they only recently got back together to tour. Guns N’ Roses ruled the world for about five years from 1987 through 1992, and I caught them live before it was torn asunder.

The concert that night was unlike anything I experienced in my young life. Of course they did not take the stage until close to 11:30PM, which left the historically docile Philly fans to alcohol and their own devices for several hours. When they finally did take the stage, Axl was a tornado. He ran around the stage, belted out lyrics with his impropable voice, and performed as if he was the baddest man on the planet. At one point while talking to the crowd, he exclaimed, “Get me a piano.” A piano rose up from a hole in the stage; he calmly sat down, took a moment to gather his thoughts, free-styled for a bit, and then started pounding out November Rain on the keys. The concert concluded somewhere around the 2AM mark, and the entire experience was amazing.

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Didn’t we almost have it all?

I continued to listen to Guns N’ Roses along with other artists I was getting into at the time. I do not recall reading reviews about the Use Your Illusion albums; I only recall consuming them day and night. Several tracks seemed out of place, but I found most of the songs enjoyable. Many of the songs felt EPIC, and the video for November Rain and my experience of seeing them in concert only bolstered that opinion. Nothing in my mind could top their work on Appetite for Destruction, but I had the thought – even back then – that had the band limited themselves to one, 12-track Use Your Illusion album, it might hold up as a worthy successor to their debut masterpiece.

I have written the following article in my mind countless times in the intervening 25 years. I mentioned this to Ed Grabianowski on Twitter last week while I was defending the Use Your Illusion albums. He responded that it might be a challenge to even come up with 12 tracks from the two albums to make a decent follow-up effort to  Appetite for Destruction. We agreed to compose our thoughts within a week and post them on our respective sites; his thoughts are now posted as well. It was finally time for me to externalize my decades of thought on this matter.

Below is my thought process on selecting the 12 best songs from the Use Your Illusion albums into one sophomore-slump defying Use Your Illusion slice of brilliance. And, no, the watered-down, no-swearing version that sold in stores like Wal-Mart does not count.

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