Earlier this week, veteran music journalist Mick Wall released his latest critically acclaimed biography Last Of The Giants: The True Story Of Guns N’ Roses on Lesser Gods. Using interviews he personally conducted with members of the band, as well as archival material, Wall has assembled the most detailed portrait yet of the band that rose from the grit and grim of the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles and brought the world to its sha-na-na-na-knees. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of Guns’ magnum opus Appetite For Destruction, Uproxx is publishing an excerpt from Wall’s book that offers an inside account of how that genre-defining album came together. Read it below.
The first key move Alan Niven made as the new manager of Guns N’ Roses was finding them a producer who would get the best out of them in the studio: An engineer-turned-producer from Baltimore named Mike Clink. Clink took the band to Rumbo Recorders, an environment in which Zutaut hoped and prayed they could only do limited damage. It was located in Canoga Park, north-west of Hollywood in the Valley, and shared a parking lot with the Winnetka Animal Clinic.
“I put them in an apartment when we were making the record,” Clink recalled, “And they destroyed it. One night they locked themselves out, so they put a boulder through a window. They thought it would look like somebody had robbed the place. When they finally got kicked out, there wasn’t one thing left intact. It looked like somebody was remodeling and had knocked down the walls.” Or as Slash later told me: “We partied really hard, but when we were in the studio, we were pretty much together. There was no doping and all that stuff.”
Axl had known Erin Everly for a matter of weeks before the band entered the studio with Mike Clink, but it quickly became apparent that the relationship would be a significant one for them both. Erin, of course, was no friend from back home like Gina Siler, or one of the many lost girls on the Strip who found their way to the Hell House. She was part of Los Angeles’ elite, and lived in a different, more rarefied society, the daughter of a music legend, Don Everly, and the actress Venetia Stevenson, and the granddaughter of the director Robert Stevenson and the actress Anna Lee.
In Axl, Erin had found the ultimate good girl’s bad boy, the singer of the most dangerous and dirty band in Hollywood. In Erin, Axl found an escape from all that. As Duff noted: “Axl continued to drop out of sight for days on end, a result of his erratic moods. Sometimes it was as if he was on speed, bouncing off the walls; then he would sleep for three days . . . I was always aware of what a fundamentally different type of person he was from me.” But then Duff was now “an alcoholic.” Slash was strung out on heroin, along with his partner in grime, Izzy. Steven was a more general kind of f*ck-up. He’d been living off his wits, sleeping on roofs, bundled in the corner on floors, for so long, wasted or sober it was all the same to him.
During their short-lived tenancy in Arnold Stiefel’s rental house the divisions in their lives became obvious — at least they would have been had Slash and Izzy been compos mentis enough to notice. While their rooms quickly became little more than drug dens, lit first by naked bulbs and then finally by nothing at all, Axl retreated to the top of the house, where he furnished his bedroom properly and padlocked the door. Now that he had Erin, there was further reason to withdraw from the chaotic, druggy, hedonistic lifestyle that the band were falling deeper into. Yet the relationship would ultimately become volatile and destructive for both Erin and Axl.
It was precisely these feelings, imbued in this new and adult relationship, that he was to reflect in a new song, one of the last written for Appetite. It’s a measure of the gap that was developing between singer and band that their initial reaction to his “Sweet Child O’ Mine” was less than enthusiastic. “Joke” was the word that cropped up most often. Slash had begun playing the carnival intro guitar figure as “a joke,” and described the process of writing and rehearsing the song as “like pulling teeth. For me, at the time, it was a very sappy ballad.” Duff agreed, also calling the new song “a joke. We thought, ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothing.’”
“It was a joke,” Slash went on. “We were living in this house that had electricity, a couch and nothing else. The record company had just signed us and we were on our backs. There was a lot of sh*t going on. We were hanging out one night and I started playing that riff. And the next thing you know, Izzy made up some chords behind it, and Axl went off on it. I used to hate playing that sucker.” But Axl heard something in the music that fitted his lyrical idea. Like much of his early writing, it was directly autobiographical, but tenderly so. He was prepared to be revealing and romantic — “Her hair reminds me of a warm, safe place / Where as a child I’d hide” — in a song that played against type. And he knew exactly how it should sound, too. “I’m from Indiana, where Lynyrd Skynyrd are considered God to the point that you ended up saying, I hate this f*cking band,” he told me. “And yet for ‘Sweet Child’ I went out and got some old Skynyrd tapes to make sure that we’d got that heartfelt feeling.”
Axl’s refusal to take no for an answer paid off, becoming a significant turning point for both singer and band. When the song later became the engine that drove Appetite for Destruction forward, played endlessly on radio and looped on MTV, it was enough to convince Axl he should never again listen to what anyone else had to say about one of his song — including Slash.
Axl, already separated from his band by their enthusiastic chemical excess and becoming surer of his artistic judgement, began to hear of Tom Zutaut’s growing concerns over the state of Guns N’ Roses, and had other things on his mind than the so-called strangeness of his friends. Mike Clink had been to see Zutaut in August 1986 to tell him that the early pre-production sessions were going nowhere because Slash wasn’t showing up. The summer had become one long fall into the depths of addiction. Slash had been so out of it at a Geffen photo shoot that he had to be physically held upright for the session. He nodded out one night at the band house and had to be revived. There were stories of nightclub fights, and of Axl threatening to leave the group. “There was a point where I f*cking stopped playing guitar,” Slash admitted. “I didn’t even talk to my band except for Izzy, because we were both doing it.”
Zutaut began to worry that his bosses would start to think that investing in the most dangerous band in the world was just too, well, dangerous. Making and promoting a record would cost them north of $500,000 when production and marketing were thrown on top of a recording budget of more than $300,000. It was a lot of money to risk on hopeless junkies — and Tom was the man risking it. He read the band the riot act, recalling that “as much as you can threaten junkies” he did, telling them that he was on the verge of dropping them before they’d even released anything. If the ship was going down, Zutaut wasn’t going down with it. Slash and Izzy had brief spells in rehab as a result, which kept their worst excesses at bay for a few weeks at least. And after they’d wrecked the apartment at Rumbo Recorders, Mike Clink drew the line. “I’d never come into contact with guys like that,” he admitted. “During our first meeting, they were spitting over each other’s heads. They really were living on the street, that reckless life. But I pushed them hard and had a rule: No drugs in the studio.”
Clink made a sort of Devil’s bargain: Deliver the goods, and he would ignore their destructive behavior away from Rumbo. He was happy for them to work all night — their usual pattern — just as long as they were working. “He kept us at arm’s length,” said Slash. Ultimately it would prove a wise call — once Clink was able to tell Zutaut that songs were going down on tape, the record company’s nerves began to settle.
In December 1986, Axl was in a position that artists sometimes find themselves in — aware that the work just being heard by the public has already been left well behind by their newer endeavors. Everything about the Appetite for Destruction sessions, from the very first demoing of the songs, was a giant step forward from the punkish, lo-fi racket of Live?!*@ Like a Suicide. Yet the die was cast, especially at Geffen: These guys were a feral pack, trailing destruction down the Strip and even to the doors of the Geffen offices — staff were aghast at one appearance which saw them accompanied by a naked girl, still wet, wrapped in a shower curtain. Then there was the day-to-day prosaic detail of their existence: Casual sex in an era of AIDS, hard drugs, constant in-fighting, outrage in clubs and bars. . . there was at least one serious discussion between Axl and Slash over drug use affecting performance. Doubts were expressed over Steven Adler’s ability even when sober. One executive urged Zutaut to get the record done quickly before the band’s inevitable self-immolation.
Navigating this path was Mike Clink, who not only had a terrific pair of ears but a hard-earned degree in rock star psychology. Having read the band the riot act over drugs in the studio, he set about getting the real Guns N’ Roses down on tape. Clink was intent on “capturing the band’s essence, not beating it into the ground,” and so all the tracks were initially recorded as-live, with the aim of nailing the song while the band were still feeling it, with overdubs kept to a minimum.
Yet Mike Clink’s skills weren’t just technical. Recognizing Axl’s attention to detail and latent perfectionism, he handled the singer’s contribution entirely differently. As Axl later told me, what people didn’t hear immediately “is that there was a perfectionist attitude” to the recordings. “I mean, there was a definite plan to that. We could have made it all smooth and polished. We went and did test tracks with other producers and it came out smooth and polished — with Spencer Proffer. And Geffen Records said it was too f*cking radio. That’s why we went with Mike Clink. We went for a raw sound, because it just didn’t gel having it too tight and concise.
“‘Paradise City,’ man,” he continued, “That’s like, I came up with two of those first vocals — there’s five parts there — I came up with two and they sounded really weird. Then I said, look, I got an idea. I put two of these vocal things together, and it was the two weirdest ones, the two most obtuse ones. And Clink’s like, “I don’t know about that, man. . .” I’m like, “I don’t know either, why don’t we just sleep on it?” So we go home and the next day I call him up and now I’m like, “I don’t know about this.” But he goes, “No, I think it’s cool!” So now he was the other way. So then we put three more vocal parts on it and then it fit. But the point is, that wasn’t how we had it planned. We don’t really know how it happened.”
Alan Niven made another smart intervention when he suggested tightening up, in “Welcome To The Jungle,” the original two repetitions of the “when you’re high. . . and you. . . never wanna come down. . .” section to just one. At the time the band knew nothing of his creative involvement with Great White. “It’s a very good thing that none of us were aware of that,” Slash said, “Because that session might not have gone so well and “Welcome To The Jungle” would be a very different song. . . It never bothered me once we found out about Alan’s connection to Great White, but it had quite a negative, snowball effect among other members of our band.” Meaning Axl.
That lay ahead, a problem for another day. Along with “Sweet Child” the Appetite sessions would produce one more late-breaking, self-lacerating Guns N’ Roses tune, a song that Slash and Izzy began to — well — cook up, after the Geffen deal was signed and then finished in the studio. The lyrics, which they presented to Axl scrawled on a brown paper bag, were essentially a description of their days on dope, a repetitious existence of escalating usage — “I used to do a little but a little didn’t do it, so a little got more and more . . .” — and helplessness — “He’s been knocking . . . He won’t leave me alone . . .”
They called it “Mr. Brownstone,” a sledgehammer reference to what was going on, and set it to a shuffling, Bo Diddley verse section alongside an urgently rising chorus, and when sung by Axl it seemed to turn from a confession into a warning. It was ruthlessly autobiographical, a full stop, along with “Sweet Child,” on the band’s lives to date. “[The record] is a storybook of what this band went through in Hollywood; trying to survive, to when it was finished,” Slash said. The 30-odd songs stretched from “November Rain,” which Axl had begun writing back in Indiana, and “Anything Goes,” which he and Izzy had started in the very early days of Hollywood Rose, right up to “Mr. Brownstone” and “Sweet Child.”
The Clink sessions had been an outstanding success. Even in their raw, unmixed state, it was obvious that the producer had fulfilled every brief, and, what’s more, he had put himself on the line to do it, catching the easy-going, do-it-right-now immediacy of Steven, Duff and Izzy, working one-on-one with Slash on his solos and then going straight to 18-hour days recording Axl’s vocals, which were the most complex parts on the recordings.
Soon after New Year, Alan Niven took Slash to New York to meet with candidates to mix the songs. They had dinner with Rick Rubin, who had just put Aerosmith in front of a new generation with the groundbreaking Run DMC cover/collaboration of their decade-old song “Walk This Way.” “We just shot the sh*t,” Slash remembered, “Because he’d already passed on mixing us. A lot of people passed on mixing us — and, once again, all of them regretted it later.”
Alan Niven briefly considered doing the job himself and mixed a trial version of “Mr. Brownstone” that Izzy in particular liked a lot, but ultimately band and manager elected to go with the team of Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, experienced engineers who had worked mostly on dance and pop club remixes but who produced a thunderous take on “Mr. Brownstone” as an audition piece. “[They were] amazing,” enthused Slash in his autobiography. “They had a system, pretty much an unspoken language, between them. Steve was the energetic, in-your-face guy, and Michael was the reserved, analytical, calculated guy. And they got on one another’s nerves constantly, which somehow fueled their creativity.”
Slash had arrived in New York with an arm in plaster having fractured his wrist — as only he could have done — thumping the floor to try and get a record to stop skipping while he was having sex with a girl at one of Duff’s friend’s houses in Seattle. He had one night out with Steve Thompson, where he’d felt supremely out of place in a New York disco called China Club clad in his top hat and leathers, but the differences between the band and Thompson and Barbiero were evident and best illustrated by a notorious incident in the mixing of “Rocket Queen.”
Adriana Smith, a friend of Slash’s from LA, found herself in New York and hooked up with the little crew at the Parker Meridian, spending her nights in the room shared by Slash and Axl and her days drinking in the studio. When Axl decided that the “Rocket Queen” mix was lacking something, he turned to Smith, as she reminisced many years later: “Basically, Axl propositioned me in the studio. I was really drunk and although we were both seeing other people at the time, he had a really creative interest for this song and wanted to give it an edge and I was the girl to do it. I did it for the band.”
“We lit some candles for atmosphere,” Slash said, “And she and Axl went out into the live room, got down on the floor by the drum riser, and we recorded the performance . . .” Michael Barbiero was less impressed: “I didn’t want to be around for recording a girl getting f*cked,” he said. “That wasn’t the high point of my career. So I set up the mikes and had my assistant record it. If you look at the record, it says, ‘Victor the f*ckin’ engineer’ Deyglio. So it’s literal.” Axl and the band simply thought it was funny. Or as Duff later put it: “She was a goer. She knew how to work a microphone.”