August 11, 2010
“[Appetite for Destruction] always comes across as tour de force and a classic rock masterpiece, while Nevermind will forever be remembered as a vehicle for ‘Smells like Teen Spirit’ and its subversive effect on mainstream culture. It’s periodically brilliant, but half of the material on Nevermind is filler.”
-Chuck Klosterman, Fargo Rock City
Okay. So. Part II.
(For those of you not up to speed, this post is Part II of a series debunking the current trend in rock lit to laud Axl Rose at the expense of Kurt Cobain, and reassessing Appetite for Destruction and Nevermind about 20 years after their debuts. If you want to start at the beginning, Part I, which deals directly with the criticisms of Steve Almond and Chuck Klosterman, is here.)
So, I bought Appetite, and I dove right in. To be honest, I got through about eight songs before I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I tried again, getting about the same distance before stopping. (I think it was the line “Your daddy works in porno” that sent me to Control-Q both times.) But rest assured I listened to the album all the way through the third time. Still, if this assessment pays short shrift to tracks 10 through 12, blame “My Michelle.”
Right from the first song, “Welcome to the Jungle”–with the main riff you can’t believe wasn’t co-oped from some early Aerosmith record–you know you’re in for trouble from this pack. Izzy in the left ear, Slash in the right, sloshy hi-hat, bass doubling everything, that damn cowbell that brings us to our sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees every time, we’re dealing with a rock group at its apex. When listening to Appetite, I’m reminded of what rock and roll is supposed to be. The pulse of the music has a vitality that can only be achieved through a sincere recklessness. Every musician in the band sounds like he thinks GnR is his band, which, like professional athletes, is exactly the terrain you want your rock musicians occupying. No doubt Axl set them straight soon after, making anyone who wanted to hang around kiss the ring. But at the time of this recording no such commanding central force exists. The boys are free to be themselves, and what a pleasure that is to listen to.
**Geeky Observation Warning** “Welcome to the Jungle”‘s Arrangement
There’s always been something strange about the way this tune unfolds, and this assessment finally gave me the chance to nail it down. The arrangement of this song is quite unusual. In a typical pop or rock arrangement, a song goes from the second chorus, which often ends with some sort of “high point” or scream from the singer, into the guitar solo. A variation of this is going from the second chorus, to the bridge, to the scream, to the guitar solo. In “Welcome,” we get both. The band goes from the second chorus, to the line “I wanna hear you scream,” to a guitar solo. Then after another round of verse and chorus, we get a bridge (“And when you’re high you never/Ever wanna come down…”), then a scream, then another guitar solo. I’ve never heard, or at least I’ve never noticed, an arrangement quite like it. And the band gets away with it because each part of the song is so damned compelling you don’t bother to notice the quirkiness of the arrangement. Then, that riveting bass break (“You’re in the jungle, baby/You’re gonna die”) further peaks out the weird-o-meter. Heavy Metal is not an easy genre to get away with these subtle changes to form, but GnR succeeds here.
What is Slash doing in his solos that’s any different from the rock solos you’ve been hearing your whole life? The guy takes what I think of as “standard rock licks,” channels them through a Les Paul/Marshall tone that is as sublime as anything Joe Perry ever thought of using, and plays them with an abandon that unleashes their vitality. Slash has always gotten it pretty hot and heavy from guitar aficionados for his sloppiness, but I’ve never been bothered by his occasional imperfections; they’re fair trade for the unbridled nature of his playing. (We sure don’t mind when Jimmy Page does the same.) I put Slash in an elite company of guitarists who can make me remember every note of their solos, a category reserved for the likes of Gary Richrath and not many others. The leads and licks on Appetite–“Paradise City” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” especially–fill me with good old-fashioned rock ‘n’ roll joy. I couldn’t ask for more from a guitar player. What do you want? Al Di Meola?
And could anyone ever fault the elasticity of Axl’s pipes? GnR superfreaks love to “count” the number of voices employed by the Great Swaying One, and he does have a broad cloth from which to cut voice-wise. For my taste, Axl’s voice can be a bit shrill, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for disliking GnR simply because they don’t like the timbre of Axl’s tonsels. But like it or not, Axl has a serious Michael Jordan thing going on with his voice: he’s playing in a different league than most other singers, and he can beat you in so many ways.
My real issue with Appetite comes not from how Axl sings, but from what Axl sings.
(Full disclosure: I’m suspicious of any argument about rock music that relies too heavily on lyrics or lyrical content–in heavy rock, the lyrics are there to complement the groove, not the other way around–but lyric snafus can do serious damage to hard rock music and therefore require our attention.)
I really only ask two things of a rock song’s lyrics:
1) The lyrics should not pull me out of the magic of the rhythm and melody;
2) Somewhere, anywhere, in the song, there should be one good line.
You do not need to be Bob Dylan to keep me brandishing the devil sign during your rock song. Just don’t fuck it up by singing something jarringly banal or stupid. And please don’t pull me out of the celestial maneuverings of your groove with some juvenile attempt to get my attention, or to “tell me something.” Finally, give me one line per song that I can point to and say, Yes, that’s halfway insightful, or clever, or funny.
And here’s the thing with me and Appetite: The lyrics pull me out of the spell of music in just about every song. Yes, every song not about an urban jungle, or a city in paradise, or a sweet, sweet child (I’d also include “Mr. Brownstone” in this group as I’ve always had a weak spot for its simple trope and hooky-as-hell chorus) has a serious clunker or two in the lyric department. All the lines below made me wrinkle my forehead for their awkwardness, or triteness, or just plain dorkiness. And this is just a sample; there are plenty more where these came from.
(For the record, all of the members of GnR wrote lyrics, but I’d venture that Axl is the biggest perpetrator of the crimes below.)
“Feelin’ like a space brain”-“Night Train” (Stretching a little too far for a rhyme to go with “freight train” and “aeroplane.” At least no one went “insane.”)
“Take that one da heart”-end of “Out Ta Get Me” (Axl loves to have the last word, sort of an exclamation point to nail home the sentiments of the song, but, like here, it usually works against him.)
“Your daddy works in porno”-first line of “My Michelle” (I swear this was a lyric in a song by a local metal band I knew growing up.)
“You know you’re the one I want”-“Think about You” (Channeling Olivia Newton John?)
“You’re crazy”-“You’re crazy” (I’m just not crazy about the use of “crazy,” or “insane,” in any of these songs. Trite, tired language.)
“I been thinkin’ bout/Thinkin’ bout sex”-first lines of “Anything Goes” (Awkward. Like “My Michelle,” this band is not afraid to start any song with a jarring, artless thump to the listener’s forehead.)
“Don’t ever leave me/Say you’ll always be there/All I ever wanted /Was for you/To know that I care”-“Rocket Queen” (Wow. This could be from any middling lite rock song from 1971-1986. Debbie Boone heard this stanza and pouted all the way through church one morning.)
“You think you’re so cool/Why don’t you just/Fuck off”-“It’s so Easy”
I saved these lines from “It’s so Easy” until the end because they occupy a special place in this conversation. I see them as the litmus test for the true Appetite fan. If you like these lines–and I’ve known plenty of people who love these lines–then you probably think, like Klosterman, that this album is a classic rock masterpiece, because GnR simply doesn’t get any dumber than this moment. If you don’t like these lines, you probably see the record as three of four classics with filler. Personally, I think that “fuck off” sounds like Axl wresting the joystick away from his kid brother, but hey, that’s me.
So, take this vital and at times innovative rock band, employ Axl’s dazzling voice and Slash’s devil-may-care licks, and then ruin at least half of the album with cliche lyrics, easy sentiment (hey, just like Norman Rockwell!) and a need to start and end songs with flat-out dumb moments.
Now, in their defense, GnR work in the blues tradition, which, let’s face it, doesn’t require original, insightful or clever lyrics to make an effective offering. But before they’re a blues band, they’re a rock band. And after decades of hard rock that doesn’t manage to ruin itself with lyrical fallacies (Zeppelin, Sabbath, Aerosmith, etc.), we’ve come to expect more. No, the words make Appetite three forever-classic AOR radio songs, “Mr. Brownstone,” and a lot of tracks that could just as well be on a Kix album.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, I’m expanding to a Part III, where we’ll go deep into Nevermind and make some comparisons between it and Appetite. Which mighty rock album will win the day (Nevermind)? Read Part III to find out.