Cobain is to Rose as Van Gogh is to Rockwell-Part II-Appetite for DestructionBy Art Edwards
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.
Woo hoo!! Part II!
Okay, I’ll read now.
I’ll take every woo hoo I can get.
“I wouldn’t blame anyone for disliking GnR simply because they don’t like the timbre of Axl’s tonsils.”
Good. I hate blame. I can take AR when he’s not in screeching mode, but he usually is. I’m also, with rare exception, not much on guitar solos, so that puts Slash out of reach for me, too.
I think “I don’t like the sound of the singer’s voice” is legit criticism for disliking any band. It’s just too hard to connect otherwise.
Poor Geddy in more ways than one. In fact, I was going to mention him earlier, and then I thought, Nah, I might incur the wrath of Rich.
Yeah, you gotta watch the Geddy talk in most circles.
As a guy who grew up in the Midwest and played bass, I know where they’re coming from. But I also know many who cringe when hearing the Weedy One’s voice.
Poor Rufus Wainwright. Poor Bob Dylan. Poor Bright Eyes (I fucking hate that dude/band.) The sound of a singer’s voice is so reliant on taste. Luckily, there’s no accounting for it, so a wide variety of voices can be loved by someone.
“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.” <—- I absolutely, 100% agree with this, Art. Nicely said. “My Michelle” is the perfect example. I don’t think I’ve listened to Appetite without forwarding through that song since my adolescence. All of the songs with trite lines that you call out, actually, are my least favorites – except, the “why don’t you just fuck off” line. I think this is because there was a (ridiculously long) period in my life where these lyrics were my battle cry. Which, maybe, is part of the problem – Axl’s lack of emotional maturity and obvious arrested development.
I know people love that line–I love lines that are even more juvenile (“I did it like this/I did it like that/I did it with a wiffle ball bat”)–but that one just never clicked with me.
I’ve certainly felt that way many times.
I think the difference, though, is that the Beasties are pretty self-aware and intentional. They know when they’re being silly. I’m not sure that Axl did (or does.)
Yes, self-awareness! Axl definitely didn’t get his own joke.
This is strictly personal opinion, but if I had written this, I’d have erred WAY over into “damning with faint praise” territory.
Yeah, “killing with beige” may have been the appropriate angle.
But for all Axl’s antics, I’m lyin’ if I say that, when “Paradise City” comes on the radio, I’m turning the station.
Nice work, Art! This could either be relevant or not – but I’d heard that Slash did not play much on Appetite and that most of the leads were played by Steve Lukather (of Toto.) – this would also play into the fact that the guitars on Appetitie sound much different than those on the Illusion fiascoes.
I think both albums are magnificent and relevant to their times – balanced by pretentiousness and sheer rockitude.
Looking forward to part 3.
Thanks for that delicious morsel, Jason!
Oh, the indignity of having someone from Toto play your parts for you! I wouldn’t admit to it either.
It could be worse.
Carole Kaye could have played your bass parts.
Carole Kaye would’ve *slain* my bass parts.
”Rock Queen” should be ‘Rocket Queen.’
I respect and admire people who take music so seriously. I don’t really take anything seriously at all, least of all music and I’m kind of just glad to sit back and enjoy it— or more, rock out and enjoy it.
It’s like the famous quote about rock music being waist down, not neck up. It doesn’t bother me that Slash isn’t technically that good, or that the lyrics are more often than not ridiculous. It doesn’t stop it from sounding great.
Bands like GnR are like Michael Bay movies. Everyone knows that they suck, lack any artistic value and basically exist as sort of audio-visual pop-culture junk food.
Nirvana are probably the technically better band, but GnR are way more fun.
Thanks, James. Will edit.
Grunge missed out on the fun, didn’t it? It’s almost like some mad scientist said, “Let’s take all the fun out of rock…but still have it be good.” Not what you’d want to hear at your birthday party in heaven.
I love Rocket Queen by the way. I think maybe another reason GNR’s lyrics don’t bother me is because I don’t really hear what is being sung.
Of course Cobain’s vocals aren’t exactly crystal clear. What I find strange about Nirvana is that I’ve seen them interviewed and they all seem like really fun guys. And the music is just so downbeat… weird.
Yes, I’ll talk a lot about marble-mouthed Cobain in Part III.
“It’s hard to bargle nargle zous with all these marbles in my mouth.”
I had the good fortune to see both GnR and Nirvana during the ’91-’92 concert stretch. I have to say, the Nirvana show was way more fun.
Isn’t that the year that Axl et al were being flaky and screwing over concert goers by canceling at the last second? Wasn’t that the year they toured with Metallica?
You, sir, have hit right on the head the very reason I have never been a huge GnR fan, which I have never been able to articulate until now. “Jarring, artless thump to the listener’s forehead” indeed.
What always rubbed my the wrong way is this perception that the band–or at the very least, Axl–wallows in all of this with 100% sincerity, and is more than a little hostile towards an audience that didn’t. Nirvana might be downers, but at least their approach was a bit more easygoing. Don’t like it? Oh well, whatever, nevermind.
I’m with you, Matt. I can’t really do 100% sincerity anymore in rock music. Too many heads blown off. Too many dead from drugs. Too many heroes obviously unhappy with their choices. The eye-rolling comes requisite with it, for me. So, Axl and I never really have a chance.
totally with you on this.
While there’s no questioning that GnR tapped into something, it cannot be said with a straight face that the world was what it was on Monday, GnR arrived on Tuesday, and the world was a new place on Wednesday.
Oasis is another band that likes to self-declare as harbingers of the New Era.
More like, they ran face first into the wall, and the wall budged a few centimeters.
No denying that it caught the wave as it was going by and gave a bunch of folks a fun ride.
In my opinion, the wave that they were riding was the reactionary shock from too much production. They hit the big venues sounding like a raw garage band, only bigger. So I think their popularity was as much reactionary to what came before.
It’s not that GnR was good, just that it wasn’t yacht rock.
It’s all hair metal in the end.
Looking forward to Part III. Don’t be afraid to leave the comparison between Nirvana and GnR until a Part IV, if you need to.
Chris Cornell gets my vote for lyrics conveying that “dumber than a box of hammers” feeling. Fortunately, his voice and the music behind the lyrics make up for it. I’ll often be sporting the same wry grin, everything I listen to Exploder, wondering if he was watching Fight Club when he came up with that one.
Ha! Thanks, Reuben. Considering this was all supposed to be one post, I wouldn’t bet against a Part IV. At some point, I’m going to want to write about something else, but not until Kurt is vindicated.
And truth be known, I think I dig bad lyrics almost as much as good ones. Hey, at least you notice them.
Well-written, Art, and it’s always good to see someone tackle a subject with both respect for it and a good knowledge of what they’re talking about.
Oh, Axl… Jesus, some of those lyrics are awful.
But the band knew how to put a fucking rock and roll song together, there’s no doubt about that.
Can’t wait for Part III!
Thanks, Simon. Very kind of you.
I just keep talking like I know what I’m talking about, hoping no one notices otherwise.
[…] Find out what happened in Part II. […]
I perhaps made my feelings about Axl’s cultural relevance too clear last round. So, this time I will say that anyone who can straightface red cornrows, whistle solos, and bagging on Metallica after two songs is actually pretty hilarious and excellent. Axl plays his role better than could possibly hoped for. The guy is never on some dumb show hawking wares. And he hasn’t cut a rap album yet. I say give the man some real credit. And I am still very fond of Mr. Brownstone.
That’s right. He did whistle. All this, and a great whistler too. Is there anything that man can’t do?
[…] One rule I set out for myself on my quest to vindicate Cobain from the evil clutches of Klosterman: I will not use the “you had to be there” argument to justify any of my feelings for Nevermind. Yes, much of the greatness of Nevermind lies in its social context, and especially its relationship to music that came before it like The Youngbloods, Aerosmith, Husker Du and so many more. But there is enough musical greatness within its contents not to need to resort to arguments relating to Nevermind’s “subversive effect on mainstream culture.” This is not a post about culture. It’s a reassessment of a great album 20 years later to see–with all of that other stuff out of the way–how great it really is, especially in relation to Appetite for Destruction, which I examined at length in Part II. […]
Considering that Nirvana sounds like your average 90’s garage band, I guess you need to lower your standards by at least 90% to be able to think that Nirvana was anything except mediocre. Nirvana had no skilled guitarist, no impressive vocalist, no meaningful lyrics, no style, no nothing.
If this lousy garage band hadn’t become famous in the early 90’s, it would NEVER have become famous at all. Timing and the public’s attitude were the main factors behind Nirvana’s success. No one even noticed this band’s first album, which sold in 3 years less than what a debut hair-metal album would usually sell in a month back in the 80’s. It’s kinda funny but the 80’s bands that Nirvana allegedly killed are actually still selling outside North America. In South America and Europe, 80’s music is alive and well, Nirvana and grunge…not so much.
Nirvana’s success had little to do with music and more to do with the 90’s generation of kids (badly) influenced by Beavis and Butt-head who for some reason (I don’t know why) liked crappy bands with crappy music. This is the decade of gangsta rap, after all. Whoever says the 90’s and Nirvana were beneficial for anything needs a reality check.
Nirvana was just 90% hype and 10% mediocre music! This is the elephant that everyone keeps ignoring…or should I say the bug that people are reluctant to squash! As with Ledger’s underwhelming acting, Nirvana has been hyped up to such an extent that it’s simply repulsive.
The hype surrounding Nirvana is borderline propaganda. An untalented drug addict and a horrible father like Cobain is now the voice of a generation…really. Why can’t he be only an untalented junky who became successful out of sheer luck? Why can’t we consider him to be an over-advertised figure who would have sunk back in obscurity if he hadn’t blown his brains out after he ran out of cocaine?
Good bands have normal, decent fans. Lousy bands have only fanboys. After 20 years Nirvana’s fanboys still think Cobain had more talent than Apollo. Bon Jovi fans, on the other hand, are normal people who don’t mystify their music, they just enjoy it. And they are educated enough to know who Apollo was, unlike Nirvana’s fanboys.