Recently I was listening to all the Guns N’ Roses albums, re-assessing my opinion that they only have one good album – Appetite For Destruction, of course (you don’t even need to listen to the music to figure this out – just look at the album covers!!). Lies is not bad, Use Your Illusion is patchy (some moments of genius mixed up with way too much filler, and a terrible cover), The Spaghetti Incident is awful (matches the album cover quite perfectly – was this mess just as intentional?), and Chinese Democracy is a bit too sophisticated (while lacking any identifiable character other than Axl’s vocals) to be a proper, edgy Guns N’ Roses album – it’s basically well-stewed Axl Rose on a solo album that took so long to make that it lost all inertia, and can never have a follow-up.
But I still think that Use Your Illusion could have been nearly as good as Appetite For Destruction if it had been trimmed to one third of its 152-minute running length, removing icky pop ballads like “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain“, with its orchestral arrangements and background singers, and quirky covers like “Live And Let Die” and ”Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” that diminish and distract from the power of the best tracks by the world’s most dangerous band. Also, I’d like to cull the tracks that have too much Axl Rose weirdness on them (the nutty Nixon voice at the beginning of “Pretty Tied Up“, the weird Mel Blanc sound effects at the beginning of the otherwise-decent “Don’t Damn Me“, or that horrible, endless multi-wail at the end of “Don’t Cry“) or songs with shitty lyrics, like “I’m a son of a gun and the gun of a son”, from “Dead Horse“. Funnily enough, “Dead Horse” is actually a pretty decent song, but it just has too much Axl Rose weirdness with the stupid “Then when she said she was gonna like wreck my car… I didn’t know what to do” intermission, and other unforgivable oddities.
So, if I were to put together a very tight (by Gn’R standards) 53-minute version of Use Your Illusion (tighter, even, than Appetite For Destruction, which has 12 songs and runs 54 minutes), I’d include these three songs from Use Your Illusion I and five songs from Use Your Illusion II (which backs up the theory that II is better than I):
- “Civil War” – fascinating song, great message, with all the right bits and pieces (we’ll just have to forgive Axl for that weird mile-a-minute “we practice selective assassination…” speech, attributed in the lyrics sheet to “Peruvian guerrilla general”). Maybe the verses are a bit too mellow, but they pick up nicely into a sinister chorus. Neat-o (from Use Your Illusion II)!!
- “Double Talkin’ Jive” – Nice boogie stomp to this Izzy Stradlin number, sung by Axl with Duff and Alice Cooper providing background vocals, and a set of great lyrics that reflect the themes of Appetite For Destruction near-perfectly. Love the guitar sound and the flamenco at the end. Hey – it works!!” (Use Your Illusion I)
- Locomotive (Complicity)” – I only discovered this song on a recent re-listening, but it’s definitely something unique and special, with great lyrics, plenty of the surprising sinisterness that is characteristic of Appetite For Destruction and plenty of musically inventive “how did they come up with this” parts to it. It also has moments of weird sloppiness to it, like some of the drum parts that don’t match the rest of the song, but in this case maybe that is a good thing. I also like the funky stomp at the end of the film. Sure this is a relationship song of sorts, but Side 2 is already full, and this song is where you find the phrase “Use your illusion” among its endless stream of inventive lyrics. Nice. (Use Your Illusion II)
- “Garden Of Eden” – I didn’t like this song a lot initially, but it’s got a wild video, and is pretty fun blistering rock ‘n ‘roll (too bad about the weird video game sound effects sprinkled throughout…)! Cool lyrics too – “This fire is burning and it’s out of control, it’s nothing you can stop – it’s rock ‘n’ roll!!” Definitely lives up to the original spirit of the band. (Use Your Illusion I)
- “14 Years” – Sure, I could have also picked “Dust N’ Bones”, since “Dust N’ Bones” and “14 Years” are basically the same song and both are sung by Izzy, but “14 Years” might have the better lyrics (interesting how they are both Track 2 on their respective Use Your Illusion albums). This song appears after “Civil War” on Use Your Illusion II, but it’s appropriate to split them up for thematic reasons onto the Guns side and Roses side.
- “Estranged” – Appetite For Destruction has one ballad (“Sweet Child Of Mine”), and this will be the one I’d chose for this set. Sure, it has way too much Dizzy Reed on it, but there are about 10 Slash solos, which seems just about the right number. (Use Your Illusion II)
- “You Could Be Mine” – A bit of a bombastic mess, but still a great song. And who can forget how it was featured in the magnificent Terminator 2, or the excitement we felt hearing it as the first single nearly three months before the albums themselves were released (up to that point, the only Gn’R we could listen to were Appetite For Destruction and Lies)? Nice, also, for an opportunity to retain song order from the original disc, as this song follows “Estranged” quite nicely on Use Your Illusion II and can also do so here. Also, this is the only one of four Appetite For Destruction-era songs that I consider good enough to keep (the others are “Back Of Bitch, “November Rain” and “Don’t Cry”).
- “Coma” – A very simple, killer riff that the band somehow extends for over 10 minutes, a masterpiece of tension, with blistering Slash pyrotechnics! Sure, there’s a bit of weirdness, but hardly as much as some other songs, and with its very long stream of lyrics it’s quite a tour de force for Axl. (Use Your Illusion I)
Like Appetite For Destruction, this one can have Side A as “Guns” (songs about social issues) and Side B as “Roses” (songs about relationships); Of course, nearly every song on Use Your Illusion is either a relationship song or it’s slagging someone off, and even among these eight there are more than half a side of relationship songs, but you get the picture. Interesting that the opening two songs from Use Your Illusion II make my cut, whereas you have to go past half way to get to the first really good song on Use Your Illusion II.
There are still a couple of very good songs that could also work nicely as B-Sides, or tacked onto the Japanese CD release (which would stretch the running time to 64 minutes):
- “Breakdown” – A great song that is marred a bit by the wonky “let me tell you ’bout” baritone parts, and the goofy “if the evil spirit arms the tiger with claws” speech at the end taken from the film Vanishing Point. (Use Your Illusion II)
- “So Fine” – A slightly strange song, but with a great vocal by Duff McKagan, it makes a decent curiosity, especially considering that Duff wrote it for Johnny Thunders… (Use Your Illusion II)
Of course, many of the songs are just terrible and can be jettisoned, like the silly bluegrass of “You Ain’t The First” (is this the same band that wrote “My Michelle” and “Rocket Queen”?), the gonzo sensationalism of “Get In The Ring” (although it is funny at times, and a decent rockin’ number – might still be okay for a B-Side), the endless boredom of “Bad Obsession“, the weird, chunky jazz-funk of “Bad Apple” (lot of songs with the word “bad” in the title), the fluffy “Yesterdays” with the Axl screech, the bombast of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (what is that weird telephone call that Axl adds to the middle?), the pointless nastiness of “Shotgun Blues“, especially at the end (good solo, though), and the endless Alice Cooper part of the icky ballad/horror chant “The Garden“. Then, of course, there’s the atrocity of “My World“.