Review: Guns N Roses, ‘Use Your Illusions – Super Deluxe’ – Like The Band, An Enjoyable Hot Mess of a Box Set Featuring 2 Complete Shows From 91-92

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Guns N Roses dropped the hotly anticipated (by me at least) box set for Use Your Illusions last weekend and I for one am stunned it’s been over thirty years since those great, albeit flawed, albums came out. I’m on record as a big Guns N Roses fan, even this current incarnation of the band with only Axl Rose (vocals), Slash (lead guitar) and Duff McKagan (bass) remaining from the incandescent original line-up. I actually saw that line-up on the ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour over six years ago at Arrowhead Stadium (can it have been six years?). I saw that super cool blended cover art – strips of the yellow LP cover interchanged with strips of the blue LP cover and I fell immediately under it’s spell… I must have this box… until I saw the price tag. This was going to require some research…

I can still remember when Use Your Illusions I and Use Your Illusions II were released. I was working for a medical supply company out of Chicago that was owned by guys that had to be criminals. No matter how much product I sold I never seemed to see the commissions, working for the company store indeed… ah, the life of a traveling salesman. Anyway, in 1991 as soon as my day spent in hospitals and nursing homes was over I headed straight to the record store. This may be my faulty memory but I think I only purchased Use Your Illusions II (the blue one) on that late summer, September day. I had heard and loved the epic track “Civil War” prior to the album’s release as it had been put out on a charity album for Romanian orphans spearheaded by George Harrison’s wife, Olivia. I remember seeing my brother at the time and “Civil War” came on the overhead speakers at a sub shop where we were eating. I began cavorting in my chair and playing my always handy air guitar. I happened to look up at my brother who was sitting across the table from me, blank faced, staring at me impassively. I said, “Don’t you dig this?” Without even blinking an eye he said, voice full of contempt, “Yeah but I don’t have to look like an idiot to prove it.” Family…

I had also heard the rocking track “You Could Be Mine” from Use Your Illusions II since it also had been released prior on the Terminator 2 soundtrack. Having heard two songs that I already thought ranked amongst their best, Use Your Illusions II was an easy buy. I would like to think I’d have just gone ahead and bought both albums that day, but as mentioned, money was tight. I think I was in the “living with my parents again” phase of my life – always a sign of big time success. Much like when I was back  in junior high and even high school I always had a hard time committing to a double album or in this particular case two CDs released on the same day with the same title. And admittedly I was weirdly cautious about GnR. It took me until I heard the third single from Appetite For Destruction, “Paradise City,” before I bought that CD. The video for “Welcome To The Jungle” had me thinking these guys were just another hair band. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” caught my ear but it was a ballad and this was back when I was, let’s call it ballad-averse. Once I bought it, I was in, I was a fan but still cautious. By 1991 when the UYI albums were released it had been four years since their debut came out. That was a long gap in my mind.

Of course, in the time since their debut they’d released the odd follow up G N’ R Lies. While I had liked the song “Patience,” you couldn’t get away from it so who didn’t dig it, I had shied away from G N’ R Lies at the time because it seemed like a stopgap between “actual” albums. And admittedly I was deeply uncomfortable with some of the lyrics on “One In A Million.” Axl’s world view is certainly paranoid and misanthropic. I did go back to that same record shop and purchase Use Your Illusions I (the yellow one) a few weeks later after I heard “Dust N Bones.” Most people rushed out and bought that album for “November Rain,” which is a great, epic ballad but I preferred my GnR more menacing. On Appetite For Destruction they seemed like the most dangerous, threatening band on the planet – kind of like Aerosmith at their peak which coincidentally I had been listening to prior to this GnR deluxe release… It’s turning cold, the holidays are creeping up and I’m jumping around singing “‘Tis the Season for Hard Rock!”

The Use Your Illusions albums, taken together, to me sound a bit like the story of the Beatles’ self titled LP, aka The White Album. I’m not suggesting there is anything musically in common between The Beatles and the Use Your Illusions albums, but what has been said countless times about the Beatles’ record can certainly be said about the GnR albums: this is the sound of a band pulling in different directions. Use Your Illusions I seems to have the shorter, more focused, harder hitting rock songs. “Back Off Bitch,” “Bad Obsession,” “Dust N Bones” and “Perfect Crime” hit you like a prize fighter working the speed bag. I think that’s the direction Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar), Slash and Duff wanted to go. They wanted to stay in their lane. Axl, who had turned extraordinarily paranoid – he’d had beefs with neighbors, ex girlfriends/wives, the press, and had been excoriated for being racist and bigoted for “One In A Million” (rightly so) – wanted to indulge his Freddie Mercury/Queen/Elton John fantasies and go big. Use Your Illusions II is full of epic tracks: “Estranged,” “Locomotive” and “Civil War.” Of course “November Rain” and “Coma” were in that epic category and they were on the first album.

Axl’s paranoid vision for GnR was diametrically opposed to the rest of the band which never bodes well. By the time they recorded the UYI albums they’d already fired addled Steven Adler for heroin addiction. They’d tried to wait for him to pull himself together but in the words of Neil Young “He tried his best but he could not.” They replaced him with former Cult drummer Matt Sorum. Izzy always said they lost a key ingredient when they lost Adler, who had more “swing” in his drumming than Sorum, who is more of a plodder. Axl’s megalomania eventually drove Izzy Stradlin, who had also gotten sober, out of the band shortly after the two LPs came out. Losing him was a tremendous blow. Not because his replacement Gilby Clark couldn’t play but because Izzy was key for their songwriting.

In the end, I think you can say about the Use Your Illusions albums what they say about most double albums. There is probably a perfect, single-LP masterpiece lurking in this double album. I will admit, I’m happy to have as much GnR music from that classic line up as I can get so I’m still glad they sort of vomited all of this music on us back then. As I said when I saw the price tag on this box set I couldn’t help but think, “I have these records, what is the bonus material like? I was hoping like the Black Crowes on Shake Your Money Maker we’d get some unreleased tracks and some live stuff. Alas, I think GnR threw everything they had at the time on the two original LPs so scratch any unreleased studio gems from your wish list. However I would have loved to have heard some stripped down demos of these songs (especially of “November Rain”) or if there were outtakes (like Axl taking lead vocal on “Double Talkin’ Jive”) I’d have liked them included… especially at this price. I will admit I was a little disappointed when I heard that they would only be releasing two complete shows from the era, New York from May of ’91 and Las Vegas from January of ’92, and I can’t explain that disappointment. I don’t know why I felt that way? Rush just put out a great live concert with the 40th anniversary edition of Moving Pictures and it was sensational. Where was this feeling coming from?

Maybe it was the checkered history of the Use Your Illusions Tour? They actually started the tour before the albums came out because they were taking so long to finish. They couldn’t agree on a final mix. As I read somewhere, if Axl liked the mix Slash didn’t and vice versa. The Use Your Illusions Tour started in early ’91. I think one of the things that fueled my disappointment in hearing the bonus material was just two live shows was my memory of the troubled history of that tour. All the iconic bad behavior that we associate with Axl and the band stems from that tour. The tour was marred by GnR showing up late, Axl being drunk, Axl having vocal issues, Axl jumping into the crowd and fighting audience members, Axl walking off stage after only a few songs and in the case of the July ’91 show in St Louis, Axl starting a riot. Hence in the liner notes of the Use Your Illusions you can find the immortal words “Fuck St. Louis.” As someone from Kansas City a mere car ride away, I can tell you, they weren’t exactly wrong about St Louis.

GnR had been out on the road for eight months when the albums actually came out that balmy September. By November, Izzy Stradlin had quit the band. Before he quit, he had stopped riding on the tour bus and would just follow them on his motorcycle. I remember after he quit, one of their videos showed Izzy’s picture on milk carton under the words “Have You Seen This Man?” During the summer of ’92 GnR teamed up with Metallica for a joint tour that lasted from July to October that saw James Hetfield being burned up by the pyro. There was just some bad juju around this band and this tour back then.

That said – and I’m not a big bootleg guy any more, so I’ve never heard either of these two concerts before – I enjoyed these two concert recordings. Now admittedly, GnR never put out a definitive live album – and we know our live albums around here – and these two concert documents aren’t going to change that. They’ve confounded the issue by releasing separately, beyond the box set, remixes of the individual version of I and II with a hodgepodge of live cuts from different shows than the ones released in the box. I guess they’re trying to get folks to buy the box and new versions of each album all at the same time. Cashing in? I will say on the individual new release for Use Your Illusions I they have a nice live cut of Lenny Kravitz joining the band to play his tune “Always On The Run” from Paris. Lenny and Slash were buddies in high school and Lenny was the drummer in Slash’s first band. I’m not sure the live cuts would be enough to get me to buy the individual albums again unless I didn’t own them already, which I think is going to be a limited number of people.

In terms of the box set bonus material I probably like the New York May ’91 set best. It’s almost like hearing them rehearse. Axl even admits it’s only like the third time they’d played the songs since he “never shows up to jam with these guys.” Axl certainly has a bad case of LSD – Lead Singer Disease. People may be sort of “meh” about these two concerts but any time you can listen to Slash, one of the most melodic guitarist of all time and Axl one of the greatest voices in rock history rocking out it’s a treat. They throw in snippets of covers songs from Alice Cooper (“Only Women Bleed” an interesting choice), Rod Stewart (“I Was Only Joking”) and Jimi Hendrix (“Voodoo Child (Slight Return)”). It’s a great mix of tunes from all their albums from the debut to the two then new LPs.

On the Las Vegas Jan ’92 we get more of what we got on GnR’s live album Live Era ’87-’93 with back up singers and horns. There are actually five tracks from Live Era from this Vegas concert so there is a bit of duplication. We even get a little taste of “Hotel California” on this set. While this may not be GnR at their absolute peak it’s still an enjoyable listen if you’re a fan and it certainly holds together than the live stuff they cobbled together for the individual LP releases. I’ve never understood why Axl chose to bring in back up singers and horns? During one track he yells, “Give me some reggae,” which is something I never thought I’d hear at a GnR show… and the band drops into what sounds like a meth fueled attempt to slow it down and play a reggae thing. Sigh.

Overall at the price their charging I can’t recommend this box set. Like a gambler in an old time western movie, I’m pushing away from the table while mumbling, “Too rich for me…” However, I do recommend everyone at least stream this stuff. Especially if you’re a GnR fan or if you dig live music. A definitive live album doesn’t exist for these guys but these two shows provide us a snapshot of a time when GnR and hard rock were on top of the world and spiraling out of control. What’s not to love? Also if you don’t own Use Your Illusions I or II now might be the time to pick up those essential hard rock albums.

To everybody in the U.S., Happy Thanksgiving next week. I’m being held hostage by family in a remote location… Anyway, turn this one up loud to drowned out the political arguments during your Turkey Day. “What’s that Uncle Bob, you think I’m a communist but you love Slash?” Well, who doesn’t love Slash? Finally something we can all agree on!

Cheers!

Review: Guns N’ Roses Drop Another “New” Song “Hard Skool”

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Now this is more like it…

Long time readers know of our love for Guns N Roses here at B&V. When Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined the band to go on tour a few years back we were hoping for new music. I saw them in 2016 and it seems like yesterday. It took a while but finally 2021 has seen the release of new GnR music. A few weeks ago they debuted a “new” song in concert named “Absurd.” Shortly after they played it live, the studio version was released to the public. It’s actually not a new song but a reworked Chinese Democracy outtake that was originally called “Silkworms.” Our reaction was… disappointment. It was an odd choice for their first track in 13 years. I couldn’t help but lament, this is what they came up with after being back together for five years?

I spent most my week listening to solo Lindsey Buckingham. My old college roommate, who I’ll call Walt (named changed to protect the guilty) would be proud… he was a big Buckingham fan. Walt is the only person I knew who owned Buckingham’s second solo disc, Go Insane. He played it in the room enough that I was the one who almost went insane. Lindsey recently released his latest solo, self-titled LP. Its the record that got him fired from Fleetwood Mac. I liked it but it’s too artsy for mass consumption. Lindsey plays all the instruments. The man needs to bring in some other musicians to play off of but I’m getting off topic. I wasn’t sure what, if anything I’d be writing about this weekend. This time of year, one must never underestimate new music Fridays. The rock gods smiled on us with the latest GnR track. Beautiful fall weather, football and now some “Hard Skool.”

Yesterday indeed saw the release of a second new GnR track, “Hard Skool.” Yet again this is a track who’s origins date back to yes, the Chinese Democracy days. It appears that instead of holing up during the pandemic and writing brand new material GnR are content to just rework leftover stuff from Axl’s vault. If that’s what we’re left with, I will say I’m relieved that at least “Hard Skool” is a kick ass song. While “Absurd” sounded like a bad Nine Inch Nails cover band, “Hard Skool” at least sounds like a Guns N Roses song. At their best GnR sounded dangerous, perhaps almost menacing and this track captures that alchemy. We are once again reminded that at one time, Guns N Roses were the greatest rock band on the planet.

The track opens with a great, rolling, Duff McKagan bass line. I don’t think Duff gets the credit he deserves as a bass player. He did some amazing work last year on Ozzy’s last LP, Ordinary Man. When the guitars kick in on “Hard Skool” there’s no mistaking that this greasy blues rock metal is Guns N Fuckin’ Roses, baby. While this is a Chinese Democracy outtake, it sounds like it could have been on one of the Use Your Illusions discs. It has that unhinged “Back Off Bitch” or “Right Next Door To Hell” vibe. I can not say enough about Slash’s lead guitar on this track. His solo is classic. There’s even a spacey, Led Zepplin-y bridge in the middle where everything slows down except for drums, Duff and Slash. Slash has such a distinctive tone when he plays. And let me say, kudos to Axl on the vocals. He sounds great. I don’t know if these are vocals from 13 years ago or not but he sounds like a man possessed. Nobody does pissed-off, scorned lover vocals like Axl. On this track, everybody shows up and does what they do best. It’s a great GnR track.

Here is the link to the new song, if you haven’t heard it you’ve gotta check it out:

If I have any complaint, I still wish these guys were collaborating on new music rather than just  being content with reworking Axl’s leftovers. After five years I would have expected that to have happened. Of course this could be an Axl ego thing, one never knows. He may be refusing to move forward with new stuff until he tidies up his music backlog. I hear they’re going to release an EP with the two new tracks (“Absurd,” “Hard Skool”) and several cover songs including, apparently, a version of Elton John’s “Bennie And The Jets.” It kinda makes me feel like this is more of a touring exercise than full-fledged band reunion. Although for me, it can never be a real reunion without Izzy Stradlin but that’s another topic. For now we can just be happy with some new savage rock n roll…Nobody does it better than GnR.

Review: Guns N Roses First New Song In 13 Years, The Aptly Titled “Absurd”

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Leave it to Guns N’ Roses to sneak up on me…

Last week was the first week in a long, long time that I’ve taken a “vacation” from music. Mind you – it wasn’t by choice. My corporate masters called me to New York for a series of meetings that chewed up most my week. Typically my job allows me to have some music on in the background when I’m toiling away on a spreadsheet or a written report. It comes as no surprise to B&V readers that I like to listen to music while I’m writing stuff. In between Webex meetings I’ve usually got tunes on. I don’t think I’m unique in that habit. But when I’m traveling to meetings like the New York session I’m typically sitting in conference rooms surrounded by people. At night I’m usually out at dinner with colleagues making small talk (“So what do you do Hank?”) and by the time I get back to the hotel, it’s lights out. I didn’t even get to listen to any tunes on the flights I was on getting to and from New York. Flight time is thinking time… which really means nap time.

When I got back home on Thursday night, the Rock Chick had her usual plethora of things we “need” to get done. I typically have music on at all times in my personal life, but the Rock Chick kept me busy… well, her and the Olympics kept me occupied. It was the first week in a long time I hadn’t posted anything on B&V. But having spent the week in the relative silence of a rock n roll void, I didn’t even think about posting. I did see however, that G’n’R had performed a “brand new song” called “Absurd” at Fenway Park in Boston. I lived in Boston for a summer and Fenway would be an awesome venue to see Guns N’ Roses. Eventually I pulled the track up and listened to the live performance. I thought perhaps they were messing with us and this was some kind of joke. To quote the Rock Chick who I played the song for, “That’s fucking terrible.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m on record as a huge Guns N’ Roses fan. I think had Axl been able to avoid his LSD (Lead Singer Disease) and the original line-up held together these guys would rank up there with the Stones or Zeppelin. I have to admit, after Axl took over the band and was the last original member standing, then took fifteen years to record an album, they lost me a bit. And, I will admit I found Chinese Democracy to be a huge disappointment. In retrospect, if you set aside all my enormous expectations, it wasn’t a horrible LP. It just wasn’t that great dirty blues metal that I’d come to love and cherish from GnR. Axl clearly has a Nine Inch Nails fetish. They veered into an almost Industrial Rock thing.

I was very encouraged and delighted when original lead guitarist Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan returned to the fold for the “Not In This Life Time Tour.” I saw their Kansas City show at Arrowhead Stadium in 2016. Other than last year’s pandemic shutdown, they’ve been touring almost constantly ever since. For those us hard core fans out here, that was great but I think I speak for the “GnR Universe” when I say we all wanted to hear new music from these guys. Although I have to admit, I was a little leery of their creative process without founding member, rhythm guitarist and foremost Axl songwriting partner Izzy Stradlin. It’s a shame that he’s not included in this reunion, but that’s another post.

I just realized on Monday that they’d released the studio version of “Absurd” on Friday… I’m usually on top of these new music releases but hey, I was still jet lagged. New York is my kinda town. I have to say, upon hearing the studio version of “Absurd” I was stunned… by how absurdly bad it is. I try to stay positive here on B&V but when something momentous like a new GnR single happens, I have to say something. Apparently they reworked an outtake from the Chinese Democracy sessions called “Silkworms” and now it’s called “Absurd.” It was written by longtime keyboardist Dizzy Reed and former keyboardist Chris Pitman. Soooo, its been 5 years since Slash and Duff came back and you just reworked a single written by the keyboard section that wasn’t good enough to make it onto Chinese Democracy? I guess I was right about the absence of Izzy Stradlin. These guys have put out one album in like 30 years and this is what they chose to lead with?

The track starts with the line, “Listen motherfuckers to a song that should be heard.” This is one motherfucker who would disagree on that whole “should be heard” premise. Axl’s vocals are sung like he’s mad at us. It sounds like he’s shouting through a megaphone. I mean, Zach De La Rocha has an impassioned delivery but at least the music – while still very powerful – has some nimble swing to it. I’ve never heard the oft bootlegged original version of this song, “Silkworms” but I understand it was more electronica than classic GnR rock. I will say that “Absurd” does have some great Slash guitar work. It’s the only thing that makes this track palatable. And Duff has a lovely little bass line on the song, the guy is a nimble player. Those guys certainly elevate the track but not enough to make it interesting. And the lyrics are some of the most misogynist I’ve heard in a while, even for GnR.

You would hope a band this important would want their first single in over a decade to be something epic, something that will burnish their legend and re engage fans. This is so far off the mark that it baffles me. I’ve been hoping for a new GnR album for 5 years… now, not so much. Let’s hope this turns out to be a minor stub of the toe and they’ve been actually working on new material – not just rewarmed Chinese Democracy rejects. They had a year off to write, didn’t they?

Sigh. Cheers!