A drunk sorority sister in black leather pants singing karaoke while swinging a Bud bar bottle over her head; a trucker hat-clad, unwashed hipster sipping on a cold beer of the same brand in a nameless bar with a handful of quarters in the jukebox and on the pool table; a mullet-adorned, acid jean-wearing Midwestern teen who has dedicated his life to heavy metal. What do these three stereotypes have in common? The answer is a simple one: an unfathomable, yet passionate love for ‘80s MTV stalwarts and visionaries Guns N’ Roses. Let’s not fool ourselves, each one of us marks out when we hear a certain GN’R song, whether it’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” or “Paradise City” or some other tune that embodies the group’s cocksure arrogance. This is a band that successfully used the visual medium of music video to create a life-style craze that surpassed heavy metal and, for a brief moment in time, their debut album Appetite for Destruction was the pinnacle of guitar swagger and middle-class self indulgence. An argument can probably even be made that GN’R provided the bridge between the “dangerous” culture of bad boy rock and the excess of hip-hop. It glorified a certain coke-snorting, limousine-riding, and hotel room-trashing joie de vivre that hadn’t been seen in popular music since the demise of the full band lineup of Led Zeppelin.
Flash forward a decade and a half and the musical landscape has been significantly altered. GN’R-inspired metal has enjoyed a minor resurgence in recent years with bands like Puddle of Mud and Nickelback, but nothing has even approached their predecessor’s excessive heights. Principal GN’R members Slash, Izzy Stradlin, and Duff McKagan have all moved on to other, less successful projects, leaving only front man Axl Rose to hold down the manic mantle as the sole rock and roll icon of the world’s most dangerous band. A series of live shows over the past two years have forced rumor of the decade-delayed follow-up to the Use Your Illusion set, Chinese Democracy, back onto the lips of casual music fans, but still there is doubt. The release of the slim and questionable Greatest Hits set will do little to curb this conjecture.
As expected, the selections from Appetite for Destruction are excellent. The three song represented here have stood the test of time and are the strongest in the GN’R catalogue. The guitar and drums alone on “Paradise City” still inspire a four-minute round of fist-pumping, and “Welcome to the Jungle” is every bit as savage as it was upon first listen. These songs provide a legitimate testament to Appetite’s classification as a classic rock album.
The selections from the dual Use Your Illusion releases are more problematic. The songs suffer from over-production, bloated arrangements, and buffoonish solos at every turn. Versions of Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and Wings’ “Live and Let Die” are above average covers, but, in comparison, original fare like “Yesterdays” and “November Rain” are the sounds of a B-grade GN’R cover band. Both of the latter tracks were substantive MTV and radio hits during their initial release, so it is quite surprising how far they have fallen just ten years on. One possible reason for this is that after the release of Appetite, GN’R increasingly leaned on the crutch of being a “video band”, releasing long form music videos as tools to draw interest to new singles and muster album sales. The nine-minute “November Rain” is little more than a repetitive series of Slash’s guitar solos merged with Axl’s simplistic piano melody without the dramatic narrative video to accompany it. The same can be said for “Don’t Cry”, which comes across as a simple whining ballad when you take away the Die Hard-based action video that charged its original release.
Of the remaining tracks, the punk covers from The Spaghetti Incident are best tossed out, while the single track, “Patience”, from GN’R Lies is the only standout track outside of those from the debut album. The cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil”, from the film Interview with the Vampire, was intended to be the lure for fans as a hard to find gem, but with the advent of Internet downloading services there is little reason for hardcore GN’R heads to purchase this collection.
As an addition to the GN’R catalogue, Greatest Hits does nothing to enhance the legacy of a once-proud rock band. There are no hidden insights into the inner workings of the group, no lost classics, and no evidence of their contribution to a new generation of musicians. Instead we are left with an inflated sticker price for a Pandora’s box of tracks, most of which sounded better in our memories than on this compilation.