Music

Exquisite Corpse: Guns N' Roses' 'Use Your Illusion I and II'

1980s press photo Guns N' Roses lineup (from left): Duff McKagan, Slash, Axl Rose, Steven Adler, and Izzy Stradlin. (Ross Halfin / Geffen Records)

If there was a gravestone for MTV-style '80s metal, it would probably be Guns N' Roses' 1991 opus Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.

Use Your Illusion I
Guns N' Roses

Geffen

17 September 1991

Use Your Illusion II
Guns N' Roses

Geffen

17 September 1991

The popular consensus among critics and music geeks is that Nevermind killed 1980s hair metal. If that's the appropriate metaphor to describe the end of the glam and excess of the '80s, then it's appropriate that Guns N' Roses supplied an exquisite corpse. Released just a week before Nirvana's 1991 genre-defining album, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II were the last albums from the crop of '80s hair metal bands to achieve blockbuster sales.

Guns N' Roses released Appetite for Destruction in 1987, but the band benefited from a slow-building word of mouth buzz. As a result, the Los Angeles group continued to release singles from that album through 1989. Also, the controversy over the song "One in a Million" and frontman Axl Rose's public feuds with other notable metal singers (see Vince Neil) kept Guns N' Roses in the spotlight well into the first half of 1990. The near-constant exposure in metal magazines and tabloid papers made Use Your Illusion I and II event albums, and MTV played the hype machine to perfection.

During the first half of 1991, Guns N' Roses orchestrated a slow roll-out for its double-album double album (the length of each disc was almost ten minutes longer than either the Clash's London Calling or the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.). The release date for both records was pushed back repeatedly, further whetting fans' appetites. Finally in mid-1991, Guns N' Roses released a single months before Illusion's street date for the biggest movie of the summer, Terminator 2. "You Could Be Mine" couldn't have been a better teaser: sound-wise, it took advantage of a big budget that only a Diamond-selling album could have bought. However, it still contained that guttural menace that brought statements calling the group the next Rolling Stones.

The event aspect of the Illusion albums infected my high school. I was one of the dozens who lined up for the midnight sale at one of our three local record stores. While waiting in line, I saw several kids from my school waiting for an album from a band that, for at least two years they had routinely bashed as being sellouts, pussies, or worse. The MTV hype machine had done a great job luring even the band's detractors into waiting in the queue.

Reading the pre-release interviews, I was already armed with instructions on how to listen to both records. Each LP was meant to exist and be heard on its own. As a whole, the two albums shared a relatively thin unifying theme. I was the harder-edged of the two and more easily comparable to Appetite (so much so that if you quickly glanced at the cassette spine of the two, you could easily mistakenly grab the wrong album). II supplied the moodier, more theatrical side that Axl Rose was trying to steer the band toward.

Even if you're a stern believer of treating each Illusion album as a separate release, the leadoff track "Right Next Door to Hell" comes off like the first song a listener should hear for an epic follow-up. Duff McKagan's rumbling bass is laid out as a perfect backup to introduce former Cult drummer Matt Sorum into the Guns N' Roses fold. Then, Slash's searing guitar riff sounds like it escaped from the same guttural well the band drew from for Appetite for Destruction. In contrast, II's leadoff track "Civil War" sounds like a song that would open Act II in a rock opera right after the 15-minute intermission.

"Right Next Door to Hell" supplied the needed liftoff to justify the four-year wait. Most celebrated albums, or at least blockbuster LPs, use their second track to build on that momentum. Think of Metallica's "Master of Puppets" or even Nirvana's "In Bloom". Each track had to follow a definitive leadoff cut, but both songs managed to carve out their own identity. With "Dust and Bones", Guns N' Roses chose a relatively downbeat countryish track virtually devoid of a hook. If you were in high school, it would be the equivalent of hearing "Enter Sandman" on your wealthy friend's AIWA stereo, only to be forced to listen to a Gordon Lightfoot song immediately after.

And that remains the most maddening aspect of both Illusion albums. For all the studio wizardry and "money's no object" budget, both records suffer from horrible pacing. The X-rated honky-tonk of "Bad Obsession" would have been a great follow-up to the frantic "Perfect Crime", but for some reason, the plodding "You Ain't the First" is jammed between both songs. "Coma" is an epic closer for I, but after giving listeners more than two hours of Guns N' Roses (assuming you listened to both albums back-to-back), why finish with a filler track like "My World"?

Illusion I and II were released when the majority of music fans were still making cassette mixtapes. A running joke in some critic circles was that Guns N' Roses' two albums were custom-made for the mixtape treatment, as fans could pick the best tracks from each album and create their own "true" follow-up to Appetite. Call it Use Your Illusion III. But great albums, single or double, need not require listeners to do such an act.

The week when Nevermind was released, the sales figures came in from Guns N' Roses' opus. Use Your Illusion I sold 685,000 copies in its first week, II sold 770,000 copies. The total of 1.4 million copies remains an impressive feat.

The week-apart releases of Nevermind and the Illusion albums, at least symbolically, put Guns N' Roses and Nirvana on a collision course with one another, which reached an apex at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. Nevermind (even with its impressive six-figure recording budget) sounded like an album that could have been recorded by any band with enough talent to record a great hook. The Use Your Illusion LPs sounded like albums that only a group armed with a multi-million dollar budget and two-year domination on MTV could have recorded, complete with vast orchestras, songs calling out critics who wronged you, and videos that cost more than some movies.

Whether you think Nevermind has been played to death or still sounds as fresh as the day it came out, most people would agree the album is virtually devoid of filler tracks. When you compare "Double Talkin' Jive", "Bad Apples", "Get in the Ring", or "Back Off Bitch" to even the weakest track off of Nevermind, it's no wonder Guns N' Roses seemed like a band woefully out of touch with the times by the time it appeared at the MTV Video Music Awards nearly a year later.

Each Illusion album has sold about eight million albums apiece. Since their release, no band from that genre (see Poison, Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi) has come close to achieving those types of numbers. Poison made a feeble attempt at trying to retool its sound with Native Tongue to feel still relevant in the age of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. Bon Jovi wisely began marrying some country into its subsequent releases. But as a whole, '80s hair metal died with the Illusion albums.

Despite being a punchline at karaokes and almost every lame '80s flashback scene in sitcoms, the genre did produce a few great albums, namely Appetite for Destruction. And for all its bloat, there were some genius moments in the Illusion pair that still hold up today. In "Don't Damn Me", Rose's lyrics perfectly matched the searing guitars. "Estranged" is one of those few power ballads that justifies its excesses. It's no wonder that when people talk about Guns N' Roses' legacy, they often lump "the best moments of Use Your Illusion" with the group's defining album.

* * *

This article originally published on 4 October 2011.

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