Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Guns N Roses, Axl Rose, and Chinese Deomcracy: What the Hell Happened?

After 14 years in production, the new Guns N Roses record Chinese Democracy was released last November. The record is controversial, but not as controversial as it seems it should have been. But let me digress on this for a minute.....
The history of Guns N Roses is pretty familiar to most rock fans: debut record Appetite For Destruction is released in 1987, and goes on to sell over 17 million copies, making GNR the biggest band in the world, far more so than their Sunset Strip "peers". They release an EP that upset some people, and released Use Your Illusions I & II, a double record sold separately. This also sells lots of copies, and GNR enjoys several more years on top, thanks in no small part to the visually striking and ultimately convoluted videos for the songs "Don't Cry", "November Rain", and "Estranged". And then? Poof.
First, drummer Steven Adler was replaced in the time between the first two records. Then, rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin left shortly after the release of the Illusions records. Then guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan were gone by 1997, leaving singer W.Axl Rose the sole original member of the band. Accusations of bad behavior, unreliability, insanity, and general incompetence have flown from both sides of the Axl/everybody else divide. Chinese Democracy became a running joke as the ultimate musical vaporware: It was generally thought that it would never be released. Axl had all but disappeared from the public eye, showing up only rarely, now sporting his shockingly red hair in bizarre cornrows. Then, the unthinkable happened: the record came out.
Chinese Democracy sold somewhat well considering the sluggish market for CDs in this day and age, but fell far, far short of expectations for a long-anticipated release. I think the blame for this falls in several places:

-I think whomever decided to make the record a Best Buy exclusive cut the legs underneath sales, considering that there are only about 1,010 Best Buy Stores in the USA. AC/DC went the exclusive route with their latest CD Black Ice and Wal-Mart, but there are approximately 4,000 Wal-Mart stores in America.....AC/DC outsold GNR by over 3 to 1 during the first week of release for each record in this instance.

-Best Buy did a very poor job promoting the record. There was little to no mention of it aside from the company website and circulars, and in-store promotion was minimal.

-The record company didn't promote the record. In the interest of fairness, David Geffen claims that they tried, but Axl Rose made himself completely unavailable for promotion, and didn't return phone calls. Given Rose's typically capricious behavior, this seems like a likely depiction of events.

-The band just took too damn long to finish the record. GNR's closest peers as far as commercially successful hard rock, Metallica, have released four records in the last 12 years, compared to GNR's one. I suspect that many fans just stopped caring.

So, how is Chinese Democracy? Honestly, I think that it's really good, with some reservations. One is that while you can't rush art, 17 years is a pretty unreasonable gap between records.....most bands' careers don't even last that long! Another is that the lyrics don't exactly put to bed the notion that Axl Rose has gone completely off his rocker. The dominant theme of songs on the record involve Rose being wronged/screwed with/been done wrong by unnamed parties. I guess that's all well and good for Axl's self-esteem, but the lyrical focus of the record is pretty narrow in this regard.
That aside, I think Chinese Democracy proves that Axl was the songwriting force to be reckoned with in the band all along. A force that takes an inordinate amount of time to get work out, but a force nonetheless. A common gripe about the record is that it "sounds nothing like Guns N Roses", or that it's "not as good as Appetite". Fair enough, but the argument makes the assumption that Appetite For Destruction could have been replicated. I say that it couldn't have; it was lightning in a bottle, and we may never see a greater rock record released. So even if the original lineup had managed to stay together, it still would have been slightly downhill. The new record continues the expanded scope of the Illusions records, with an industrial rock slant reminiscent of late 90's bands like NIN and Stabbing Westward. "Better", one of the best songs on the record, is upbeat pop with heavy guitars that sounds like something Third Eye Blind would have recorded. Another, "Sorry", is a dark ballad that would sound right at home on some on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of The Moon or The Wall. Chinese Democracy may not sound exactly like the GNR that people knew and loved, but it is definitely worthy. It's just too bad that I such diminished expectations for a follow-up, or tour. And can anybody blame me, after waiting 17 years for a record?


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