Guns N Roses’ “Appetite for Destruction”

Album cover for Appetite for Destruction

This week, I’ve been listening to Guns N Roses’ debut album “Appetite for Destruction” from 1987. This hard rock/glam metal album is one that I’m already extremely familiar with.

About a year after the album was released, rumors and excitement about the band and their music ran through my fifth grade class. The personality of Guns N Roses fit in perfectly with the our local bad boys. Those were the kids that even at 12 years old were drinking, smoking, working on cars, and getting in trouble with the local sheriff (who also ran the school bus garage). Their lives fascinated me as representations of freedom and excitement.

This band spoke dangerous, lived dangerously, and didn’t give a fuck. They expressed anger, love, loss, and desperation, while maintaining a rock n roll pose. To top it off, they played great rebellious hard music. This was also the year that “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Kokomo” were all over the radio. Bon Jovi and Poisonwere gaining in popularity, but they were safer than Guns N Roses. Motley Crüe had been scaring grandparents with their Satanic imagery and drugged-filled lifestyle for years, but they hadn’t quite cracked into our consciousness like GNR did.

Guns N Roses appropriately kick off the album with song “Welcome to the Jungle.” The song starts with an overdriven descending guitar riff through heavy delay. Then the bass, drums, and a second guitar join. Singer Axl Rose quietly warns, “Oh my god” then launches into a scream that recalls “Careful with that Axe, Eugene” by Pink Floyd. With “Welcome to the Jungle,” gave warning that they were coming with incredible style and bravado. Axl delivers an angry raspy vocal style that mixes elements of Brian Johnson, Alice Cooper, Marc Bolan, and Michael Monroe.

The rhythm guitars drive along combining slightly muted and unmuted picking creating a rhythm that combines the Rock of the Rolling Stones with the funk rhythms of Stevie Wonder. During the bridge, those guitars get used to produce a backwards-falling-into-a-tunnel effect with descending muted picking and scraping string noise. That’s a lot happening rhythmically in just the guitars, panned left and right. Part of what makes Guns N Roses so incredible is Slash’s guitar tone and playing style.

With the opening verse, the lyrics make use of an ABAB rhyme scheme, rhyming “games” with “names” and “need” with “disease”. The third and fourth line both make use of the name “honey” to indicate that the speaker is talking to a woman. In the next verse, he tells her that she is a “very sexy girl.” The speaker offers this young woman help getting established in “the jungle” exchange for sexual favors. The jungle, in this case, is the world of show business, where she can “taste the bright lights” but she “won’t get there for free.”

Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got fun and games
We got everything you want, honey we know the names
We are the people that can find, whatever you may need
If you got the money, honey we got your disease

I read a great literary essay online about “Sweet Child O’ Mine” several years ago by a college professor. This poetic ballad gets away from a lot of the rock n roll bad boy posturing served up in most of their songs. They also make good use of a solid rhyme scheme in the first verse, though the second verse does not follow the same pattern. The first verse is made up of two quatrains (four-line stanzas) with an AABC rhyme scheme, and then the last line of both rhymes (“sky” and “cry”) tying the two together and giving a feeling of completeness to the verse.

The second verse (not shown here) deviates completely going with an ABAB for the first quatrain; the second quatrain of the second verse does not have rhyming lines, though the third line rhymes with the second and fourth lines of the previous quatrain, and the final line rhymes with the fourth line of the first verse’s quatrains. That last line ties things together, even if the structure is different.

She’s got a smile that it seems to me
Reminds me of childhood memories
Where everything was as fresh
As the bright blue sky
Now and then when I see her face
She takes me away to that special place
And if I’d stare too long
I’d probably break down and cry

Of course, the opening riff played on overdriven electric guitar by Slash remains one of the most immediately recognizable. The motif is essentially based on the pentatonic blues scale and though some of the notes change, the rhythmic pattern of high and low notes stays basically the same. It’s an eighth note pattern, with a note on every eighth. The first note is the lowest; The remaining notes follow an up down pattern with a high note on the 2nd, 5th, and 6th notes. This puts the first peak on the up-beat and the other two on the down beat.

While they keep the feel of this song as a more emotion ballad by incorporating acoustic guitars, a slower tempo, and slow strums, they don’t hold back on the rock n roll. There’s still plenty of distorted guitars and overdriven leads; those leads generally play slow, letting notes sustain with minimal bending. The drums still hit hard, but don’t play a major part in the song until the “Where do we go now” outro.

Where do we go, where do we go, where do we go now?

Led Zeppelin’s IV

Led Zepplin 4 album coverI’ve been listening to Led Zeppelin’s untitled fourth album from 1971. Each week I devote to an acclaimed album to learn as a songwriting musician. As with “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd, I grew up hearing this Led Zeppelin album often. I imagine many of us born in the 70s did. Even with all of that exposure, it’s still a great album with surprises.

The fourth track “Stairway to Heaven” pulls together the greatest qualities of the album into one song. As an unfortunate side effect of being one of the greatest songs ever, it has become amazingly overplayed. I sigh with lack of interest when the song starts. My favorite portion of the song starts at after five and a half minutes. First, the guitars signal a transition through a dramatic series of chords sounding like horns. Jimmy Page then provides a fantastic soulful guitar solo. I like that the they did not distort the rhythm guitar to get a rocking sound. They gave it a sense of being big by double-tracking with some strong spring reverb. There, I talked about “Stairway to Heaven” mostly because I’d feel foolish not mentioning it. Seriously, I skipped it many times this week.

Four Sticks” got my attention this time around. I hadn’t given it much attention in the past, so it still had a little sense of novelty. Also, the unusual rhythm of the song intrigued me. Some research revealed that most of the song is in a very unusual 5/8 time, withe some parts in a more common 6/8. I read that the rhythm of the song was so difficult that they almost gave up on recording the song. I hear a few times on the recording that they do slip up as a result. There’s a vaguely middle-eastern feel to the music. This comes from the combination of odd time signature, droning ascending scales, driving percussion, and energetically strummed acoustics. I sometimes find that songs in odd signatures will feel like they drift or ramble, but the 6/8 sections of this song give a sense of journey.

The seventh track “Going to California” is comparable to “Stairway to Heaven” while being much better. I like the collection of acoustic guitars and mandolin creating musical textures through arpeggios. They are panned mostly hard left and right, leaving space in the middle for the bass and vocals. The lyrics are more relatable than the Tolkeinesque-Rumi vagueness that happens on some of the other tracks like “Stairway.” The first verse is a pair of beautifully written narrative couplets. They get the listeners attention immediately through emotional story-telling:

Spent my days with a woman unkind
Smoked my stuff and drank all my wine.
Made up my mind to make a new start
Going To California with an aching in my heart.

Speaking of Tolkein, my other favorite track is “Misty Mountain Hop.” There’s also something unique about the rhythm of this song. The main riff of the song, which is played on both guitar and electric piano, actually starts an 8th note before the first beat of each measure and least for a full quarter. This song provides an a great example of what I first think of as the Led Zeppelin sound. There’s big loud drums, a heavy bass bottom, a blues-inspired hard grooving guitar riff, and Plant’s high-pitched vocals. The narrative lyrics describe a situation, a certain place and time, written with an ear to both blues and high fantasy balladry.

So I’ve learned a bit about the possibilities of mixing time signatures in a song. Their use of mysticism and fantasy elements is most enjoyable for me for telling real-world narrative. In addition, the way that they double-up on instruments to strengthen a riff is very effective. And you can’t deny the power of big drums.