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?

Ramones’ “Ramones”

I’ve been listening to the Ramones’ 1976 self-titled debut album this week for lessons I can learn as a songwriting musician. This album definitely provides a contrast from the modal jazz of last week’s Miles Davis album. I got my introduction to the Ramones through the “Ramones Mania” collection. I liked most of the thirty tracks; However, the songs seemed musically redundant. I mostly wrote them off. When I met my wife 18 years ago, she reintroduced me to her favorite band the Ramones. Thankfully, they had a broader range than I’d originally thought. So, what about their debut album?

Some see punk rock as a rebellion against disco banality and prog rock excesses. Some focus on punk as a revival of rock n roll, from which disco and prog had originated but drifted far away. The Sex Pistols, especially Johnny Rotten, probably leaned more toward the rebellion side. The Ramones were more perhaps more revival. On their debut album, the Ramones music bears elements of their influences like the Ronettes, the Beach Boys, and 1910 Fruitgum Company. The members of the Ramones heard these pop bands on the radio through their childhood. By the mid-70s, they’ve also been influenced by harder music like “Communication Breakdown” by Led Zeppelin. The Ramones brand of punk music strips early rock n roll and pop music down to its basic elements; They create short songs with catchy melodies, simple direct lyrics on adolescent themes, I-IV-V chord progressions, and basic rhythms.

The drummer plays minimalist beats with little to no flourish. The bass further drives the rhythm staying almost constantly on the tonic note of each chord. The guitar, likewise, provides a nonstop barrage of distorted barre chords. These give the music a wash of rock n roll sound, creating a style by opting out of stylistic additives.

The band will emphasize two consecutive beats in some songs, which is a distinctly Ramones rhythmic technique. They achieve this usually through the following. Throughout the rest of the measure (or two), the bass will drive along with constant eighth notes while the guitar is likewise being played with non-stop down-strokes. The snare will hit every 2nd and 4th beat with a kick every 1st and 3rd and maybe a downbeat in-between. To emphasize the two beats, the bass will play quick quarter notes and the guitar will strike then rest on both.  Usually this will be the V and IV chords of the key. The snare will hit on both, accompanied by a cymbal. This pattern gets repeated every two bars.

Joey’s vocal make these songs worth listening to. His melodies are simple, yet catchy. His style incorporates a variety of approaches while always sounding very much like Joey Ramone. They are fed by a desire to mix early rock n roll with a 1970s New York cool. He’s often crooning like Elvis Presley incorporating vibrato and tremolo.  Lines are punctuated with odd rockabilly hiccups and sputters, and occasional spits and snarls. All of these style in the vocals keeps the songs engaging while the rest of the instruments provide a utilitarian background.

The song “Blitzkrieg Bop” opens the album as a perfect introduction. The Ramones “Hey Ho Let’s Go” gets us “revved up and ready to go.” The lyrics “What they want, I don’t know” combined with the earlier lines “They’re piling in the back seat, They’re generating steam heat, Pulsating to the back beat.” sum up a lot of the album. These songs are soaked in a mixture of energetic anger, adolescent apathy, world-weariness, 50s rock n roll mythology, and naïvety. There’s that sense of seeing that the adult world sucks, but we’re not children anymore, so we’re going to have a good time in between.

The mid-album track “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” differs from the rest of the album. This slow song overtly wears more of the Phil Spector inspiration. Johnny Ramone even shows off an ability to play guitar beyond constant downstrokes.  True, it’s still a I-IV-V chord progression, but the Ramones are built on stripped down rock n roll. I also like that this song features one of my favorite instruments, the glockenspiel. However, the mix buries the bells.

These are great rocking songs with the most basic of essentials. All of them work, not in spite of, but because of their simplicity.  These very direct songs get the job done and get out. On the other hand, listening to them several times a day for a full week started to get boring. So, I learned that you can do a lot with very little. I don’t want to say these songs are without substance, but there’s just not enough there to keep them interesting.

Sex Pistols’ “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols”

Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album coverThis past week, I’ve been listening to the Sex Pistols’ 1977 debut (and only) album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” for lessons I can learn to improve my craft as a songwriting musician. Admittedly, that statement isn’t very punk rock and seems antithetical to the idea of the Sex Pistols. I’m not very punk rock either. Still, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) spoke of the importance for musicians to know their craft and the work of others. I do that every week.

The album opens with the sound of troops marching as “Holiday in the Sun” begins. The dirty distorted guitars buzz in, providing a fantastic start to an album. Here comes the first line “Cheap holiday in other people’s misery” during the intro riffs. It hints at the tone of the album and introduces the listener to singer Johnny Rotten’s vocal style. His voice confidently delivers an attitude at turns sardonic, accusatory, witty, disgusted and angry. That single opening line expresses all of that really well before the actual lyrics even start. Most of the lyrics attack an institution of some kind, whether it’s the royal family, classicism, social norms, government, or even the music industry. This album gives voice to the disaffected frothing with disillusionment.

Twenty years ago, I thought it was sounded universal and fresh, now it definitely sounds 1970s and British. It’s the sound of youth, but it’s the youth of today’s youth’s grandparents. I imagine to a younger generation it might even have all the quaintness that “Rock Around the Clock” had to me at their age. Still, the Sex Pistols music is so infused with rebellion that it still carries some sense of danger, however outmoded.

The distinguishing riff of “Holiday in the Sun” follows the Andalusian cadence; This is a descending I5-VII5-VI5-V5 progression; Of course, the V (G5 in this case) provides a perfect return back to the I (C5) so it sounds great to our ears. It’s always been one of my favorites. This solid progression can provide a sense of menace as it does here. The Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run” provides a much less menacing example. A verses repeat a V chord, dropping down to IV for rhythmic emphasis, and the choruses are I-II. This sounds a lot of like  I-IV-V, giving the song a solid rock n roll feel.

The track “Pretty Vacant” has always been one of my favorites. The song opens with the guitar playing a distinctive broken A-chord. Undoubtedly, the opening riff provide some inspiration to Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. A I5-VII5-IV5-I5-VII5-V5 chord progression supports the verses. The choruses follow another descending riff: IV5-IIIb5-I. I notice here playing the chords within the key is not necessarily a conscious concern. As with Nirvana, the Pistols like wrote songs by finding movements of power-chords along the frets that sound good.  Basically, for rock n roll, sometimes you gotta get your head out of the books and your fingers on the guitar.

The closing track “EMI” has also been one of my favorites since I first heard it. Johnny’s catchy vocal delivery instantly makes the song lovable. Plus, who doesn’t love a good middle-finger to the record company track? Well, okay, it could be pretty lame and come across as cry-baby whining that the average listener can’t relate to. I appreciate the audaciousness involved in blatantly naming the company. They lyrics involve too some admonitions regarding pop culture and the music industry for everybody’s ears. That and the song gets strength from its fantastic mixture of anger and fun. One can get a lot of musical miles out strong vocals, a chorused (or is it double-tracked?) overdriven guitar, bass, and drums.

The final song of the Sex Pistols final concert (not counting reunions) was an emotional expression of disappointment and disgust. For an encore they performed a cover of The Stooges’ song.  Appropriately, this song was “No Fun.”  I’ve never heard the original, but I’ve always liked the Pistol’s covers of it. I won’t go into the background stories of the Winterland concert, but suffice it to say Johnny had had enough; He was facing that realization and the last few minutes of that performance were the result.  The Pistols weren’t built to last, but they produced a powerful album during their short existence.