In retrospect, the much revered “classic” lineup of Guns N’ Roses was together a relatively short time, with the first significant changes in the band coming in the early ’90s, but even with the initial alterations to the group, it was still one helluva ride the band was enjoying after monstrous success of their debut album Appetite for Destruction and the follow-up compilation Lies.
While it could have been easy to capitalize on the early successes and churn out another album quickly, the band instead chose to double down on their work and release an ambitious two-volume collection on Sept. 17, 1991 called Use Your Illusion.
Frontman Axl Rose told Rolling Stone in 1991 that the project was well thought-out and a calculated career move, choosing to challenge themselves to do something special rather than taking the easy road.
“People want something, and they want it as soon as they can get it,” Rose says. “Needy people. And I’m the same way, but I want it to be right — I don’t want it to be half-assed. Since we put out Appetite for Destruction, I’ve watched a lot of bands put out two to four albums, and who cares? They went out, they did a big tour, they were big rock stars for that period of time. That’s what everybody’s used to now — the record companies push that. But I want no part of that. We weren’t just throwing something together to be rock stars. We wanted to put something together that meant everything to us.”
But getting there was no easy task. The band had a tumultuous split with drummer Steven Adler after his hard-partying ways became too much for the band to ignore. Adler would later file suit against the group. Guns N’ Roses also bid adieu to manager Alan Niven amongst other key members of their crew.
Rose stated, “There’s a lot of desire to keep what we have together. I mean, we already lost one guy. Actually, we lost a lot of people. It would’ve been nice to stay with Alan [Niven]. It would’ve been nice to work with certain photographers, certain security, road crew, stagehands…. Whether you’re glad you’re in a situation or not, there’s always a part of you that goes, ‘I wish I could’ve been happy there, just stayed happy somehow.'”
Guns N’ Roses, “You Could Be Mine” — Live at Rock in Rio (1991)
But as one chapter closed, another began. In 1990, keyboardist Dizzy Reed was invited to join the group. And with Adler on the way out, the group needed a new drummer and found their man in Matt Sorum, whom the band had seen drumming with The Cult. “Having a keyboard player in the band was something they talked to me about a long time ago,” Reed stated. “I never really thought it would happen.”
But Reed got the call at just the right time as he was about to be thrown out of his apartment right as he got the invite. As for Sorum, he took over behind the kit for a majority of the songs, though Adler still received credit on the song “Civil War.”
With the new lineup intact, Guns N’ Roses started putting together the disc in 1990, spending nearly a year on the recording. The band made use of numerous studios, including A&M, Record Plant, Studio 56, Image Recording, Conway Studios and Metalworks Recording Studios.
Guns N’ Roses, “Civil War”
Ever the perfectionists, the band also mixed 21 tracks with engineer/producer Bob Clearmountain, but later scrapped the mixes, starting from scratch with Bill Price handling the mixing. But when it came down to it, Guns N’ Roses had set the bar high with their previous work and were intent of maintaining that push for excellence.
“I’ve had a good understanding of where I wanted Guns N’ Roses to go and the things I wanted Guns N’ Roses to achieve musically,” says Rose, “And I can’t say that everybody’s had a grip on that. We’re competing with rock legends, and we’re trying to do the best we can to possibly be honored with a position like that. We want to define ourselves. Appetite was a cornerstone, a place to start. That was like ‘Here’s our land, and we just put a stake in the ground. Now we’re going to build something.'”
Released on Sept. 17, 1991, Use Your Illusion I and II arrived with much fanfare. The second volume opened at No. 1 on the Billboard Album Chart, with the first volume finishing second.
As for the separation of the tracks, Rose told Here Today Gone To Hell, “We didn’t actually take into consideration that people knew more songs on II than I. We thought that ‘Civil War’ and ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door‘ would be old news, rather than people wanting to get them in their hands. We looked at it like the first half of Use Your Illusion I was more similar to the energy on Appetite for Destruction, and would be a lot more fun to skateboard to. We thought of it that way. We thought it would be more successful in the beginning and we’d have to work on II, but actually II took off harder so it gave us the time to work on I and also drive wide and push it.”
Guns N’ Roses, “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” — Live in Tokyo (1992)
He added, “I’d say ‘Civil War,’ ‘Heaven’s Door,’ ‘Breakdown,’ ‘Estranged,’ ‘Locomotive,’ and the second version of ‘Don’t Cry’ are a bit deeper and more mature than some of the songs on the first side of Illusion I. Those are just as important to us, but were more fun and more raw expressions of emotions.”
The first song to arrive came from the Use Your Illusion II album. The propulsive rocker “You Could Be Mine” was used for their soundtrack of the film Terminator 2: Judgment Day after Arnold Schwarzenegger personally invited the band to dinner at his home to negotiate a deal. The song actually had a long history with Guns N’ Roses, with guitarist Slash revealing that the earliest origins of the song dated back to the first pre-production session for Appetite for Destruction.
Other Use Your Illusion II songs to hit included the band’s cover of Bob Dylan‘s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” the power ballad “Yesterdays,” the protest song “Civil War” and the powerful “Estranged.” While most of the Use Your Illusion II songs would not become major radio hits, they did become classics within the Guns N’ Roses catalog.
Guns N’ Roses, “Estranged”
Of “Civil War,” bassist Duff McKagan told Rockline, “Basically, it was a riff that we would do at sound-checks. Axl came up with a couple of lines at the beginning. And… I went in a peace march, when I was a little kid, with my mom. I was like four years old. For Martin Luther King. And that’s when: “Did you wear the black arm band when they shot the man who said: ‘Peace could last forever’? It’s just true-life experiences, really.”
As for “Estranged,” Rose would become particularly attached to the emotion evoked by the track. He told Here Today Gone to Hell, “There’s something really wild, for me, in performing ‘Estranged’ ’cause all of a sudden I realized I don’t want to be sitting at the piano playing this song to keep the energy of the song moving live. I need to be moving around and there’s something about being able to be up there moving around during it that’s actually a present, a gift or something. Being able to dance and rejoice in a song. That came from situations and emotions that were killing me. You know, we pretty much mean everything we say. We don’t put anything down that we’re not willing to stand behind or attempt to stand by for the duration. “Estranged” also has a video that’s part of a key trilogy for the band that also included clips for Use Your Illusion I songs “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain.”
Speaking of Use Your Illusion I, it had more success at radio, with the tracks “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain” and a cover of Paul McCartney‘s “Live and Let Die” all commanding the airwaves. Fans also latched on to such favorites as “Garden of Eden” and “Right Next Door to Hell.”
“Don’t Cry” proved to be one of the band’s biggest hits and a key track in linking the two albums together as different versions of the song appeared on both discs. The Use Your Illusion I track became the hit, with the Use Your Illusion II version offering alternate lyric and a slightly different melody. Also of note on “Don’t Cry” is a backing vocalist who appeared on a number of Use Your Illusion tracks — Shannon Hoon — who would later rise to fame as the vocalist for Blind Melon. Hoon and Rose both hailed from Indiana and relocated to Los Angeles to pursue music and found a common bond in their journey. Hoon also appeared in the video for the song.
“November Rain,” an epic power ballad, climbed all the way to No. 3 on the Billboard 100. It too was a long-in-the-works track, with Tracii Guns revealing that Axl had been working on it as early as 1983.
Guns N’ Roses, “November Rain” Music Video
Guns stated that Rose started the track on piano, adding, “It was the only thing he knew how to play, but it was his. He’d go, ‘Someday this song is gonna be really cool.’ And I’d go, ‘It’s cool now.’ ‘But it’s not done, you know,’ he used to say. And, like, anytime we’d be at a hotel or anywhere, there’d be a piano; he’d just kinda play that music. And I’d go, ‘When are you gonna finish that already, you know?’ And he’d go, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.'” With a killer guitar solo from Slash, orchestral backing and several shifts in tempo, the track would become a classic, well fleshed out from its earliest incarnation.
As for the touring cycle, it took it’s toll on the band. There was the incident in St. Louis when Rose was cited with inciting a riot after going into the crowd after a photographer. There was the ill-fated 1992 tour with Metallica where riots erupted. And during the run, Izzy Stradlin tired of life in the band and eventually exited, with Gilby Clarke eventually joining the group.
Amidst the fame and drive for success, it was a tough road to haul. But as Slash stated in an almost eerie Rolling Stone interview given what was to come, “You know, I love the band fucking with all my heart. I mean, there will be a point when this will all finish, the tour will end, the album will die and I’ll keep jamming with cats that I dig playing with. But then we’ll just go do another record. I don’t think anything’s really gonna break us up. The only thing that ever made it look that way was just our own fucking insecurity. We just flip out, because everything seems to be so much.”
He added, “Sometimes you go, ‘What the fuck is it for?’ Then you try to look where to escape to, and there’s nowhere to go. We’ve been doing it for so long that we really would all feel sort of lost and lonely if it fell apart and we had to go out and do solo records. Because it wouldn’t be Guns. None of us could reproduce that. Axl’s got so much charisma — he’s one of the best singers around. It’s his personality. He can go out and do something. What freaks me out is, if the band falls apart, I’ll never be able to shake the fact that I’m the ex-Guns N’ Roses guitar player. And that’s almost like selling your soul.”
Sadly, Guns N’ Roses would record one more album, the covers disc The Spaghetti Incident, with much of their “classic” core intact. Slash would exit in 1996, McKagan a year later, leaving Rose as the sole original member and a decade-plus process in putting together the Chinese Democracy album amidst numerous lineup changes took the band out of the spotlight for a good part of the latter ’90s and early 2000s.
But during the early ’90s, there weren’t many acts that could touch Guns N’ Roses and the Use Your Illusion albums were an example of a band on top of their game pursuing something special. Both albums would go on to be certified seven times platinum by the RIAA and the wealth of singles from the two discs remain staples in the band’s catalog to this day.