Appetite For Destruction turns 30 today. If you’re a fan of rock music, it doesn’t really matter when you were born — that’s bound to make you feel old, whether you were a teenager in 1987 or whether that album served as a hand-me-down gateway drug 10 or 15 years later. You could look at ‘80s hard rock and hair metal as the bastard child of classic rock, the delinquent and mutated end game, and now its best and most respected poster boys have a debut that’s a full three decades old. “Guns N’ Fuckin’ Roses” doesn’t have quite the same ring when it applies to guys in their 50s sporting a somewhat frightening array of hats. And yet, here we are.
Last night, the semi-reunited Guns N’ Roses played for subscribers of SiriusXM (a GN’R channel launched on the satellite radio service this month) at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. It was the kind of thing that thoroughly underlined their status in some echelon of the classic rock pantheon: a sprawling three hour set that made room for an instrumental cover of “Wish You Were Here” and a “Layla” tease before “November Rain,” an Allman Bros. intro to “Patience,” a “Voodoo Child” tag on “Civil War,” and full readings of the Who’s “The Seeker,” Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” and AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie.” (As of last year, Axl Rose moonlights as AC/DC’s new frontman.) The Kills — another performatively “rock ‘n’ roll” group in a very different context — opened, prompting conversations like, “Wait, who’s the opener?” “I don’t know some indie rock band…”
On some level, Guns N’ Roses’ status is very much solidified — a massively popular band with only a few albums and one of the most “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” stories in rock history at the same time as it’s a dragged out, zig-zagging epic fitting for any of their ‘70s stadium rock forebears. But seeing them in the context of Appetite’s 30th birthday highlights the inescapably lost quality of their identity now. They’re caught in some nexus between the bloated final act of classic rock in the late ‘70s up against the rise of punk, and then on the other side the rise of Alt Nation and a new era of now-classic rock, with a much different set of standards and proprieties that made Guns N’ Roses seem like dinosaurs when they were just about 30 years old.
Even when if you set aside how poorly some of this has aged — their casual misogyny, Axl being a complete asshole, the general image of a belligerently wasted and debaucherous young group now scanning completely illegibly — you have to buy into it if you’re going to enjoy Guns N’ Roses in 2017. I mean, this is a band with people named Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Slash, and Dizzy Reed. Again, there are a lot of hats — and leather, and long solos, and “rock ‘n’ roll swagger.” There’s a quality to the whole thing that, essentially, feels like the sort of fever dream someone would concoct for either a very ham-fisted fiction about a stratospherically successful (and thus free to be very dumb) rock band, or a Spinal Tap-esque parody.
On the flipside, that’s precisely what always made them so cool. That’s precisely what made them one of the last real rock ‘n’ roll demigods that suburban kids around the country looked at and thought, “That’s the life.” Three decades on, their power might seem alien in our current musical landscape, but it is far from diminished.
Technicalities first: somehow blatantly defying a wildly self-destructive past, Axl sounds pretty great live these days, especially considering he’s now in his mid-50s and some of these songs require screams and actual range. And even though it isn’t the full classic lineup, it’s something else to see Axl flanked by Duff’s punk-leaning sneer and Slash as the still-vigorous guitarist, duckwalks and everything. There are still a few anonymous figures hanging out onstage, but it’s better than Axl’s very obvious attempt to replace Slash with his cartoonish doppelgänger Buckethead.
As for that three hour setlist, it afforded the group time to play just about everything you’d want to hear. (And a few things you could probably do without, but who would expect rigorous self-editing from the crew behind the dual Use Your Illusion release, let alone now that they stand as one of the last torchbearers for an ancient hard rock brand of excess.) The setlist was pretty much the same as at any given recent show, with no alteration for or acknowledgment of the fact that it was the eve of their first album’s 30th anniversary. Axl barely said anything, for that matter, aside from occasionally shouting out a band member or thanking the crowd.
The latter part worked in favor of the show, though: This was a no-nonsense, powerhouse set despite its rambling length deep into the night. They played the exact Chinese Democracy songs you’d want to hear — “Better” is a monster live — and selected a good mix of hits and deep cuts from the Use Your Illusion albums, with “You Could Be Mine” a particular burner live, “Estranged” the still-more-interesting cousin to “November Rain,” and the welcome surprise of “Coma.”
Then, of course, there was the Appetite material — the stuff where most of us first fell in love with them, the stuff that had a heightened impact given the timing. Thirty years later, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” make for a perfect, decadent one-two punch of an opening. Thirty years later, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is still the earnest salve to its more caustic siblings. Thirty years later, “Rocket Queen” remains one of their best songs, a blend of serpentine groove and genuine beauty. Thirty years later, “Welcome To The Jungle” is as foreboding and exhilarating and infectious as ever, deserving a spot amongst the greatest classic rock songs.
By the time they finally finished playing at 1:30 AM, the weight of those 30 years could be felt in other ways, too. There was something out of time about the whole thing, seeing one of the most monolithic stadium rock bands ever in a tiny-ish theater, all these years removed from their heyday, their relevance. Out of any of the revivals and retro trends from the past 10 or 15 years, there’s almost nothing major that you could point to and find actual sonic influence from Guns N’ Roses or their peers. Without being as vaunted as their ‘60s or ‘70s predecessors, Guns N’ Roses have found themselves in a similar place, exhuming the now increasingly distant past night to night.
But none of that really matters, because when you see them play these songs live, it has the effect it’s supposed to. It makes you feel like a wannabe rebellious teen all over again. It makes you fall back in love with their extreme depiction of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism from the final days of that brand of rock ‘n’ roll hedonism. It makes you remember that this was a band formed of lost kids who somehow conquered the world and for a time were the biggest thing anywhere and, song to song, it makes you remember exactly why.