In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
The first #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 was about Don Everly. When she was a Los Angeles teenager, Sharon Sheeley had a brief affair with Don Everly, who was one half of the Everly Brothers, a past Number Ones artist. Everly was only three years older than Sheeley, but he was married at the time. (People grew up quick in the ’50s.) The affair ended badly, and Sheeley wrote “Poor Little Fool” about her time with Everly. Sheeley then convinced Ricky Nelson to record the song. In August of 1958, when Billboard compiled its three existing singles charts into the Hot 100, “Poor Little Fool” happened to be the #1 song in America.
Almost exactly 30 years later, the #1 song in America was about Don Everly’s daughter. In 1988, more than a year after Guns N’ Roses released their debut album Appetite For Destruction, the LA band scored their one and only #1 hit with “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” a song inspired by Axl Rose’s relationship with Erin Everly. For the song’s lyrics, Axl used a poem he’d written about how Erin’s hair reminded him of a warm, safe place where as a child he’d lie-ee-eye and pray for the thunder and the rain to quietly pass him by-ee-eye. Maybe that’s some sort of cosmic loop closing, or maybe the Everly family just had a way of inspiring pop songs. (It would’ve been funny if the song had been called “Sweet Child O’ Don Everly’s,” but it probably wouldn’t have reached #1.)
Erin Everly met Axl Rose at a party in 1986, around the same time his band signed with Geffen for $75,000. Guns N’ Roses blew through their advance quickly, and the whole band was still living in a dilapidated one-bedroom apartment together. For a while, Erin would take care of Axl financially. In the ridiculously cool and casual “Sweet Child O’ Mine” video, all the girlfriends of the band members appear; Erin is the one with the dark hair and the video camera. Eventually, in 1990, Erin and Axl got married at a Las Vegas chapel. Axl filed for divorce less than a month later, and the marriage quickly got annulled. A few years later, Erin sued Axl for physical and emotional abuse. Axl settled.
In the context of Appetite For Destruction, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is a moment of great warmth and tenderness. Through the rest of the album, Guns N’ Roses depicted themselves as drooling and hungry young street hyenas who would fuck a hole in a brick wall and who treated women as a means to an end. (The worst line on “It’s So Easy” — “Turn around, bitch, I got a use for you” — is probably the most infamous example.) But on “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” Axl is a lost little kid, and he only feels any sense of peace or refuge when he’s with Erin. That’s the dichotomy of Axl Rose, a notoriously dangerous and self-destructive rock ‘n’ roll wildman who sang with a searing, overwhelming vulnerability. “Sweet Child O’ Mine” isn’t exactly a power ballad, but it’s the moment that Axl Rose allowed his whole image to crack. That’s why it remains Guns N’ Roses biggest song, and probably their best.
There’s a common perception that Guns N’ Roses were the outliers on the Los Angeles glam-metal scene, that they were the band who pierced through all the hair and the makeup and who brought the realness. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Guns N’ Roses definitely radiated danger, and they were easily the best of those Sunset Strip bands. GN’R weren’t too interested in shredding or prancing or pouting, and they seemed more dialed into Stonesian blues-slither than any of the bands that were still trying to be Van Halen. By the time the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” single came out, some of them had even stopped floofing up their hair.
But Guns N’ Roses played all the same clubs as every other band on that scene. Tracii Guns, of LA Guns, was Guns N’ Roses’ original guitarist, and gave the band half of its name. Before joining GN’R, Slash had tried out for Poison, just barely losing the lead-guitarist spot to CC DeVille. GN’R were friends with Faster Pussycat. Guns N’ Roses’ whole cocky-young-predator pose wasn’t terribly different from what those other bands were doing, even if they drew more directly from the classic rock and punk influences that had always existed in glam metal. They were part of that world, and their music really just shows how good the music from that world could be. (LA Guns’ highest-charting single, 1989’s “The Ballad Of Jayne,” peaked at #33. Faster Pussycat’s highest-charting single, 1989’s “House Of Pain,” peaked at #28. Poison will eventually appear in this column.)
William Bailey came from a fucked-up and abusive and repressively Christian family in Lafayette, Indiana. (When Bailey was born, the #1 song in America was Joey Dee And The Starliters’ “Peppermint Twist – Part 1.”) Bailey was a troubled kid who loved rock ‘n’ roll, and he and his best friend Jeff Isbell split town in the early ’80s, moving to Los Angeles. There, Bailey became W. Axl Rose, and Isbell became Izzy Stradlin.
Axl and Izzy formed a short-lived band called Hollywood Rose, and then Axl spent some time singing for LA Guns. When LA Guns’ manager demanded that the band fire Rose, Tracii Guns just started a new band with him. That was Guns N’ Roses. In their time on the LA club circuit, Guns N’ Roses went through a bunch of different musicians before coalescing into their classic five-piece lineup. Soon afterward, they landed their Geffen deal and recorded Appetite with Mike Clink, a producer who’d worked with the Canadian band Triumph.
Appetite came out in July of 1987, and GN’R’s first two singles, “It’s So Easy” and “Welcome To The Jungle,” both flopped. The band wasn’t much of a priority for their label, but thanks to pressure from one Geffen exec, MTV added the “Welcome To The Jungle” video to its late-night rotation. The video popped, and the band started to gain steam. In April of 1988, Appetite went platinum. Then the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” single came out, and the band went straight into the stratosphere.
Slash famously came up with the “Sweet Child” riff while fucking around during a jam session at the band’s house on the Strip. The rest of the band told him to play it again, and they built a groove around it. Axl, listening from upstairs, used that poem he’d written about his girlfriend and fit it to the song. For years, Slash claimed to hate “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” The song, he thought, went against the sound that the band had established for themselves. He’s right, and that’s part of what makes “Sweet Child” so magical. The cold-sweat boogie-punk attack that Guns N’ Roses deployed on Appetite For Destruction was insanely powerful, and yet “Sweet Child” makes the whole thing work even better. It adds dimension, character, majesty.
There are certain songs that just seem impossible to me, songs that I can’t believe human beings just sat down and wrote, and “Sweet Child” is one of them. Everything about the song works. If you listen on headphones and just focus on Duff McKagan’s bass playing, for instance, you’ll hear the man executing some beautifully rubbery James Jamerson-style moves — subtle melodic and rhythmic choices that help build the song in ways that you might not consciously perceive. Izzy Stradlin’s clean guitar strums add to the song’s folksy grace. Steven Adler’s drums move, and the band could never find the same strut once they kicked him out. That riff might’ve been an accident for Slash, but it’s a thing of beauty.
Just as much as the riff, though, Slash’s “Sweet Child” guitar solo has inscribed itself on my brain. Slash is easily my favorite metal-adjacent guitarist of all time. On that Sunset Strip scene, Slash is the one who never got diddly and pyrotechnic with it, the one who understood how a solo could help build a song melodically. On the “Sweet Child” solo, Slash uses his wah-wah pedal to make his guitar sound like Axl Rose’s voice — an injured-cat howl that’s equal parts ferocious and mournful.
Axl’s “Sweet Child O’ Mine” lyrics are simple, but they’re simple in that oddly profound way. Guns N’ Roses were a horny band, but “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is not a horny song. When he describes Erin Everly, Axl never talks about how she looks. It’s how she makes him feel. She makes him think of a time when he was young and innocent and happy. Now and then, when he sees her face, it takes him away to that special place, and if he stares too long, he’d probably break down and cry.
The girl in the song sends Axl. She takes him away. To him, she’s the sky, the warm and safe place far from the muck and grime of his earthly existence. But it’s not enough. When he’s deep in his zoned-out rhapsody, Axl comes crashing back to earth. He loves this person, but where do they go now? He asks the question again and again on the song-closing breakdown. He never figures out the answer.
On “Sweet Child,” Axl’s voice is a howling rasp, but it’s fragile, seconds away from breaking. Axl is one of the all-time great rock howlers, an emotive whirlwind who sounds freaked-out even when he’s playing tough. Axl’s vulnerability is one of the secret weapons of Guns N’ Roses. Even when he’s painting a picture of himself as a force of demonic decadence, you want to take care of him, to protect him. “Sweet Child” takes that subtext and makes it the text. It’s a perfect song, a tiny miracle.
The “Sweet Child” video is pretty amazing, too. (Director Nigel Dick had already made Tears For Fears’ videos for “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” and “Shout,” and his work will appear in this column a great many more times.) The clip is just the band rehearsing and hanging out with their girlfriends, but they look about as cool as human beings can look. Even in domestic mode, they keep their mystique. Slash pulls off a top hat better than anyone else in recorded history, Abraham Lincoln included. Izzy Stradlin masters the art of the cigarette dangle. Duff McKagan wears a CBGB shirt, and Izzy Stradlin wears a TSOL shirt, thus affirming the punk connection that you could really always hear in Guns N’ Roses’ music. When I was a teenage punk, I took those shirts as evidence that I could continue to like Guns N’ Roses, that I would not be compromising my punkness by keeping those affections intact. (For a minute there, this was a big concern for me.)
When “Sweet Child” hit #1, Guns N’ Roses were on tour as Aerosmith’s opening act. Pretty soon, they were more popular than the headliners. Rolling Stone sent a writer to one of those shows to interview Aerosmith, but in November of that year, the magazine put GN’R on the cover. (Aerosmith will eventually appear in this column.) After “Sweet Child” hit #1, Geffen started pushing “Welcome To The Jungle” again, and the single finally took off, reaching #7. (It’s a 10.) Shortly afterward, “Paradise City,” the simplest and most purely fun single on Appetite, peaked at #5. (It’s a 9.) Appetite kept selling. A year after “Sweet Child O’ Mine” had its two weeks at #1, the LP had moved eight million copies in the US alone. Today, Appetite is 18 times platinum, and it’s the highest-selling debut album in history.
For the rest of their brief and chaotic run, Guns N’ Roses remained a pop-chart force, but they never returned to #1. The band followed Appetite with the 1989 stopgap LP GN’R Lies, the one where Axl managed to get jarringly racist and homophobic in the space of one line. (Axl Rose was a fantastically talented young man who was also an out-of-control asshole. There’s a lot more to be said about his whole thing, but that’s my basic take.) From Lies, the soft acoustic single “Patience” reached #4. (It’s a 10.) In 1991, the band came back with the twin Use Your Illusion albums, and two of the ballads from Use Your Illusion I made the top 10. (“Don’t Cry” peaked at #10, and “November Rain” peaked at #3. Both are 8s.) GN’R haven’t gone top-10 since then, but even when they finally returned with the long-awaited and widely rejected 2008 album Chinese Democracy, the title track still made it to #34.
Guns N’ Roses have had a long history that’s both too convoluted and too widely known for me to get too deep into it here. Instead, I’ll get personal. In July of 1992, I saw GN’R play at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. It was the opening night of the band’s tour with Metallica and Faith No More, and it was my first concert. I was 12, and I’d gotten straight A’s on my 7th-grade finals, so I’d browbeaten my dad until he agreed to take me. My dad did not want to be there, and when Metallica’s set ended and GN’R took another two hours to make it to the stage, he kept saying we should leave. He thought they weren’t going to show up. He thought there’d be a riot. (There was a riot at the Montreal date of that tour, when James Hetfield caught himself on fire and when Axl refused to finish the GN’R set afterwards.)
We’d taken the Metro to the show, and the last train was leaving at midnight — or that’s what my dad said, anyway — so we had to leave the stadium after maybe five songs. I remember hearing “Welcome To The Jungle” starting up when we were halfway across the parking lot, and I was crushed that I wasn’t inside. I did, however, get to see Axl launch into a long and furious rant about the city of St. Louis, the site of the previous Guns N’ Roses riot. Axl began by saying something like: “They told me not to say anything derogatory about St. Louis. Well, St. Louis can suck my dick.” It went on from there. My dad is from St. Louis. He didn’t take it well.
By time time I saw them, Guns N’ Roses were falling apart. Steven Adler and Izzy Stradlin were already out of the band, and the remaining members were dealing with various levels of addiction and with the fact that they simply were not mentally equipped to function as a professional stadium rock band. GN’R managed to release one more album, the slight 1993 covers collection “The Spaghetti Incident?”, before everyone but Axl quit and Axl’s newly recruited band of ringers spent 15 years working on Chinese Democracy, an album I listened to maybe three times. When Guns N’ Roses went into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2012, Axl Rose declined the induction, and almost everyone else from the previous lineups reunited at the induction ceremony without him.
In 2016, Slash and Duff McKagan rejoined Guns N’ Roses. The quasi-reunited band headlined Coachella, and then they toured stadiums around the world. They came onstage on time, and they played sets that left people happy. Nobody rioted. Guns N’ Roses kept doing that, again and again. At one show, Steven Adler rejoined them onstage for a couple of songs. (Izzy Stradlin had played with the band a few times before Slash and Duff rejoined, but he’s never taken part in any further reunions.) The touring kept going for years, right up to the pandemic, and it’ll probably start again before long. At this point, the Guns N’ Roses reunion show has been running for about the same amount of time as the band’s original run in the spotlight. Against all possible odds, all the classic-lineup members of Guns N’ Roses are still alive, and 60% of them are in a professional stadium rock band.
If Guns N’ Roses ever decide to release new music, an idea they’ve publicly toyed with for a while, then it could still be huge. They’re still huge. In 2019, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” became the first music video from the ’80s to rack up a billion views on YouTube. Last year, the band published a children’s book called Sweet Child O’ Mine. Guns N’ Roses really don’t need to release new music. Because of what they’ve already done, they’ll be rich forever.
BONUS BEATS: In 1999, Sheryl Crow contributed a countrified “Sweet Child O’ Mine” cover to the soundtrack of the Adam Sandler movie Big Daddy. She got a lot of shit for her version of the song, but I think it’s pretty. (If we were to rank laid-back “Sweet Child” covers from 1999, though, I’d put the Sheryl Crow version below Luna’s dreamy take on the song.) Here’s Crow’s video for her cover:
(Sheryl Crow’s highest-charting single, 1994’s “All I Wanna Do,” peaked at #2. It’s an 8.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: On “S.C.O.M.,” a track from their 2005 mixtape We Major, the rap-centric Linkin Park side project Fort Minor sampled the riff from “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Juelz Santana, Celph Titled, and Styles Of Beyond’s Ryu all rapped alongside Mike Shinoda. Here it is:
(Fort Minor’s highest-charting single, the 2006 Holly Brook/Jonah Matranga collab “Where’d You Go,” peaked at #4. It’s a 7. Juelz Santana’s highest-charting single as lead artist, 2005’s “There It Go (The Whistle Song),” peaked at #6. It’s a 6. As a guest, Juelz will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the absolutely perfect scene in Adam McKay’s 2008 masterpiece Step Brothers where Adam Scott, Kathryn Hahn, and two extremely smug-looking kids sing “Sweet Child O’ Mine”:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film The Wrestler where Mickey Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” Robinson makes his final ring entrance to “Sweet Child O’ Mine”:
(Something about “Sweet Child O’ Mine” seems to make filmmakers think about what it’s like to accept or even embrace death. In 2016’s Captain Fantastic, there’s an idyllic scene where a whole brood full of hippie kids sings “Sweet Child O’ Mine” while their mother’s body burns on a funeral pyre.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: At a 2015 book event for Duff McKagan in Seattle, McKagan and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic, two bassists whose old bands didn’t think much of one another, performed an instrumental version of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” together. Novoselic played accordion. Here’s that strange spectacle: