Known Johnson

August 18, 2008

Looking back at Use Your Illusion(s)

Filed under: Music — Tom @ 4:54 pm

Yeah, I said it – the two underdogs in the Guns ‘N Roses catalog (we’ll just ignore that Spaghetti Incident altogether, okay?) I came across a discussion of the band this morning, and these were the current topic, and it made me very glad I have the big 160gb Ipod. “Always be prepared,” isn’t that the Boy Scouts motto or something? Join me as I take a winding trip through these albums and the past . . .

The two Illusion albums get a bad rap because they follow a damned solid one-two punch from GnR – debut album Appetite for Destruction is undeniably one of the greatest albums of the 80s and GnR Lies is that little EP that could. And they’re really spotty, to be honest – but there’s also some pretty good stuff among the pair. Use Your Illusion I & II looked bloated in comparison to the tight and vicious Appetite, and they are, but of the two, II is an almost completely solid listen. It’s been a long time since I really sat down and evaluated either, but after spending the day with II, I realize that it’s only a few tracks on this one that flaw it – remove “Get In The Ring” (which is really only marred by Axl’s long, stupid, expletive-riddled rant, which is unfortunately impossible to ignore,) “Shotgun Blues,” “Pretty Tied Up,” and the pointless “My World” and you’ve got a very solid album. The opening quartet of songs alone is pretty incredible.

Illusion I doesn’t fair so well. It’s bogged down by a lot more just plain middling songs. Not bad but not good enough to really stand out, making it really hard to pluck out any real standouts besides the obvious “Don’t Cry,” “November Rain,” the cover of Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die” and the dramatic epic, “Coma.” The rest is merely “okay,” and being the first of the two albums, well, you know what they say about first impressions. The material on II should have been the first disc. You can play them whatever order you want, but most people first listened to these discs in numerical order, perhaps thinking there was a meaning to be derived from listening to them that way. There wasn’t. It did end with the generally better material, however. Illusion I comes across like the b-sides/outtakes album it should have been.

The thing about this whole period is that it really illustrated what happened with the band and hard rock in general. Two albums released on the same day just screamed excess that wasn’t even blinked at back then. Then they went on a tour that did nothing but scream excess – which was hardly blinked at either. I saw ’em, so I should know. Or, really, I saw a bit of ’em. During this tour, Axl pretty much determined when the band took the stage, and he basically didn’t feel like coming on stage unless several hours had passed since the time on the ticket indicated the show would begin. When I saw them, the ticket said, I believe, 7:30. Soundgarden opened the show at something like 9:30, maybe even later (and GnR, minus Axl, came out during one of their songs with naked blow-up dolls, to run around on stage.)

It was after 1 am when the band finally took the stage. It was was winter, it was cold. The venue was crap-ass Compton Terrace which sits on a damned lake, and the wind blows right off the damned lake across the seating area. And I had a really, really nasty cold. I was tired, I felt like shit, I had felt like shit for hours. I had figured I’d be in bed by this time, dammit, but here they were just taking the stage now. After a few songs, I left my friends and went and slept in my truck. I spent much more time waiting for the damned concert than I anything else. It was massively disappointing. It kind of tainted my view of the band for a while, but like my cold and all dumb things, I got over it after a while. It’s the music that matters. Much of it is still pretty good.

Now there’s word that Chinese Democracy really is ready for release and will be one of those single-store exclusives. No matter what, prejudice is going to crush this one. It’ll sell, but it already has a built-in reputation as a joke. Is it likely to be any good? I want to remain open-minded, but it seems unlikely that anything slaved over for so long will truly be anything of note. But you never know – Brian Wilson’s Smile seems to have emerged from its chrysalis pretty unscathed. Then again, Wilson, weird as he always has been, has a better reputation in general than W. Axl Rose. I’m guessing nothing is going to challenge Appetite for Destruction, or even some of the Illusion material, when it comes to Axl’s output.

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