The Decent Album Hidden within Use Your Illusion I-II

This month is the 25th anniversary of the release of Use Your Illusion I/II, the Guns and Roses double album widely considered to be the perfect illustration of what happens when a rock band gets so famous that no one will prevent them from making terrible decisions. The albums were bloated, overlong, full of clunkers, heavily produced, and oddly reminiscent of 70s arena rock. Reviewers were confused; although they received general praise, just about every single one has a line that starts something like “unlike the hard-charging Appetite for Destruction…” and ends up apologizing for “My World.” The albums sold like mad, but no one prefers them to their predecessor. There exists a genre of reviews and remembrances that attempts to rehabilitate the two albums as “not that bad” or “rather well orchestrated,” but it is forced.[1] Forget individual songs—as albums, and especially as a double album, Use Your Illusion I/II is a pompous mess.

Growing up in the 1980s in Central PA, most everyone I knew was a fan of GNR’s Appetite for Destruction, and just about everyone was really excited about the release of their sophomore album. I count myself an early GNR fan, and distinctly remember where I was the first time I heard “It’s So Easy“.[2] I also remember going right out to the local Boscov’s when UYI1/2 were released, and with only enough money to buy one, grabbing a UYI1 CD and heading straight home to listen to it on my own, new, CD-equipped boombox. I had hoped for more of Izzy Stradlin’s grimy mix of hair metal and LA punk, full of splashy cymbals and power chords arranged over minor thirds, I got Axl Rose trying to pull off Meatloaf or Elton John.[3] I quickly put down UYI1 in favor of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the Black Album, both released right around then, and just as heavily produced too, but much better.[4] I never even bought UYI2 until college, when I thought I might as well complete the pair, and have never purchased any GNR music since.

I have always wondered “what might have been” with the Use Your Illusion fiasco. What would have happened had GNR’s handlers forced them to throw out the waste on the two albums, think hard about the album’s structure, and put together something coherent? What if, in an alternate universe, Use Your Illusion was just one album? Could it have been better?

The rules underlying this exercise are simple: make a new album where

  1. Each track has to be a song that was actually included on one of the two albums.[5]
  2. The total album length has to be realistic.

The point of this is not to imagine GNR writing a different album, but could they have done this particular album better. I would like to add an additional rule that eliminates some of the songs with the more openly crass and misogynistic lyrics, but it happens to be the case that songs like “Back off Bitch” and “Get in the Ring” have aged particularly poorly (never good to begin with, they sound downright silly now), so the rule is superfluous. And there’s no getting around the fact that such a rule was not applied to Appetite.

Another stipulation—not a rule, just a condition—is that songs featuring audible guest appearances by other vocalists are penalized. This is otherwise known as the “Alice Cooper Penalty.” It is not applied to “Don’t Cry” because no one can hear Shannon Hoon singing on it.

Use Your Illusion Track Listing

SIDE 1
1. “Right Next Door to Hell” (3:02)
2. “Dust N’ Bones” (4:58)
3. “Civil War” (7:42)
4. “Double Talkin’ Jive” (3:24)
5. “Pretty Tied Up” (4:48)
6. “Dead Horse” (4:17)

SIDE 2
7. “You Could Be Mine” (5:43)
8. “Don’t Cry” (4:44)
9. “November Rain” (8:57)
10. “Bad Obsession” (5:28)
11. “Garden of Eden” (2:41)
12. “Estranged” (9:23)

8 out of the 12 songs are from Use Your Illusion I, which is appropriate because this is the album that had more Izzy Stradlin’ on it. Songs from Use Your Illusion II written by Izzy are more likely to appear than songs not written by Izzy. It is also the case, however, that Izzy is responsible for some clunkers on UYI1 that didn’t make it. The entire album clocks in at 65:07, 10 minutes shorter than either of the overlong original albums. It even allows for a ballad-y second side which might be likened to GNR attempting to do a side-two-of-Abbey-Road-meets-Bat-out-of-Hell.

I will freely admit that this album is still not a particularly great album. However, if this were all that had been released in September 1991, we would not be remembering it as an indulgent, overblown mess. We would remember it as a major label sophomore effort by a band evolving in sound, comparable to, say, In Utero, but not, say, Pinkerton.

NOTES

[1] The argument, for example, that “Don’t Damn Me” is a good song is ridiculous on its face. Axl admits it that the song sucks in the song itself.
[2] Sitting on my grandmother’s front porch in North Carolina, probably early 1988, with my older cousin playing the tape on her boombox.
[3] HT to AB for the metaphor.
[4] Even 12-year old me could tell that Nevermind was something different—and great—altogether.
[5] I consider this rule to be somewhat artificial, considering that the actually-existing albums contained covers of songs by Wings and Bob Dylan, and UYI2 contains a cover of a song on UYI1. In a preliminary version of this list I replaced “Pretty Tied Up” with “Monkey Business,” which I have always believed would be have been a great GNR cover song. However, the prominent cowbell means that it is more a Steven Adler track than a Matt Sorum track, so ultimately this does not make the cut.

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