How do you follow up one of the greatest debut albums of all time? Create the same type of album or turn everything up a notch? Take some risks and hope everything turns out well? This is the perhaps unenviable position US rockers Guns N’ Roses found themselves in after their first full length album, Appetite For Destruction, was eventually recognised as something of a classic. The band’s mixture of The Rolling Stones or Aerosmith-style sexy, swaggering rock n’ roll, combined with the raw, gritty in-your-face attitude and approach of UK punks the Sex Pistols, saw Guns N’ Roses grow in popularity, and once Appetite For Destruction‘s reputation as a kick-ass rock album, as well as the band’s reputation as a solid live act got out there, they were tipped to become one of biggest and best in the world.
Needless to say, anticipation for the next album was high. and on September 17th 1991 Guns N’ Roses released not one, but two albums. A double album split into two parts, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 was an ambitious project to say the least, with a few songs clocking in around the ten minute mark, mixing with the more quickfire type of songs that the band had become known for. They even threw in a couple of covers that might have been a surprise to a lot of people, but that ultimately Guns N’ Roses made their own.
Starting off with Duff McKagan’s bass-led intro of ‘Right Next Door To Hell’, once the guitars and the rest of the band kick in along with vocalist Axl Rose’s fast paced delivery you’re already thinking this could be a solid follow-up. The song itself isn’t brilliant, nowhere near the legendary opening Appetite to Destruction had in ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ but it does its job in letting you know that you’re in for bumpy but ultimately rewarding rock n’ roll ride. Next up is ‘Dust n’ Bones’, which is possibly one of the most underrated songs on the entire Use Your Illusion set. Playing like one of The Rolling Stones’ great lost songs, this time sung by rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin’ who does a great job, the song sets the listener up nicely for the first cover on the Use Your Illusion, ‘Live and Let Die’.
Written by Paul and Linda McCartney for Paul McCartney’s band, Wings, their version is also the theme song to the 1973 James Bond classic of the same name. Guns N’ Roses, however, completely make the song their own with Slash’s guitar work, Axl Rose’s vocal delivery, and the entire band rocking out, keeping the song as upbeat as the original with a newly infused, beefed-up and exciting sound. Following that is the albums’ first big ballad in ‘Don’t Cry’. Actually one of the band’s first ever songs, written by Izzy Stradlin’ about an ex-girlfriend, it might not be quite as memorable as ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’ but the heartfelt lyrics and Slash’s powerful guitar solo make this an early highlight on what is an exciting and promising opening set of songs.
What follows is a mixed bag of styles, speeds and influences, which at its least is fun, interesting and entertaining if not great and at its best is brilliant and pretty mind-blowing at times. Highlights being, again, another Rolling Stones influenced number in ‘Bad Obsession’, its harmonica intro (courtesy of Hanoi Rocks’ singer Michael Monroe) giving way to a truly brilliant intro that leads into a great slice of pure rock n’ roll from the band. ‘November Rain’ is the other big ballad, and at just under nine minutes it certainly earned the term “epic”.
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This piano-led track, courtesy of Axl Rose on the keys, is up there with the best rock ballads of all time and contains all the heartfelt lyrics, vocals and blistering guitar work you could want as well as a great video to accompany it. ‘The Garden’, featuring rock legend Alice Cooper on vocals, ‘Back Off Bitch’, ‘Don’t Damn Me’, ‘Bad Apples’ (more Rolling Stones vibes with that one) are all hard rockers of the highest order and with the just over ten minute, sprawling epic that is ‘Coma’ ending the album, it seems that Guns N’ Roses (or to be honest, Axl Rose’s) grand ambitions were justified. Sure, not every song is great but the majority of Use Your Illusion 1 is certainly very impressive.
So, what of Use Your Illusion 2? Well fortunately it’s generally accepted that this is the better half of the two, and on subsequent listens and listening to the entire Use Your Illusion set again, 2 is more consistent and actually more enjoyable overall than Use Your Illusion 1. Opening with hit single, ‘Civil War’, featuring a brilliant cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’ and the barnstorming single ‘You Could Be Mine’ which featured on the soundtrack for sci-fi action classic, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, if that wasn’t enough, the likes of ’14 Years’ (another Izzy Stradlin’ sung number), ‘Breakdown’, ‘Pretty Tied Up’, ‘Locomotive’ – featuring one of the best song intros ever courtesy of drummer Matt Sorum – and the guitar heaven that is ‘Estranged’ prove that, again, despite not every song being great – the pointless Alt. Lyrics version of ‘Don’t Cry’ being a case in point – Use Your Illusion 2 is the better album. Overall, Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 is great double set with many more hits than misses by a very talented bunch of musicians that would progress to take on the rock world and win.
What happened after the Use Your Illusion cycle has divided fans the world over with the core of the band leaving, and even after that many line-up changes taking place. Indeed, it took Guns N’ Roses 14 years to release another album proper (1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? being a covers album) in the form of 2008’s mostly poorly received but somewhat underrated, Chinese Democracy. But now, with legendary guitarist Slash and much-loved bassist Duff McKagan back in the band, and with sold out stadium tours aplenty and talk of a new album, the future could still be bright for these once rock n’ roll world beaters.
Use Your Illusion 1 & 2 were released on 17th September 1991.