You can say what you will about Guns N’ Roses, but you can’t fault them for being clever when it counted. Whereas most acts, when tempted with the idea of tackling a double album (it happens way more than it should, btw) would release the album as one complete package, Guns N’ Roses went about it another way. For all intents and purposes, the Use Your Illusion albums are a package deal, a double album. But they’re not my friend! They are two separate releases, meaning that when it was time for them to be released, Guns was able to occupy not one but two spots on the charts.
Genius! Diabolical! Still a lot of songs but whatever, brilliant!
And yes, it is a lot of songs. Use Your Illusion I has 16 songs and Use Your Illusion II contains 14, leaving listeners with a whopping 30 songs to embrace. That’s a lot, even in September of 1991 when both albums were released and we presumably had more time on our hands and were more inclined to listen to an album from start to finish. Now, 30 years later, it’s safe to say that while the legend of both albums lives on, all of the songs involved might not. It’s far more realistic to say that of the 30 tunes, less than half are out in the streets today, not counting “November Rain,” which seemingly will always have a home on your local classic rock radio station.
By my count and besides the aforementioned “November Rain,” there are five songs from the two albums that have endured throughout the three decades since their release.
1991 was a long time ago and I can back that up with facts. But I can also prove it by not totally remembering much from that time. I remember fragments, bits and pieces here and there. And as the years have gone on, it’s become interesting to me what some of the random stuff I remember from that time is. Like for instance, I remember really liking “Civil War.” I thought that the song rocked and it had a featured role in several mixtapes I made at the time back in the day. It’s such an interesting song, whether looking at it lyrically or musically, as it trudges its way through various stages of big-time, stadium rock largesse. The band makes the most of the seven-plus minute running time and it’s fun to get lost amidst the organized chaos of the song as there are several times where you can forget that you’re still listening to it.
“You Could Be Mine”
As long as there are open roads, this song will have a purpose. As long as cars have speakers, this song will have a purpose. As long as mechanics have shitty old radios hanging next to a garage door, this song will have a purpose. Literally every single thing about this song rocks. The opening rocks. The drums rock. Duff McKagan’s rumbling bass line rocks. Slash’s guitar rocks. Every single thing rocks and be sure to catch my upcoming TEDtalk about why this might be the perfect effin’ rock song.
“Live And Let Die”
On the one hand, it doesn’t seem right that one of these five songs is a cover song but on the other hand, the band’s cover of the Wings classic is amazing and demands our attention and respect. Doing a studio version of a cover can really be dicey business and there are plenty more misses than hits along the road of rock history. It’s a tricky needle to thread because you want to pay homage to the original and do it justice but there’s also the dangerous impulse to make the song your own. The is sometimes a classic though and perhaps making it your own is a big old mistake. More often than not it is. But Guns’ take on “Live and Let Die” might be a textbook example of how to successfully cover a song because they achieve both of the goals in that they give love to the original and in a way, make it their own. It sounds like a Guns’ song. Correction: it sounds like a great Guns’ song. And “Live and Let Die” was already a great song. In my business, we have a word for that.
“Right Next Door To Hell”
Listen, you drop two albums on the same day with 30 songs between them, a handful of tunes are going to be overlooked. It’s inevitable especially when a monster song like “November Rain” is involved. The song casts a hell of a shadow. But let’s not let us sleep on the opening track of Use Your Illusion, another ball-busting rocker that features McKagan’s bass leading the way before the guitars blow the doors off the track. With two albums that feature a pretty legit collection of epic anthems and monster truck rockers, it’s nice to give some love to a song like “Right Next Door To Hell,” which has the feel of early Guns mixed with the lofty ambitions of Use Your Illusion era Guns.
Speaking of things being overlooked, the final installment of a trilogy tends to get the short end of the stick. In this case, it’s “Estranged,” which was part three of the Use Your Illusion trilogy, following “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain.” The song is buried on Use Your Illusion II, showing up towards the end, but I do kind of feel like of the three songs in the trilogy, it might be the most interesting one and no, I’m not even talking about the video. Although I could be talking about the video because is like, Axl dead at one point and what’s up with the dolphins? Do you think he did his own stunts? I bet he did. Or maybe not. No, maybe he did. 1991 Axl was a lunatic and so why wouldn’t he jump off a tanker into the ocean and wait, why was he jumping off a tanker? Whatever, “Estranged” is just a cool song. “November Rain” is the anthem and “Don’t Cry” tugs at the emotions but “Estranged” gets you thinking, even if it just thinking about what’s with the dolphins.
I think the dolphins symbolize freedom, but I’m just spit-ballin’ here.