7. Guns N Roses - Welcome to the Jungle

1987 was a great year for music.  There were tons of albums released that were pretty amazing.  Granted, 1987 was also the year I graduated from high school, and everybody thinks that the best music came out their senior year of high school.  But look at this list.
  • U2 - The Joshua Tree
  • Prince - Sign O the Times
  • REM - Document
  • INXS - Kick
  • Def Leppard - Hysteria
  • Jane's Addiction - Jane's Addiction (Live 1st Album)
  • Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses
  • Marillion - Clutching at Straws
  • George Michael - Faith
  • The Cure - Kiss Me Kiss Me Kiss Me
  • Sting - Nothing Like the Sun
  • Michael Jackson - Bad
 Every one of these albums, released in 1987, were huge commercial and critical successes.  Many of them were follow ups to other fantastic albums (i.e. Bad, Hysteria, Sign o the Times, Joshua Tree), while others were brilliant debuts (Faith, Jane's Addiction).  But there's one album that, with credit to the brilliance of The Joshua Tree, changed the way I looked at music forever.  That album was Appetite for Destruction, by Guns N Roses.

I happened upon the album completely by accident.  In August of 1987, I was shopping at my favorite record store, Moby Disc, going through the used records (this was before CDs were huge).  I came across an album that had cover art that blew me away.

It scared me a bit, sickened me a bit more, but also intrigued me.  It was a promo copy of the album, complete with sticker saying that it was not to be resold (oops, Moby Disc.).  I held it up and asked the guy behind the counter, "What the hell is this?"  Immediately, he looked excited, came running out from behind the counter (he and I were the only ones in the store at 11am - no school since it was summer), grabbed the sleeve out of the jacket and ran back behind the counter, saying, "Oh man, you've got to hear this.  It's this new band - Guns N Roses.  This album kicks some serious ass.  Serious ass," he repeated, giving the album that record store guy double stamp of approval.  After a few pops and hisses from the needle, I heard the introduction of "Welcome to the Jungle" for the first time.*

With Slash's cool echo guitar intro, reminding me of something The Edge might do if he had a huge ax to grind, the song starts and just doesn't stop.  With the spoken line "Oh my God!", it becomes clear that this wasn't your normal "havin' a great time, gettin' drunk, gettin' laid" attitude that was so prevalent to Guns N Roses hard rock contemporaries.  Bon Jovi, Poison, Ratt, Def Leppard - they weren't the deepest of bands.  "Welcome to the Jungle" is not about having a good time.  It's about surviving in the urban jungle of Los Angeles, circa 1986, and that survival was not guaranteed. 

Lead singer Axl Rose then lets loose one of the greatest screams in the history of rock & roll.  Starting out low and then soaring higher and louder like a siren, he holds the scream for longer than you think a human being can.  Just when you're about to pass out from the scream, he spits out, "Cha!" and the song gets even more aggressive.  Slash and co-guitarist Izzy Stradlin do a great job of playing almost matching guitar riffs in each ear, giving the song a cool alternative to the overdubbed opulence of other metal bands.  They both play the main guitar line, but each punctuates sections with little adlibs and tweaks to add their own personality.  Listening with speakers you really don't appreciate the technical wizardry of both guitar players.  Slash gets most of the press, but it's the two of them together, simultaneously rockin' out and bluesin' out that really gives the guitar work in so many Guns N Roses its fuzzed out, dirty complexity.

And I haven't even gotten to Axl's voice yet.  Sure the scream was an attention getter, and I'm a big fan of the spat out "Cha" type vocals with their percussive pop, but when he actually starts to sing, you become aware that this isn't your run of the mill vocalist.  His voice is so pitched and nasal that you might think that's it's a joke at first, but the snarling anger that comes with his vocal melodies quickly convinces you that he's trying to do something that hasn't been done before.  And he's succeeding.  The story he's telling is dark and dingy, and he's giving it vocals to match.

The lyrics talk about the streets of L.A. in a way that reminds me of Curtis Mayfield's "Pusherman," but with an even darker tinge.

Welcome to the jungle
It gets worse here everyday
Ya learn ta live like an animal
In the jungle where we play
If you got a hunger for what you see
You'll take it eventually
You can have anything you want

But you better not take it from me

All of the lyrics show the dark side of the get high, get laid, get paid mentality that had been glamorized in countless songs before "Welcome to the Jungle."  They don't talk about swimming against the stream, they talk about being stuck under the stream, panic growing as you realized that you're about to drown - and no one will even notice.  The desperation and realism of the lyrics captured a vision of the streets that came across as authentic, rather than contrived. 

Behind all of its anger and that voice of Axl's, the actual melody of the song is rooted in a more traditional pop formula than the rest of the song.  But since Axl sings it the way he does, they never get the credit for putting together a catch kick ass rock song that you keep wanting to listen to.  Drummer Steven Adler gets more focus in the mix than most drummers, and he doesn't waste it.  Bassist Duff McKagan slithers through the entire song, weaving his bass line all over the place, playing a more complex bass line than you normally get in a hard rock song.  It's when the song breaks down into the bridge that Adler and McKagan get to show what they're made of. Adler weaves a complex rhythm, complete with cowbell and maracas while McKagan just tears loose with a great bass riff.  They keep it going until the song rips apart one more time as the song enters the death throes.  Axl sounds the alarm -

You know where you are?
You're in the jungle baby.
You're gonna die!

Throughout the choruses, Axl breathes new life into the traditional "sha na na"s of the do wop generation and assaults you, bringing you to your sha na na na na na na na knees.  And when he snarls, "I wanna watch you bleed," you believe him.  From start to finish, you realize that there's no happy ending at the end of this fairy tale.  Hopes and dreams are obliterated, leaving no evidence that they ever existed in the first place.  The streets of Hollywood are going to tear you to pieces.  And no one will even notice.

"Welcome to the Jungle" kicks off one of the greatest debut albums in the history of rock & roll, if not the greatest.  It's relentless in its assault on your ears - from the wail of Axl's vocals to the gunshot snare drums, with the guitars screeching and tweaking constantly, keeping you off balance.  Afterwords you need to sit down and rest for a bit.  For not moving a muscle, you're exhausted.  And that's the kind of song that belongs near the top of a list like this.  And that's why it's here at #7. 

Job well done, boys.  I'm gonna go listen to it for the eleventh time in the last two hours.  I just can't help myself.  But I guess that's the point, now isn't it?

 * After hearing "Welcome to the Jungle" for the first time in its entirety, I was sold.  "Yeah, I'll have to get that one," I said.  But instead of buying the one with the artwork, which was $7.99, he pointed out that they had a generic label promo with no artwork at all for $5.99.  Being just out of high school, I saved the two bucks and took the generic promo home.  I still enjoyed it, but the old me knows that the other promo with the banned artwork has sold for as much as $200 on Ebay.  Oh well....

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