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Use Your Illusion I

30 years on from the its release, revisit our review of the first half of an ambitious two-record release from one of rock’s most celebrated outfits.

Let’s get something straight: Axl Rose has a machine-gun mouth, and he’ll probably never live down that ugly “immigrants and faggots” line in “One in a Million.” But Rose does not discriminate. He’s pissed off at everybody, and on Use Your Illusion I — a sixteen-song tour de spleen so physically assaultive, verbally incendiary and at times downright screwy that it’s hard to believe there’s a sister disc out there just like it — Guns n’ Roses fire on all comers and take no prisoners.

Women get it particularly hard. “I call my mother/She’s just a cunt now,” Rose barks in the wrecking-ball boogie “Bad Obsession.” The title “Back Off Bitch” speaks for itself; steaming guitars, killer chorus, shame about the words. Music-biz “kiss-ass sycophants” get their just desserts in “Garden of Eden,” along with organized religion and the weasels who hold elected office. For all-purpose fuck-you fun, there’s “Perfect Crime” (“Motherfucker just let me be”) and guitarist Izzy Stradlin’s bulldozing bagman blues “Double Talkin’ Jive” (“Get the money, mother-fucker/’Cause I got no more patience”). Like Rose sings in Illusion I‘s sole cover, a so-so version of “Live and Let Die” that just sounds like Wings on steroids, “When ya got a job to do, ya got to do it well/You gotta give the other fella hell.” If nothing else, I is a bumper crop of fuzz-fueled invective and pump-action verse, a thousand points of spite.

If it was just down to riffs, hooks and body-slam sonics, loving Use Your Illusion I (by itself the equivalent of a double LP) would be no problem. Imagine Exile on Main Street‘s epic grunge, the shotgun eclecticism of the Beatles’ White Album and the lunatic pagan sport of Alice Cooper’s Love It to Death and Killer albums (Alice himself pops up on one track), all whipped together with the junkyard grace of Rocks-era Aerosmith. That breathless Exile feeling is especially ripe on rockers like “Right Next Door to Hell” and “Perfect Crime,” in which you can barely make sense of Rose’s rapid-fire yelp over the molten guitar soup of Slash and Stradlin. “Dust n’ Bones,” sung by Stradlin, is grim n’ greasy, feral guitars and funeral-parlor keys echoing Izzy’s shorthand yarn of sex and psychosis out on Highway 666.

There are backfires. The ballad “Don’t Cry,” a relic of the Gunners’ L.A. club days, is too sweet and pleading; Rose is more convincing busting chops. Slash’s classical-guitar break at the end of “Double Talkin’ Jive” comes out of nowhere and should have stayed there. But “November Rain,” overlong at almost nine minutes and overrich with electro-orchestration, has a cool, “Layla”-like coda with sublime high-wire guitar by Slash. In “Dead Horse,” Rose’s desultory acoustic complaint bookends a stunning, volcanic outburst of electric Aero-Stones slammin’.

On the other hand, it’s not enough to simply be indignant about Illusion I‘s verbal rancor. You ought to be scared for the future. Get past the “parental advisory” buzzwords and you hear a declaration of insolence fueled by self-righteous anger and fearful confusion. Guns n’ Roses’ rock & roll niggers-with-attitude act, however indefensible at times, is emblematic of a greater adolescent cancer: an almost total loss of hope compounded by blind, impotent rage and the perverted Reagan-Bush morality in which the actual cloth of the Stars and Stripes is deemed more holy than the freedom and humanity for which it stands.

It’s all there in “Don’t Damn Me,” the best song on the record and a striking crystallization of Rose’s — and his generation’s — dilemma. “So I stepped into your world/I kicked you in the mind,” Rose declares in a proud full-moon howl against fierce staccato guitars and a galloping rhythm section. “But look at what we’ve done/To the innocent and young/Whoa listen to who’s talking/’Cause we’re not the only ones/The trash collected by the eyes/And dumped into the brain/Said it tears into our conscious thoughts/You tell me who’s to blame.” Empowered by celebrity and his own rock & roll might, even Rose feels dazed and helpless, violently seesawing between “Don’t damn me!” and “Don’t hail me!” as the band explodes behind him in one last orgasmic, twin-guitar rush.

Was Use Your Illusion I worth the wait, the traumas and the onstage tantrums? Yes, if only for “Don’t Damn Me” and the album’s ten-minute closer, “Coma,” a locomotive parable about suicide dreams and troubled resurrection. A few tracks (“Live and Let Die,” the weird art-metal nightmare “The Garden”) could have stayed on the outtakes shelf and no one would have minded. But the Gunners’ anything-worth-doing-is-worth-overdoing spirit is a bracing slap at the reigning fascism of studio perfection.

For better and worse, Illusion I also mirrors the turmoil in Teenage Wasteland, one nation under a grudge. “Not bad kids, just stupid ones,” Rose snaps in “Right Next Door to Hell.” “Yeah, thought we’d own the world.” This is the sound of that dream all shot to hell.

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September 1991.

From Rolling Stone US