There will never be another collection of music videos like the ones made by Guns N’ Roses, soon to reunite in some form of their classic incarnation. Their height of fame was in the late Eighties and early Nineties, when MTV still played music and making a video for every single was pretty much mandatory for rock bands. They had access to absurd budgets — and they had a lead singer, W. Axl Rose, who didn’t just want to make a big splash on the Dial MTV countdown: He was committed to working out his manifold psychological issues with a multimillion dollar canvas.
“It was like Spinal Tap with money,” director Andy Morahan said of the Guns N’ Roses video trilogy he directed (“Don’t Cry,” “November Rain” and “Estranged”). “I’ve been asked by students about the metaphorical imagery in those videos, and I’m like, ‘Fuck if I know.'”
Setting aside full-length concert films (and random excerpts from those shows), Guns N’ Roses made 17 official clips. We’ve ranked them all, worst to best, as videos. This means that while the music is an important component of their appeal, the visual entertainment matters just as much, whether that comes from the sweaty energy of a great performance or from special-effects insanity like dolphins swimming down Sunset Boulevard.
17. ‘Bad Apples’
One of Guns N’ Roses’ best songs is this overlooked gem, a catchy rocker buried towards the end of Use Your Illusion I. In 2009, 18 years after that album came out, “Bad Apples” got an official video for no apparent reason — but the clip simply consisted outtakes from the “Don’t Cry” video, with the band playing on top of the Transamerica Center in Los Angeles. The footage was distorted and frame-dropped, in a half-assed effort to disguise its origin.
Weirdest moment: Axl Rose singing into the same microphone as his friend Shannon Hoon, the lead singer of Blind Melon, who died in 1995, and doesn’t even appear on “Bad Apples.”
16. ‘Chinese Democracy’
Here we have a live clip from the walking-dead version of Guns N’ Roses, promoting the long-delayed 2008 album Chinese Democracy. (It’s one of several live clips from that album, but this is the one touted as an official video on the Guns N’ Roses website.) Rose looked as puffy and beaten up as Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, but this was a decent hard-rock song — albeit one that sounded way too tackily “modern” to merit the Guns N’ Roses name.
Weirdest moment: spotting Tommy Stinson on bass, looking like he wandered onto the wrong tour bus after a Replacements gig.
15. ‘Dead Horse’
Another collection of outtakes from other Use Your Illusion videos, thrown together like Frankenstein’s stir fry. With fishnet tops and plaid skirts (OK, “kilts”), Rose dressed in this era like he was borrowing his outfits from whatever stripper he spent the previous night with. The video included lots of “Helmet Cam,” Rose playing guitar (?!) and drummer Matt Sorum hanging out in a bar. “Experience makes you wise,” Rose sang — not that he would know.
Weirdest moment: the “instant replay” of the opening, suggesting that Rose was trapped in a Twilight Zone episode, or maybe just his head.
14. ‘You Could Be Mine’
Live footage of Guns N’ Roses, cut together with lots of clips from Terminator 2 …Arnold Schwarzenegger also shot some new scenes where he went to a GN’R gig to terminate the band, walking through the crowd with a shotgun while a “DECIBEL OVERLOAD” warning flashed in his sensors. Schwarzenegger, it turned out, was one of the few people on the planet, circa 1991, who could upstage Axl Rose. Just be glad it was Schwarzenegger, not Rose, who ended up as governor of California.
Weirdest moment: when 60 percent of the band (Slash, Rose, Duff McKagan) took off their shirts, revealing their skinny, pasty torsos. We were not yet in an era where every guy who went topless was expected to be ripped.
13 . ‘The Garden’
Guns N’ Roses, an L.A. band to the core, came to New York City and found it full of urban decay, filmed in black and white. What turned it into color, like Dorothy landing in Oz? Strip clubs! Guest vocalist Alice Cooper didn’t bother showing up for this video, but we got vignettes of the Gunners in NYC: McKagan smoked and spat in a vacant lot, while Rose (in a knit cap) commandeered a subway car, putting his boots up on the seat.
Weirdest moment: the topless female model and the shirtless tattooed dude having a makeout session in Washington Square Park.
12 . ‘Live and Let Die’
The band rocked out in various arenas with a cover of a Wings song; the editors threw in still photos of the musicians as children, emphasising their lost innocence, and a milk carton with a picture of Izzy Stradlin and the message “MISSING,” emphasizing his departure from the band. Rose’s fashion accessories here included an N.W.A cap (strong choice) and a baseball catcher’s protective vest (not a good look for anybody except catchers).
Weirdest moment: the home movie of a young child (apparently, Rose himself), shooting a toy gun at the camera and then smiling proudly.
11 . ‘Since I Don’t Have You’
This cover of a 1958 doo-wop song was the only video released from “The Spaghetti Incident?” and the last video GN’R made with McKagan and Slash. It also, bizarrely, starred renowned actor Gary Oldman as a demonic figure (hair spiked up and skin painted red) tormenting Axl Rose, laughing as he pushes the singer’s car off a cliff. (In 1993, Oldman also appeared in True Romance and Romeo Is Bleeding.) Rose got tortured, burned and drowned in this video; the other band members just lounged around on the beach while hot, oiled-up models hung onto them (and each other).
Weirdest moment: Rose, bound and gagged, looking peaceful and introspective.
10. ‘It’s So Easy’
The big-hair era of Guns N’ Roses: The band played an Appetite for Destruction song at the Cathouse (the Hollywood club owned by MTV VJ Riki Rachtman), while the editors riffled through as many early photos of the band as they could find. David Bowie (who had dated Slash’s mom many years earlier) showed up at this video shoot; when Axl Rose thought Bowie was flirting with his girlfriend, Erin Everly, he punched out the rock legend. This primitive but high-energy video was shot in 1987 and would have been the band’s first promo clip, but it was shelved until 2010.
Weirdest moment: the picture of Rose gazing into a cracked mirror.
An underappreciated mid-tempo rocker got an elegant black-and-white treatment: The band rocked out in an empty warehouse, with some photos of their early years cut in (which actually goes against the anti-nostalgia lyrics, but whatever). Slash hopped around; Rose was at his most charismatic. It was an effective palate cleanser that lacked the visual excess of the other Use Your Illusion videos, which is why people don’t remember it.
Weirdest moment: the appearances of departed band members Izzy Stradlin and Steven Adler.
8. ‘November Rain’
At the time (1992), this was the most expensive music video to date, with a price tag of around $1.5 million. It went over the top about 15 seconds in, and then it stayed there for the next nine minutes. The plot: Rose marries Stephanie Seymour (wearing a wedding dress designed to show off her legs); best man Slash goes to the New Mexico desert to play a guitar solo; it rains at the reception and everybody dramatically runs for cover, with one guest hurling himself into the wedding cake; Seymour dies (from the rain? unclear); Slash shows up at her funeral with his shirt unbuttoned to the navel.
Weirdest moment: Rose attending his bachelor party wearing a leather jacket with a portrait of Madonna painted on the back.
7. ‘Garden of Eden’
A punk-rock song, filmed in one intense take, with no cuts or camera movement for its 166 seconds. There were two versions of this video, one of which was an alternate take that added confetti blowing through the air. The confetti-less clip originally featured the lyrics crawling on the bottom of the screen, with a bouncing ball guiding the viewer — Beavis and Butt-head comment on that version here. The two guys dancing in the background, by the way, were keyboardist Dizzy Reed and harmonica player Teddy “Zig Zag” Andreadis.
Weirdest moment: the roadie physically moving Slash into place at the beginning of the video.
Director Andy Morahan said (in the book I Want My MTV), “By the time we got to ‘Estranged,’ Axl had split up with Stephanie Seymour, and he said, ‘I never want a girl in a video again. I’d rather go out with a dolphin.’ Which is why I put dolphins all over the video.” Aside from the dolphin infestation, this 10-minute video featured Rose in a Charles Manson T-shirt; an ethereal version of Rose leaving his body for a trip on the astral plane; LAPD officers in all-white uniforms; Rose jumping off an oil tanker into the Pacific Ocean; Slash with his hair in a towel; and a plethora of images of depression, suicide and rebirth.
Weirdest moment: Slash emerging from the ocean like Venus on the half-shell to play a sopping-wet guitar solo. In a video full of unintentional comedy gold, that sequence was 24-karat hilarity.
An acoustic ballad found Rose at his emotionally warmest and gentlest — but doing his trademark serpentine dance anyway. This 1989 song was as sensitive as he ever got: After this, his vulnerability would always be paired with bluster and aggression. We saw a montage of beautiful women in lingerie getting into bed with Slash — who only cared about his pet snake. Meanwhile, the band played in a studio decorated like a Moroccan brothel, as drummer Steven Adler, with nothing to do, looked bored in a hotel lobby.
Weirdest moment: Duff McKagan, in his least rock-star move ever, dutifully returning a room-service tray to the hotel’s front desk.
4. ‘Welcome to the Jungle’
This 1987 video, which introduced the world to Guns N’ Roses, starred at least three versions of Axl Rose: the impossibly fresh-faced farm boy fresh off the bus in Hollywood, the big-haired rock star and the screaming psychotic in a straightjacket. With a tribal breakdown set to the beat of A Clockwork Orange, this clip trumped everything else on TV and told us to get ready for a lead singer with major-league issues.
Weirdest moment: the continuity error where Rose fell to his knees onstage and briefly lost his shirt.
3. ‘Paradise City’
Director Nigel Dick had a great eye for the small details of a rock concert: the twitchy security guard or the couple oblivious to the music because they were sucking face. This video was built around two shows: a big one at the now-demolished Giants Stadium in New Jersey, and an enormous one at the Monsters of Rock festival at Castle Donington in England. The footage from that August 1988 show was awe-inspiring, as 100,000 people gave in to total hysteria. But since dozens of fans were trampled during that set, and two of them died, anyone watching this video was watching a snuff film. “Paradise City” was simultaneously thrilling and hideous.
Weirdest moment: Rose flashing an “Access All Areas” backstage pass that featured the logo for the SS (the Nazi military corps), complete with swastika. How did that ever get on the air?
2. ‘Don’t Cry’
In just five expensive minutes, Axl Rose gave fans a tour of the strange nooks and crannies of his mind. He wandered through a snowstorm wearing an outfit that made him look like a refugee from the Civil War or a circus; he fought with a girlfriend for possession of a revolver; he had a picnic in a cemetery; he found himself trapped underneath his own gravestone; he had a session with a therapist where he was so upset that he was shaking. Plenty of rock bands made videos with surreal, disconnected images — but this one felt like Rose was trying to exorcise his demons in public, which meant that viewers couldn’t turn away. And the clip featured Slash winning an argument with a screaming girlfriend by driving his car over a cliff, and then playing a guitar solo over the wreckage.
Weirdest moment: the encounter between three different Axls in a doctor’s office, one all in white, one in a plaid kilt and one in a plaid jacket — who flashed a peace sign before walking through a wall, with no explanation. It was like Orphan Black, if all the clones were unhinged rock stars.
1. ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’
Guns N’ Roses’ greatest song got a video that showcased the music: just the band playing their hearts out, surrounded by their girlfriends and a camera crew. (There was also an alternate version, mostly in black and white, with some different footage from the same shoot.) Axl was glowing with charisma, but Slash was the real star here: acting mysterious underneath his mop of hair and his top hat, but playing a guitar solo that smoldered until it caught fire.
Weirdest moment: also the sweetest moment — while all the other band members were nuzzling with their girlfriends at the video shoot, guitarist Izzy Stradlin brought his dog.