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In the 1980s, L.A.'s seedy Sunset Strip was the epicenter of one of the America's edgier rock music scenes. On Sunset, "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll" was more than a lame cliché; it was a hedonistic, or maybe even nihilistic, way of life. It was (in Guns N' Roses front man Axl Rose's famous description) a "jungle," a place that offered fame and money but also addiction and poverty to the young musicians who gathered there, competing to satisfy their rock star ambitions (and their appetites for destruction).
Guns N' Roses did both, becoming a popular L.A. club band even while living a life of almost unbelievable squalor. The five street rats who formed the band—Axl Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagen, and drummer Steven Adler—were a real-life wrecking crew of juvenile delinquents, heroin users, and alcoholics. All five lived together in a one-room studio that didn't even have a bathroom, sharing this legendary crash pad with a revolving lineup of junkies, strippers, groupies, and any range of others who came through the door.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the potentially ruinous nature of GNR's full-on rock n' roll lifestyle, young Geffen Records A&R guy Tom Zutaut became convinced that Guns N' Roses could become the biggest band in the world. Most of the bands on the Sunset Strip, Zutaut later recalled, had the look, or the attitude, or the cred—but none really had the musical goods like Guns N' Roses did. Zutaut, who had earlier signed Mötley Crüe and helped polish that band's hard sound for radio success, thought he could do the same for Guns N' Roses. Not yet thirty years old, Zutaut effectively bet his career on Guns N' Roses. And although working with the band could be an enormous pain in the rear—at one point, Rose demanded that David Geffen personally get a $75,000 advance to him in less than a week to prove his commitment to the band—Zutaut's gamble paid off.
In 1987, Geffen released Appetite for Destruction, GNR's major-label debut. It took a little while to catch on, but the record—an intoxicating Molotov cocktail of sleaze, sex, pop, and rock—eventually won a five-week stint at the number one spot on the Billboard charts. The album was a blues-infused mix of hard rock and punk with a refined pop edge. And it arrived just in time for Rolling Stone magazine to proclaim that Guns N' Roses were "hard rock heroes" who'd managed to take the music back from the over-commercialized, faux-rebellious "hair bands" who, in rock journalist Mike Clink's eyes, cared more about "mineral water, hair weaves, and a good night's sleep" than real rock n' roll. However close Guns N' Roses would come to caring more about hair weaves and mineral water in the latter part of their own reign as biggest band in the world, Appetite for Destruction was a transformative and important album.
Its opening track and lead US single, "Welcome to the Jungle," represents the fine line that Guns N' Roses traveled between the influences of the seedy underbelly of true L.A. punks and mainstream accessibility. At first, MTV decision-makers and record executives alike feared that "Welcome to the Jungle" would not go over well with mainstream audiences. But the sheer power of the band's grimy rock n' roll spirit, their willingness to use pop-rock elements, and their more underground or classic rock influences proved to be a winning combination.
"Welcome to the Jungle" was the first GNR song written as a collaborative effort of the entire band. Rose wrote the lyrics, inspired by the band's aptly named "Hell Tour," a West Coast road trip that began with a broke-down tour bus and ended with the flat-broke band members hitchhiking from gig to gig. Slash came up with the main riff while he and Rose were both living with Slash's mother. Duff McKagen masterminded the breakdown in the song, which, starting at 2:18, takes the song from its pop verses and chorus into Slash's solo. Izzy Stradlin, probably the band's best songwriter, is said to have been responsible for the tone of the song, for shaping the way it moves and balancing its pop and metal elements. With Axl and Izzy's glam punk (which is more like glam metal than punk) influences, Duff's solid punk background, Steven Adler's dance-oriented drumming, and Slash's classic blues rock lead guitar, "Welcome to the Jungle" came out of an amalgam of rock stylings.
Classic rock and punk were larger influences on Guns N' Roses than their own musical contemporaries were. The two big ones are The Sex Pistols and the early Rolling Stones. The Sex Pistols, with their anti-establishment anthems "God Save the Queen" and "Anarchy in the UK," might be found somewhere in Rose's celebration of L.A.'s punk counterculture. But Rose's lyrics were always less repetitive and more engaging than Johnny Rotten's. In "Jungle," every line is memorable, mixing two parts sleaze with one part radio-friendly (i.e. profanity-free) rhyme. The influence of the Rolling Stones, while obvious in the rebellious lyrics, is found even more strongly in the guitar work, which is based on the blues scale and emotive tricks such as string bending (giving the notes a vocal quality).
Guns N' Roses had some contemporary influences as well. Finnish punk band Hanoi Rocks, the biggest single influence on the band, according to Axl Rose, is responsible for the glam punk aspect of GNR's music. Hanoi Rocks gave Guns N' Roses their saturated, decadently sexual sense of punk—something that The Sex Pistols could not have given them. The glam look never made it past the "Welcome to the Jungle" music video—but Hanoi Rocks was such a big influence that "Welcome to the Jungle" borrows its title and refrain from a line in the band's "Underwater World." Though GNR wouldn't enjoy the idea of admitting that their music is similar to that of their mineral-water-drinking glam metal contemporaries ("hair bands"), "Welcome to the Jungle" has some clear "hair band" characteristics. The anthemic choir in the back of the chorus, for example, was something that glam metal artists of the day like Poison and Bon Jovi frequently used.
But as we can see from their dropping of the glam look earlier in their career, as well such statements as Slash's "Mick Jagger should have died after Some Girls, when he was still cool," Guns N' Roses never felt like they had to neatly fit into any boxes. Guns N' Roses were smart enough to know that rock heroes could become less intriguing, and that their music had to stay fresh to stay interesting—Axl is famous for stating that he wanted to "bury Appetite for Destruction" and move on after it was released. In all, regardless of GNR's influences or their later path, "Welcome to the Jungle" provides a good snapshot of where the band stood musically at the time they wrote the album.
And despite concerns that the punk and authenticity that made Guns N' Roses unique would make them unviable on the market, "Welcome to the Jungle" was a huge hit. Perhaps it's because everything about Guns N' Roses at the time stunk of the real rock n' roll dream: running away, starting out at the bottom, partying every night, and somehow finding the time to form an amazing band. Though GNR mixed in a few pop elements, their dedication to their own personal voice legitimized the whole enterprise. The band could listen to Metallica and still play Bob Dylan songs at their concerts, because they didn't care what you thought about them.
In any case, "Welcome to the Jungle" was a strange cross between staying true to the real gutter life and the influences of L.A.'s rock scene, and making it seem like a big dirty party that suburbanites could enjoy as well.. And, really, that's what the song's about—it's the same story that Axl and Izzy experienced when they hitchhiked to L.A.; the world of the "jungle" is one in which anyone can enter if they've "got the money" and the same insatiable appetite for destruction.