Respectability, it seems, is the inevitable end for all things “dangerous” in popular music. From jazz to heavy metal to punk, yesterday’s moral panics usually become today’s wholesome entertainment. So it is that Guns N’ Roses—once breathlessly dubbed “the most dangerous band in the world” and effectively banned from daytime MTV and radio play—are now staples of classic rock radio, with songs from their multi-platinum debut, Appetite for Destruction, in heavy rotation alongside the likes of Journey and Boston.
Guns N’ Roses were always traditionalists in insurgents’ clothing, dressing up their 1970s-style hard rock with post-punk aggression and eyeliner. But the widening chasm between their menacing early reputation and latter-day canonization makes it harder than ever to evaluate Appetite for Destruction on its own merits. The new five-disc “Super Deluxe” version of the album—also available in a shelf- and wallet-busting 19-disc “Locked N’ Loaded” edition—won’t solve this conundrum, but its hours of bonus content do offer a fresh perspective on one of the last great rock albums of the pre-alternative era.
That material—including a handful of B-sides, previously unreleased demos, and most of the 1988 EP G N’ R Lies (more on that later)—is the set’s chief selling point. After 31 years of exposure to Appetite for Destruction’s razor-sharp, arena-ready production, it’s striking to hear Guns N’ Roses sound as genuinely raw and untamed as they do here. Instructive in this regard is “Reckless Life,” a leftover from the group’s incarnation as Hollywood Rose, presented here in two studio takes from 1986. The sound and structure are pure L.A. glam metal, but the performances transcend cliché through force of will and reckless, combustible energy.
Part of what set Guns N’ Roses apart from their peers in the Aqua Net set was their aforementioned grounding in rock history, ample confirmation of which can be found on Appetite for Destruction’s bonus discs. On the stripped-down Sound City recordings, the band sounds like a natural extension of their forebears: Slash’s lead guitar favors bluesy Angus Young riffage over post-Van Halen shredding, while Axl Rose’s voice resembles Robert Plant’s turned up to 11. Some of these demos rock harder than the official versions, though a plodding take of “Nightrain” makes one long for producer Mike Clink’s polish.
Appetite for Destruction will forever be defined by its hat trick of massive singles: opening track and blistering statement of intent “Welcome to the Jungle,” indelible power ballad “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and stadium staple “Paradise City.” But the songs that didn’t make it onto the radio are more exciting, and less sanitized, than the hits would suggest. “It’s So Easy” is the most concise evidence of Guns N’ Roses’s punk influence, with its “Holidays in the Sun”-style riff and Rose’s Johnny Rotten-esque snarl, while the bilious sleaze-rock of “My Michelle” is convincingly grimy.
As for the band’s “dangerous” reputation, listening to Appetite for Destruction in 2018 often gives the impression that Guns N’ Roses were controversial for all the wrong reasons. It’s ironic that Rose’s lyrics made him a whipping boy for the Bush-era moral majority, seeing as his point of view was essentially conservative. Rose’s notion of the big, scary city as a “jungle” full of moral rot echoes the crypto-racist rhetoric of “tough-on-crime” politicians; his portraits of disaffected youth adrift in urban squalor on tracks like “Mr. Brownstone” and “My Michelle” read like the work of Lou Reed if he were a Republican. Meanwhile, in an era when albums without parental advisory stickers are the rule rather than the exception, it’s almost quaint to hear Rose work so hard to offend the squares, sneering “Why don’t you just…fuck off!” on “It’s So Easy” with all the premeditated rebellion of a naughty schoolboy, or firing off the juvenile retort “I’m fuckin’ innocent…So you can suck me” on “Out ta Get Me.”
Admittedly a lot less quaint is Guns N’ Roses’s sexism, which is on ample display throughout Appetite for Destruction in forms both benign (the promised pretty girls of “Paradise City”) and malignant (“Turn around, bitch, I got a use for you,” Rose squeals on “It’s So Easy”). The simplest explanation for that impression is that the album is a relic of a less politically correct time, but if that’s the case, why leave Lies’s infamously racist, homophobic screed “One in a Million” off the second disc, while including the equally misogynistic “Used to Love Her”? The line between offensive and merely tasteless can be an arbitrary one, but our choices of where to draw it are intentional and interesting to note; in the case of Guns N’ Roses, it appears that that line is drawn directly in front of the n-word. Maybe that’s why, after all these years, the most dangerous band in the world has been safely ensconced in the American mainstream: Their fearsomeness and ugliness are no better or worse than our own.