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2013/11/17

Guns N' Roses' Use Your Illusion - Beyond The Singles

By Jav Rivera

In 1991, I was in high school and my love for the band Guns N' Roses (GnR) was already well established. Their first two albums, "Appetite For Destruction" and "G N' R Lies" were on frequent playback on my CD player (well, technically, I had those albums on cassette at the time). But when "Use Your Illusion" was released, nothing could have prepared me. There were two albums ("Use Your Illusion I & II"); each were double albums, for a total of thirty tracks. Little by little, the band released more and more singles. The first was "You Could Be Mine" which was released along with the film Terminator 2.  The song and music video would blow radio and television away. It's a tough rock song that catered to all GnR fans.

The album as a whole took the gritty rock band into new territory. Sure, there were still some of their trademark rock tunes but other tracks experimented with blues, heavy metal, classic rock and roll, punk, epic ballads, and even classical and flamenco.

Altogether, the albums released ten singles; almost all of them reached the top of the Billboard charts, including: "You Could Be Mine", "Civil War", "Don't Cry", "November Rain", "Estranged", "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" (Bob Dylan cover), "Yesterdays", "Live and Let Die" (Paul McCartney/Wings cover), and the lesser known "Dead Horse" and "The Garden".  At the time, it seemed like no one could do hard rock like GnR. But so much more was hiding beyond the singles of the "Use Your Illusion" albums. And I personally think these other tracks better represent how truly remarkable these albums were. This was a group of men whose experimentation lead to both the downfall of the band and a possible transition into what would eventually be called alternative music.

Album Cover for "Use Your Illusion I"
The original lineup for Guns N' Roses would crumble soon after these albums, but at the time the group included Axl Rose (lead vocals, piano), Izzy Stradlin (rhythm guitar, backing vocals), Slash (lead guitar), Duff McKagan (bass, vocals), Dizzy Reed (piano), and Matt Sorum (drums).

L-R: Axl (with white hat), Duff, Dizzy, Matt, Slash, and Izzy (with black hat and shades)
Starting with "Use Your Illusion I", which is the more rock album of the two, the first track "Right Next Door To Hell" is a great example of what's to come. It's tough and features the deep, rich, hollow-esque bass intro by Duff combined with Slash's screechy-scratchy guitar work. As Axl's voice comes in, the music turns into something most parents would probably just cover their ears for, which for some teens was part of GnR's charm.

Looking at the more unfamiliar tracks, however, GnR began to develop into a band with incredible insight into the technicalities and emotion of song writing. A great example would be "You Ain't The First" with its southern-inspired style in waltz time and 3-part vocals provided by Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, and a then unknown Shannon Hoon (of Blind Melon). The song stands out as an acoustic break from the loud electric guitars associated with the majority of GnR's catalog.

One of my personal favorite tracks on Use Your Illusion I is "Double Talkin' Jive". It includes one of the coolest intros to a song, an amazing lead solo in the middle, and an unexpected ending using a flamenco guitar, surprisingly played by Slash. Though Slash had already been established as a great rock guitarist, Use Your Illusion is where he proved that he was more than just a guy with curly hair and top hat. Another element to the song were the lead vocals provided by Izzy Stradlin, again proving that these guys went far beyond the image that had been established on posters, music videos, and magazine covers.

"The Garden" though released as a music video single, was never really popularized. Sad, because it's one of GnR's greatest songs of all time. Slash's guitar work is heart-wrenching and unique. Duff's deep bass brings an almost psychedelic feel. Axl's voice is well-suited in both the emotionality and strangeness of the song. But the song as a whole was unlike anything heard on early 90's radio stations - which is probably why it never made it into most people's homes and remains a hidden gem.

Immediately following "The Garden" is one of GnR's toughest (and fastest sung) songs entitled "Garden of Eden". The track combined GnR's rock sensibilities with some punk elements, producing both power and recklessness.

"Coma", on the other hand, produced the same power without the speed and mayhem. It's the ending track for Use Your Illusion I, and quite an epic, lasting over ten minutes. It can become a bit exhaustive, but the study of the track is interesting. Believe it or not, there are classical music elements to it, with its use of sectional forms. It may be the ending of the first Use Your Illusion album, but the experimentation of this track is a great introduction to Use Your Illusion II, the more versatile of the albums.

Album Cover for "Use Your Illusion II"
Most people are aware of Use Your Illusion II because of the amount of singles it includes, especially "You Could Be Mine". And, it's my personal favorite of the two, but for different reasons. The album was more experimental than Use Your Illusion I and showcased GnR as a force to be reckoned with. It had radio-friendly tunes like "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" (an amazing cover of Bob Dylan), "Don't Cry", and their epic "Estranged". But more importantly for me was the combination of their trademark grittiness with a bit of progressive rock.

After "Knockin' On Heaven's Door" the album, for me, has one of the best sequences with the following five tracks: "Get In the Ring" is a somewhat response to their press criticisms. It's followed by "Shotgun Blues", a seemingly simple rock tune that reminds the fans that no one does hard rock like GnR. It also highlights Matt Sorum's drumming both in the beginning and ending. Sorum joined GnR on the Use Your Illusion albums but quickly proved that his drumming was not only fitting but necessary for the kind of versatility these tracks had.

After the one-two punch of "Get In The Ring" and "Shotgun Blues", the album adds a little unusualness with "Breakdown's" introduction - whistling and a banjo. The track also highlights the piano, making a rock song sound more full, much like how rock songs were written in the 70s. It also has one of my favorite endings, using spoken word, kick drums and drum rolls, a funky bass, piano slides, and that last guitar chord that hits like a slam of a door.

Entering into number four of the five, "Pretty Tied Up's" intro sounds almost mystical until it kicks into what becomes the album's best use of a musical theme. In other words, think of how classical music uses themes to come back to reintroduce a melody to the listener (for example, Mozart's famous "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"). The theme essentially brings the music back to a beginning point, and then veers off into different sections/melodies. "Pretty Tied Up" does this seamlessly, and no other GnR song utilizes this technique as successfully and uniquely.

The final track of this perfect five track sequence is "Locomotive". It's also my favorite track of both Use Your Illusion albums, though "Pretty Tied Up" is a close second. "Locomotive" utilizes a different musical technique than its predecessor - the use of a main, unchanging riff that runs nearly the entire length of a song, combined with varied lead guitar elements, creating the illusion of change. It's a tough, driving tune with great lyrics and some of Slash's greatest lead guitar work. The song also includes the lyric "You can use your illusion - let it take you where it may," which of course is where the albums' title is derived from.

The following three tracks ("Estranged," "You Could Be Mine," and "Don't Cry") found their way into radio and TV airwaves, each with their own music video. And though all three are incredible tracks, the purpose of this article is to highlight the lesser known tracks. Which brings me to the final track, "My World". It's unlike any other song on both Use Your Illusion albums and remains a rare song in GnR's catalog. It has an industrial rock sound and is more like a Nine Inch Nails song, with its use of synthesizers and multi-layered audio sound bytes. It's weird and doesn't quite fit in with the rest of the album. But perhaps, because of its title, it was exactly how Axl wanted to end an album of so much versatility.

Guns N' Roses Logo
Guns N' Roses may have started out as a gritty rock band with songs about paradise cities and substance abuse, but Use Your Illusion took their sound and songwriting to a new artistic level. And though most people remember the hard rock tunes, Use Your Illusion - especially the lesser known tracks - proved to the world that GnR were more than leather-wearing tough guys. They were artists.

TRIVIA: The dialogue within the introduction to "Civil War" was taken from the film "Cool Hand Luke" starring Paul Newman and Strother Martin (whose voice is heard).

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