Let’s get the easy bit out of the way straight-up; I’m not speaking about comparing the ethics of either band, I’m not running back over the points of comparison between Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain as products of the white rock-loving underclass nor as enemies of industry business-as-usual. I feel there are interesting ways to look at the two bands as rock industry phenomena.
Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been kept trimmed to the bone; outside of the core four albums there’s the lean eight track stop-gap Lies from 1989, there’s 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident? covers compilation, after that we’re onto the record label desperately trying to claw money out of the band via the Live Era ’87-’93 release and the inevitable Greatest Hits. Digging around on the official single releases yields a cover of Whole Lotta Rosie, a live cover of Knocking on Heaven’s Door, a demo of Don’t Cry, Shadow of your Love and some live tracks. Similarly, on bootlegs, on YouTube, there’s barely a shred left of the original band; a lot of live covers, some appalling recordings like That’s Something, Crash Diet, Cornshucker, Just Another Sunday…A few more pieces from the last decade and a half edition…Then some early demos that all sound like they were recording from beneath a duvet.
That’s not necessarily a criticism. If audio fidelity and quality are the issues that the Nirvana camp circa-1995 to 2013 have specified then they must envy the sheer force of will Axl Rose exercises in his unwillingness for anything that isn’t polished within an inch of its life to be seen. The Guns n’ Roses back catalogue has been sternly curated with no clutter of anniversary editions, bonus live discs, demo discs, single-gathering compilations or outtake sets. The point, however, is that the reality seems to be that there simply isn’t anything left to find from the 1985-1995 edition of Guns n’ Roses bar the most minor of scraps — they make Nirvana look profligate in terms of the amount of material that never made it onto a core release.
The second crucial point is that the relatively pristine nature of their back-catalogue, unlike that of The Stooges which we looked at yesterday, has mattered not a jot to the critical reputation of the band. It’s extremely hard, post-Nirvana, to find any great appreciation for the work of Guns n’ Roses. There’s plenty of kudos, particularly in hard rock magazines for Appetite for Destruction, but this never translates from a liking for the album into a liking for the band. There’s virtually no one willing to stand-up for the world-bestriding colossi status of Use Your Illusion I and II with their packed-to-the-gills approach — the most that gets said is a whiny regret that Guns n’ Roses didn’t release Appetite for Destruction Part Two. What matters is that by the time the latter two albums made it out in 1991, Guns n’ Roses had muddied their reputation, had been absent long years, had lost the pop market by showing themselves to be anything but. The nail in the coffin was then Nirvana declaring a band barely half a decade older to already be the sound of the reactionary past.
In terms of live activity, the table below shows the live statistics for Guns n’ Roses 1985-1994 iteration versus the path forged by Nirvana:
I’ve mentioned this before, but there’s a similar collapse in performances the year after success had been achieved. It does put Nirvana’s fall into perspective — regardless of reasons, maybe it isn’t that unusual for a band to reach a peak of intensity and then retreat. Of course, if record labels were calling the shots then that’s precisely the point at which they would likely be trying to get bands out on the road for promotional reasons — these two bands did the opposite.
A further point of comparison is that there’s a similar pattern of releases which suggests a specific strategy at DGC when it came to wayward stars. In each case, the runaway success first major label album — Appetite for Destruction, Nevermind — was followed by the gap-filling b-side and extras compilation — Lies, Incesticide. It’s notable also that both those stop-gap releases specifically took aim at media interventions and criticisms of the bands and band members — at the very least it could be said that both bands hated scrutiny, however warranted or unwarranted. The overall approach though suggests a shrewd desire to buy time and/or take advantage of maximum point of success in the case of each act; perhaps DGC saw two bands who they weren’t entirely sure were going to survive long enough for a follow-up album?