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My first truly great concert experience came in the summer of 1988. Two friends and I hooked up with someone we barely knew to score a ride from our small, rural Pennsylvania town to a dusty racetrack three hours down the road for an Aerosmith concert. At the time, the band was riding the comeback wave after their Permanent Vacation album yielded a string of top 40 radio hits. But they weren’t the main draw for us.
The promise of a 30-to-45-minute opening set doesn’t usually count for much, but the promise of a 30-to-45-minute Guns N’ Roses opening set was enough to get us to drive across 140 miles of Pennsylvania highway. From the unrelenting force of “Nightrain” to the mighty stomp of “Mr. Brownstone” to the stripped-down beauty of “Patience” (a preview of the band’s then-upcoming GN’R Lies), the band’s set that night not only justified our drive; it made us rethink everything we thought we knew about rock.
After coming of age in the era of Duran Duran, Debbie Gibson and pop metal, here was true rock in its most ballsy and dangerous form. Every element of the band — from Axl Rose’s manic presence to Slash’s buzz-saw guitar to the deep-pocketed groove of drummer Steven Adler, bassist Duff McKagan and rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin — seemed to project swagger. By the end of the set, I was sure that my skull was made of steel, my fists were hand grenades, and pure kerosene pumped through my veins. Eyes opened and asses kicked, we pulled on our brand spankin’ new GN’R T-shirts, jumped in the car, and hit 81 South on the way home before Aerosmith even hit the stage.
The surge we felt that night — courtesy of that combustible combination of players — will always be GN’R to me. That’s why I think that Axl Rose should retire the Guns N’ Roses name, and why a band of entirely different players led by Axl Rose is not the same thing. At all.
Many acts are driven by the sole creative vision of one artist, leaving room for deep lineup changes (Nine Inch Nails come to mind). That wasn’t the case with Guns N’ Roses. Far from a one-man show, GN’R were the sum of the group’s key components. Axl, Slash, Duff and Izzy drove the band’s creativity and energy and formed GN’R’s soul. It was an exciting force, but one that was extinguished in the early ’90s as those key members went their separate ways. Metallica are more than James Hetfield, the Rolling Stones are more than Mick Jagger, and Guns N’ Roses are more than Axl. It’s hard to imagine Bono breaking ties with the Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. yet still soldiering on under the U2 name.
Of course, there’s no doubt that Axl was the lynchpin of Guns, and that he brings considerable talent to the project that he’s currently working on. He undoubtedly has an ambitious and unique musical vision, and in tapping an accomplished group of musicians he has built a fantastic band and a force to be reckoned with. Technically blessed drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia cut his teeth with the likes of Primus and Tom Waits, and bassist Tommy Stinson spent a good chunk of his teen years with seminal punks the Replacements. The guitar wall of Trent Reznor collaborator Robin Finck and bizarro virtuoso Buckethead add a daunting element to whatever Axl has up his sleeve. Surely this musical partnership is strong enough to survive under its own banner without adopting the moniker “Guns N’ Roses.” Give it its own name; to do anything else doesn’t do much of a service to what GN’R built in the ’80s and ’90s, nor does it do a service to the men who stand beside Axl now.
And certainly, one of the most well-known rock icons of the last 20 years doesn’t need the brand recognition. Axl’s name alone on a project would carry a tremendous amount of weight, without slapping the GN’R name across the top of it.
Both Axl’s project and Slash and Duff’s recently launched Velvet Revolver are unique, interesting and thick with promise, and I’m very excited to hear what both groups are cooking up. However, they simply aren’t GN’R. Of course, the name and concept of Guns N’ Roses legally belong to Axl to be used however he sees fit. But as Axl himself asked rhetorically during an interview with MTV News’ Kurt Loder last year, “How do you make a whole bunch of guys into something that already was?”
You don’t. You make them something fresh, something exciting and something new.
— Robert Mancini