Grunge. Wu-Tang Clan. Radiohead. “Wonderwall.” The music of the ’90s was as exciting as it was diverse. But what does it say about the era—and why does it still matter? On our new show, 60 Songs That Explain the ’90s, Ringer music writer and ’90s survivor Rob Harvilla embarks on a quest to answer those questions, one track at a time. Follow and listen free exclusively on Spotify. Below is an excerpt from Episode 5, which looks at the backstory and legacy of Guns N’ Roses’ 1992 piano epic, “November Rain.”
The party line—among a lot of music critics, anyway—is that grunge killed hair metal. In the late ’80s, on MTV, heavy-rotation-wise, you get GNR, you get Poison, you get Def Leppard, you get Cinderella. You get Spandex. You get hairspray. They, at least, get a lot of chicks. In the early ’90s, on MTV, you get Nirvana, you get Pearl Jam, you get Soundgarden. You get darkness, you get self-loathing. Jani Lane, the late frontman for hair-metal knuckleheads Warrant, used to tell a story about walking into his record label office In New York City around 1990, and above the label president’s secretary’s desk is a giant blowup poster of the new Warrant album Cherry Pie.
But around 1992, Jani Lane walks back into this record label’s office with another Warrant album coming out, and there, hanging above the label president’s secretary’s desk, is a giant blowup poster of Alice in Chains’ Dirt. As Jani Lane put it, “It got to the point where it was like, ‘OK, every rock band that came out in the ’80s sucked, and has no reason to live, and should not be on this planet, and there’s no way they can possibly do anything worthwhile and viable in the ’90s.’”
So what does Guns N’ Roses, very arguably the single biggest and most dangerous rock band of the ’80s, do to maintain its viability in 1991? The Use Your Illusion saga, a 30-track, two-and-a-half-hour double album, the two halves sold separately, that peaks with “November Rain,” a nearly nine-minute Homeric epic—either the literary Homer or the Simpsons Homer— with an orchestra, backup singers, multiple guitar solos, and a blockbuster $1.5 million video that features both a wedding and a funeral. During the wedding it starts raining. This rainstorm is unusually violent. Everybody runs for cover. And a random wedding guest dives, full-extension, into the wedding cake. Just demolishes the cake. Why did he do that? What the hell is going on?
Can a band that sold as many albums as Guns N’ Roses sell out? Can a band whose breakout song was the slow-dance classic “Sweet Child O’ Mine” go soft? Is “November Rain,” in its bloat, in its orchestral-ass Elton John grandeur, a betrayal of the sleazy Los Angeles hair-metal creeps that brought you “It’s So Easy” and “Mr. Brownstone” and “Paradise City”? Can a frontman as mercurial, as egomaniacal, as crude, as vicious, as instantly and unapologetically cancelable as Axl Rose ever go too far, morally or sonically? (There is no E in Axl so that “Axl Rose” can be an anagram for “oral sex.”)
Slash, the band’s equally iconic lead guitarist and Axl’s dramatic foil, once described “November Rain” as “the sound of our band breaking up,” though in fairness Slash also described GNR’s cover of “Sympathy for the Devil,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 1994 Kirsten Dunst vehicle Interview With a Vampire, as “the sound of a band breaking up,” and that song was actually when the band broke up. But let’s just say that Slash and bassist Duff McKagan and not-much-longer-for-this-band guitarist Izzy Stradlin didn’t actively worship Elton John the way Axl did. (“November Rain,” for the record, does sound an awful lot like Elton’s “Funeral for a Friend / Love Lies Bleeding.”) And let’s also say that one of the subtler joys of the “November Rain” video is watching the members of Guns N’ Roses who aren’t Axl Rose try to keep themselves awake.
Put it this way: Three people who played on Appetite for Destruction wrote autobiographies—Slash, Duff, and drummer Steven Adler. Roughly 80 percent of those books are about sex and drugs. To wit, Steven Adler’s book is called My Appetite for Destruction: Sex, Drugs, and Guns N’ Roses. He got kicked out of the band in 1990, largely for substance-abuse issues, which I’m hesitant to say is funny, because Steven’s mother, Deanna Adler, also wrote a book, called Sweet Child of Mine: How I Lost My Son to Guns N’ Roses, and that book ain’t funny at all.
But the other 20 percent of most of those books is about what a pain in the ass Axl Rose was, is, shall always be.
To hear the full episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Thursday for new episodes on the most important songs of the decade. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.