September 17th, 1991 GNR released Use Your Illusion I & II on the same day…as they toured and made Billboard history, taking the top two spots on the album charts. This weekend, these albums turn 25 years old!
If you’re thinking that these two discs don’t count as a “double album,” well there’s a very clear way the songs are arranged for your listening pleasure from beginning of record 1 to the end of record 2…Let’s let Axl Rose explain in this interview from 1991, in France:
The band was going through a transition at the time, with two new members. From Rolling Stone:
GN’R began recording in earnest in January 1990, a little over a year after the release of Lies, with an attempt at capturing “Civil War,” a tune they’d sketched out in 1988 and later donated to a compilation benefiting Romanian orphans. Immediately, Adler’s drug problem became an insurmountable obstacle. Addicted to heroin, he began nodding off at his kit. “I said to Slash, ‘Dude, I’m so sick that I can’t do it right now,'” the drummer once recalled. “And he said, ‘We can’t waste the money. We got to do it now.’ ”
After consulting with lawyers, the bandmates put Adler on probation, and within a matter of months, they’d kicked him out altogether. “He was so messed up he couldn’t pull off the drum tracks,” Slash said. “And he would lie to us [about getting clean]. We’d go over to his place and find drugs behind the toilet, under the sink.”
Nevertheless, the band pushed forward. It solved the drummer problem by recruiting Matt Sorum, of hard rockers the Cult – a band whose affinity for Stones-y riffing and trippy lyrics put them in the same league as GN’R at the time. “He was fucking amazing,” Slash wrote in his autobiography, recalling a Cult show he attended in April 1990.
The first track they recorded was Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door , a Bob Dylan cover for the soundtrack to Days of Thunder featuring Tom Cruise.
Alice Cooper was a guest on The Garden. From Rolling Stone:
For the spoken-word sections of the uptempo rocker “The Garden,” Guns N’ Roses turned to an old friend. Shock rocker Alice Cooper had taken the band out on his Nightmare Returns Tour in 1986, and Rose, Slash and Stradlin accompanied him on a 1988 re-recording of his hit “Under My Wheels.” A couple of years later, Cooper got a call from Rose at two in the morning.
“I’m used to doing things in an hour,” Cooper says. “I know Axl likes to take his time, but if you can’t get a vocal like that in an hour, there’s something wrong. So I told him upfront, ‘I have a tee-off time tomorrow at seven. We’re doing this in about an hour.’ I did it in two takes. I don’t know how long it took him to do all of his takes, but it ended up sounding really, really good.”
I loved hearing that a band like GNR looked to Elton John for inspiration…
Another song Rose had been holding onto since at least 1986 was “November Rain.” In 1988, he effusively told Rolling Stone about how proud he was of the track, threatening, “If it’s not recorded right, I’ll quit the business.” The singer would later explain that “November Rain” was “about not wanting to be in a state of having to deal with unrequited love.” In the years leading up to theIllusion sessions, they’d demo’ed it with guitar and solo piano – one version was 18 minutes long – but the song didn’t come into its own until Rose workshopped it in the studio, carefully creating tones to replicate a full symphony on his keyboards.
“We listened to Elton John for inspiration for the drum fills and overall tone,” Sorum says. “I vividly remember sitting with Axl listening to [John’s] ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me’ and Axl pointing out the style of the tom fills.”