PITTSBURGH — When Guns N’ Roses rolled into Pittsburgh for the first time, they had the look of a band that would be unstoppable.
It was August 1988, opening for Aerosmith at the Civic Arena and on tour for “Appetite for Destruction,” the album that brought hard rock out of its coma.
They were loud, fast and dangerous — outgunning the headliner — and for a while, the new bad boys from the Sunset Strip were on top of the world.
Their monumental double release of “Use Your Illusion I and II” on Sept. 17, 1991 was a smashing success, landing them at No. 1 and 2 on the charts, (with combined sales of 14 million) and they backed it with a tour that ran 192 dates in 27 countries, including blockbuster stadium dates with Metallica.
“The show they played at Three Rivers Stadium was eye-opening,” says Ronald E. Reidell Jr., who was the drummer for Pittsburgh hardcore band Eviction. “I went to see Metallica and Faith no More. While aware of GNR, I wasn’t a fan. Saw them with Aerosmith and thought they were just OK, but with the stadium tour, they appeared to have upped their rock ‘n’ roll ante. The music was tighter and almost ferocious. It seemed like Axl phoned it in a bit, but the band was phenomenal.”
Metallica has had its share of problems, all well-documented, but since that tour, the band has generated six more albums (pushing their total to 11) and waged more than a half-dozen tours.
Guns N’ Roses, who play PNC Park on Friday, weren’t so good at one of the basic things that bands do: make songs.
They followed “UYI” by touting their influences on a collection of covers, “The Spaghetti Incident?,” ranging from The Stooges to the Sex Pistols to The Skyliners (Pittsburgh’s own). There was no follow-up tour and it remains the final album from the core version of the band, which actually began to splinter with the departures of Steven Adler in 1990 and Izzy Stradlin in 1991. By 1997, Duff McKagan and, most importantly, Slash were gone too, but GNR wasn’t up to much anyway.
McKagan wrote in his autobiography, “Guns had been paying rent on studios for three years now — from 1994 to 1997 — and still did not have a single song.”
And then came the two words that would become a punchline for years to come: “Chinese Democracy.” Rose, at that point the last original member, first mentioned the title of the forthcoming GNR album in November 1999.
And then we waited. And waited, with mild interest, amusement and then mockery for this Axl Rose solo album under the GNR name that he had wrangled from the band.
In the meantime, the singer took the new weird supergroup version of the band, with Tommy Stinson (Replacements), Buckethead, Robin Finck (Nine Inch Nails) and Richard Fortus (of post-Psychedelic Furs band Love Spit Love), on the road beginning in 2001. It made one Pittsburgh stop, at a half-filled Civic Arena, in November 2002,
“This is nothing like the Guns N’ Roses we knew growing up,” Fortus told the PG before the show. “This band is a new, whole different vibe.”
That was true. The guitarists brought a meaner, industrial edge to the band, making Rose, at 40, seem almost out of place, vocally and physically.
In my mind, that Arena show began after midnight. It was actually 10:45 p.m., and the crowd (with no phones to fiddle with) was bored silly by the wait after Mix Master Mike and CKY. The staff filled the hours calculating their overtime while the cameraman zoomed in on young girls with the aim of getting them to lift their tops on screen. Yeah, that really happened back then, so, yes, society has made some small progress.
“I despise that band,” says Steve Acri, a former Oasis store manager who’s probably been to more concerts than any other Pittsburgher. “But something inside of me said ‘Maybe you’re being too hard. Maybe you’re missing something.’ So I spent 75 bucks to see the ‘Chinese Democracy’ show at the Arena. Well, Axl was Axl and they came on almost two hours late. But then he was just lame. The band was decent, but I thought he sucked as a front man and really couldn’t sing. I felt cheated but ultimately vindicated.”
“Chinese Democracy” did finally arrive, before Chinese democracy, in 2008, and the critics who were waiting with knives out were, well, disappointed. It wasn’t that bad, thanks in part to that scary guitar trio, but it’s unlikely the average rock fan can name a single song off it aside from the title track.
The 10-year era of the GNR supergroup wrapped up after 239 shows on New Year’s Eve 2011..
In a 2012 interview, Rose, asked when there might be a reunion of the core AFD band, said “not in this lifetime.”
Echoing The Eagles’ “Hell Freezes Over,” the quote became the name of the reunion tour that began in April 2016 with Rose, Slash, McKagan and Dizzy Reed (who had joined for “Use Your Illusion” and remained through “Chinese Democracy”), joined by Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer (also of Love Spit Love) and keyboardist Melissa Reese, a Buckethead associate.
Slash, who had remained busy with Slash’s Snakepit, Velvet Revolver and Slash featuring Myles Kennedy & The Conspirators, told “CBS This Morning” that, over time, the tension between himself and Rose, largely over the different approach to getting things done, had “dissipated.”
That tour made one Pittsburgh stop, a marathon show with lots of pyrotechnics from Slash, played to 39,000 at Acrisure Stadium in July 2016.
Since the tour, which ran through 2019, there’s been the usual talk of an album in the works. There’s nothing new on that front, but on the second date of the late-summer 2021 We’re F’n’ Back! Tour, at Fenway Park, the band introduced the Johnny Rotten-ish “Absurd,” and a reworking of “Silkworms,” a song from the “Chinese Democracy” sessions that was performed a few times back in 2001. A month later, GNR released “Hard Skool,” a glammy rocker song from the CD sessions that seems to hit on some of the band’s issues.
After a 2022 spent in Europe, South America and Asia, the 2023 campaign began in June in the United Arab Emirates and Israel. In the latter, a critic for Haaretz raved, “I may be getting carried away. I can already hear somebody saying, ‘Man, didn’t you hear how Axl’s throat is shot?’ Well, I’ll get to that. But somehow, the state of Axl Rose’s vocal (cords) didn’t change a thing. A concert doesn’t have to be perfect to be perfect. Guns N’ Roses’ performance was one of the best in Israel in recent years, a park concert for the ages.”
When they headlined Glastonbury Festival on June 24, the notorious British press was less kind. Recent headliners of the festival, which dates back to 1970, have included such beloved characters as Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Coldplay and Kendrick Lamar. GNR is not a member of that club.
The very humorous Mark Beaumont, whose wiki page hails his “caustic left-wing political opinions,” declared in The Independent that Guns N’ Roses “represent everything dated, rockist, indulgent and macho that Glastonbury has rejected since its inception” and concluded “even truncating their usual three-hour set to a relatively nimble two-and-a-half, they’re exhausting viewing and frontrunners for the worst Glastonbury headline set of all time.”
The Telegraph’s Neil McCormick didn’t go that far but did note, “Axl Rose just looks weird, like an aging small-town hairdresser who has been working out too hard at the gym.”
Rather than let it slide, Guns N’ Roses, on the way to Germany, fired back, tagging the authors on Twitter with the same lyrics from “Chinese Democracy” that Rose had applied to the Chinese regime: “… it would take a lot more hate than you.”
McCormick responded, “GnR fans going off like offended teenieboppers cos someone doesn’t love their heroes as much as they do, boohoo. This is every critic’s Twitter timeline after they’ve given a K-pop boyband a bad review. It’s 3 stars ffs. And yeah, I was in the (slowly shrinking) crowd. Were you?”
The North American leg opened Aug. 6 in Moncton, Canada, where opener Carrie Underwood went viral for summoning the spirit of Lemmy on her cover of Motorhead’s “Ace of Spades.” She then boosted the GNR vocals immensely on “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City.”
Those songs were part of a 25-song set, with much shredding from Slash and McKagan taking the lead on a cover of The Stooges’ “T.V. Eye.”
PNC Park will be the band’s fourth show with The Pretenders, who were also at Glastonbury (with walk-on guests Dave Grohl and Johnny Marr) and joined the tour Friday at Hersheypark Stadium. In 2014, Rose put Chrissie Hynde on his list of greatest singers.
In a recent interview with The Guardian, the 72-year-old Hynde, promoting a new Pretenders album coming Sept. 15, said, amusingly, “I don’t mind getting older. I do mind getting uglier,” adding, “I’m more relaxed now, if you can believe it. This is the real mellow version of me. Aging is like being a pothead again. Though that’s not to say there are not things that wind me up daily.”
A stadium crowd should accomplish that.
The main connection between the bands is Pretenders’ drummer Martin Chambers. When Adler was fired from GNR in 1990, Chambers was offered the job, but turned it down. It went to Matt Sorum of The Cult, who remained with the band until 1997 when he was reportedly fired for uttering these words: “without Slash, there is no Guns N’ Roses.”
That’s the kind of stuff that goes on in Guns N’ Roses.