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Unhealthy appetite
Guns Ní Roses are deeper than their catalogue

Last month, Guns Ní Rosesí new Greatest Hits (Geffen) made an impressive debut on the Billboard 200 albums chart, landing at No. 3 with sales of over 150,000 copies. That achievement put a cap on weeks of controversy surrounding the hard-rock icons, who have been limping along for most of the last decade with frontman Axl Rose as their only remaining original member. First, Axl joined old mates Slash and Duff McKagan in an unsuccessful legal effort to stop the label from putting the disc out. Then, he announced that the band were canceling their May 30 appearance at the first-ever Lisbon edition of the Rock in Rio festival, because Slashís latest replacement, Buckethead, had quit on short notice. Regarding the status of GNíRís long-delayed new studio album, Axl made a statement that must have rock fans everywhere rolling their eyes: "We hope to announce a release date within the next few months."

Given Axlís prolonged creative silence, the odds are against him and whatever glorified solo album he may or may not have up his sleeve in 2004. But despite his eccentricity, GNíRís legacy is secure. In the nine years since the last new track (a cover of the Rolling Stonesí "Sympathy for the Devil") released by anything even resembling their original lineup, the band have sold around 10 million copies of their back catalogue. Their 1987 debut, Appetite for Destruction, has shifted 15 million units overall and is one of hard-rockís all-time landmark recordings. So itís safe to say that the appearance of Greatest Hits is overdue ó and itís hard to blame Geffen for putting it together without the fractured input of GNíR themselves, which was the reason for the bandís lawsuit.

New music or not, the release of Greatest Hits marks GNíRís third commercial resurgence in the last five years. The first one happened in 1999, when the archival Live Era í87Ėí93 came out and quickly went gold. Around the same time, the bandís new "Oh My God" was included on the End of Days soundtrack. Featuring Janeís Addictionís Dave Navarro in the Slash chair, the tune was a reasonable enough modernization of classic GNíR, but it never caught fire on rock radio. Three years later, the band surprised everybody by mounting a full-blown North American arena tour, which came to an abrupt end less than halfway through when Axl pissed off the trekís promoters, Clear Channel, by failing to show up for a gig in Philadelphia. I paid to see them on the Toronto stop of that tour, and it was worth the price of admission, if not the hour-and-a-half wait for the group to take the stage: Axl was in fine form, and guitar god Buckethead actually made it hard to miss Slash.

Now comes Greatest Hits, which fulfills its basic obligation by presenting the groupís highest-charting singles in rough chronological order. Thatís the way labels like to do things, not bands ó especially not album-rock acts like GNíR, who despite their five Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart are only partially defined by their radio profile. Playing by Geffenís rules, I have just one problem with the song selection, and it could have been avoided with a simple substitution: ditch "Knockiní on Heavenís Door" and replace it with "Nightrain." The Bob Dylan classic is a GNíR concert staple that fell flat in the studio and never even reached the charts in the Use Your Illusion II version that appears here. (A previous recording of the tune, from 1990ís Days of Thunder soundtrack, was a minor rock hit.) The Appetite party anthem "Nightrain," on the other hand, is the bandís only Hot 100 entry that didnít make the cut.

That should have been a no-brainer, but otherwise Greatest Hits is an instant jukebox classic. It kicks off with the immortal screech of "Welcome to the Jungle," followed by GNíRís breakthrough single and only No. 1 hit, "Sweet Child oí Mine." With its lyrical guitar breaks, riveting coda, and six-minute running time, the latter is the template for much of what follows, including the three remaining songs by the original lineup. "Paradise City" eschews romance in favor of silliness and aggression, but Axlís sensitive side reappears in time for the unplugged ballad "Patience," on which he goes from a poignant whistle to a chilling howl. On "Civil War," a rock smash that first appeared on the 1990 benefit album Nobodyís Child (Warner Bros.) and later on Use Your Illusion II, he gets political for the first time and says goodbye to original drummer Steven Adler, a talented Tommy Lee type whose grooves were as nasty as his drug habit.

For some rock aficionados, the GNíR story ends there, less than halfway through Greatest Hits. Adler was replaced by the slicker Matt Sorum, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed joined the band around the same time. Those two changes diminished the groupís heretofore impeccable street cred, and they coincided with a move toward songs that were both more serious and more accessible. The crowning achievement of 1991ís Use Your Illusion I and II, which have combined to sell almost as many copies as the more-celebrated Appetite, is the nine-minute piano-man blowout "November Rain." Like "Patience" and the more concise "Donít Cry," "November Rain" thrives on the tension between Axlís emotional purging and Slashís heroic melodies. Still, the problem with the Illusion singles is that apart from the steroidal "You Could Be Mine," thereís too much Elton John and not enough Aerosmith.

As a songwriting entity, GNíR pretty much ceased to exist with the post-Illusion departure of guitarist Izzy Stradliní, Axlís childhood friend and the groupís answer to Keith Richards. In 1993, they released the much-maligned covers album The Spaghetti Incident?, and five of the 14 tracks on Greatest Hits are covers. "Live and Let Die" and "Since I Donít Have You" arenít much more fun than "Knockiní on Heavenís Door," but the other two are keepers in my book. On the Dead Boysí "Ainít It Fun," Axl and glam-rock cult hero Michael Monroe start a spitting match on the microphone while Slash sends sparks flying in the face of punk purism. "Sympathy for the Devil," from 1994ís Interview with the Vampire soundtrack, appears here for the first time on a GNíR disc. Itís a worthwhile excavation, the sound of a wounded band having one last blast with a song that epitomizes the black heart of rock-and- roll.

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Issue Date: April 9 - 15, 2004
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