This weekend the third movie based on “The Hunger Games” book trilogy arrives in theaters: MOCKINGJAY PART 1. It’s “PART 1” because although the book it’s based upon, “Mockingjay,” isn’t any longer than “The Hunger Games” or “Catching Fire,” the books the first two movies were based on, someone decided it needed to be turned into two movies, the better to exploit the property and make more money, I guess. In a couple of weeks THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES, the third movie in a trilogy based on a book half as long as any of the “Lord of the Rings” books that only required one movie each, hits theaters, and it was recently announced that Marvel’s third Avengers movie will also be two parts.
Where did it all start? Who decided that More Is More, always and no matter what? Was it when Quentin Tarantino decided that his 2003 kung fu B-movie tribute KILL BILL — a movie whose deepest thought was the idea that unlike Peter Parker or Bruce Wayne, who had to put on disguises to fight crime, Superman’s true identity was Superman, and Clark Kent was the disguise — was such a work of genius that it had to be four-plus hours long and had to be broken into two movies (rather than just cutting out Daryl Hannah)? That was definitely an important step, but I think it goes back much farther.
I have identified Patient Zero of our current epidemic of Entertainment Bloat: Guns N’ Roses 1991 albums Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II.
If you’re too young to remember, it’s hard to overstate just how massive Guns N’ Roses was in 1991. Their 1987 debut Appetite For Destruction, had been a monster hit with three huge MTV singles (“Welcome to the Jungle,” “Paradise City,” “Sweet Child O’Mine”) and the 1988 followup GNR Lies had another one (the acoustic ballad “Patience”). By the time they came along, rock and roll had degenerated into a bunch of dudes with pink lipstick and yellow hairspray playing warmed-over Chuck Berry riffs and two-hand tapping on polka-dotted guitars.
1988 Guns N’ Roses was emphatically not that. There was no hairspray, no spandex, no songs about good times and poo-say. Just five surly, smelly-looking dudes in denim and leather and bandanas, looking like they had to be forcibly dragged onto the stage from a Russian roulette cockfight in a strip club, playing stripped down, raw rock and roll that sounded legitimately dangerous and emphatically different from every other band in their section of the record store.
It seemed like a real possibility that one of them — any one of them — might not make it to the next gig because they’d be dead or in jail. They looked unwell. But after years of castrato Bon Jovi shit passing for rock they were a breath of fresh air. (Fresh, smoky, beer-burpy air.) Everybody was wearing their t-shirt, they were on the radio and TV and coming out of every passing car everywhere you went. They were on the cover of the Rolling Stone five times (five times) between 1988 and 1992.
Their first headlining tour sold out arenas in 5 minutes even though they hadn’t had a record out for three years: The “Use Your Illusion” tour launched almost a year before its namesake album was released, because the band reportedly had so much amazing material they didn’t know how to release it. I remember reading a Rolling Stone interview with Slash — and how bout that, it’s online! — where he bragged that they had recorded 35 songs. “It would take most bands four to six years to come up with this stuff,” Slash says.
There have been a lot of rumours about whether it will be a single album, a double album, even a boxed set. What’s actually happening at this point?
Well, this is like cleaning out the closet. There’s a ton of material we want to get out, and the problem is, how does one release all of it? You don’t make some kid go out and buy a record for seventy dollars if it’s your second record. We’re trying to think of a way to distribute the material where each of the four discs of material can be separated, so you can buy the whole thing or you can buy just one.
Even then, I suspected some faulty logic here. Because I fully intended to buy whatever they put out, in whatever form they put it out in, the day they put it out, and I knew I would have a lot of company that day at the record store. Nobody who was waiting for this record was going to buy it piecemeal, so why not just release it as a double, because a double album only cost 50% more than a single album? Two single albums cost literally twice as much. So they got to have it both ways: pretending to be looking out for the kids while simultaneously soaking every one of them for an extra $5.
Not that it mattered: I still paid that money happily on September 17, 1991, only a couple weeks after I moved into my freshman dorm room, for Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. This was one of the first times they opened the record store at midnight the night of the release — they covered it on MTV like it was the moon landing. I don’t feel like looking for numbers to support this, but in retrospect it certainly seems like the commercial peak of the record industry in terms of hyping and then moving physical product. The records debuted at #1 and #2 on the charts.
Sixteen songs on the first one, fourteen on the second. That’s a lot of songs, and I listened to them all a lot of times. And as I look back now it’s amazing to think how good I used to be at talking myself into liking stuff. Something similar happened when I first saw THE PHANTOM MENACE: I am so completely 100% certain that I am going to love this thing that I have been waiting for that when it finally comes, I like it, no matter how good it is or isn’t.
So I listened to those two records a lot for a long time. I wanted to like them, even through a creeping suspicion that they weren’t really that good. I didn’t give up on them when Nirvana completely took over on-campus housing a couple of months later. But the songs never really took hold in my brain. I never walked away singing one in my head. I don’t think I’ve listened to Use Your Illusion at all in at least 15 years, and I can hardly remember any of the songs — as I look at the track listing now, most of those titles don’t even seem familiar: “Right Next Door To Hell?” “Perfect Crime?” “Bad Apples”? I would swear on a stack of bibles I never heard any of these except “November Rain.” (Whereas I could probably recite the track listing of Appetite For Destruction, in the correct running order, from memory, despite the fact that I haven’t listened to it in 15 years either.
So I listened to them again and it was weird.
This first song, “Right Next Door To Hell.” Immediately something sounds wrong. The drum sound is way, way different than Guns’ previous stuff, way too much reverb. Because oh yeah, they fired their drummer for being a junkie right before they made this record, and they got the guy from the Cult with the ponytail and the echo machine. Turns out the junkie was better. This song is weird, the opening riff is kind of cool but then Axl comes in fast-rapping all over it but then there’s no hook.
“Dust N’ Bones” I kind of remembered, it’s one of the ones Izzy Stradlin sang. To the extent that I remember liking any of these songs, I liked the Izzy ones, but this one turns out to be not as good as I thought it would be — it’s a three-minute Stones shuffle packed into five minutes.
This “Live and Let Die” cover has always bugged me because Axl a) sounds ridiculous on it and b) sings “but in this ever changing world in which we live in.” IN WHICH WE LIVE IN? That’s appalling grammar. It’s “in which we’re living,” which is still clunky but at least makes sense. They brought five horn players on tour just to play this one song, which is Red Flag #1 that your smelly punk-rock metal band might not be what it used to be.
“Don’t Cry.” Jesus Christ. This is the song that they put on both albums, with different lyrics. Because five verses of these amazing Hallmark lyrics wasn’t enough. That is the single dumbest, most hubristic move in the history of rock — you’d almost applaud Axl for it if it weren’t so mindblowingly vain. And I totally forgot about this stupid ending where he holds out the last note, a capella, for like 15 seconds. I hate it so much.
I wish I could put my finger on exactly what’s different, but Axl’s voice is so much more annoying here than on the previous records. On “Perfect Crime” I am wincing more than listening, but I never had that problem with Appetite or Lies. Maybe Axl’s new molten gold ribbon mics sound a little too real.
“You Ain’t The First.” Anytime we get near a hook, Izzy wrote the song. This one reminds me of the jokey acoustic Van Halen tunes like “Could This Be Magic?” (except not as good). Still I think I like this one the best so far, and not just because it clocks in at a quick 2:36.
“Bad Obsession” is not that bad but it kind of feels like a George Thorogood album cut. And again WAY TOO LONG. The only tunes on Use Your Illusion I that aren’t 4 or 5 minutes are 9 or 10. “Back Off Bitch” could have worked as a lyrical hook somewhere, I guess (obviously, it’s thought-provoking) but it’s an awkward fit with the tune it landed on. And way too long. I like the riff “Double Talkin’ Jive” is built on but Axl’s (quote marks) “bad ass” recitations are stupid and distracting and stepping all over Izzy’s lead vocal; Slash kind of saves it in the end with the coolest solo yet on this record.
Which brings us to “November Rain.”
It’s really hard to separate this song from its video, one of the most expensive ever produced. When you’re a hard rock band known primarily for your raw sound and aggressive lyrics, how does no one point out that the first musicians seen in your video should not be a baton-waving conductor and an orchestra? I guess this song isn’t necessarily bad exactly — it’s a little trite, and Slash’s solos are okay — but it has no business at all being nine minutes long. This song is the whole Use Your Illusion project in microcosm: It could have been pretty good with a little (or a lot) of editing, but as they say in Hollywood, “we decided to go another way.” I showed this video to my 7-year-old and ten seconds in he said, “Is this supposed to be a rock band?”
(Interesting note about “November Rain”: almost all the comments on the YouTube video are in Spanish. Why do Spanish-speakers like this song while most Americans have either forgotten all about it or come to our senses that it was never that good? I have no idea.)
“The Garden” and “Garden of Eden” are next, back-to-back. There’s no need for two songs with “Garden” in the title on the same album, especially if one of them (“Garden of Eden”) is a hunk of shit. “The Garden” is mostly notable for the Alice Cooper cameo on what I guess you’d call the chorus.
“Don’t Damn Me” is really terrible, the kind of song where the vocal doubles the guitar riff throughout in a super annoying way. That kind of thing can work sometimes, but not with a busy, uptempo riff like this. In general, this album is plagued by the problem of Axl trying to fit way too many lyrics into every song.
“Bad Apples” and “Dead Horse” are about as good as the rock gets here, but the former is marred by some blackfacey vocal stylings by Axl and the latter contains the line “I’m not the only one with whom these feelings I share,” which gets my vote for single worst lyric of all time. Then we get to “Coma,” a ten-minute melodrama apparently depicting an OD followed by a long nap. Like most of the songs here, it is completely hookless, and ends with some silly voice actors playing doctors desperately trying to revive the patient.
And with that, we’re at the end of Use Your Illusion I. This album is already way too long and it’s only halfway over. I’d say so far there are five songs (out of sixteen) that aren’t terrible.
Use Your Illusion II opens with “Civil War,” the only track on the album that original drummer Steven Adler played on and one of the only songs I can remember from this whole mess. It opens with a soundbite from COOL HAND LUKE that seems to have little relation to the song, and it goes on twice as long as it should: almost eight minutes when it really feels like it’s wrapping up at the four-minute mark.
Then comes one of the only ones I really remember, “14 Years,” another Izzy song with a little too much barrelhouse piano and way too much Axl chiming in on the choruses. I have been thinking of this song lately because my wife and I just had our 14th anniversary.
“Yesterdays” is less than four minutes long, which automatically puts it in the top half of the material; “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” is a studio version of a Bob Dylan song GNR had been playing live for a long time and released a live version on a 12″ (I have a copy) — this version does nothing to improve upon it.
“Get In The Ring” was the song, when I first listened to this album, that made me start to think maybe this whole thing was bullshit: it’s basically Axl challenging, by name, every journalist that ever did anything other than blow him in print to a fight. What a total crock of shit. On an album composed of 95% completely self-indulgent horseshit, it’s really saying something to say that this one stands out. “Shotgun Blues” is totally by the numbers and like a lot of the songs, ends with Axl calling someone a shithead pussy. I don’t know if I can make it to the end of this thing.
“Breakdown” — this is one of the only songs here I actually, genuinely liked, albeit not enough to have listened to it even once in the last 15 years or more. I still like it. If Axl had channeled his need to play piano into more songs like this he might still have a career. It’s still too long by half though, and like a lot of tunes here it’s marred by Axl’s apparent need to do weird voices over top of almost every song. Also can’t say I love the lines “Funny how everything was roses when we held onto the guns/just because you’re winning don’t mean you’re the lucky ones.” Enough with the self-pity, World’s Biggest Rock Star. Oh shit, there’s also more blackfacey bullshit recitation at the end. I take it back, fuck this song.
“Pretty Tied Up (The Perils Of Rock N’ Roll Decadence)” would have been a much better title for this album, and it demonstrates its thesis in the first moment with a sitar lick. It then goes into some dumb lyrics about a bondage enthusiast and is once again so much longer than it needed to be.
“Locomotive” is another song with no chorus that somehow goes on for almost nine minutes and more baldly misogynist lyrics. I’m bailing at 3:56. “So Fine” is a weak ballad sung by bassist Duff McKagan.
Then we get to “Estranged,” the second-longest song here at 9:24 and the one with the insanely dumb video where Axl jumps off an aircraft carrier and swims with dolphins.
When you’re a hard rock band known primarily for your raw sound and aggressive lyrics, how does no one point out that you shouldn’t swim with dolphins? Slash makes some cool dolphin noises with his guitar which begs the question, which came first, the dolphin sounds or the dolphin video? Which begs the question, who cares?
“You Could Be Mine” — the one and only unambiguously good song on either of these albums. I always thought the lyrics were about kicking Steven Adler out of the band, but Wikipedia says the song was written long before that. Then the other version of “Don’t Cry” with the other lyrics, and the whole bloated mess ends with “My World,” a complete piece of shit industrial rap song made by Axl all by himself. (On the plus side, it’s only 1:26 long, so it’s still one of the better tracks.)
I think we’ve all had enough of this. I would say there are five non-shitty songs on Use Your Illusion II, bringing us to a total of ten not-terrible songs out of 30. Granted, none of those ten songs are as good as anything on Appetite For Destruction, but if they had just put out one album of ten songs they might still exist as a band, instead of as a brand name populated by hired hands.
I always thought “Use Your Illusion” was an imperative statement directed at the audience: Use your illusion, your delusions of grandeur, your ambition, whatever you want to call it, toward a positive end. Now I see that it was Axl who was using our illusion: our illusion that this band had anything at all left to say. He used that illusion all the way to the bank, and now Hollywood is following suit with trilogies that last for four movies. So when you’re walking out of MOCKINGJAY PART 1 pissed off because it ended right when it seemed like it should be getting good, blame Axl Rose.