Trim the Fat: Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Use Your Illusion I’ and ‘II’
Unless nuclear winter allows the record industry to start all over again, there will likely never be another album release as audacious as the one on September 17, 1991. Guns N’ Roses, which had spent the previous four years becoming the biggest band in the world, shattered expectations by simultaneously releasing Use Your Illusion I (75:56) and Use Your Illusion II (75:52), a 30-song magnum opus that runs two and a half hours and debuted on the top two spots of Billboard. While it could have ended up as an unwieldy mess by some flashes-in-the-pan who got too cocky, instead a few Hollywood glam punks became the fucking saviors of rock 'n' roll. Yet, despite this accomplishment, not everything is up to snuff. So consider this Trim the Fat Use Your Illusion 0, a curated tribute that edits down two great records into a single, near-perfect album.
"DON'T CRY (ALT. LYRICS)"
There's only one of two reasons for the inclusion of “Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)”: The band was absolutely desperate to have exactly 30 songs in the 11th hour, or there was some sort of grave error during post-production, and they had to figure out a way to pass off the mistake as creative license. Three verses are all that differentiate this version from one of the band’s most popular songs, with the music and choruses being carbon-copied from the original (a conspicuous edit at 1:50 really shows the seams of this stunt). If any other proof is needed, its placement as the penultimate song before the soon-to-be-ravaged “My World” should show this is the definition of filler.
This song would have possibly made it onto our record had the band found a way to cut it in half. While the verses have great hooks, the nearly nine-minute length (with a shuffling, interminable jam at the end) is one of the more egregious examples of the band’s editing issues.
"DON'T DAMN ME"
This song had potential, but infamous frontman Axl Rose’s extended rumination on the impetus for — and repercussions of — his lyrics overshadows everything else. Aside from a brief breakdown halfway through, this is Axl with diarrhea of the mouth, caring more about getting his point across than delivering a memorable performance.
"DUST N' BONES"
This low-energy backwater groove pushes Axl to the side (forcing him to play a tambourine at shows), and would have been a fine entry on an Izzy Stradlin solo record, but on here it feels slight and stale amongst such gold.
This is the only song with a solo writing credit for Duff McKagan, a bluesy punk number that gives him a singing spotlight along with plenty of honky-tonk piano. Maybe in the hands of a different project, this would have worked, but McKagan’s vision doesn’t seem strong enough to carry a band that sounds uninterested in playing along.
"KNOCKIN ON HEAVEN'S DOOR"
The original "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" is a short, haunting near-dirge that many fans didn’t hear before this cover. But once you do spend a little time with Bob Dylan’s version, it’s hard to listen to this masterclass in unrestrained arena rock and not think it misses the point. That’s not to say the cover has to be judged next to the original, but it shows that the melody and lyrics are much more appropriate for an laconic lament and not the hand-clapping call-and-response between Axl and a group of backup singers. It’s a showy, hollow overreach.
"DOUBLE TALKIN' JIVE"
This is the only full-on rocker written just by Izzy, and he may have needed a little more help to push this into something with the proper edge. There are no real hooks, and Axl seems bored despite a great lyrical chorus. As with other songs that have pasted-on ends, the inexplicable fade into Spanish guitar seems to show there just wasn’t enough to work with.
This has all the earmarks of what could have been an epic song, but about halfway through, it completely runs out of steam and just keeps going blindly. It sounds like they had a great idea, but it failed, so they just tried to ride it out however they could. Exhibit A is Axl just talking over pointless rocking out at the end, seemingly trying to hide how aimless it all is.
"PRETTY TIED UP (THE PERILS OF ROCK 'N' ROLL DECADENCE"
While the subtitle for this song is reflected in the lyrics, decadence also explains the opening sitar and simply the inclusion of a song that sort of just sits there. Despite this being a popular live song, the verse is nonexistent, the chorus is half-hearted, and in about five minutes it’s over, having made no real impression.
This may be a personal bias, but starting a song with cowbell and harmonica is always a bad sign. Another Izzy song, with co-writer West Arkeen, this fits into the column of Illusion songs that you’d expect to hear at a shitkicker bar with peanut shells on the floor. It can be good when pulled off by some bands, but it’s forgettable from this one.
"BACK OFF BITCH"
With such a stinging song title, you’d expect something a little more acidic, but this is a cobbled-together collection of riffs that never finds its footing. It also is one of the most dated-sounding songs, which is not surprising since it was reworked from the 1984 demo tape of GN’R precursor Hollywood Rose.
Here is the song that features Alice Cooper, which is really the only noteworthy aspect, and also a big reason why the song is pretty lame. The eerie opening riffs show what could have worked, but the hard rock chorus mixed with Cooper’s comical spoken word makes it all throwaway.
This may be the most forgettable track on either album. Generic rock song that’s likely been skipped by discerning listeners for over 25 years.
One of the band’s bigger songs, it’s also one of the few times where Axl’s voice works against the music. A calm power ballad is torn to shreds by the grating whine of his vocals. It’s unfortunate to say that a Vince Neil or Sebastian Bach could have found a way to deliver, but it really would be preferable to this teeth-on-tin-foil approach.
Considering that this is the longest track the band ever recorded, and that it features some of their more interesting stylistic choices, there really isn’t much to hold onto for these 10+ minutes. That jagged opening riff promises a lot, but aside from the defibrillator set piece, it’s all so anticlimactic.
But an anticlimax is better than “My World.” Nearly everything is better than “My World.” Obviously inspired by Axl’s newfound love of industrial (who could forget his Nine Inch Nails shirt), this was supposedly written and recorded in a few hours with everyone involved on mushrooms. But as people who have taken mushrooms can attest, nature cannot be held responsible for a song this dumb. Considering how much of a craftsman Axl is, this remains a jarring wreck that, at less than 90 seconds, still tests your patience. Like some sort of proto-Juggalo, arrhythmic shock rap, it remains one of the few Guns N’ Roses songs somehow worse than the 1999 failed comeback single “Oh My God” (which you don’t even remember because it sucks so fucking bad).
This remains one of the great opening tracks, and shouldn’t be demoted. Starting with the Cool Hand Luke intro, the triumphant melodies running against Axl’s bleak anti-war lyrics settle you into something that strays so far from traditional hard rock, and yet still delivers clobbering riffs and screaming hooks. Not to mention the return of Axl’s superb whistling skills and the final hurrah of drummer Steven Adler.
"YOU COULD BE MINE"
This is the perfect counterbalance to the opening track, showing that the band is capable of both long, thoughtful rock operatics and the sleazy L.A. destruction they first had an appetite for (they’d supposedly been kicking the song around since 1987). The first single, and promoted early in Terminator 2, this is a wonderful kick in the head — the song manages to be vicious and still drop that melody into the "cocaine tongue" chorus. Slash effortlessly tears into his guitar, and Axl’s near-breathless rant for 30 seconds remains something few vocalists have the skills and mettle to pull off.
"LIVE AND LET DIE"
Whereas “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” turns a requiem into a blustery stadium-pleaser, the band’s cover of Wings takes an overproduced James Bond theme and gives it their own explosive signature. It veers from a normal GN’R construction, allowing them to both add to the song as well as pull off something that pleasantly sticks out from everything else.
Any bluesy misfires from the record are all but erased thanks to this excellent collaboration between Izzy and Axl. Izzy’s delivery on the verses drips with gritty resentment, and if the song faced any risk of losing the listener, Axl matches his pain perfectly on the sing-along chorus. Its tale of regret is the perfect segue into the first of the Del James trilogy.
The first entry in the trilogy based loosely on the Del James story Without You, this is not only one of the first songs ever written by Guns N’ Roses, but when it comes to your basic verse-chorus-verse rock song, the writing and execution are above reproach. The way the song builds shows how much the band was focused on the craft beyond just riffs and vocal hooks, and why this still manages to feel so weighty.
If you’re wiping your eyes now, then cleanse your palate with a short burst of sneering filth pulled from the gutter. A manic shredder that’s over before you’re able to pin down exactly what happened, they still manage to pack it with some of Slash’s most cutthroat riffing.
This songs opens with the chorus, a bombastic head-nodder with vague and violent lyrics, and pushes that chorus to its breaking point, creating a mesmeric anthem. If there's a speeding car filled with drunken degenerates, this is the song that should be blaring from the stereo.
"RIGHT NEXT DOOR TO HELL"
Keeping the momentum from the last two tracks, this is a classic punk rock ode with an infinitely hummable chorus and a surprising hi-hat hook from Matt Sorum during the verses. It’s ugly stuff that bruises you up good before the second of the trilogy.
It’s hard to disentangle this song from one of the most iconic videos of all time, but even without anyone running into wedding cakes in the rain, it's no less impactful. The orchestral accompaniment could have made this maudlin or pretentious, but it gives that extra dimension to a song that toys with the idea of a happy ending before things turn bleak, Slash’s guitar strikes down like lightning and the hopeless mantra begins.
It’s hard to build back up from that, but Axl sets the mood with a simple acoustic guitar riff before a nutcracker segues into straightforward headbanging rock. In some ways, it’s the band trying to do their own “Live and Let Die” with results that are different, but just as satisfying.
"GARDEN OF EDEN"
Arguably the most pissed-off song in the band’s discography, this maelstrom quickly winds up and goes full bore until it finally collapses from exhaustion. This doesn’t seem to have been a very popular live song, likely because even Axl can’t convincingly pull off these Gatling gun vocals outside of a studio.
"GET IN THE RING"
While this is unquestionably a strong track musically, it’s the lyrics that really cemented its inclusion. Axl calls out journalists by name, telling them to “suck my fucking dick”; it features a mock intro of the band in their boxing ring corner (weighing 850 pounds); and there’s an explicit threat to fight Spin publisher Bob Guccione Jr. True, Guccione accepted Axl’s challenge only to be rebuffed, but this still remains a precious gem of artistic rage.
"YOU AIN'T THE FIRST"
Considering how monumental even a trimmed-down version of this album is, here is the band’s most understated song, a short acoustic number that sounds like a less racist / homophobic cousin of “One in a Million.” It may lack the urgency of other tracks, but it’s a welcome respite from the grandiosity, and a chance for the listener to reflect on how much they’ve already gone through.
Due to the commercial success of “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain,” “Estranged” suffered the perceived fate of most third parts of a trilogy — a lesser, not wholly satisfying finale. But the song is truly the apex of the band’s abilities. Every member shines, including Dizzy Reed, who uses piano as connective tissue to hold everything together. The song hits so many peaks that the band is forced to constantly top itself, something they keep pulling off up to the last moments. It’s also a fitting end of the record because this was the last single from the albums, over two years after they were first released. It acts as that final moment, a realization that after this they would never be able to top themselves again. With the song’s final line, Axl speaks for himself, the rest of Guns N’ Roses and every fan of an album so confident, daring and expansive: “I never wanted it to die.”
FINAL RUN TIME: 71 MINUTES