Guns N' Roses covers itself with glory

November 23, 1993|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

If controversy really does sell CDs, now is the time to be in th record business. Three of the most notorious acts in popular music are unleashing new albums today: Rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg, the Dr. Dre cohort currently under indictment for murder; Beavis and Butt-head, the animated MTV twosome whose show has been blamed for everything from arson to the decline of Western Civilization; and Guns N' Roses, the riot-inciting hard rock act whose name has become synonymous with excess and destruction.

Are there any turkeys in this holiday releases? Will anyone other than record store owners be thankful for this bounty? Should parents simply lock up their children now? Here's how the terrifying trio shape up.

In some ways, the worst thing that ever happened to Guns N' Roses was to go from being just another rock act to becoming the spokesband for a generation.

It wasn't simply that these guys were ill-equipped for such a task, though Guns N' Roses is clearly not the sort of group that wears responsibility well; rather, being serious sucked most of the fun out of the band's sound. So where "Appetite for Destruction" was raucous and wry, and "GNR Lies" was poignant and funny, the music on "Use Your Illusion I" and "II" was ardent, ambitious -- and, frankly, a bit of a drag.

So it will probably come as a relief to some listeners that "The Spaghetti Incident?" (Geffen 24617) contains no emotion-packed psychodramas, string-drenched piano ballads or songs about how Axl Rose feels wounded by the world around him. Instead, all it has to offer is straight-forward rock 'n' roll -- the kind GNR owes its reputation to.

"Owes" is the operative term here, and not just because the album consists entirely of cover versions. What "The Spaghetti Incident?" ultimately amounts to is an act of tribute, a way for the band to celebrate some of the music it grew up with.

And that probably would seem no big deal, except for the fact that the stuff that seems to have influenced them most is punk rock.

Surprised? Don't be. After all, the Gunners aren't the only guys on the hard rock circuit who have paid homage to punk. Motley Crue and Skid Row, for example, have both recorded Sex Pistols covers, while Living Colour has remade at least one Bad Brains tune.

More to the point, there really isn't that much difference between the music punk rockers were making then, and the stuff GNR records today (despite what alternative rock snobs might think). Bands like the Damned, the Dead Boys, U.K. Subs, Fear and the Misfits started off just as young, loud and snotty as the Gunners did. The only difference is that none of the others went multiplatinum with their first album. Or any album, for that matter.

Granted, "The Spaghetti Incident?" doesn't exactly surge snarling from the speakers the way the Damned's "Damned Damned Damned" did. In fact, it opens with a perverse piece of '50s nostalgia called "Since I Don't Have You" (originally a hit for the Skyliners) that Axl and the boys pretty much play straight, barring an unprintable ad-lib or two.

From there, though, it's a straight shot into the Damned's "New ** Rose," and that's where the fun really begins. The original "New Rose" is credited with having been the first English punk record, and GNR does an impressive job of recapturing the electricity of that moment without appreciably changing the song's sound or arrangement. (Although Axl doesn't ape the Damned's Dave Vanian by assuming a fake British accent -- he saves that trick for "Down on the Farm.")

To their credit, the Gunners rarely choose obvious songs. For instance, when other acts do a Dead Boys tune, they play "Sonic Reducer," but GNR picked the more poignant (and profane) "Ain't It Fun." Rather than remake the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" like everybody else, these guys do "Raw Power." And instead of running through a well-trod Sex Pistols number like "Anarchy in the U.K.," this band opts for the ultra-obscure "Black Leather."

Moreover, "Spaghetti" lets the individual band members stretch out some. "Buick Makane," for example, finds Slash taking most of the vocal duties (apparently, this is his favorite T. Rex tune), with Axl joining in only when the song careens into Soundgarden's "Big Dumb Sex."

Bassist Duff McKagan moves to the fore on two numbers. It's his Glenn Danzig impression that carries the band's turbo-charged cover of the Misfits' oldie "Attitude," while "You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory" finds McKagan playing everything but lead guitar in a heartfelt tribute to the late Johnny Thunders.

Best of all, the band seems to be having enormous fun with the music. Axl Rose shrieks through the New York Dolls oldie "Human Being" with the same abandon he applied to "Welcome to the Jungle," while the guitar work on their version of Nazareth's "Hair of the Dog" ranks among the band's strongest playing. And "I Don't Care About You" not only captures the spirit of Fear's original version, but actually surpasses its throat-shredding intensity.

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