In Defence Of: Guns N’ Roses ‘Chinese Democracy’

Guns N’ Roses made some good albums about sex and drugs, then they made an excellent one about a descent into insanity – too bad the rest of the world dismissed it, writes JODY MACGREGOR.

Chinese Democracy was the punchline to a joke even before it was released. Those 14 years Axl Rose spent hiring and firing musicians, studio personnel and past-life regression therapists were a bigger story than any music he might actually put out at the end of it. It didn’t help that he did this while living like a hermit, a cornrow Howard Hughes who looked like he ate all the cake and forgot how to pull off wearing a bandana.

The jokes overtook the album itself, but not straight away. Given Chinese Democracy’s dire reputation now, it’s weird to look back at the reviews from 2008 and see they’re actually pretty split. Sure, Dave Park of Prefix called it “self-absorbed, turgid, over-produced and soulless” but at the same time Robert Christgau called it “touching on a human level. Noble even.” The fans were harsher critics, disowning the new line-up entirely for being “Axl Rose & Friends” rather than the band they fell in love with. And people who hadn’t listened to it were pretty harsh as well because, well, nobody who looks like Axl Rose does now could possibly make a great rock album.

Except that he did, and these are the reasons why.

Last of the great disasters

Documentaries about the making of famous albums follow a boring set of rules. There will always be the anecdote about how a celebrity passed through the studio and really liked what they heard, the interview with the drug-addled band member who now lives in the suburbs next to an elderly couple who think he’s just lovely, the bit where Rolling Stones’s David Fricke tells you what he thinks about the songs. They’re formulaic – but the movie that gets made about Chinese Democracy won’t be.

The snippets of the saga that have leaked out so far are demented. When the label tried to push Axl Rose into choosing a single producer by giving him a stack of CDs to listen to he put them on the ground and drove over them in his car. When drummer Josh Freese quit, Axl took revenge by removing his drumming completely, hiring Bryan “Brains” Mantia to painstakingly recreate Freese’s precision work with the help of a notator who spent years transcribing Freese’s meticulous patterns so that they could be re-recorded identically, at the end of which Axl told Mantia that he actually quite liked how loose Mantia’s own style was, and that he should re-record everything again that way. When guitarist Buckethead – named because he performs with a KFC bucket on his head – wasn’t feeling in the mood, Axl took him to Disneyland, and when Buckethead demanded a chicken coop be built in the studio so he could record inside it, Axl went ahead and had it built for him.

These are only the beginning. Imagine when the full story gets told. It’ll piss all over Some Kind of Monster.

The songs

‘Better’ is one of a couple of songs that sound like they were written at the height of nu-metal and are trying to redeem it, with industrial stop-start riffs that sound sampled and squelchy. But it doesn’t stay in that nu-metal cyber-thrash place, instead switching restlessly back and forth between that and a more typically Guns N’ Roses sound as if it’s challenging you to notice that maybe nu-metal, like dopey pomp-rock, had its redeeming features when done well enough.

‘This I Love’ is an Andrew Lloyd Weber musical number, a piano ballad that begins with Axl sitting down and going full Phantom of the Opera before the inevitable guitar solo. It follows ‘Street of Dreams’, another theatrical blend of piano and guitar solo that should make you yearn for a Guns N’ Roses rock opera.

‘Sorry’ is a tribute to Black Sabbath, with Axl doing a surprising Ozzy voice over a Tony Iommi-style downer-rock riff. That leads into ‘IRS’, a homage to Led Zeppelin that opens with Axl affecting Robert Plant’s sex-noise moans from ‘Whole Lotta Love’ before shifting back to his own voice like he’s playing connect the dots with musical history for you.

Those songs sound like they belong on at least three different albums. They’re like kids born from different mothers, Axl’s misfit children of the cornrows. Say what you like about Chinese Democracy but you can’t call it dull. It’s full of twists and turns that may hinder its ability to hang together as an album, but only help it when approached as a set of building blocks for playlists and pleasant surprises in your shuffle feed. Putting it out in 2008 may actually have been too soon. It’s the perfect record for 2013.

It all comes full circle

During the lengthy delays in recording, then-drummer Josh Freese and computer guy Billy Howerdel (whose only credit on the finished record is digital editing on track six) had a lot of time to kill. The two of them were hanging out in an expensive studio with nothing much to do except collect their paycheques and jam. Deciding that it would be a shame to waste all that fancy gear, they got a group of friends together to maybe record some songs. Those friends became A Perfect Circle and those songs became their first album, Mer de Noms. If you have ever headbanged to ‘Judith’ you owe that to Chinese Democracy.

Axl Rose is a mad scientist

The story goes that Axl demanded his musicians send him CDs full of multiple takes of their parts of individual songs on an almost daily basis. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results, then that’s insane right there. That level of finicky perfectionism resulted in songs assembled from different parts by different performers like Frankenstein’s monster. “This drummer has the right feel for the verses, but we need another drummer to do the choruses. My creature shall live!”

But Victor von Frankenstein’s creation isn’t a monster; he’s just misunderstood.

Axl’s brand of hard-working scientific perfectionism is the opposite of everything rock & roll is supposed to be, and that’s what’s so good about it. When you’ve exhausted rebelling against the world, when you’ve been rewarded for thumbing your nose at the rich and powerful by being asked to join them, the only thing left to fight against is the empty-headed attitude that mistook a haircut for a rebellion in the first place.


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