On July 21, 1987, Guns N’ Roses unleashed their first studio album, Appetite for Destruction, on Geffen Records. It debuted at No. 182 on the Billboard 200 chart, and had only sold 200,000 copies by December. The record label was about to move on and let the band record a follow-up when something unexpected happened: The heavy rotation of the video for their “Welcome to the Jungle” propelled the record—and the band—to superstardom.
On August 6, 1988, more than a year after its original release, Appetite for Destruction became the best-selling album in America—as well as the best-selling debut album of all time—and spent a total of 147 weeks bouncing around the Billboard charts. Since then, the album has sold 18 million copies in the U.S. and as many as 30 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling records of all time. Despite the success of their second record, 1988’s G N’R Lies, “The most dangerous band in the world” would only see one more No. 1 album, 1991’s Use Your Illusion II.
In honor of Appetite for Destruction’s 35th anniversary, here are 12 facts about the album that turned Axl Rose into a household name.
KISS guitarist Paul Stanley visited Guns N’ Roses at an apartment their label had rented for them in Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of producing the album that would become Appetite for Destruction. There, he found rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin and guitarist Slash sleeping on a couch. “When they woke up,” according to Rolling Stone, “they played him some demos, including one of ‘Nightrain.’ Stanley liked it but suggested the chorus needed an extra hook. That was it: [Lead singer Axl] Rose never spoke to Stanley again, refusing to even look at him.”
With a price tag of $370,000 (the equivalent of about $1 million today), Appetite for Destruction was an expensive album to make—but the production team pulled out all the stops and employed a handmade style. According to Rolling Stone, it was “mastered with vinyl in mind, to be edited with a razor blade applied to two-inch tape, to be mixed by five people frantically pushing faders at a non-automated mixing board.”
“We used classic instruments and classic amps,” producer Mike Clink said. “Our approach was reminiscent of stuff that was done in the sixties and early seventies.”
In the 1980s, censoring albums was rampant. Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center complained about the album’s original artwork, which featured a drawing of a robot, a partially naked woman, and a monster. It was a copy of lowbrow artist Robert Williams’s 1978 painting Appetite for Destruction.
“Guns N’ Roses finally got my home number and called me,” Williams told Revolver Magazine. “I suggested that they come over to my house and look through some slides and pick something other than ‘Appetite for Destruction’ for the cover, because I knew they were gonna get in trouble with it. I’d faced a lot of legal troubles doing underground comics, so I was really well-versed in that.”
Despite knowing how controversial the art was, Rose still chose it. “The picture is really strange; you can’t quite figure out what’s going on, and that always bothers you,” Rose said in 1987. “But it captures the band. I submitted it to the band as a joke, and they all went ‘This is it.’”
Geffen knew the cover art would cause a stink, so they only printed 30,000 units and had a replacement cover ready to go before the record was released. As predicted, retail outlets censored the record by covering it with brown paper. The label moved the original artwork to the inner sleeve, and soon the record was pulled off the shelves. Rose asked artist Billy White Jr. to draw him what would look like a tattoo featuring the bandmates, which became the now-iconic cover.
“The cross and skulls that looked like the band was Axl’s idea, the rest was me,” White Jr. told Culture Creature. “The knot work in the cross was a reference to Thin Lizzy, a band Axl and I both loved.” Rose had the art tattooed on his arm.
Instead of the typical side A and side B, Appetite’s vinyl has a side G and a side R. The G side contains hard-hitting songs, like “Welcome of the Jungle” and “Paradise City,” whereas the R side contains tunes about love and relationships, like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Rocket Queen.”
“Welcome to the Jungle” was the first song Slash and Rose collaborated on. It all started in Slash’s mom’s basement, where Slash played the main riff for Rose. “I picked up my guitar, standing in front of the couch on one knee, and said, ‘Check this out,’ and it stuck with him,” Slash told Rolling Stone. It only took the band three hours to write the tune. “I consider this song to be the most representative of what we’re like,” Rose told Hit Parader Magazine.
Rose also said that a visit to Seattle inspired the lyrics. “It’s a big city, but at the same time it’s still a small city compared to LA and the things that you’re gonna learn. It seemed a lot more rural up there. I just wrote how it looked to me. If someone comes to town and they want to find something, they can find whatever they want.”
Alan Niven said the films Midnight Cowboy, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and A Clockwork Orange inspired the music video for “Welcome to the Jungle,” which was directed by British artist Nigel Dick, who would go on to collaborate with Guns N’ Roses on the videos for “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” “Paradise City,” and “Patience.”
After having a bit too much to drink on set, Slash stole a motor home being featured in the video. “Suddenly the motor home took off and lurched across the street and made a U-turn and came scrunching to a halt,” Dick later recounted to Rolling Stone. “Slash sort of kidnapped the vehicle.” He did, however, then return the motor home—and apologize.
By fall 1987, “Welcome to the Jungle” had a video, but MTV wouldn’t air it. At this point, the record had only sold 200,000 copies and hadn’t received much radio play. MTV didn’t want to play it, because media mogul John Malone told them not to do so. Tom Zutaut, a Geffen A&R guy who signed the band, phoned the label’s head honcho David Geffen and talked him into calling MTV directly.
Geffen and the network came to a compromise: They’d play the video at 4 a.m. EST and 1 a.m. PST, when they thought no one would be watching. However, the opposite happened: MTV’s switchboard lit up. “Every kid in America is calling them requesting this video,” Al Coury, Geffen’s head of promotion at the time, told Zutaut. From that point on, MTV added the video to their regular rotation, which helped increase record sales.
In 1988, “Sweet Child O’ Mine” became the band’s first and only No. 1 song. Rose had written a love poem to his girlfriend, Erin Everly, who later became his wife—then his ex-wife (the couple was married from 1990 to 1991). “I had written this poem, reached a dead end with it, and put it on the shelf,” Rose told Hit Parader Magazine. “Then Slash and Izzy got working together on songs and I came in, Izzy hit a rhythm, and all of a sudden this poem popped in my head. It just all came together.”
Rose called it “the first positive love song I’ve ever written.” Because of the song’s sentimental nature, bassist Duff McKagan thought it was a joke. “We thought, ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothing,’” McKagan told Q Magazine. But it turned out to be something, and Mike Clink immediately knew it. “That song made the hairs on my arms stand up,” he told Q. “It was magical.”
Rose told Hit Parader that when he and the band moved out of their Los Angeles apartment, he found a wadded up piece of paper with the lyrics to “Mr. Brownstone,” which had been written by Izzy Stradlin and drummer Steven Adler. “I read it and went, ‘This is great,’” Rose said. “They said they had music for it, and we ended up starting to rehearse this thing.” Slash stated how a lot of fans think the song is about drugs, but “it’s a more a statement about other people’s drug habits. It’s a good little ditty that people can listen to and maybe think about what they’re doing.”
Night Train was a flavored wine with 19 percent ABV. In the ‘80s, a bottle cost a buck. “‘Nightrain’ is just like ‘Jungle.’ It’s very indicative of what the band’s all about,” Slash told Hit Parader. “I remember when it first came together. We’d hitchhiked to the Rainbow [Bar and Grill] and were walking down to the Troubadour and just started yelling ‘Nightrain’ ‘cause we were drinking it.” According to Slash, lyrics like “Loaded like a freight train / Flyin‘ like an aeroplane” described “how you feel when you‘re on it, rather than necessarily how you may be. You feel invincible.”
Micajah Ryan, the engineer on the record, told Billboard a story about how Izzy once asked him how many copies he thought the record would sell. “I considered this and thought ‘They won’t get any radio play because almost every song has the word f**k in it.’ So, with an encouraging smile I replied, ‘Oh, I think you could sell 200,000 copies.’ Izzy looked disappointed. ‘I thought we’d sell a couple of million,’ he said. We were both wrong.”