Quite possibly the most interesting and fascinating rock album released in my lifetime is Chinese Democracy by Guns N’ Roses, released ten years ago today. This was an album of mythic proportions. It was in some state of genesis for parts of 15 years and I think come the mid-2000s most probably assumed it was musical vaporware and would never see the light of day.
To comprehend the magnitude of Chinese Democracy you need to take a trip back to 1991. That year, Guns N’ Roses released its true sophomore effort and follow-up to the debut Appetite for Destruction with the double-album Use Your Illusion. The band was on-top of the rock world thanks to the success of Appetite. It combined good tunes with big personalities, none bigger than frontman Axl Rose. The band invited controversy, or at least Axl did, and was pretty upfront about its destructive lifestyle. The title of their first album wasn’t something that just sounded cool, it was basically their lifestyle. As a result, record company Geffen was quite fearful that the band would crash and burn before they could milk it for all it was worth. This is all detailed quite well in Watch You Bleed, the unauthorised biography of the band by Stephen Davis. Geffen would repeatedly try to get the band into the studio, and fast-tracked the follow-up EP Lies in 1988 just to keep the cash flowing. Use Your Illusion would basically turn into Axl’s vanity project, wanting to do something bigger than Appetite. His affinity for Elton John was front and center in the many long ballads contained on those two albums and the accompanying music videos were lavish and expensive. The albums were a major commercial success, even if they were quite inferior to what came before.
Following the release of Use Your Illusion, the band would embark on a massive, global tour where apparently things deteriorated between Axl and his band mates with some claiming Axl forced them all to sign over the rights to the band to him before a gig in Rio (a claim Axl denies). Members were dropping, but the most recognizable personalities of Rose and guitarist Slash were still holding things together, albeit barely. Following the heavy touring, the band would work on and release a covers album in 1993, The Spaghetti Incident?. It wasn’t particularly good, though few cover albums are, but still managed to sell over 6 million copies. Things would further fall apart following the recording of another cover, this one of “Sympathy for the Devil” for the Interview With a Vampire soundtrack. Axl supposedly mixed it behind the band’s back and Slash was disgusted with how it turned out (I personally find it kind of interesting), but he still soldiered on but eventually left the band in 1996. Bassist Duff McKagan would eventually follow Slash out the door in 1997. At the time he stated the band had studios rented for the better part of three years and yet no songs to show for it.
By 1998, the band was practically unrecognizable. Axl Rose was the only member left from the early days, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed was the only other holdover from the Use Your Illusion albums. It was at this point the band seemed to get serious about writing and recording new music and Geffen even offered the band a bonus of a million dollars if it could complete the record by 1999. That obviously didn’t happen, but by then one song was unveiled along with the eventual album’s title. That song, “Oh My God” was included on the End of Days soundtrack and was not met with much enthusiasm. It was basically an industrial rock song and few nice things were said of it. This was also the era in which Rose really started talking up the album claiming he had enough material for a whole trilogy of albums. He even played some demo versions of songs for Rolling Stone and there was some momentum for the album, and yet nothing would come for many years.
The band’s first unveiling with this new lineup ended up as a surprise appearance at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. Despite a warm reception, the band kind of floundered through a brief set that included renditions of classics “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Paradise City” sandwiched around a new song, “Madagascar.” Rose particularly sounded awful, unable to really unleash his screech and compensating by just singing comically high. Still, the band suggested the album was close with guitarist Robin Finck even throwing out a date of Summer 2003, but that obviously didn’t happen.
Guns N’ Roses, possibly in need of a cash infusion, returned to touring in late 2002. This likely stalled production on Chinese Democracy, but not enough to justify missing that release window by five years. During the touring, fans did get to hear early versions of songs that would make the album, but the reception wasn’t warm. Leaks would follow over the ensuing years, some resulting in legal action by Geffen and the band, and the New York Times would report in 2005 that production costs had now topped 13 million dollars, an incredible sum for an album that still was years away.
Eventually, the album would see the light of day. On November 23, 2008, Chinese Democracy was unleashed. It’s hard to say what the level of enthusiasm was at that point. Because the costs for Geffen were so astronomical, the label went to great lengths to try to make as much of its money back as possible. It negotiated exclusive deals for songs with movie studios and video game makers. “If The World” would run during the closing credits of Body of Lies while “Shackler’s Revenge” was included with Rock Band 2. Best Buy secured an exclusive agreement to sell the album in its stores, including CD versions and an LP. The title track was debuted on Opie and Anthony’s show before being distributed to other radio stations while “Better” was released as a promo single as well. To drum up enthusiasm for the record, fans could stream it for free three days before release. Perhaps most infamously, was the Dr. Pepper promotion. Early that year, Dr. Pepper openly promised free cans of its signature soda if the album was released in 2008. The roll-out of coupons for individuals looking to take advantage of the promotion was botched, with Dr. Pepper’s website becoming overloaded. The band even threatened a lawsuit over the whole thing and accused Dr. Pepper of tarnishing the album’s release leading to lower than expected sales. Rose would later claim he had nothing to do with the threat of litigation and considered it a non-issue.
When Chinese Democracy was finally in the hands of fans curious to hear it, it came packaged with a rather thick booklet. So many cooks were in the kitchen here, many no longer even with the band. Of them, the most famous was likely guitarist Buckethead who didn’t hang around long enough to see release. Twelve separate musicians received credits in the personnel department with five additional guest musicians credited (most famously, Sebastian Bach who performed backing vocals on “Sorry”). The 14 track album ran for over 70 minutes, and it’s almost impossible to know how old some of the tracks are. It’s a rather fascinating album for this reason, and perhaps one day Rose will open up about the production process and be able to provide track lists for each year recording was ongoing. It certainly would make for an interesting documentary.
As for the album itself, while the initial sales may have disappointed (it debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200) it has since been certified platinum. Critics seemed largely complimentary of the release, even if it was tempered somewhat. Perhaps the biggest proponents of the album were Axl’s former band mates with almost all of them offering a positive assessment of the record.
In revisiting the album I still largely hold the same opinion now as I did back in 2008. It’s both a satisfying and disappointing release. The disappointment comes in that this isn’t some over-the-top sound, nor is it a giant dumpster fire. I think some people were hoping for a disaster, and what they got is a pretty decent record, though not one anyone is likely to proclaim as an all-time great. What I do find really interesting about the album is that its best moments are what many people disliked about Use Your Illusion. This is an Axl Rose record and Axl Rose likes ballads, so there’s no shortage here. The last three songs are long, slow, pieces and are also among the best moments for the record. When it tries to be hard and heavy, it has its greatest stumbles. The title track is a fairly straight-forward rock track, satisfying, though not spectacular. “Shackler’s Revenge” and “Better” follow a similar path, though to not as great an effect.
The album stumbles following its first ballad, the quite competent and satisfying “Street of Dreams.” “If the World” goes for a bit of a jam sound and it sounds way over-produced. It’s more an idea than a fully realized song. The next two, “There Was a Time” and “Catcher in the Rye,” are fine, but sound way too similar to each other. It’s puzzling to see them placed back to back. “Catcher in the Rye” also goes for a melancholy sound that feels stale and a touch corny. It’s not helped by the subject matter of the song, which feels like well-trod territory. “Scraped” is where the album bottoms out, a noisy, directionless song with Rose’s worst vocal performance. “Riad N’ the Bedouins” feels like the unofficial beginning of the album’s second act. It’s a rocker that’s delivered with true ferocity. It’s probably the heaviest song on the album and it contains some classic Rose gusto with lines like, “I don’t give a fuck ’bout them ’cause I am cra-zay!” What momentum the album finds with the song though is wasted on “Sorry,” just a snoozefest of a track. “I.R.S” is more a mid-tempo rocker, and it’s fine. Axl’s vocals are probably as close to classic Axl as you’re going to hear on this one. The trio of ballads that round things out follow. “Madagascar” is another over-produced mess, though it debuts a new “voice” for Rose in which he goes with a weathered, low, sound. The song is interwoven with clips of Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech as well as the same soundbite from Cool Hand Luke that was previously used at the beginning of “Civil War.” “This I love” is a gentle ballad with a great melody and vocal performance by Rose, while “Prostitute” is similar, but it has a bigger end.
Despite my dislike for some songs on this one, I do still find it compelling enough to listen to the album the whole way through. It is not and never will be my favorite GNR album, but I’m torn on if I like this more than I do the individual Use Your Illusion albums. Those two were a mess stuffed full of filler material. I think if I were to cut Use Your Illusion down to a single album, it would be better than Chinese Democracy, but it is a fun discussion. Appetite for Destruction will likely always be the band’s best album and one that really defines its sound. It’s not just the best album in the band’s discography, it’s one of the ten best rock albums of all time. No one, even back in 1991, expected the band to top it only to supplement it with more worthwhile content.
Following Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses has been quiet on the new release front. Rose did claim around 2014 that more material was on the way, but it’s been rather quiet. The band put out a remastered version of Appetite for Destruction instead, and former band mates Slash and Duff are back with Rose. Supposedly, there are dozens of unfinished songs leftover from the Chinese Democracy sessions so it’s possible that some day Geffen will put them out looking to just make a little money off of them, if they can. If GNR is to remain a nostalgic act I suppose few will mind, though longtime fans are probably curious to hear what a new album with Slash and McKagan back in the fold would sound like. Regardless of how the album ultimately turned out, Chinese Democracy will always be remembered as the white whale of rock albums. The incredibly long and dramatic production time was perhaps more fun to follow than the album was to listen to. There’s a part of me that wished it continued, though I know that’s a retroactive feeling as at the time I was more than ready for the whole thing to have an end. I think ten years later the album is still worth a look and how much you enjoy it largely depends on your expectations. If you’re looking for another Appetite or even another Use Your Illusion, you’ll be let down. If you just want a textured rock record with a modern sound, then I think there’s something to like here.