Monday, December 1, 2008

[001] OK Computer

Album: OK Computer
Artist: Radiohead
Release Date: June 1997
Label: Capitol
Producers: Nigel Godrich & Radiohead

"Fitter, happier, more productive, comfortable, not drinking too much, regular exercise at the gym (3 days a week), getting on better with your associate employee contemporaries, at ease, eating well (no more microwave dinners and saturated fats), a patient better driver, a safer car (baby smiling in back seat), sleeping well (no bad dreams), no paranoia, careful to all animals (never washing spiders down the plughole), keep in contact with old friends (enjoy a drink now and then), will frequently check credit at (moral) bank (hole in the wall), favors for favors, fond but not in love, charity standing orders, on Sundays ring road supermarket (no killing moths or putting boiling water on the ants), car wash (also on Sundays), no longer afraid of the dark or midday shadows, nothing so ridiculously teenage and desperate, nothing so childish - at a better pace, slower and more calculated, no chance of escape, now self-employed, concerned (but powerless), an empowered and informed member of society (pragmatism not idealism), will not cry in public, less chance of illness, tires that grip in the wet (shot of baby strapped in back seat), a good memory, still cries at a good film, still kisses with saliva, no longer empty and frantic like a cat tied to a stick that's driven into frozen winter shit (the ability to laugh at weakness), calm, fitter, healthier and more productive, a pig in a cage on antibiotics."
- "Fitter Happier"

PART ONE: New Millennial Anomie

The Bends was an introspective album… There was an awful lot of soul searching. To do that again on another album would be excruciatingly boring.”
- Phil Selway

“I spent a lot of time trying not to do voices like mine. The voices on “Karma Police”, “Paranoid Android” and “Climbing Up The Walls” are all different personas. I think “Lucky”, the lyric and the way it's sung, is really positive, really exciting. “No Surprises” is someone who's trying hard to keep it together but can't. “Electioneering” is a preacher ranting in front of a bank of microphones.”
- Thom Yorke

Morrissey gets a bad rap. For over two decades he’s been this “godfather of mope” or whatever, and if you really listen to his lyrics, they’re usually so over the top with the pumped-up woe-is-me routine that it’s pretty funny. Thom Yorke has the same kind of reputation, but for him, it’s mostly well-founded. Granted, in recent years, he’s lightened up a bit, especially in interviews, but most people only interested in surface information think of him as a sadsack, whining and crying all the time. It’s kind of his own fault though; beyond his highly elastic and emotive voice, he tends to sing about broken things a lot of the time, whether it’s hearts and marriages, or governments and citizens and societies.

OK Computer is Yorke’s most obvious collection devoted to this melancholy, and yet this is no general, tears-in-your-beer kind of affair. No sir. OKC is a very specifically sharpened and aimed kind of depression, at the time a modern, Y2K kind of depression. The band’s previous album, The Bends was as straight-forward as Yorke could be in the broken heart department, but a lot of the guitar rock came through as bright color to offset his gray, bummed-out vibes. Following this album, the bellyaches of Kid A, Amnesiac, and Hail To The Thief are either emotionally scattershot or murked up to obscure what he really wants to say, the overall moods of these albums purposely fashioned as a series of mysteries to throw off detractors’ easy labels – one of the reasons that Thom Yorke might seem more cheery in recent years is because he’s having fun fucking with certain corners of the media. But the Computer, it got his undivided attention, unerring focus because the subjects that he decided to write about here struck a previously unstruck chord in him (and of course made this the turned corner that directed all the albums since).

There has always been a lot of debate over whether OKC can qualify as a “concept album” (I hate that term), and while the band has always emphatically said no, Yorke does admit a vague, similar theme to all the lyrics, mostly because he was tired of writing about love, and he found new things to write about. But it’s less of a lyrical thread than a mood. If you think about it, as an album with a general overall theme of urban anomie with a side of authority paranoia and saturated nervousness over the new technological revolution – faster, more compact, more individual and therefore exclusionary…intentional loneliness, essentially – OK Computer is more of a literal ‘concept’ album than a rock opera with a clear narrative string and characters for the singer to inhabit. It’s more of a loose definition in relation to how people have always taken it, and that makes the tag less of a dirty word.

You can sense the unity between the title, the album artwork (continued throughout the associated singles & EP’s), and the lyrics. The title is ambiguous – is it a statement, a question, a response? It can be argued that Yorke spends the album afraid not necessarily of a computer, but instead what the computer represents – the sci-fi future that we all grew up with, explicitly our idea of what the future is supposed to be like, and the fact that it’s now our present. Some of the album artwork has a quaint quality reminiscent of late 1950’s advertising, the kind that is continued today, conveniently, in things such as the emergency procedures laminate you find on an airplane; these things are placed side by side in the CD booklet, and then defaced, a pretty clear message of at least where our jumping off point should be.

It’s not entirely clear what specifics should be taken from the imagery – again the ‘concept’ is kept loose, more a permeating dystopian melancholy than clear talking points of society’s ills – though I’d like to propose that Yorke, who has had a co-art director credit on each album starting with this one (collaborating with Stanley Donwood), is implying the wholesome politeness of post-WWII America is the kind of society that is predisposed to conformity, a conformity that would be listless enough to allow the development of that era’s idea of future tech to one day slowly wear away at everything from creative, independent thought to even face-to-face human interaction. Remember the big Skynet artificial intelligence takeover that is the crux of the Terminator films? Yeah, it happens in a fictional August 1997, ironically in the same summer this album was released. There is no denying our world was afraid of the new millennium and looking ahead at technology passing us all by. Now put yourself in the place of a 28 year-old singer-songwriter tired of writing about love and prone to soaking his art in depression and frustration anyway. Yorke turned his lyrical eye to whatever the standout elements of the fictional dystopian futures he grew up on were, and applied them to the real life parallels he saw.

OK Computer is littered with images of Big Brother-esque police states and paranoid citizenry, the stuff of frequent fiction; it’s even possible to see art imitating art, as the lyrics certainly touch on similar themes to Alan Moore’s classic anti-Thatcher graphic novel V For Vendetta, and in turn its film adaptation could definitely have used OKC as its soundtrack. The first words on the album are “In the next world war…”, which is pretty telling. It’s never been clear to me what “Paranoid Android” has to do with a paranoid android (specifically, Marvin from Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy), and how the lyrics all work out, but there is definitely an implied fear of government – the line “when I am king you will be first against the wall” always felt gleefully aggressive to me, followed by the tyrannically dismissive “your opinions which are of no consequence at all”; of course, we are lead right into the section where Yorke as said tyrant king is ordering beheadings simply because one of his subjects didn’t remember his name. “Karma Police” could possibly continue the monarch’s declarations, commanding that arrests be made on simple misdemeanors like ‘talking in maths’ and ‘buzzing like a fridge’, apparently illegal in this alternate universe.

“Electioneering” juxtaposes the elected official with the monarch – no doubt thoughts formed by a British mind, especially with Tony Blair palling around with Oasis at the time – and as Yorke paints images of riot shields and cattle prods, it’s clear that these authority figures (including the Shakespearian father from “Exit Music”) are here to draw our contempt. It’s never laid out by Yorke, but it’s one of those things that as soon as you read the lyrics, it’s clear he wouldn’t have written a song about them otherwise. Yorke sees them as stifling life much in the same ways that an A.I. technology might, and wants to put up a fight, later singing “The head of state has called for me by name, but I don’t have time for him”, as well as “Bring down the government…they don’t speak for us”.

That character, that point of view from “No Surprises”, is Yorke’s narrator, and it’s the narrator that experiences this updated definition of anomie that permeates the album. It seems to me that anomie in the traditional sense is like the opposite reaction of anarchy – when normalcy and order are absent, anarchy is the chaos that results, while anomie is essentially passive, an overwhelming community malaise, a societal depression. In the late 20th Century though, with the millennium approaching and fears of the Y2K disaster popping up in the media, anomie had to take on new facets. Fear of lack of available information was one key – in the years since, the world has grown exponentially concerned with not only the ins and outs of the media, but more so the trivial secrets of celebrity and beyond, going as far as creating a mainstream fetish out of voyeurism. By most likely writing about a stuffy corporate world, Yorke actually managed to critique a vapid movement that wouldn’t happen for another five years, singing the oft-quoted, “Ambition makes you look very ugly, kicking squealing Gucci little piggy.” It was a warning, and now it all feels dirty; gossip journalism jumping from tabloid pages onto the internet, and it lets anyone with a cable modem play seedy detective in the privacy of their homes, damaging the way you might eventually interact in person, growing to assume that everyone is deep down perverted in some way, and that maybe it’s OK just to stay home and not bother.

This leads to a prominent feel of disconnection from your neighbor, resulting from rapid technology advances. This is often cited as the major element of this new figurative population wet blanket; we don’t realize it, but it starts with shopping from home or wearing our iPod earbuds during our commutes (the banality of which is confronted on the first verse of “Let Down”), and snowballs from there. The next thing you know you don’t even introduce yourself to your new neighbors until you can’t avoid them when you both take the garbage out at the same time, going months maybe without meeting. Believe it, it’s happening now. Next thing you know, we’ll have robots to take out the garbage. I bet Japan has them now.

The booklet for the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP, which was released in the US as a companion piece to the album (and to promote the Against Demons tour), is a bit more focused on translating the themes on the album. There are dozens of phrases, some ominous, that suggest a society suffocating in all literal and figurative ways, and they get more desperate-sounding from page to page:

Help us to help you. Uniforms. Thick smoke, no breeze. Missing persons. 200 people faint; hard to breathe. 200 commercial organizations; military, governmental, and non-governmental organizations. Do not get out. What might have been. The more you drive, the less intelligent you get. Oxygen should be regarded as a drug. Thick smoke not evenly distributed. If you don’t ask me out to dinner I don’t eat. Lobster-skin-shopping-mall-coffee-stained-lipsync. Nothing in common. Unbelieving nausea. A flaming, but living, pigeon. The results of this intrusion into your life will be used ‘responsibly’. The innocent have nothing to fear from the rapidly expanding data industry. Story begins with explosion; ends with explosion. Your fantasies are unlikely, but beautiful. Reduced enjoyment and pleasure. The smoke came back extremely thick and abrasive. Awareness by social class. I’m safe and sound. People are aware, but not that bothered. Authorities here are alert. Everything I do/say is suspect. A strangler’s hands. No autonomy; a lethal cocktail; horrific violence. I am bad. I am to blame. I think a little more sucking-up is needed. Food and water crisis developing. A tortured night. A serious and adult expression. My suit hangs in front of me, full of nothing; it is up to me to fill it with myself. Have a safe day. Words on a gravestone. What will we mean? Nothing. General loss of interest. The last player left in the game is the winner. A smile like the grim reaper. Children go to school tied together, led by parents. Airport closed; people coughing yellow phlegm. Not sleeping okay; trapped in hyperspace.

Following all of that wonderfully chosen language is a passage from Noam Chomsky that sheds light on Yorke’s view of this new millennial fear, information transfer and the resulting disconnection, and how it has evolved from the apathetic conformity of that late 50’s America:

“…people would like to think that there’s somebody up there who knows what he’s doing. Since we don’t participate, we don’t control and don’t even think about questions of vital importance. We hope somebody is paying attention who has some competence. Let’s hope the ship has a captain, in other words, since we’re not taking part in what’s going on...
It is an important feature of the ideological system to impose on people the feeling that they really are incompetent to deal with these complex and important issues: they’d better leave it to the captain. One device is to develop a star system, an array of figures who are often media creations or creations of the academic propaganda establishment, whose deep insights we are supposed to admire and to whom we must happily and confidently assign the right to control out lives and to control international affairs…”

Thom Yorke’s narrator wants to buck these trends, but there is also a sense of helplessness (The ‘job that slowly kills you’, the carbon monoxide and the ‘final fit’ of “No Suprises”), or at least inevitability to them that weaves in and out of the lyrics (and the artwork). The narrator is struggling with this crippling anomie – taken to a point of personal positive reinforcement techniques the kind found in the chilling “Fitter Happier” – but trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel, which in this case would be making peace with the titular computer, or technology in general. Consider just the song titles for a moment, words or phrases of stress – ‘paranoid’, ‘surprises’, ‘homesick’, “Let Down”, “Karma Police”, “Climbing Up The Walls” – and then the intended sarcasm of “Fitter Happier” or “Lucky”, or going even further – on the back of the album’s booklet, “The Tourist” appears to have a long-form title which reads “The Tourist in Times Square in nuclear fallout reflective clothing in his personal space”, which so promotes the ideas on display within some of these songs that Radiohead should’ve ran with it. The original title of “Airbag” was the genius “Last Night An Airbag Saved My Life”, a play on the classic Indeep single “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life”, and a presentation of the notion that maybe technology can be salvation. Yorke’s narrator even expresses his shock at that notion: “I’m amazed that I survived; an airbag saved my life”, but he’s working at it, earlier on proclaiming “In the neon sign scrolling up and down, I am born again”.

It’s quite possible that Yorke is positioning his tyrant against his fearful narrator – the narrator is the one making strides, the one talking in maths that the tyrant wants the Karma Police to arrest – and the voices in the narrator’s head are telling him to not “hit the panic button, hit the alarm”. The conclusions of all these tugs of war are left dangling, yet there is a sense of hope in the moving “Lucky”. Yorke’s cries of “kill me again” are linked to the neon second birth of “Airbag”, but he decides he wants to be pulled from the aircrash, and it’s gonna be a glorious day. And considering the mesh of new music technology and human artistry on Kid A and Amnesiac (both in the relief of the new millennium, Y2K in the rearview), what might have been just sci-fi fantasy were actually ways for Thom Yorke to deal with where his head was at in 1997, against his own demons, his authorites on alert, his personal space – the OKC logo is two stick figures shaking hands, one holding a briefcase – and to offer them as chronicles of where the world was at in 1997, the new millennial anomie, figurative bandages for mass worry, assuaging fears that in the shadow of 2000 and technology speeding like fast german cars, music can know how you feel, and it can be your airbag.

PART TWO: The 8-Track of The 90’s

“The resurgence, and arguable final entrenchment, of manufactured Pop Stars by their handlers over supposedly more artistic fare – and more importantly the acceptance of such common pleasures by critics – razed the significance of the complete album. Which is why OK Computer, and it's ‘Best Albums Ever’ companion Loveless, eternally top these polls: somehow we doubt we'll ever see their like again.”
- Brent DiCrescenzo, Pitchfork’s Top 100 Albums of The 90’s, 2003

No. No. No No No. And fuck you very much for trying to play revisionist culture sniper. Yes, I’m talking to you with your healthily overworked iTunes account and your iPod permanently on shuffle. And oh, you over there, yes you, elitist vinyl sniffer trying oh-so-hard to get back to bygone “glory days” that you weren’t even born for. Fuck you as well. Yes we all know that, say, Sticky Fingers is the motherfucking shit, but there isn’t much difference between it and OK Computer, construction-wise – the former is 10 tracks and 46 minutes, the latter is 12 tracks and 53 minutes. So I don’t want to hear any crap from baby-boomers or random-play-brained ADD kids about the CD being put out to pasture, because right now, the CD is keeping the album alive.

Dai Griffiths, Head of the Department of Music at Oxford Brookes University, wrote a book on OK Computer. In many ways, it’s impenetrable, at least I thought so, as far as getting across the clear points that OKC is the best album of the last however-many years. I had to read it twice, the second time with a highlighter, in order to chip away at the excess to find the real good stuff. What he does really nail though are the ins and outs of the compact disc, and what it has meant to music, and more specifically to the idea of the album; this is something that bears discussing when considering OK Computer specifically as an example of a great album, and the time when it was released. The CD is the bridge from the past to the future, and it has brought us to a place now where we have unlimited possibilities, for better or worse.

The album, the collection of songs as a unified statement of an artist’s work, or as a snapshot of that brief period in the artist’s life, was pretty much the best invention in 20th century music. It has been, for the truly important artists with more to say than a single or two can hold, the vessel that best got their point across. The greatness of the album as a format is now taken for granted, something second nature to anyone who has ever become interested in modern popular music, but to think back to 1964, when Elvis was making movies, Dylan was still acoustic, and the British Invasion was just touching down in the US, the album was still just a collection of songs. Now, for the most part, it did already hold one of its key distinctions, which was that the songs collected were usually of the same period of creativity, but a thematic coherence had yet to be established, at least in Rock & Roll. Now, I’m not talking about concept-album storylines again; it’s way more basic than that: the way an artist explores a sound, a palette from which they’re going to work from. Icons like Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis, and Ray Charles had already toyed with album-length sounds, and The Beatles, Beach Boys, and Dylan were about to explode things to a degree that these new approaches would become the norm.

Now, fast forward to the late 1980’s, to the slow, public coming-out party of the CD. The possibilities that the compact disc offered changed the entire idea of what the album was. The main reason was the time it allowed: 70+ minutes. Griffiths points out that this changed the entire culture of the album. For example, think of the 1970’s, when kids would get together in bedrooms to get their minds blown by Floyd or Zeppelin. The longer you make an album, the less inclined you are to sit and endure the entire thing in one sitting; the activity of listening was forced to be more individualistic, a trend that has taken over in the age of the iPod. The big artistic statement – the double album – was all of a sudden not as special; legendary works like The Who’s Tommy or The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main St. could now fit on only one disc, losing some of their epic magic. Conversely, in the present, note the post-Strokes Indie Rock love affair with returning to short album lengths. I personally love it, cuz it was good enough for Revolver or Ramones, right, but I think more importantly it speaks to a key reaction. Throughout these twenty years we’ve been examining on this list, the music world has been married to the compact disc. And as much segregation remains in commercial outlets, rock and rap fans are as intertwined as ever, and I think we can all agree that we’re all sick of mediocre 70-minute albums that could be whittled down to a really good 45-50 minutes; in many ways, it diluted the art in the musician creating the perfect collection and then sequencing it in its own special way.

More importantly than any other feature, the CD allowed for programmability, effectively putting the issue of sequencing in the hands of the listener. At that moment, the idea of the great album should have been dead; not only could fans play songs at random within a set that was supposed to have a specific order, but they could also program out songs they were less fond of, striking them from record, deleting them from what that album meant to them, changing the intended piece of art. It was quite obviously the first step towards the song-by-song usurping of the music business by iTunes. It was everything we always said we wanted, when we’d buy albums with four good songs and seven or eight stinkers. It eventually overloaded secondhand CD shops with copious amounts of Cracked Rear View and Jagged Little Pill and Pieces Of Me enough to put them out of business. Be careful what you wish for.

Hope came from the artists of the mid-90’s Britpop movement, so devoted to repeating the works of a time gone by, that they naturally worshipped the album as artistic work. Radiohead were obviously a piece of that without being a slave to the idea. Interestingly, the UK is way more single-minded, so the idea that Britpop’s leading lights respected the album while also catering to the starving singles market was a bit odd. More than anything, Radiohead went with the flow for The Bends singles and found great success, definitely unexpected seeing as “Creep” wasn’t that big a deal at home. It doesn’t appear though that the band gave it much thought, especially considering the wild decision to release the schizophrenic six-and-a-half minute “Paranoid Android” as the lead single for their third album. Singles chart fortunes I’m sure were pleasant for them, but the album was the focus to their campaign.

OK Computer is the last great statement in what a great CD album can be. It was released at the tail-end of the format’s dominant era, before the backlash started in earnest and birthed our current marketplace. It’s longer than most classic 60’s and 70’s LPs by about 10 minutes, but appears to preserve the side-break of vinyl by placing “Fitter Happier” as a sort of intermission (though reports have always varied as to whether it should end Side One or begin Side Two). It’s also shorter than the average CD album, probably by about 5 minutes; this is no 70+ minute wank fest like Oasis’ ’97 offering Be Here Now. Radiohead had a clear idea of their piece of art as it related to the medium in which it would be delivered to listeners – the CD could have easily been crammed to its 79-minute limits with good songs that were instead saved for singles and EPs. It was a perfect statement in length and sequence, ironically perfect enough that it eliminated the need to skip or program, the key features of the format it so well represents. In that way it stands at ease next to essential albums from the vinyl era, and proves that despite all the technical opportunity that the CD format has given the music business, there can be such a thing as a classic album on CD. And while you can say I’ve given you 99 other examples, OK Computer is by far the best.

PART THREE: Taking America by Karma and Luck

“There's a lesson to be learned from the album's success. It underlines the fact that radio and record companies underestimate what the general public are capable of listening to. This is not above people's heads. We're people, and we're making it; other people can get it too."
- Ed O’Brien

When Kid A was released in October 2000, it debuted at #1 on the Billboard album chart. If you were judging strictly on Radiohead's previous chart experience in the US, this would have come as a surprise to you considering that their previous full-length, OK Computer, peaked at #21, and they weren't exactly a singles machine like they were at home - Gen-X's very own “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Paranoid Android” went top 5 as the album's appetizer.

So now that we're finally here, and this is the almighty #1 album, the question of 'why' is inevitably linked to a 'how' - how did Radiohead conquer America? Because that's where the answer lies really. It was America that was the swing vote so to speak. The election was for best band on the planet, and to win, they needed a best-album-ever to believe in; a signal of change to use a currently valued word. 1997 was a great year for music in that it had at least half a dozen certifiable classic albums, if not a whole dozen, so OKC had stiff competition for attention when it came out. To get to where we are now, I could relay statistics, but telling you a story is more fun - a report from the frontlines, sort of, kind of like sneaking into a movie but you've missed the first 25 minutes.

Everyone knew “Creep”. Then most people under the spell of your Green Days and Smashing Pumpkins and Becks forgot to check out Radiohead's sophomore classic The Bends. That's a story told hundreds of times. It’s OK. The wrong has been righted all these years later for sure. It is now considered the classic that it always was. In the early months of 1997, that's when you would find me falling from a great height onto the Radiohead bandwagon. My friend Ross raved about The Bends at the same time that my New York cable company started carrying MuchMusic, Canadian MTV broadcasting from Toronto. It was serendipity - MuchMusic played the fuck out of Radiohead's five Bends videos, and me, locked into a heady obsession with Jeff Buckley's Grace, could do with some more excellent choirboy alt-rock as I also explored vintage 70’s Punk and tired of the Classic Rock which I had held in such high esteem for the preceding few years. Much's programming backed up Ross' claims - dude, this is a band you need to know going forward.

And so it went for most current Radiohead fans I'm sure, because you'd have to be crazy to believe that all the people that bought Pablo Honey have stuck with them for the long haul. The Bends was the gateway album. And shit, let's be honest, when OK Computer came out, a lot of people were confused. There has been so much applicable history since, but when OKC was released, it was a weird album. Obviously it was good, but was it accessible to a new audience? I'd say it was a stretch. I can tell you what I thought: there were some sweet riffs in there, but the only song that really stuck with me was “Karma Police” because it sounded like “Sexy Sadie” by The Beatles.

There had to be a bridge from the initial confusion to today's worship, from a place where Radiohead would play “Electioneering” on The Tonight Show because A&R had concluded it was the song that sounded most like The Bends, to today, when message boards full of Radiohead diehards complain that the same song is the weakest link in the OKC chain. And like so many great pieces of art, that bridge has been time. The year that followed the album's release was a year full of reevaluation for fans and critics, a year for word of mouth, for the cosmic alignment to settle in.

OK Computer is an album way better than anyone expected, released into a music world of no dominant scene or genre. Alternative had splintered and thinned out, pop was eyeing a resurgence as was a new kind of heavy metal, and most importantly, it was also a year of raised acceptance for all things British. While Blur decided to ‘woohoo’ their way toward approximating Pavement and Noel Gallagher's song ideas disappeared up his nose, the world feasted on a post-Britpop wave of Anglophilia that extended to The Verve, Primal Scream, Spiritualized, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Portishead, Cornershop, and eventually even Robbie Williams; more than anyone though, Radiohead took advantage by touring the fuck out of the record, and succeeding because they could back their shit up from every angle.

I started working at Tower Records in November of 1997. At this point, OKC was firmly ensconced as an album-of-the-year favorite to everyone who gave a damn; we all agreed it was a great album. But by the spring of 1998, it was different. A line was crossed. Fans that would’ve been devoted before were now rabid. The band released the Airbag/How Am I Driving? EP (a collection of UK B-sides) as both a thank you to fans and as a promotion of their spring theater tour. Our store had a ticket outlet, and I remember the manager crushing employee/fan dreams of cheating the system when we were informed that we'd have to stand in line for tickets with everyone else. Two shows at the legendary Radio City Music Hall, with Spiritualized supporting, the last two dates of the tour no less. Standing on line, you couldn't help but feel something special was happening, like every young Smiths, Cure, U2, R.E.M., Pixies, My Bloody Valentine, Nirvana, Pavement, Blur, Beck and Bjork fan had come together and decided this was the band that they had been waiting for. Radiohead had done something right, mixed just the right amount of ingredients. OK Computer had been the call - this is our triumph, the culmination of the Alternative movement.

Tickets went on sale, and I was shut out; the guy in front of me got the last ticket. Radiohead have played New York around a dozen times since, and I still haven't seen them. Karma, luck, and how much money is in my wallet have yet to see eye to eye. But I hang on to hope. Thanks to my job at the record store, I was fortunate enough to attend listening parties for both Kid A and Amnesiac, so I've gotten close. Regardless, I know that they will remain that band that my generation turns to, and that the next generations discover like I discovered The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix. You can see in their faces now, when they do webcasts and special performances for fans, that the band knows that the unerring support that they’ve accumulated from fans is itself the greatest reward for all the music they’ve made. It’s translated into a living, a career, and as they continue to make consistently incredible music, it’s the least we can do. If nothing else, it lets us be confident that shit is happening for us – to quote Jeff Buckley, “It’s all about now!” It lets us know that when our parents brag about what music they grew up with, we have one thing they didn’t – Radiohead – and they made the best album of the last 20 years.

PART FOUR: Just Five Friends in the English Countryside

“And when it was great music it was great art and it didn’t have anything at all to do with labels and who says Mozart is by definition better than Sonny Rollins and to whom…
Sometimes we are lucky enough to have one of these people like Miles [Davis], like [Bob] Dylan, like Duke [Ellington], like Lenny [Bruce] here in the same world at the same time we are and we can live this thing and feel it and love it and be moved by it and it is a wonderful and rare experience and we should be grateful for it…
It’s all in there, the beauty, the terror and the love, the sheer humanity of life in this incredible electric world which is so full of distortion that it can be beautiful and frightening in the same instant…”
- Ralph J. Gleason, from his original LP liner notes for Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, 1969

“What they've done is use a stunning assortment of shrewd instrumental ideas to express contemporary anxiety and alienation, all in the form of pop songs, on albums conceived to be more than the sum of their parts.”
- Marc Hogan, citing Radiohead in his Pitchfork review of Deerhunter’s Microcastle, 10.08

In hindsight, it’s easier to see the mastery of their craft. When OK Computer came out, Radiohead were thought of as just another “Alternative” guitar band clogging the airwaves, and in that transitory summer when music shifted directions in so many ways, the music world was puzzled with what to really do with them, especially since few had given The Bends the time of day. What was music like in the first half of 1997? We were basking in the glow of Beck’s Odelay, mourning Biggie, and bracing for the hit of supposed next big thing Electronica. Who wanted to waste their time with five pasty English boys who had been holed up on an estate somewhere recording paranoid art-rock?

And then we heard “Paranoid Android”, and collectively said ‘what the fuck??’ A mindbending choice for a single at six and a half minutes, it’s funny to realize now that what we all said about it then still holds true: “Paranoid Android” was the “Bohemian Rhapsody” of the 1990’s, but more than that because the individual sections stack up as stronger (Thom Yorke has also compared it to The Beatles’ “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, which also works nicely), with more thematic mystery in its lyric. The guitar tones of the shuffling opening sparkle like a summer afternoon, and yet the mood of the piece is chilly. Without a doubt, “Paranoid Android” encapsulates the band’s instrumental skill best – three guitarists continues to be the main attraction, allowing Ed O’Brien to take some time out for percussion or Jonny Greenwood to molest his vintage keyboards and other noise-making contraptions. Electric piano pops in and out before that colossal riff slashes its way in; I think the images of Jonny, head down, hair swaying, attacking his guitar are so burned into fans’ minds that he gets credit for all the cool guitar moments, but it’s O’Brien pealing off the classic riff while Greenwood is busy whittling away at his solo. O’Brien emerged as the kind of MVP support player in the mold of R.E.M.’s Mike Mills on OK Computer, going toe-to-toe vocally with Thom Yorke on “Android”’s operatic section, on the climactic third verse of “Let Down”, or the gorgeous harmony on “No Surprises”, the kind of voice that seems to always be hanging in the background. Of course, knowing now that “Paranoid Android” began, and was played live opening for Alanis Morissette (at her peak) in American arenas, as a 14-minute mega-epic complete with organ solos, I think we should be glad the band edited themselves and we got to hear the finished product.

The way the disparate pieces of “Android” work together to form a great whole is much like the varied approaches of each song collected to produce a greater album, or the five band members’ individual strengths adding up to more than the sum of the parts, allowing the band to climb to new heights (which they haven’t come down from since). If OK Computer works as the masterpiece we treat it as, it’s that much more remarkable considering the two distinctly different recording periods that birthed the album, one before that Alanis tour and one after. But even before that, the soaring charity anthem “Lucky”, released as a single before work on the album even commenced, set the tone for the proceedings, already exploring Thom’s new lyrical pastures, but also translating his fears into uneasy sound. Right off the bat, there is something different about the way it sounds, not the usual downbeat feel of Radiohead, a different shade of gray, deeper, musically more saturated with despondency but lyrically hopeful in Yorke’s own warped pleas to “kill [him] again, with love”. The guitars soar when Yorke soars, and stagger in the gutters when Yorke finds himself there. Obviously, the make-or-break moment is his pained “It’s gonna be a glorious day” in the second verse, slyly guided by a subtle rising synth off in the corner; surely that one heart-crushing line delivery won over thousands of mopey teens, the spiritual flipside to the joy of Bono’s “I wanna run, I wanna hide!!”. The combined hum of the band on the instrumental coda of “Lucky” might clinch the award for the band’s best song, not overly flashly, and yet simply perfect for all of its 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

Following the lead of “Lucky”, four of the album’s songs came from the “Canned Applause” sessions, the first of the album’s two genesis locations, a converted shed out in the countryside with no running water. These five tracks together reveal the band’s new directions while still bearing musical progressions from The Bends. The lullaby of “No Surprises”, seemingly delicately left behind in the night rather than recorded by a rock band, shows the band still working with essentially the same color palette as on the previous album (with some new bells and whistles), but now for different ends (the backing vocals on the final chorus pleading “get me out of here”). “Electionerring” takes the chaos of “My Iron Lung”’s freakouts and sustains them for an entire song. Now, granted, it’s obviously the most overt song regarding the band’s new lyrical focuses, but the lyrics aren’t really there, slogan fragments instead of prose, letting the music do the talking. It’s definitive racket – brittle, tinny guitar plucking out the melody on one side, fat, slobbering riffage drooling all over the other side. The rhythm section is vibrating reaffirmation of life, the realization that the wordless power of Rock & Roll is its ability to compel you to move.

One thing I’ve come to realize in the process of closely examining OK Computer is that “Subterranean Homesick Alien” is probably their most underrated song. I’m guessing the reason is that it completely doesn’t fit with the rest of this album. For one thing, none of the lyrics fit with the overall threads of the other songs, instead as a stand-alone introspective piece about alien abduction, and how maybe it’s not such a bad idea considering the state of society. It’s weird that I’ve always felt that the song feels very American to me, like the narrator must be American simply because you never hear about alien abductions elsewhere, or maybe because Yorke sings of “warm summer air”, and well it must always be cold and rainy in Radiohead’s world, right? The electric piano that conducts the melody also gives it a humid summer vibe, the guitars swirling and blinking like fireflies (or possibly the lights on alien saucers) very American South damp overgrowth, the rhythm section rolling at a lazy pace, Colin Greenwood’s bass reduced to a buzz that’s not unlike when oppressive summer heat creeps past the hundred mark. The narrator’s state of mind is receptive and open, yes a little worried, but more composed than the paranoid blurts on the rest of the album.

“The Tourist”, featuring absolutely devastating vocals from Yorke, one of his most breathtaking performances, and sizzling glam-god lead by Jonny, amounts to the band’s very own “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide”, the kind of slow epic that can bring the house down night after night. It glides in at a morphine-drip pace, caressing you, comforting you after your long hard journey through the album’s world, but after the first chorus, Jonny’s guitar flashes its fangs, but only for a moment, as if building its power to explode at just the right moment. That moment is after the next chorus, focused with laser precision, strong-arming the rest of the band, bumping up against Yorke’s self-aware cries, flailing around with grace.

With more songs written but not yet recorded, Radiohead jumped on the Alanis tour to work out some new material, and those songs would form the rest of the album. Constructed on laptops in the back of a tourbus and during soundchecks in massive American arenas, “Paranoid Android” and these others songs exhibited an expansiveness the band hadn’t explored before. The sublime “Let Down” actually sounds as if were recorded at one of those soundchecks, the ringing guitar arpeggios ricocheting off the concrete slab and beams of steel (actually, it was a ballroom at 3am). More than any other song on the album, it succeeds strictly on its overpowering sound, a nod to Phil Spector’s “wall of sound”, chords and arrangements magically chosen for maximum emotional impact, like the guitar solo being in a different time signature than the rest of the music, or the dual vocal lines in the third verse raising all the hairs on your arms and back of your neck. Where “Let Down” works because it fills all the spaces with shimmering guitar din, “Exit Music (For A Film)” written for Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, works on what it leaves empty. Initially occupied only by a quiet acoustic guitar, Thom Yorke’s voice enters by taking up almost the entirety of the atmosphere (achieved by recording on a stone stairway). As the song builds, he recedes to make room for the elements piling on, from sampled strings to Colin Greenwood’s apocalyptic bass explosion, Phil Selway’s swinging drums; when Yorke breaks through with “And now, we are one…”, the song unleashes its full power, if only for a few moments, collapsing soon after under the weight of the lyric’s drama.

The newer tracks, recorded at the estate of actress Jane Seymour, presented the band breaking away from the traditional song structures they had traded in, instead honing songs through creative arrangements influenced by a wide range of sources, from composers like Olivier Messiaen and Krzysztof Penderecki, the film scores of Ennio Morricone, Miles Davis’ landmark fusion double album Bitches Brew, to the more expected Pixies. Obviously, between “Paranoid Android” and “Karma Police”, there is a debt to The Beatles’ White Album. “Karma Police” has remained the gateway for less adventurous listeners, their biggest hit this side of “Creep”, but not all is right in this police state. There is weariness in Yorke’s voice that gives away the ruse; it’s a technique used by countless artists, the sleight of hand, the nice pop song that slides through meta self-reflection and disintegrates into digital decay. That decay continues in the interlude “Fitter Happier”, and wordy, possibly formless diversion, a trip to Radiohead’s most avant garde side, sounding like a sci-fi take on Sonic Youth’s “Providence”.

Besides their listening habits, the rooms of the mansion they were in contributed to the atmosphere of the album, as I mentioned on “Let Down” and “Exit Music”. The song with the most obvious benefit is the terrifying “Climbing Up The Walls”, where the sounds bleed so much into the ether that you can just close your eyes and visualize the high ceilings. Musically, it’s Radiohead’s first step towards what would come on Kid A and Amnesiac, eschewing the guitar-bass-drums rock makeup into something wholly new and creepy. The guitars exist almost entirely as texture – there’s that one clean Edge-like line stuttering along the the walls – and the emphasis is placed on ambient noises and electronic fuzz. Selway’s drums have a metallic tone to them, and coupled with the buzzing bass, the rhythm section suggest dub reggae. Jonny Greenwood is working from the other end in, his Penderecki interest showing through on his string arrangements, the violins descending into white noise as Yorke loses it completely.

Jonny Greenwood’s monster guitar-and-cello riff that opens the album went a long way towards solidifying this album as one for the ages – it works as a welcome, sort of telling you that this is something you want to pay attention to. And the album didn’t disappoint. “Airbag” is the condensed version of the album, in it all the musical and lyrical ideas of the following songs are at least suggested, from the string section, to Yorke’s one of a kind voice, to the further guitar examination and destruction. Much like the coda of “Lucky”, the wordless ending of “Airbag” features a serendipitous aligning of the band playing to their strengths, and also just playing. Over Phil Selway’s infamously DJ Shadow-inspired jumping-bean beat, and Colin Greenwood’s attention-stealing bassline (the album’s best), the guitarists are getting restless, their strings crumbling into chopped up electronic bursts and waves of static, and under it all, Yorke is emoting, just his voice undulating on auto-pilot. But the feel is one of joy, a release of pressure; it’s the sound of the best band of the last twenty years being themselves, and it’s awe-inspiring, one of many moments on this album which illustrate how fortunate we are to have a band to match our times.

01. "Airbag"
02. "Paranoid Android"
03. "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
04. "Exit Music (For A Film)"
05. "Let Down"
06. "Karma Police"
07. "Fitter Happier"
08. "Electioneering"
09. "Climbing Up The Walls"
10. "No Surprises"
11. "Lucky"
12. "The Tourist"

"Karma Police" [video]

- "Paranoid Android" [video]
- "No Surprises" [video]
- "Lucky" [video]

As seen in the documentary, Meeting People Is Easy, Radiohead nearly went insane and broke up from the amount of touring they did to support OK Computer. The one remaining upside to that stressful journey is that there is a ridiculous wealth of video online from that tour. Therefore, you will only find performances from June 1997 through 1998 below, to keep with the premise that the album wasn't the only great accomplishment of this fertile period for the band.
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 1]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 2]
There's a great moment in this part where Thom is playing the freshly-written, future Kid A highlight "How To Disappear Completely" at soundcheck in an empty Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC. He had written the song during this tour to keep himself sane, and later called it the song he'd like to be remembered by.
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 3]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 4]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 5]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 6]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 7]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 8]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 9]
- Meeting People Is Easy [Part 10]
Ends with a great early version of "Nude", then called "Big Ideas (Don't Get Any)", played at one of the aforementioned Radio City concerts. Long considered the 'holy grail' of unreleased Radiohead tracks, "Nude" finally appeared on 2007's In Rainbows.

Live at Hammerstein Ballroom, New York, NY [12.97]
Recorded for MTV's Live at the 10 Spot, this widely bootlegged show became one of the last great actual music moments that MTV aired before becoming a mess of reality retard retreads (although the band did it again in 2003, uptown at the Beacon Theater).
- "Airbag"
- "Paranoid Android"
- "Subterranean Homesick Alien"
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "Let Down"
- "Karma Police" & "Fitter Happier"
- "Electioneering"
- "No Surprises" & "Lucky"
I was going to post "Airbag", but this performance of "The Tourist" is brilliant proof that Thom Yorke is one of the finest vocalists of the modern era, and as a bonus we get a Stardust-solo from Jonny Greenwood.
"The Tourist"

Live at the 1997 Les Eurockéennes de Belfort Festival
"Paranoid Android"

- "Airbag"
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "No Surprises"
- "Lucky"

Live at the 1997 Glastonbury Festival
- "Exit Music (For A Film)"
- "Karma Police"
- "Climbing Up The Walls"
- "Lucky"

Live on Later with Jools Holland, 06.97
- "Airbag"
- "Paranoid Android"
- "No Surprises"

"Lucky" [live at soundcheck for Washington DC, 08.97]

- BONUS: "Airbag" [live at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert]
- BONUS: "Paranoid Android" [live at Amnesty International '98]
- BONUS: "Let Down" [live in San Francisco, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Karma Police" [live on Letterman, 08.97]
- BONUS: "Electioneering" [live on Leno, 07.97]
- BONUS: "Climbing Up The Walls" [live in San Francisco, 04.98]
- BONUS: "Lucky" feat. Michael Stipe [live at the 1998 Tibetan Freedom Concert]

Thursday, August 21, 2008

CSR's Top Albums of 2007

Here’s my better-late list of the top albums of 2007; like I said last year, I like to let them settle a bit, strip away the hype, and see which ones are really worth your cash, or if you have them already, which ones are still fun to pull off the shelf.

[20] The Big Doe Rehab // Ghostface Killah
Far from his best, but pretty good from Pretty Toney is better than 95% of the Hip-Hop out there; “We Celebrate” is a killer.

[19] The Good, The Bad & The Queen // The Good, The Bad & The Queen
Released in January of ’07, and virtually overlooked by the end of the year, this remains a solid collection of languid afro-dub-folk from Damon Albarn’s latest supergroup.

[18] Mirrored // Battles
The inventive techno-math-rock of Battles argues that if technology is going to keep changing the music business, then shouldn’t it change the music too?

[17] Neon Bible // Arcade Fire
Funeral was like a warm blanket in the winter, but the band wisely thawed out, and took to the streets with colossal anthems for the masses.

[16] American Gangster // Jay-Z
After the regrettable Kingdom Come, the world wished he had stayed away, but Jay made us all feel foolish when he dropped this surprisingly great album, one of his best.

[15] Myth Takes // !!!
While most of the rock bands that aimed for the dancefloor and failed move on to their next gimmick, !!! sticks to what they do best, filling floors with fiery, psychedelic punk-rave-disco-funk.

[14] Weird Rippers // No Age
It’s not so much the music, most of which sounds like it was dubbed onto cassette in a Cali garage in 1981, but the myriad possibilities of the do-it-yourself punk duo’s imagination and infectious innocence that slaps a smile on your face.

[13] Living With The Living + Mo’ Living EP // Ted Leo & The Pharmacists
Whether the world wants to give him his propers or not, Ted Leo is one our greatest songwriters and Rock & Roll heroes; and whether you want to give yourself over to his fifth Pharmacists album – 15 songs, fattened with 5 more tracks on the bonus Mo’ Living EP, that covers power-pop, political hardcore, classic soul, arena rock, white-boy reggae and epic balladry – it still manages to be his excellent stab at making a London Calling-style opus.

[12] Kala // M.I.A.
I wasn’t as sold as Rolling Stone, which dubbed this sophomore slump the Album of the Year (granted the slump is mostly due to the brilliance of the debut, Arular), but this globe-trotting collection of fist-raisers has its own bright, colorful, party-igniting moments that stand up nicely.

[11] Below The Heavens // Blu & Exile
The most overlooked album of the year (if only because it’s hard to find in its physical/non-digital form), it’s a refreshing blast of the kind of Hip-Hop people still reminisce about, that summery early 90’s sound of acts like Tribe or Pharcyde; if you’ve ever wished Kanye’s rapping would live up to his beats or ego, or for Nas to stop trying to be so gangsta, then this album is for you.

[10] The Reminder // Feist
A rarity – a great Pop album for people over 18 years old, that is multi-faceted, and all the facets bear multiple listens; Leslie Feist’s ascension, to commercials (for once, marketing rewarding soul instead of sucking it out), to the Billboard charts, and to the Grammy stage, was one of the best things about music last year, all a tribute to the little wonder of this album.

[09] Because Of The Times // Kings Of Leon
Despite offering zero in the way of new ideas – all the classic rock clichés still apply to KOL – this album makes you realize that air guitar or air drumming may be a sort of reflex, like when someone lurches at you just to make you flinch; you want to play hipster police and complain that “Charmer” is a Pixies rip-off, etc, but by “Black Thumbnail”, you feel like windmilling Townshend-style.

[08] † // Justice
Electronic dance music tends to move too fast (faster than fickle Hip-Hop) for classics to be dubbed as such and then enjoyed for their brilliance, a genre shattered into dozens of soon-forgotten subgenres, each likely to have its one representative classic album or single, and little more; French duo Justice, like Daft Punk before them, circumvent this trend by making a straight-forward funky big-beat big-riff housequake of an album, timelessly suitable for all parties, everywhere.

[07] In Rainbows // Radiohead
The greatest band of our generation takes a break from raising the bar musically, and does it with their business model instead; this is the first time in fifteen years that they didn’t totally blow my mind, but it’s still a delicate, guitar-centric four-star affair, highlighted by the long-awaited appearance of the decade-old ballad “Nude”, and the haunting “All I Need”, an almost-R&B lament which turns out to be their best song in years.

[06] Totally Flossed Out // The Cool Kids
If Clipse were into rare sneakers, geek culture and BMX bikes instead of slinging crackrock, they might sound like The Cool Kids, the most refreshing Hip-Hop group to emerge in the last handful of years. Never officially released as far as I know, but traded all over the net and posted track-by-track on every hipster blog imaginable (and now partially re-recorded, re-sequenced, and released as The Bake Sale EP), this 8-song EP updates Too $hort, EPMD and Licensed To Ill-era Beasties for a post-Pharrell world, making 808’s, stonewash, and fat gold ropes fresh again.

[05] Icky Thump // The White Stripes
If I was friends with Jack White, after 2005’s Get Behind Me Satan I would’ve grabbed him by the shoulders and shook the marimba out of him. This is what we want – plug the guitar in, turn it up, and have some fuckin’ fun…actually, the success of this album makes it seem like Brendan Benson did just that.

[04] Untrue // Burial
Immersed in the miasma of the album, surrounded by disembodied voices getting bumped around by skittering beats, maybe this hazy “Dubstep” sound is the laptop equivalent of Shoegazing; MBV used one word – Loveless – to convey the entire idea behind their masterpiece, and Burial has done this with Untrue, every song soaked in tears and dipped in shards of broken hearts.

[03] Boxer // The National
For me, The National conjure that eternal American Post-WWII cool of the late 50’s and early 60’s, the time of Sal Paradise hopping trains all over the countryside, the romantic ideals, like when first kisses sparked fireworks, breakups were like stage-plays, and a picnic was a pretty picture, with “bluebirds on our shoulders”; they update that world as subdued, literate, pastoral, brokenhearted, post-punk noir, equal parts Scott Walker, Springsteen, Joy Division and Morrissey.

[02] Sound Of Silver // LCD Soundsystem
Years from now when music enthusiasts are looking back at 2007, this is likely to be the mostly fondly remembered album, that default classic that will represent the entire year – mostly because ’07 was very much about getting your groove on, dancing away the war and the gas prices, and here the twitchy, encyclopedic brain of James Murphy imagines a lost 1982 collaboration between David Bowie, Prince, The B-52’s and Giorgio Moroder, with the goal to resurrect disco and make it cool. It’s completely fathomable to imagine this album slowly spreading over the coming years, popping up in the collection of any discerning music lover, especially ones who like their dance music to be a bit more than a four-on-the-floor kick drum and a synth riff; Murphy has a less exclusive, more populist outlook though: “All the little people wanna dance, it’s true!!”

[01] Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga // Spoon
For me, it’s no contest. I admit complete bias – they are my favorite band at the present time, but after all these years of trying to think as a critic, how could I not personally love something that I regard as superb? Spoon hold two truly rare attributes in today’s musical landscape: they are great artists, and they are remarkably consistent. Those two things together put them in a sparsely populated V.I.P. that few bands have ever reached. Everything they’ve released in the last decade has been worth your hard-earned dollars, worth having those pieces of plastic on your shelf that so many are ready to put out to pasture. It doesn’t matter though if you have vinyl, CDs or MP3s, what matters is the music, and on Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, Spoon has wrangled their best collection of songs. Though I may occasionally gripe over the odd choice to place “The Ghost of You Lingers” as track two, or that “My Little Japanese Cigarette Case” is merely very good compared to the rest of the album’s excellence, the album remains crammed with classics, from the genius Motown pastiche of “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb” to the house party starter “Finer Feelings”; from the dancefloor thumper “Rhthm & Soul” to the glorious single “The Underdog” to the cinematic Pop of “Black Like Me”, there’s something here for everyone. It would be a shame if you didn’t find a place for this on your shelf.

Monday, August 4, 2008

[002] Appetite For Destruction

Album: Appetite For Destruction
Artist: Guns N’ Roses
Release Date: July 1987
Label: Geffen
Producers: Mike Clink & Guns N’ Roses

“Welcome to the jungle, it gets worse here everyday
You learn to live like an animal in the jungle where we play
If you hunger for what you see you’ll take it eventually
You can have anything you want but you better not take it from me”
- from “Welcome To The Jungle”

“Well I’m-a west coast struttin’ / One bad mother
Got a rattlesnake suitcase under my arm
Said I’m a mean machine / Been drinking gasoline
And honey, you can make my motor hum

Wake up late, honey, put on your clothes
And take your credit card to the liquor store
That’s one for you and two for me by tonight”
- from “Nightrain”

“Just a’ urchin livin’ under the street
I’m a hard case that’s tough to beat
I’m your charity case so buy me somethin’ to eat
I’ll pay you at another time
Take it to the end of the line

Captain America’s been torn apart
Now he’s a court jester with a broken heart
He said: Turn me around and take me back to the start
I must be losin’ my mind – ‘Are you blind?’
I’ve seen it all a million times”
Take me down to the paradise city
Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty
Take me home”
-from “Paradise City”

“Rock & Roll in general has sucked a big dick since the Pistols”
- guitarist Izzy Stradlin, from a 1988 Rolling Stone magazine interview

Looking back at the list so far, one might find the album choices to be of the mind of an arty little fucker, someone Indie-minded, but not quite hipster-than-thou, and certainly not touching Daughtry, etc, with a mile-long pole. Now though, you’re scratching your head. You see that classic gold banner and purple cross-on-black, skulls staring back at you with empty minds, and maybe you think I’ve lost my own marbles. But I haven’t; my stance on which albums would make this list was forged over years of reacting to popular music, the changing tides of Rock & Roll and its struggles for attention with surging Hip-Hop and Alternative and Pop one-hit-wonders. Rock & Roll was wounded once upon a time, and never fully recovered. To anyone who has talked to me about this list, and begged to know what Number One is, I’ve always said forget that – what’s Number Two? It’s not a mind-bender by a long shot. It gets included in these kinds of lists all the time. But I think this is my boldest choice; my point is that no one ever thinks of it because Rock & Roll isn’t around much anymore. It’s one of the biggest selling albums of all time, and it’s mostly forgotten about unless it’s wagged in your face. Only one person asked where and when it was gonna show up - Joel gets a gold star for, in that same moment, guessing the top 3 unintentionally. The reason why it’s here is simple, my friends: Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction is the perfect embodiment of the kind of albums I was looking for to make up this list, and maybe even more than that.

Appetite For Destruction is classic from both a genre standpoint (Rock & Roll, or even Hard Rock), and a subgenre standpoint (80’s Hair Metal). It’s a fascinating psychological and sociological album, offering vivid examples of the rebelliousness and frustration that created Rock & Roll in the first place, not to mention where that predominantly male psyche went from there and how it got twisted by drug and drink. It didn’t necessarily knock down walls as put cracks in them, cracks that would lead to crumbling at a later date – if GNR didn’t swing the wrecking ball, Seattle could’ve never knocked down the building (bassist Duff McKagan was the original drummer for The Fastbacks, and brought his punk experience to L.A. from Seattle). It introduced icons of modern music – Axl Rose & Slash – who even at the start of their careers were masters of their respective instruments, and presented that mastery in ways no one had ever heard; both are front and center in one of the classic album openings of all time, the first 40 seconds of “Welcome To The Jungle” about as perfect as Rock & Roll can be. It is a beloved album by musicians and fans alike, the 20-year old hits still routinely greeted with excitement and smiles. And finally, it’s the album’s widespread appeal, the repeat plays from all walks of life, on radio stations and jukeboxes, car stereos and iPods, that makes it special - it’s not only how much people love it, it’s how many.

First: what is Rock & Roll? says that it’s “a style of popular music that derives in part from blues and folk music and is marked by a heavily accented beat and a simple, repetitive phrase structure”. Hmmm, yeah I guess – I definitely think that there is a difference between “Rock & Roll” and “Rock music” though. The former does represent the music’s heritage, the fusing of Blues and Country and Folk, while the latter has come to describe the music’s scientific composition in relation to music that is not it. ‘Rock’ says that something is music played (usually) with electric guitar and a bass & drums rhythm section. When I say ‘Rock & Roll’, you probably think The Rolling Stones or Elvis Presley because they fit the heritage. But you wouldn’t necessarily say that “Roundabout” by Yes is a Rock & Roll song – though it is a Rock song, played on guitar-bass-drums (also: the video game is called Rock Band, not Rock & Roll Band). With all that being said, the borderlines for Rock music are now fuzzier than just looking at the instruments that the music is played on – The Roots have had a guitar-bass-drums make-up in the last handful of years, and they’re playing Hip-Hop. Ditto for Charlie Hunter and his trio playing Jazz. And so we sit and think and realize that that definition leaves out what I think is the most important part of all of Rock music, and Rock & Roll specifically: its inherent bold, often defiant attitude. Rock & Roll music couples the heritage with the attitude. That’s what the music is, an art of the once insecure finding a way to be confident; that’s why it was so naturally the music of adolescence at one of the most socially turbulent times in America’s history, and has continued in the following generations. Rock & Roll wants nothing to do with your establishment, or in these unfortunate waning years, it shouldn’t; after all these years, Rock & Roll as a term or label has been thrown around far too liberally. There is a vast chasm between Billy Joel and Iggy & The Stooges, and if there’s a rule of thumb, Rock & Roll is better loud.

When I was talking about Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation, I wondered aloud that in some way it might be the culmination of the first forty years of Rock & Roll, and interestingly enough, you could make the same claim for Appetite For Destruction. But while Sonic Youth played on the spirit of Rock & Roll’s history without its musical guidelines, Guns N’ Roses were coloring mostly inside the lines, more linked to the music’s unfurling history. These bands represent both sides of the Rock & Roll divide of the late 1970’s, mirror images of the post-punk world. Sonic Youth adhered to the Punk ethos while paying tribute to the music they grew up on, while Guns N’ Roses stole the venom-spewing approach of Punk and applied it to Classic Rock & Roll. If you’re looking for a simple one-shot key to Appetite For Destruction, it’s this: This is the greatest Rock & Roll album made for a world that had no more use for Rock & Roll albums, and that’s why it remains so important – it’s an end only because no one has topped it yet. Even the way it was made was classic: In the Rolling Stone cover story last August celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album, writer Brian Hiatt, producer & engineer Mike Clink and engineer Victor Deyglio speak about Appetite being one of the last albums to be made “with vinyl in mind”, using classic instruments and amps, manually edited on two-inch tape, mixed by hand, without new automated technology. Since Punk broke in 1976, Rock has been everything but rolling. It’s been punky, alternative, hard, new wave, hardcore, grungy, retro, emo, metallic, and represented arenas, colleges and big hair, but GNR didn’t care about gimmicks. On the other hand, it’s funny how, even though they never really sounded alike, GNR constantly got compared to the at-their-peak ‘71/’72 edition of The Rolling Stones, who have come to be seen as the quintessential Rock & Roll band. The reason for that is the attitude + heritage equation again.

In the old Rolling Stone Album Guide from 1992, it’s noted that one of the reasons The Rolling Stones were the greatest Rock & Roll band of all-time was that their success was a tribute to the roots of the music, equal parts Blues and Country. On the other hand, GNR start the next age of Rock & Roll, where the musicians would not have grown up on Blues or Country, or even Rock & Roll’s formative years led by Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. The bands of GNR’s generation, emerging after the punk and arena rock of the late 1970’s, grew up through Rock music when it was at its apex – Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Hendrix, etc. – and formed their frames of reference from there forward. While Axl Rose may have later tried to convince everyone that Elton John was his retroactive primary influence, on Appetite, he comes off as the misanthropic bastard teenage orphan of Steven Tyler and Johnny Rotten, and Appetite follows suit, testing positive for the DNA of stone-cold Rock & Roll classics like Exile On Main St., New York Dolls, Rocks, and Never Mind The Bollocks.

The rest of the band wasn’t exempt either – only Steven Adler looked the part of an 80’s Sunset Strip rocker; Izzy bridged Keith Richards and Johnny Thunders, Slash was Joe Perry if he was into The Misfits, and Duff was Tom Petersson dipped in Sid Vicious’ leather. The image, like the music, was a confirmation of Rock & Roll – the misogynistic “Anything Goes” is a throwaway on paper, but the band’s energetic playing makes it sound like a gem off Side Two of Toys In The Attic before revving up to be a 60’s garage-style rave up – but at the same time they were thumbing their noses at their heroes that had gotten old and crotchety and too concerned with their bank accounts. As noted on their “Rules of Rock” 7years ago, take a look at how low Slash and Duff were slinging their axes – even their posture was a representation of what their music sounded like, and the Buddyhead guys were among the young masses under that GNR spell – Penance Soirée, the 2004 album by BH-affiliated rock urchins The Icarus Line and one of that year’s best albums, was a new millennium update of Appetite’s L.A. decadence.

It was the band’s willing display of their punk-ish edge, in a sea of Poisons and Warrants, that got them noticed. Their understanding of Rock & Roll’s rebellion, and putting it at the forefront of the band’s image, is another of the most important aspects of Guns N’ Roses, at least up until the release of the Use Your Illusions – much like Kurt Cobain’s later promotion of his favorite obscure bands, GNR had no problem upsetting the mainstream-friendly image that the Sunset Strip bands had collectively groomed for themselves by namedropping influences from Johnny Thunders to the Dead Boys to the Misfits (later revisited on 1993’s The Spaghetti Incident?); similarly, Slash & Duff had no problem cursing on live TV while staggering shitfaced up to the American Music Awards podium, something Jon Bon Jovi would’ve never even fathomed doing. It seems like something so insignificant now, but this kind of personal expression put the band outside the lines of the Glam Metal mold that was MTV-approved, but it also revealed them as following, or possibly as the last embodiment of, the Rock & Roll archetype, where rebellion attracts impressionable teenage fans ensconced in their adolescent battles with parental authority. Those other 80’s bands were dealing in a two-faced scheme, attaching a kind of surface wholesomeness to their not-too-thinly veiled misogyny and rampant alcohol abuse in order to move more units, all the while having drunken orgies backstage. GNR gleefully reveled in the fact they were the dangerous ones. Somehow they pushed what Rock & Roll attitude and rebellion means, expanding its decency limits as their drug and alcohol usage went past reckless to addictive and abusive, packing the songs with references to it as blatant as the heroin ode “Mr. Brownstone” (they probably would’ve called it simply “Heroin” if Lou Reed didn’t nab the title 20 years prior), or “Nightrain” (on which rock-crit-dean Robert Christgau proposes, “[Axl] doesn’t love Night Train, he loves alcoholism”.)

This is the heart of the commercial and public paradox of Guns N’ Roses at their Appetite and GNR Lies peak – they ride the line of social pariahs and music megastars so perfectly that it boggles the mind how they could have been allowed to be so fuckin’ popular. Yes, I’m aware that Guns N’ Roses were not the most dangerous band of the era, because this was the same time that young males were flocking to Metallica and Slayer for the same answers, but the Guns N’ Roses approach was different enough to give the band long-standing respect from the fans. Just in recent years, readers of UK Hard Rock magazines Kerrang! and Metal Hammer both named Appetite as the greatest album ever - that’s remarkable considering the likely contenders from Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and on and on. GNR fostered the Rock & Roll myth, the band as gods, but then they shit on the industry structure that helped put bands in that position. If I’m gonna tell you that Appetite For Destruction is important because it’s the last truly great Rock & Roll album, then Guns N’ Roses has to be equally crucial for being the last great model of the Rock & Roll Band, at the very least because they detonated the rulebook, taking the various notions of what it means to be acceptably (and legally) rebellious in normal society, and figuratively pushing the guidelines back 20 feet, or whatever, therefore enlarging the imaginary filing cabinet for Rock & Roll bands to be filed away in (and in their case, gloriously lowering the standards for a Rock & Roll band’s expected decorum). These boys perfected “shocking” from a marketing standpoint while having music that more than matched up. They are tailor-made for your parents to forbid the broadcasting of their songs out of your stereo and the display of their posters on the walls above your bed. They are the kind of guys that teenage boys want to hang out with and that teenage girls swoon over for just one reason: their parents tell them no.

And while there have been plenty of other Rock bands that got parents all riled up since then, we return to the fact that no one artist balanced their ability to incite a backlash with increasing their fanbase exponentially better than Guns N’ Roses. For instance, look at the longtime adversarial relationship between Guns and Mötley Crüe, and what they represent to 80’s Hard Rock – through the entire decade, The Crüe were the big dogs, but in the couple decades since, they’ve been holding on as a retro act, now more famous for Tommy Lee’s third leg than for their music. Meanwhile, GNR have done pretty much nothing in the last 15 years, and yet they’re name-checked by everyone from The Strokes to Avenged Sevenfold to Sheryl Crow. Going back to GNR’s assertion of a punk-gutter realism, we can kinda see the influential similarities, the New York Dolls as an influence on Nikki Sixx as well just like he claims, but at the time he was talking more “Detroit Rock City” than “Looking For A Kiss” because it fell in line with the scene; GNR also talked Kiss – and Zeppelin and Aerosmith (who they opened for in 1988) too – but they also rejected Paul Stanley as an Appetite producer by nodding off on smack and spreading rumors he was gay. Mötley Crüe have repeatedly described themselves more as a gang than a band in their early days, but Guns N’ Roses came along and pumped up the nastiness to levels that would be more in line with squatters in London in 1977. You could smell Slash’s filthy pleather pants through the pictures. Really – look at Mötley Crüe and Guns N’ Roses in 1987, and tell me who you’re running away from in a dark alley. There’s nothing scary about Vince Neil in makeup… actually, fear is another way to look at it – Guns N’ Roses is to Rock like b-movie horror is to film, giving teenagers chills & thrills; Appetite is literally thrilling.

When I was 11 years old, and first saw the video for “Welcome To The Jungle”, it scared the shit out of me, and yet I got the point; adults don’t want to admit to themselves that kids are smart, but they are, and I knew watching the narrative of this farmboy off the bus in big bad L.A., flashing images of police riots and fights, Axl bound in that Clockwork Orange chair, that they were telling you that the city is dangerous. It is a scary place. At first, the video was also confusing to young rock fans like me, because these five guys kinda looked like all the other poodle-haired arena-ready hard rock bands that were filling up our TV screens (though a lot dirtier), so we bought into the image, but the song is obviously more ferocious than the image, with Slash & Izzy Stradlin’s guitars barking like slobbering pitbulls and serpentine Axl wanting to watch us bleed; it was akin to, say, the Bay City Rollers singing the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK” or “Bodies”. More so than pretty much every other album opener in history, this song sets the tone for its album. Every Appetite track comes on like a predatory animal chasing you downhill, and when the riff kicks in, it’s that animal’s jaws clamping down on you, razor-sharp teeth tearing your flesh.

As that classic opening begins, Slash’s guitar falls over itself as Axl whispers “Oh my God”, and you get the same feeling when you find yourself in a part of the city where you know you’re not supposed to be. Then that infamous siren-howl rises in the background, with Izzy’s bluesy licks and Duff’s bass soundtracking the impending chase, Steven Adler’s high-hats like your feet hitting the pavement – John Lennon once sang “run for your life if you can, little girl”, but he never conjured this kind of dread. Axl’s narrative is perfect – the notion that where you live could get worse everyday is not something familiar to suburban teens – creating a world you want to see because they got the ‘fun-n-games’ and you might ‘taste the bright lights’, but you don’t really want to visit because you’re not crazy about bleeding or screaming. For the opposite reason, that’s what many lower class or urban teens deal with on a daily basis, and so they identify with Appetite; I’ve met at least a dozen African-Americans living in urban areas that don’t listen to Rock music, but they have this album on their shelf, and they love it for the same reasons they love N.W.A. or Wu-Tang… Meanwhile, Slash & Izzy lay out their M.O.: interlocking guitar lines in each stereo channel, Izzy’s guttural yet clean rhythms on the left, Slash’s smeared and ragged leads splattered on the right – this is the clearest testament to Mike Clink’s timeless production; guitars have simply never sounded like this, Slash in particular possessing such a singular sound that you can tell his playing within two seconds. I encourage listening to this album a few times through only one channel, and then switching. The songs morph into new creatures when you can only hear Slash or Izzy, and it awards a new appreciation for their cosmic guitar slop.

Not only did the ferocity of “Welcome To The Jungle” set the band apart, but it turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. The funky “Mr. Brownstone” is probably the most radio-friendly groove on the album, so it’s too bad for station programmers it’s a song about heroin addiction and has a well placed “motherfucker” in the third verse. Slash’s wah-wah pedal is in overdrive, approximating Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” as best he can submerged in a smack high, while Izzy, Duff & Steve do donuts around him. This is one of the songs where Axl is staying mostly in his low register – no screeching to be heard, and it’s on these songs that you can hear the unique quality of his voice, as well as his unpredictable temper. Here he’s laissez-faire as much as he’s menacing on the live favorite “It’s So Easy”, home to the often-quoted couplet “See me hit you; you fall down”, possibly an early sign of Axl the abusive boyfriend/husband (if you assume he’s singing to a girl through the whole song). I think it’s easier to see that Axl’s social skills as displayed in the song are more worrisome because he can’t focus his frustrations; he’s got a sort of aggression A.D.D. where he just lashes out, and indeed he does suffer from manic depression. He’s singing respectively about hitting up your hot sister, drinking and driving, not getting no satisfaction (of course), blackouts (“fade into the night”?), unchecked violence towards random strangers (“See me hit you…Why don’t you just fuck off!”), and specifically towards women (“Turn around bitch, I got a use for you; besides you ain’t got nothin’ better to do, and I’m bored”). And then to finish it all off, he throws a curveball that you might miss unless you were scouring the lyrics: he’s spent the entire song being selfish, singing about everybody trying to please him, and yet when he’s scurrying off with his Miss Right Now, he’s the one who’s saying he’ll try to please her, a glimpse of his soft side which he was trying to play close to the vest.

There is a pity to this, that you could say “It’s So Easy” is the quintessential Guns N’ Roses song because of the abhorrent “character” that Axl is playing in it, fittingly too politically incorrect to ever be a successful single or radio favorite. After all these years, we can look back and see the pattern, and know it’s sad that we would expect him to be this guy. In fact, this was the band’s first single, a failure in the days of Slippery When Wet prior to Appetite’s release, with a video so X-rated it never officially saw the light of day, featuring among other things Axl’s future wife Erin Everly in bondage gear. Musically, it’s what you’d expect coming from McKagan, a muscular take on early 70’s proto-punk, but the lyrics are by far the focus. “Nightrain” is the opposite; save for an opening verse that can be boiled down to ‘mooching off stripper-groupies is fun’, it’s all chorus, with plenty of room for Izzy and especially Slash to light up some six-string pyrotechnics. The chorus is more of the same however, with Axl waffling between his meanings; is it Night Train, the cheap wine, to get him “loaded like a freight train”, or is it a night train to help him escape the “slum”, never to return?

Rock & Roll has always been exploring the shadows, devilish imagery from Robert Johnson to Mick Jagger to Ozzy, et al, but Appetite was deviating from this by dealing with the band’s reality, closer to AC/DC’s taste for women or Judas Priest breaking the law. Guns N’ Roses has become eternally linked to their proving grounds like so many bands before and since because their point of view is unique to that city, reporting from street level; the dark, chilling tale of “My Michelle”, about a fucked-up friend of the band’s spiraling out of control, illustrates that Axl’s storytelling (for L.A.) is sometimes closer to Lou Reed (for NYC) than David Lee Roth (actually, the girl told Axl she wished someone would write a song about her like Elton John’s “Your Song”; Axl decided that telling the truth about her lifestyle worked better than a sweet ballad). I’ve always heard the song as Axl’s ominous, bizarro-world version of Roy Orbison or Buddy Holly, the smoky slowdancing intro destined for the amphetamine-charged sock-hop chorus and the “Everyone needs love…” breakdown, all serrated riffs spurred on by Duff’s pogo-ing bassline. The verses drool acidic indictment, immediately calling out the porno daddy and smack OD’d mommy, the title character spoiled on cocaine bought with someone else’s credit card, the same card that she’s going to chop up the blow on the glass hotel coffee table with. Axl’s supposed to be this girl’s friend, but he’s airing her dirty laundry, and doing it in a threatening growl – huh, some friend.

But that’s Axl and Guns N’ Roses at this point in their career – too paranoid and anti-social for their own good, sticking to their own personal self-preservation routine that allowed them to survive on the backstabbing streets of Hollywood in the 1980’s. The tough “Out Ta Get Me” puts up a fight, a classic metal fist pumper that aspires to saddle up next to countless Keith Richards outlaw-on-the-run rockers, except that it too easily shows its hand, and instead comes off way too defensive against the faceless authority, the Rock & Roll oppressor. In some way though, it’s that much more empathetic to the pip-squeak metalhead in the corner of the lunchroom, a song he or she can call their own. I bought Appetite, like most kids my age, for the three big singles, but I had come up on Def Leppard and Van Halen and Bon Jovi – much lighter stuff. I hated Appetite when I got it; I would just listen to “Paradise City” over and over, rewinding it back, because “My Michelle” and “You’re Crazy” were fuckin’ scary. I braved lunchroom stigma and ended up returning it and exchanging it for some safe piece of shit (probably Europe or White Lion). It wasn’t until I got the 45 single for “Patience” – the purchase of which was a leftover reaction to Appetite, not wanting to be disappointed by Lies, so I just bought the single – and fell in love with “Rocket Queen” on the b-side that I felt like I might’ve made a mistake.

You see, there was a little of my 12-year old hesitancy in Axl, that part of him that drew him to make the Elton John-worshipping about-face later (shh…he was already privately working on “November Rain” in 1986). His love for Pop balladry led him to keeping the world of Appetite from being completely without hope. Hope was secretly important to Axl. “Think About You”, written by Izzy, is a tribute to Monique Lewis, the raven-haired beauty tattooed on Axl’s right arm; Rose sings the words differently than any other track here, with a soothing calmness but still in the Axl screech, that odd middle ground that he would eventually sing almost exclusively in on the Use Your Illusion twins, even while the band is barreling like a locomotive. Likewise, “You’re Crazy”, the most aggressive, punk-style track on the album, actually has a soft core. Axl is yearning for love, “lookin’ for a lover in a world that’s much too dark”; for once, he’s the responsible one, removing himself from a destructive situation in which his unsatisfied lover is, you guessed it, “fuckin’ crazy”. Sandwiched between these two tracks is the beloved “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, where Axl lays out right away that this beautiful relationship that he’s in is working in the present and backwards into the past – her smile reminds him of “childhood memories”, that “warm safe place where as a child [he]’d hide” – but with no hint of a future. Hope is about the future. That’s how it works. So, this relationship is teetering on uncertainty, and of course, after Slash rips his classic solo, one of the best of all time (I get chills at 4:04 every time), Axl is frantically asking “Where do we go now?”

Well, we go to the final two-and-a-half minutes of the album, the second part of the incredible “Rocket Queen”, and to Axl’s gift of hope. He insisted on ending the album on a bright note because he realized the journey through Appetite was a dark one. This is Axl balancing the all-pistons-firing assault of the band with the most positive outlook on the album: “If you need a shoulder / Or if you need a friend / I’ll be here standing / Until the bitter end / No one needs the sorrow / No one needs the pain / I hate to see you walking out there / Out in the rain”. It’s a euphoric Pop high, no drugs needed, and it points directly to some of the forgotten melodic genius of the future double albums – like say “Yesterdays”, a great overlooked single. Returning to the band’s generational influences, within their frame of reference, there’s a dichotomy of inspiration just as there is in Axl’s personality-on-record: The grit and attitude and swagger of The Stones is weighed against the pop craft of The Beatles (likewise, but not as important to this particular album, the words of Dylan are weighed against the musicianship of Hendrix, the former often called the greatest lyricist, the latter the greatest guitarist).

The first half of “Rocket Queen” is all bite, slithering funk-metal blessed by one of the greatest riffs of all time. However, this is where the rhythm section shines, revealing their gift for funk and the unsung power of the uncomplicated playing of Adler (Duff and Izzy hid his extra drums); if they didn’t fire him, he could’ve been the Metal Charlie Watts (though it bears noting his hero was Queen’s Roger Taylor, an informative and relatively obscure choice in a land of Pearts and Wards and Bonhams). This is also where I tell you that Duff McKagan is the most underrated rock bassist ever, his lead-lines quietly filling whatever space there is between the monstrous John Entwistle and the sly Paul Simonon. I used to play bass for about two seconds of my life, and someone had given me a bass book for Appetite For Destruction; I immediately shelved it though when I got a look at how complicated Duff’s parts were. They blew my mind, and I can’t listen to the album now without hearing them. The lyrics for this part of the song are a point of contention with me. There are other moments in the lyric book that are incorrect, typos, etc, but I feel that the context of “Rocket Queen”’s chorus was presented wrong. The booklet reads “Here I am / And you’re a Rocket Queen”, when to me it sounds as if it should read “Here I am / I’m your Rocket Queen”. This changes the narrator’s view – I’ve always felt that this is a character song for Axl, where he is singing as a teenage prostitute asserting her expertise, the kind of girl the band would’ve encountered against the backdrop of this seedy urban underbelly (The girl the character was based on was 18 at the time, and eventually became a madam). When the song breaks in half, and the lighter coda launches, Axl reverts back, and is now offering the prostitute his hopeful reassurances.

The Rocket Queen describes her L.A. as a “burned out paradise”, a contradiction that sums up the verse-chorus split at work in the epic “Paradise City”. The song epitomizes both the band’s signature Rock & Roll spirit and Axl’s conscious need to inject hope into his Pop by getting filthy in the gutter on the verses, and then pining for the green grass on the other side of the fence during the chorus. The entire concept and structure and lyric of the song are the culmination of the rest of the album, light and dark, as well as all their influences, woven together and funneled into 6 minutes and 46 seconds. The hands-in-the-air opening significantly starts with the chorus first, the light Pop side, whatever paradise Axl still saw in his Midwest roots (the same place that could’ve inspired the rage of “Out Ta Get Me”). But when that whistles blows, the band comes roaring out of the cage, that snarling riff decimating everything in its path. The verses are all Sunset Strip struggle, but it’s the chorus that holds the song aloft like a Bic lighter – the grass-is-greener mentality is basic human nature – until we get to the full-throttle endpiece. The band sounds absolutely unhinged. You can clearly hear Izzy, Duff, and Slash individually shredding their instruments; Slash’s fingers are moving so fact you’d think his fretboard was on fire, but his playing never once becomes excessive like so many 80’s guitarists, where it moves beyond servicing the song. This is partly because the band keeps up with him, Axl too, stretching his vocal chords to reach the back row on the highest tier of every stadium. This second part of the song isn’t just their punk fury unleashed – it’s a confirmation of their Rock & Roll legend status. It’s their Rock & Roll anthem, a reminder that this is music for the people, for everyone who doesn't accept everything they're told, and yearns for a better life. The Guns N’ Roses of Appetite For Destruction proved that some blues chords and a 4/4 backbeat don’t just make something Rock & Roll. It’s the attitude and the hunger, the need to push back. And boy, did they push back. Listening to Appetite For Destruction now, not only is there no doubt to its greatness, but there’s no doubt that finding that greatness again might be futile. How great must an album be if you can’t escape its long shadow? 20 years later, and I think Axl Rose has answered that question for us everyday - with his silence.

01. “Welcome To The Jungle”
02. “It’s So Easy”
03. “Nightrain”
04. “Out Ta Get Me”
05. “Mr. Brownstone”
06. “Paradise City”
07. “My Michelle”
08. “Think About You”
09. “Sweet Child O’ Mine”
10. “You’re Crazy”
11. “Anything Goes”
12. “Rocket Queen”

MTV's Live At The Ritz [NYC, 02.88]
This show is ridiculous! They're all great, but "Out Ta Get Me" and "Nightrain" transcend their album versions, and of course "Paradise City" is a highlight - Axl goes into the crowd with a shirt, comes out without it, all while Slash is soloing on his back on the nasty stage floor.
- "My Michelle"

- "It's So Easy"
- "Mr. Brownstone"
- "Out Ta Get Me"
- "Sweet Child O' Mine"
- "Welcome To The Jungle"
- "Nightrain"
- "Paradise City"
- "Rocket Queen"

"Welcome To The Jungle" [video]

"Paradise City" [live in NYC, 05.88]

"Rocket Queen" [live in NYC, 05.88]

- BONUS: "Welcome To The Jungle" [live in L.A., 03.86]
- BONUS: "Welcome To The Jungle" [live on the 1988 VMA's]
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [explicit unreleased video]
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
Home video was totally the YouTube of 20 years ago
- BONUS: "It's So Easy" [live in Melbourne, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Nightrain" [live in NYC, 09.88]
- BONUS: "Nightrain" [live in Melbourne, 12.88]
- BONUS: "Out Ta Get Me" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "Out Ta Get Me" [live in NYC, 09.88]
- BONUS: "Mr. Brownstone" [live/acoustic at CBGB's, NYC, 1988]
- BONUS: "Mr. Brownstone" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "Paradise City" [video]
- BONUS: "Paradise City" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in Long Beach, CA, 03.86]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "My Michelle" [live in NYC, 1991]
- BONUS: "Think About You" [live, 03.86]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [single edit - video]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [live in Melbourne, 1988]
- BONUS: "Sweet Child O' Mine" [live in Middletown, NY, 08.88]
- BONUS: "You're Crazy" [slow version; live in NYC, 05.88]
- BONUS: "You're Crazy" [live/acoustic at CBGB's, NYC, 1988]
- BONUS: "Anything Goes" [live in L.A., 07.86]
9-minute version, with alternate lyrics
- BONUS: "Rocket Queen" [live in L.A., 07.86]
- BONUS: "Rocket Queen" [live in Melbourne, 1988]

- DOUBLE BONUS: "You're Crazy" [live in L.A., 11.90]
Performed by Slash, Duff, Sebastian Bach & Lars Ulrich at a RIP Magazine party.