Guns N’ Roses review – comeback show takes us to Paradise City

Queen Elizabeth Stadium, Stratford, London
You can’t blow the roof off a stadium that doesn’t have one, but they damn well tried

I wondered if it was silly. Me and a bunch of other fortysomethings going to see Guns N’ Roses, a band we loved in our youth when they seemed so wild and pulsating and decadently masculine. Those singalong-with-Jack-Daniel’s dudes, every song a paean to getting high or getting off – or both. British pop at the time was playing with gender and androgyny, but Guns N’ Roses were just pure, stupid testosterone. I wrote their lyrics on my bedroom wall and secretly loved and feared them for it.

If we were middle-aged now, though, what did that make the filthy rock bastards of pop? Old? And hadn’t they already done one comeback tour some years ago, when it was just a bloated Axl Rose and a bunch of hired hands turning up late and trying to recreate the magic because all the other members refused to have anything to do with him?

Would we still be entranced, now that we’ve read their memoirs and know what really went on back in the day, including the bit in Slash’s warts-and-all autobiography when he literally does have warts, on his penis, and he has to visit doctor after doctor to get them burned off because they bounce back more times than Boris Johnson?

Well, arriving at the stadium where the 2012 Olympics were held, the first things you notice are the band T-shirts. Everybody looks like a diehard fan, with about a quarter of the male and female crowd wearing the Guns N’ Roses tops they must have owned for 30 years, with old tour dates on the back. Except these T-shirts are suspiciously clean.

When I ask people, one man admits he works in the City and just bought his from the merchandise stand, before shoving his work shirt in his rucksack. Another two beefy blokes just bought theirs from the Primark across the road. “I got that one from Next,” says one woman, pointing at the T-shirt of the bloke ahead of her in the beer queue, “but they had a better one in Top Shop.”

If the clothes are new, the good news is that the band are old: Slash is back (I can’t speak for his genital warts), and bass player Duff McKagan too, both having made up with Rose. This is the first UK show of the band’s classic lineup in 24 years, and they all take to the stage like men who truly, ferociously mean business, going straight in with the hits.

Welcome to the Jungle begins and the crowd surges like a beast. Mr Brownstone, a druggy song that seemed more dangerous 25 years ago, seems strangely poignant now, with Rose singing its winding melody beautifully, perfectly. His face, which bears the agelessness of any Hollywood star who has reached a certain age and perhaps had some help, is as taut as a drum when he sings the highest notes, and you wonder if he might burst.

Then he puts on a top hat with a union jack on it and suddenly looks less Botox, more Brexit. He sings Live and Let Die with twice the bravado and swagger of Paul McCartney, and the thundering drums are so menacing that it’s a real moment for the crowd.

The lyrics to Civil War feel ripe for the political tensions of today, and Rose’s voice is soft like fur at the start, switching to a tightrope in a second. He’s truly in control; the master of range. We start to see more of Melissa Reese, the young woman who joined the band on keys and vocals in recent years, and who gets a mention from Rose as the camera lingers on her blue-and-white hair.

It dawns on me that what seemed overtly masculine in youth seems theatrically feminine in middle age: the camp mannerisms of a rocker grinding around the stage, the falsetto vocals, Slash’s fantastic black cloud of hair. The huge emotional neediness of everything. The passion. The love.

Sweet Child O’ Mine is so intense that thousands of us seem to simultaneously unite our former and current selves while singing along to it. We are all fully whole! I hug a total stranger! Then Night Train, when we all bellow “LOADED LIKE A FREIGHT TRAIN” at the top of our voices, in a hosanna of ecstatic nonsense. It is the most meaningless and also meaningful moment of the night.

By the time they play November Rain, night has fallen, and everyone’s got their lighters out – apart from the man beside me who’s using his bike light “because I gave up smoking 15 years ago”.

“Thank you,” says Rose, to his loving and loved London audience, “from the heart of my bottom.” You can’t blow the roof off a stadium that doesn’t have one, but they damn well tried.


Sophie Heawood

The GuardianTramp

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