Guns N' Roses: how they soundtracked my last gasp of pre-teen freedom

In the first of a new series on the artists who had a formative influence on our writers, Rebecca Nicholson celebrates the hysterical melodrama of Axl Rose and co

When I was small, I would memorise the lyrics to songs by New Kids on the Block and Kylie Minogue and put on performances in the front room for my poor parents. I was always obsessive about music. Then suddenly, when I was around nine, I became totally devoted to Guns N’ Roses. It was before the internet and nobody I knew liked them, so to this day I can’t work out where it came from. But it was big. Bigger than forcing myself to cry when I listened to Tears on My Pillow on repeat. Bigger than learning the dance routine to Hangin’ Tough. I insisted I was going to the local disco – which was not fancy dress – as Axl Rose, my hair swept into a red bandana, where I begged the DJ to play Sweet Child o’Mine, ecstatic when he finally agreed. My fellow nine-year-olds were more keen on sitting down for Oops Upside Your Head than twirling around the dancefloor, hopping on one leg like Axl; in order to air-guitar that giant among riffs, I had to move seamlessly from Axl to Slash and back again. Where do we go now? Home, to bed, tucked up before 9pm.

(L-R) Rebecca Nicholson forcing her little sister to wear her spare GNR T-shirt.
Rebecca Nicholson forcing her little sister to wear her spare GNR T-shirt. Photograph: Rebecca Nicholson

I was not a metal fan before Guns N’ Roses, and I never was again, but for two years, I was a gangly pre-pubescent girl who only wanted to talk about, think about, and listen to what I thought was the greatest band of all time. My bedroom wall was covered in posters. I had all the albums on cassette, which I should probably apologise for, because I think most of them were pirate copies picked up during a caravan holiday in Skegness. I had two T-shirts, both of which skirted my knees, which also came from the seaside, and were almost certainly knock-offs, too. I had a calendar. I loved them so unequivocally that I did not mind when it was a Matt Sorum month.

Inexplicably, my two favourite Guns N’ Roses albums were Use Your Illusion I and II. When I fell out of love with the band, I did so ruthlessly, so I have not listened to either for at least 25 years. (I do still have a soft spot for Appetite for Destruction, God’s own driving music.) I played them both when I was writing this to remind me what I had been missing and, in an instant, could put my finger on exactly what they had imprinted on me. Those records are long – God, they’re so long – and they are excessive and pompous and melodramatic. This, it turns out, is the reason that I remain a sucker for an unnecessary string section and an overwrought story that tugs at the heartstrings.

My Guns N’ Roses worship was tolerated by my parents, who loved music themselves. We had an agreement that I had to promise not to repeat the overly “adult” lyrics in public. Singing along in my bedroom seemed within the limits of the rules, and so I did, with abandon. I remember particularly loving Get in the Ring, that hilariously petulant track about the evils of the music press, which means I must have been dancing around my room singing lines such as: “What, you pissed off because your dad gets more pussy than you?” and “Get in the ring, motherfucker! I’ll kick your bitchy little ass, punk!” In my mind, it sat harmlessly, somewhere next to my WWF wrestling figures.

‘All the melodrama I had once adored seemed false and phoney’ ... Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and baby Frances Bean in 1993.
‘All the melodrama I had once adored seemed false and phoney’ ... Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and baby Frances Bean in 1993. Photograph: Vinnie Zuffante/Getty Images

The obsession was all-encompassing, and then it stopped. While I can’t recall how Guns N’ Roses came into my life, I can remember how they left it. Occasionally, I’d beg for a copy of Raw or Kerrang! magazine, if the cover promised on an article on them. It must have been there that I read about the row between Guns N’ Roses and Nirvana backstage at the 1992 MTV awards: how Courtney Love had teased Axl Rose, who, according to Kurt Cobain, then told him to “shut your bitch up”. That was when the coolness began to drain away from these showy cigarettes-and-hairspray men. Instead, I leaned towards a sarcastic, beautiful man with a wife who wouldn’t shut up, who made all the melodrama I had once adored seem false and phoney. Soon, I would be a Nirvana fan.

But that Guns N’ Roses love was pure and naive, as much about wanting to be Axl Rose as it was about adoring him. Now I know more, it seems like an odd fit, but I think it makes sense, too. They were cartoonish, distant, overblown caricatures, pretty men with long hair, losing it on stage amid smoke machines and ridiculous riffs. I was a couple of years away from being a teenage girl, and so I lacked that chronically painful self-consciousness that would inevitably descend. I didn’t care about being cool. I didn’t know what cool was. Axl Rose was my hero. If I wanted to, I could spin around on one leg at the local disco, red bandana in my hair.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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