Never mind Nevermind, 1991 was all about Guns N' Roses

With all the 20th anniversary nostalgia you might think 1991 was defined by Nevermind. If so, nobody told Axl Rose

2011 has seen a steady re-examination of pop culture from 20 years ago. Hinged on the anniversary of Nirvana's grunge lodestar Nevermind, anyone nostalgic for 1991 could also check out Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam 20 documentary, watch Soundgarden on tour (support from the Meat Puppets), enjoy the revived Beavis And Butthead, or the DVD of 1991: The Year Punk Broke. However, at the time, almost all of these were dwarfed by the release of Use Your Illusion I & II – Guns N' Roses' sprawling, long-delayed follow up to 1987's Appetite For Destruction. If anyone remembers Use Your Illusion now, though, it's as a byword for hubris, pomposity and a terminally unfashionable strain of stadium metal that was duly killed by grunge. 2011's retro fest will apparently pass with no homage to what was, in 1991, the biggest thing in pop music.

This erasure of Use Your Illusion from the collective memory is odd. On its release it was an enormous cultural event; midnight store openings, five-star reviews, seven-times platinum sales for both albums and a mammoth, 194-date tour marked by riots, resignations and the eventual explosion of the bassist's pancreas. But after this, the band set about enthusiastically traducing its own legacy with awful punk covers, a revolving door of session hacks and long periods of torpor. Axl Rose's grand folly became one of those things – like Thatcherism, or Robbie Williams – that was enormously popular at the time, but that nobody would later admit to having enjoyed.

In truth, the albums are sporadically brilliant (although the bad stuff is so remarkably terrible that it has a kind of halo effect on the music around it). What really condemned Use Your Illusion to ignominy was the fact that at the moment it arrived Kurt Cobain redefined what a rock star should be. And in 1991 that meant flannel shirts and political correctness, rather than stars and stripes cycling shorts and songs challenging journalists to a punch-up. Both parties did their bit to ramp up this hostile dichotomy: Rose reportedly threatening Cobain at the MTV Awards; Cobain publicly mocking GN'R for being "establishment rock'n'roll".

With 20 years' distance, Rose and his grunge nemesis don't seem so different: both were angry, provincial ingrates and, just as Nirvana were credited with killing off a lot of bad music, Guns N' Roses had dealt a similar death blow to the 1980s glam metal scene just three years earlier. The counterfactuals suggested around Nevermind's anniversary have focused on the great work that a still-living Cobain could have made. But, given these similarities, it's at least possible that he might have followed Axl Rose's lead, turning into a loopy, mansion-bound recluse, tinkering with unfinished projects, piling on the suet and emerging sporadically to sue his ex-bandmates and have a punch-up with Tommy Hilfiger. Maybe in another 10 years' time the hoopla surrounding Guns N' Roses (and those regrettable cycling shorts) will be forgotten to the point that Use Your Illusion will finally get a fair hearing.


Justin Quirk

The GuardianTramp

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