When my son Cameron was about six or seven, he began nosing around in my Beatles books, and saw some of the recording credits. “How could Paul play bass, piano, and organ on the same song?” he asked. “He didn’t have six hands.” Most people with a passing interest in record-making are aware of the concept of overdubs, but I’ll throw out a quick description…
In the early days of recording, the idea was to capture a performance as it happened. The band set up, the recording engineer plopped down a microphone, and they played. If there was a screw-up, they took it from the top. If a singer or instrumentalist needed to be louder, they moved closer to the microphone.
Beginning in the 1960s, thanks primarily to The Beatles’ studio innovations, the whole philosophy behind recording changed. It was no longer about capturing a performance as it happened, but building the perfect version of a song. Bits and pieces of numerous takes were edited together, and additional vocals and instruments were added via multi-track tape recorders. The typical method for a post-mid 60s rock band would be to record a “basic track” or “rhythm track” (drums, bass, a couple of guitars) onto one or two “tracks” (individual recording spaces) of the tape machine. Then additional tracks (guitar solos, percussion, keyboards, miscellaneous texturing, lead and backing vocals) would be “overdubbed” on top of the basic track. On a single-track recorder, like your old VCR or portable cassette player, the new recording would simply erase the old. But on a multi-track recording, everything remains audible. Picture an overhead projector from your early school days — each track would be the sonic version one of those transparent sheets you could lay down on the projector surface, combining to create the full image projected on the screen.
The tracks would then be mixed, ensuring the proper balance of sounds. The Beatles worked their magic with only four-track recorders. If they needed more room, they mixed the in-progress song back down to one or two tracks (“bouncing” it, as they put it), and made the necessary additions on the newly-opened tracks. The process could be repeated, but the loss of fidelity would become noticeable.
By the Use Your Illusion era, 48-track digital (no tape) recorders were the order of the day. With reduction (“bounce”) mixes resulting in no loss of audio quality, overdubs could be almost infinite, and even a single note or word could simply be “punched in.”
As evidenced above, the term “track” itself has a multitude of uses — it can refer to an available space on a recording, a single instrumental or vocal overdub, a basic foundation recording…or even a finished song as it appears on an album, just to add to the confusion.
Continuing our look at the development of the Use Your Illusion material…
Summer 1989 — Eight weeks of writing, work-shopping and rehearsal for the new album were scheduled in Chicago, a seemingly random location chosen by Axl and Izzy. Then neither of them showed up for most of that time. The trio of Slash, McKagan, and Adler attempted to work out ideas in the absence of their two chief writers and arrangers, but Slash called that whole period a “waste of time” that yielded a few finished tunes, but mostly just expanded on a “handful of rudimentary ideas” that they had brought with them from L.A. in the first place. According to the hazy recollections of their autobiographies, Slash and Duff figure the songs that came together in Chicago included “Bad Apples,” “Garden Of Eden,” “Get In The Ring,” the final version of “Civil War,” “Pretty Tied Up” (originally an Izzy song that they finished off in his absence), and “Estranged” (when Axl finally deigned to show up).
February 1990 — Against the wishes the other band members, Axl insisted on hiring a keyboard player to fatten out the sound and assist with the epic synth orchestras he was hearing in his head for his ballads. Dizzy Reed, formerly of L.A. bar band The Wild, became the sixth member of GN’R. (Also, like a wise old uncle, Mick Jagger advised Axl that using keyboards onstage helped keep your vocals on pitch.)
By the rules of rock & roll, adding a keyboard player where there wasn’t one to begin with is the first slip on the greasy slope of musical bloat. What’s next? Backup singers? A horn section? Elaborate stage effects?
Spring 1990 — After the disastrous Chicago “pre-production” sessions, according to Slash, most of the final arrangements of the Illusion tracks were worked out “in literally two nights” on acoustic guitars when all band members finally got together in one room for the first time in months. Songs that had been kicking around the band forever (see previous entry) were given a fresh going-over, old fragments were pieced together and fleshed out, becoming new songs, and Axl finally began his rough draft of the lyrics. At the end of this phase, they had thirty-six demos.
All they needed to do now was get themselves organized enough to take this material into the recording studio. Easier said than done: Slash was still a heroin addict. Duff was a raging alcoholic, guzzling by his conservative estimate a gallon of Stoli vodka per day. Steven Adler was both a heroin addict and an alcoholic, and had more than a passing interest in crack cocaine as well. Izzy, after a decade of living like these guys, had gone clean and sober and was keeping contact with his bandmates to a bare minimum. (At this point, he would often mail in cassettes of riff ideas and demos to the band office rather than show up to sessions.) Axl was Axl, and operated on no schedule other than his own whims.
They did manage to start recording in good faith with Appetite producer Mike Clink, making several passes at “Civil War,” before it became clear that drummer Steven Adler could no longer play. Recording sessions were put on indefinite hold until the situation could sorted out.
June 1990 — GN’R fired Steven Adler for drug-induced incompetence. He was replaced by veteran drummer Matt Sorum, a hard-hitter who kept solid time with no frills or complications. Sourm had played for more bands than anyone could count since the mid-70s, but was most recently the touring drummer for The Cult. The lawsuits and counter-lawsuits between Adler and the rest of the band kept dozens of lawyers employed through the 1990s.
Slash said the first song recorded with Sorum was the Bob Dylan song “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door,” but Slash’s autobiography is (understandably) fuzzy on firm dates — it must have been recorded in a damned jiffy compared to everything else, because it came out on the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise/NASCAR turkey Days of Thunder on June 26. (“Knockin’” had been played in concert since 1987, so they knew it pretty well at this point.)
July 1990 — “Civil War” was released to little fanfare as part of the charity album Nobody’s Child: Romanian Angel Appeal, in support of Romanian orphans. It was the final appearance on a Guns N’ Roses song by Steven Adler. (According to one of the band’s counter-lawsuits, the drum track was pieced together by Mike Clink from over sixty different takes because Adler’s playing had deteriorated so much.)
September 1990 — The backing tracks are laid down at A&M Studios, Los Angeles. “Thirty-six [basic] tracks in thirty-six days” as Slash described it, bashed out by the core band with Clink behind the soundboard. These early sessions are pretty much the end of Izzy Stradlin’s recording career with Guns N’ Roses. Slash figured Izzy was there “one day out of three,” and it seems much of his rhythm guitar work was simply lifted from his mailed-in, four-track demo tapes. A close perusal of the songwriting credits on the finished albums shows that, despite being “Mr. Invisible” (as the rest of the band called him), Stradlin had a prominent role in creating the foundation of the Illusions’ strongest songs. “I have a few [songs] on there…” he told a journalist at the time, then almost dismissively followed it up by adding, “…but they all get mixed together. Once they’re on tape with Axl singing and Slash playing guitar, I just look at it as Guns N’ Roses stuff.”
The vocal-less tracks were given preliminary mixes by legendary engineer Bob Clearmountain (Stones, Bowie, Springsteen, many, many others), which were rejected as “too slick.” Another attempt was made by legendary engineer #2 Bill Price (Sex Pistols), and these proved rawer and more primitive — satisfactory. The project was already “over-budget, over-time, over everything,” in Price’s words.
His mixes provided the foundation for the copious, almost suffocating, overdubs that are the hallmark of the Use Your Illusions.
December 1990 — Guns N’ Roses tries to convince Geffen Records to put out all thirty-five songs as a four-disc box set. Geffen uncharacteristically put on its big-boy pants and stood up to the band, telling them no fucking way.
Axl chose a title — after rejecting possibilities such as GN’R Sucks and Buy This — based on a work by artist Mark Kostabi, who turned a small section of Raphael’s Renaissance fresco painting “The School of Athens” into a work entitled “Use Your Illusion.” Talked out of the four-disc set, the band settled on the still-audacious plan for a simultaneous release of two separate albums.
Late 1990 – Early 1991 — The overdubs began in earnest at the Record Plant in L.A. No source tries to give a firm start date or end date. The hoped-for release date that Geffen Records set awhile ago whizzed by. The other band members may have swung by during these endless months to punch in a vocal track here and there, or make a minor correction, but this now officially the Slash N’ Axl Show.
Slash’s trademark guitar — not an actual Gibson Les Paul, but a Les Paul replica with Seymour Duncan pickups handmade by Kris Derrig — dwarfed every other sound on the Illusion recordings. I don’t know how many separate guitar tracks he laid down for each song, but it was easily in the double digits. He trucked in rental guitars as well during his overdub sessions. “I had a 1958 Gibson Flying V…a 1958 Gibson Explorer…a few Travis Beans, a few assorted acoustics — Martin, Gibson, Taylor, etc…a couple of dobros, and a handful of vintage Les Pauls, plus my staple Les Paul replica…It was a gluttonous guitar experience for me; I was determined to go to town on all of them, dead set on getting all those sounds on our new album in some way, shape, or form…two straight weeks of recording guitar parts in one studio, and Axl more or less made the other studio into an apartment…he moved his exercise equipment in, as well as a bed and couches…”
Axl was busily recording and re-recording his equally numerous vocal tracks and synthesizer overdubs. This continued, along with constant tinkering and tweaking of the lyrics, throughout the spring of ‘91.
January 1991 — Guns N’ Roses played the massive Rock In Rio festival, debuting five new Illusion songs. This marks the unofficial start to the Use Your Illusion Tour, which began eight months before the release of the albums it was promoting, lasted twenty-eight months altogether, and was one of the longest single rock tours in history. Before going onstage in Brazil, Axl made the other band members sign documents granting him total legal ownership of the name “Guns N’ Roses.”
Slash appeared on the cover of the January 24 (#596) issue of Rolling Stone — my first issue of a subscription that continues to this day — and gave a peek behind the curtain of the still-gestating albums. The piece rekindled my curiosity about a band I hadn’t given much thought to since idly deciding I wanted the Appetite CD back in ‘89. “There’s not a ton of really happy material on it, you know?” he told the interviewer. “Most of it is…very pissed off, and very heavy.” He described the albums as a deck-clearing exercise, getting all old material out of the vaults in anticipation of fresh stuff for Album #3, still in the far-distant future.
Spring 1991 — DATs (digital audio tapes) of the songs with all of the overdubs began circulating amongst band members, producers, and label executives for final approval. “Anytime you’re working with a band that big, it’ll take some time to mix the record,” said an unnamed Geffen A&R guy. “If you had a mix ready, Axl had to approve it, Slash had to approve it, Tom Zutaut [GN’R’s Geffen liason] had to approve it, the management had to sign off…” Bill Price said “For example, the mix [of “November Rain”] was on the board for a week. DATs flew back and forth, and harmony lines were being changed and different guitar licks put in…the only way to find out which tracks to use would be to get the entire band in the studio at the same time, which seemed like quite a normal thing to me. When I mentioned this to the band’s management, they were totally horrified… [Use Your Illusion I and II] was about the most complicated mix — musically, technically, people-wise — that I’ve ever done in my life.” Bill Price worked on the final mixes for over seven months.
A “warm-up” show at the Ritz Theater, New York City, on May 16 yielded the concert footage used in the “You Could Be Mine” video later that summer. The tour began in earnest on May 24.
Summer 1991 — The band continued to add elements to the recordings in between concerts, including the crowd noises for “Get In The Ring” from the June 10 show at Saratoga, NY. “They still hadn’t finished the album[s],” said Bill Price. “So the last half-dozen songs were…overdubbed, vocal’d, and guitar’d in random studios dotted around America, when they had a day off between gigs. I was [either] back in L.A. at the mixing desk, waiting for the courier to bring my next tape through the door…[or] flying around America with pocketfuls of DATs, playing the mixes to the band backstage.”
“Great fun, actually,” he admitted.
“You Could Be Mine” was released as a single and on the Terminator 2: Judgement Day soundtrack in late June. This song, and it’s movie tie-in video, was most of the public’s first taste of the Illusion material. (Including mine. “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and “Civil War” were off my radar back in 1990.) A blistering slab of the old familiar GN’R style, sounding like a sneak preview of Appetite For Destruction Part II, the single sold two million copies to hopeful people blissfully unaware that the new double album was shaping up as an uneven, confounding experiment, with almost as much synth-and-keyboard work as Slash’s guitars.
Late July 1991 — The band members sign off on the final mixes, running order, and album artwork. The release is delayed yet again when Axl added his solo track “My World,” without the knowledge of the others.
All the elements were finally in place for a much-revised release date of September 17, 1991.
September 1991 — The hype had been unbelievable all summer…the “You Could Be Mine” video was in heavy MTV rotation…every issue of Rolling Stone had some kind of breathless preview… “Don’t Cry” was starting to turn up on the radio…
Just three short years prior, I had been a bike-riding eighth-grader, avoiding giving Guns N’ Roses a listen, fearing they would be too harsh for my tender ears, and spinning my mostly-Beatles music collection on an old turntable…
Now I got behind the wheel of my car (five-week-old driver’s license in my wallet, along with a twenty-dollar bill), determined to get one of the Illusions on the day it came out. My old turntable had long since been garage-sale’d, replaced by a Pioneer (and I insisted it had to be Pioneer) CD player. My CD collection was by now officially bigger-than-average for a high school junior, and was mostly the meat-and-potatoes classic rock of the 60s and early 70s. I finally had the back catalog I wanted, and now it was time — for the first time, of many, many times in the future — to buy a new album from a current band on its release date.
Tuesday, September 17…I couldn’t concentrate at all during my last class of the day (Creative Writing). I couldn’t concentrate during my daily two-hour after-school hitch working for my dad, sweeping bondo dust and organizing tools at his body shop. I earned fifty dollars a week for my efforts. Twenty-five was automatically held back for car insurance. The other twenty-five was mine. Usually that meant fifteen to seventeen on a CD, and the rest into the gas tank of my 1972 Blazer (gas was finally getting cheap again after the ‘91 Gulf War.)
Finally, at six o’clock, I was released from all obligations and dashed to the record store, still coated in body shop grime. The sun was still shining bright in the evening that time of year, and the heat of the day still lingered. There were two record stores in Yuba City in those days. Camelot Music in the mall — small, expensive as only a mall chain record store can be (no wonder most of them went the way of the dodo by the early 2000s), but a place to go if you were already at the mall, or if the Wherehouse didn’t have what you were looking for. This was rare indeed, as the Wherehouse was the jewel among suburban record stores, with a much bigger retail space, a deep selection, and prices a dollar or two lower. Both the mall and the Wherehouse were on Colusa Boulevard, about three-fourths of a mile apart, and both had been hyping the Use Your Illusions for weeks. The Wherehouse had massive posters plastered across its front windows, while Camelot went a little smaller and more whimsical, filling its front display cases with silver pearl-handled toy cap pistols, and lots of plastic long-stemmed roses.
I practically bounded into the Wherehouse, Tigger-style…but which one to buy? In case you missed it, there were TWO. I had very limited funds, and it hurt not to be able to buy both. They looked beautiful, stacked dozens deep in their cardboard long boxes in the New Release rack capping the end of the first aisle. The red/yellow one, or the blue/purple one? I stood for a moment, trying to think of some kind of scheme that would put both CDs on my shelf that very night. Begging the parents at my age was unseemly, and any other possibility was pure fantasy. I had squirreled away last week’s pay in anticipation of this moment, and it was three whole days before the next payday. I wasn’t sure if I could make it. People around me were buying them, usually together. I stood there agonizing long enough to observe that when people bought a single one, they were favoring Use Your Illusion II.
In the end, I decided to go in strict numerical order. I bought Use Your Illusion I that day, and my shirt didn’t touch my back as I ran out of the store. I may have even done a Dukes of Hazzard-style hood slide across the front of my car to access the driver’s door a millisecond faster. I fired it up, gunned it out of the parking lot…then the damn thing died at the first intersection. Its temperamental fuel line had clogged again, and I ended up pushing it through a left turn at the busiest intersection in Yuba City (I realize that “busiest” anything in Yuba City is not saying much, but the chorus of horns behind me told me I was not alone in that intersection.) After popping the hood and some semi-clueless fiddling with the fuel filter, I got it started, and continued my journey to musical nirvana…
I got home, ripped the CD out of its long box, put it in on, and was sonically assaulted.
I have no regrets.
I was able to buy Use Your Illusion II 72 hours later…
To Be Continued.