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66 & 2/3–Use Your Illusion I and II (Part Three)

The floodgates finally opened: Thirty songs spaced over two packed-to-the-gills compact discs. Use Your Illusion I’s cover used the red-and-yellow motif of the original Mark Kostabi painting. Use Your Illusion II changed the color scheme to a cool blue-and-purple. The CD booklets were stuffed with photos, the vitriolic lyrics in microscopic sans-serif type, and detailed production and songwriting credits. Here’s the track list for the albums:

USE YOUR ILLUSION I

  1. Right Next Door To HellGnR--UseYourIllusion1
  2. Dust N’ Bones
  3. Live And Let Die
  4. Don’t Cry
  5. Perfect Crime
  6. You Ain’t The First
  7. Bad Obsession
  8. Back Off Bitch
  9. Double Talkin’ Jive
  10. November Rain
  11. The Garden
  12. Garden Of Eden
  13. Don’t Damn Me
  14. Bad Apples
  15. Dead Horse
  16. Coma

USE YOUR ILLUSION II

  1. Civil WarGunsnRosesUseYourIllusionII
  2. 14 Years
  3. Yesterdays
  4. Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
  5. Get In The Ring
  6. Shotgun Blues
  7. Breakdown
  8. Pretty Tied Up
  9. Locomotive
  10. So Fine
  11. Estranged
  12. You Could Be Mine
  13. Don’t Cry (Alt. Lyrics)
  14. My World

GunsnRoses pinballThirty tracks of equal parts seething fury and overwrought sentiment hit the streets in the waning days of summer ‘91…(Five or six songs remained mysterious outtakes. “Ain’t Going Down” was the only original that has ever surfaced…on the official Guns N’ Roses pinball machine, if you please. Evidently some other songs were covers that came out on “The Spaghetti Incident?” in 1993.)

The albums shot immediately to #1 and #2 on the Billboard charts. Use Your Illusion II sold slightly better, which I still find hard to believe even though the evidence was right in front of my eyes on Release Day at the Wherehouse. Customers buying only one of the albums almost inevitably chose II. Perhaps because it contained the massive “You Could Be Mine” single, plus the previously released “Civil War” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” (both of which got some radio airplay over the last year), so maybe the material was more of a known quantity. But it was also saddled with the odious “My World,” the embarrassing “Get In The Ring,” the inferior “alternate lyrics” version of “Don’t Cry,” the mawkish Duff McKagan-penned ballad “So Fine”…but I suppose people going to the cash register didn’t know that at the time.

The narrowing down began almost immediately. What are the “necessary” songs from the Use Your Illusions? Like almost everyone I knew, I only had a cassette player in my car. I put the entirety of I and II onto two separate tapes…then I did what everyone who has ever owned these albums did: I made a compilation of what I thought was the best stuff, and it was this third cassette that rarely left my player through the last part of ‘91 and most of ‘92.

[Years later, there actually was an “official” single-disc Use Your Illusion, supposedly compiled by Axl himself, consisting of profanity-free songs for the big box stores like Walmart and Kmart. Unfortunately, it’s a great example of how NOT to make a single-disc Illusion, including both versions of “Don’t Cry” at the expense of better (still profanity-free) songs.]

So…the 33⅓ author did it, several blogs have already done it, I remember most of my friends from that era doing it…

They all got it entirely wrong, botching the whole thing. The Holy Bee will now do it right.

Many people’s single-disc mixes included only twelve songs, making it a song-for-song match for Appetite For Destruction. Yes, the Use Your Illusions need to be cut down, but I don’t want them to be a mere shadow of their former selves. Grandiosity is what makes them fascinating. Therefore, I will cut only fourteen songs, leaving me sixteen, clocking in at about 88 minutes. This still stretches the limits of space available on a commercially released compact disc, but my pared-down Use Your Illusion would make an awesome double album on vinyl (which, remember, the individual Use Your Illusions were anyway), and would fit on a standard 90 minute blank tape. Perfect. (A few minutes too long for recording onto a blank CD, but we’re keeping our heads firmly in 1991…)

The Selection Process: I will be discarding fourteen songs, but it’s not enough to simply cut and let the remainder stay where they are. The running order will need to be completely re-shuffled to create a smooth, balanced and natural flow from one song to the next.

I have chunked the songs on Use Your Illusion I and II down into six general categories, and each category has to lose at least two songs (except where noted.)

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66 & 2/3 – Use Your Illusion I and II (Part Two)

Guns_N'_Roses-logoWhen 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.

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

Vintage 2-track, 4-track, and 16-track tape recorders

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).

dizzyReed

Dizzy Reed

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.

Matt Sorum

Matt Sorum

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. Continue reading

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66 & 2/3–Use Your Illusion I and II (Part One)

On September 17, 1991, the band that had been on top of the hard rock heapGunsnr-useyou_22 since its debut album  Appetite For Destruction went multi-platinum back in ‘88 made the groundbreaking — and seemingly insane — decision to release two separate full-length albums of original material at the same time. “An act of almost colossal arrogance,” one writer described it. (On vinyl, each one was actually a double album in and of itself). The Use Your Illusion project was a microcosm of the arena-rock breed of populism that had been annoying intellectuals and highbrow music writers ever since Led Zeppelin and its legions of high school parking lot smokers dropped a bomb on the progressive ambitions of the Woodstock Generation.

Of course, those progressive ambitions returned with a vengeance in the form of “alternative rock,” which killed off Guns N’ Roses quite handily. Turn, turn, turn.

Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II represented a lot of things – inflated runaway egos, rock & roll super-indulgence, perhaps the pinnacle of “event” albums, but most of all they represented the end of an era.

These albums were completely over-the-top, sonically massive, and in a way that seems charmingly archaic now, totally ridiculous in their excess. Overdubbed to the breaking point, featuring synthesized strings and brass, spoken word segments, and enough hubris to fuel three Kanye Wests, the fact that the Use Your Illusions were even allowed to exist opened the door to the more subtle, self-conscious, and self-effacing alternative rock that had been waiting quietly in the underground for a few years. In 1992, Alternative Nation would topple Dinosaur Rock, and cause a complete re-set on how music designed for the masses was recorded, marketed, sold, consumed, written about, thought about.

So the Use Your Illusions have become something of a milestone, a “You Are Now Leaving…” sign. Just like Nirvana’s Nevermind, released exactly one week later (I can’t believe the beautiful symmetry either), became a “You Are Now Entering…” sign.

For some reason (midlife crisis?), in the late summer of this year, I found myself gravitating toward and listening to the Use Your Illusions quite frequently. As with most of my temporary obsessions, I tried to think of a way to spin it into a Holy Bee blog piece, but for weeks, I couldn’t find an angle. I didn’t want to do a straightforward review, nor a “Holy Bee Recommends” segment…because I can’t in good conscience recommend it. Frankly, the albums are a mess.

So I thought briefly of doing the classic music-nerd parlor game of winnowing a sprawling double album into a tight, cohesive single album by discarding weak tracks and championing the keepers. A great exercise to foster discussion and debate on things like The Beatles (“White Album”), London Calling, and of course, Use Your Illusion I and II. But seeing how that activity has been done so incredibly frequently (by me and my friends, you and your friends, and certainly by other bloggers), I didn’t want to make it the whole point of the essay.

I didn’t know what I had to say about the Illusions, then it occurred to me (in the bathroom, where I get my best ideas.) Why not say everything? I had the brilliant idea of doing a shorter version of a  33⅓ book, which are not that long to begin with.

33Collage33⅓ is a series of small, slim paperbacks put out by Bloomsbury Publishing, each one dedicated to a milestone album. They are usually written by a critic or journalist, but several have been written by musicians. (My favorite 33⅓ book, on The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street, was written by Bill Janovitz of the 90s indie-rock band Buffalo Tom). There are currently 98 33⅓ books in print, with several more slated though 2016. The authors are free to write about the album in whatever way they want: technical breakdowns, musical analysis, personal reflections on what the album meant to them, short fiction, etc. Or a combination of it all. No set format, and that’s what makes them fascinating.

I now had an approach. Regular Holy Bee readers know I’m a throw-in-the-kitchen-sink kind of writer, so I decided to dump all of my thoughts on this peculiar pair of albums into one massive, multi-part piece. My own little 33⅓ book.

Imagine my heartbreak when I discovered that there already was a 33⅓ book on the Use Your Illusions! I was stunned. Frankly, the 33⅓ books are a little on the hipster/elite side — their latest entry is on Sigur Ros’ (), to give you an idea — and I was very surprised Use Your Illusion I and II would appeal to their regular readers. Back to the drawing board for the Holy Bee?

But wait! The Use Your Illusion I and II 33⅓ book is perhaps the most reviled work in the entire series. Former Spin and Village Voice music editor Eric Weisbard pissed off nearly everyone with his take on the albums. Here’s some titles of the scathing Amazon reviews:

“This Book Is Garbage !!”

“Yikes. Not for the fans!”

“An hour of my life I won’t get back.”

“Wow – This writer is completely self-indulgent and pretentious.” (The Holy Bee looked around nervously at that one.)

“The Worst Book in the 33⅓ Series I’ve Read.”

And so on.

Weisbard decided to write a piece about popular culture in the early 90s, using the Use Your Illusions as a filter through which he 33grexamines the changing of the musical guard described above. What infuriated readers is that his look at the music on the Use Your Illusions is cursory and intentionally secondary. It’s based on his memories of the album from twenty years ago…without re-listening to it until he wrote the final chapter! By his own admission, he was far from a Guns N’ Roses expert, and not even much of a fan.

I was siding with the indignant Amazon reviewers, until I plunked down a ten-spot and actually downloaded the damn thing to my Kindle to see what all the fuss was about.

It turns out Eric Weisbard is a good writer. With every turn of the page, he fires off an eloquent passage expressing the whole end-of-an-era idea much better than I ever could. To wit: “The idolatry required to sustain albums on a 1970s or 1980s scale could no longer be met by a popular culture whose niche markets were collectively far more valuable than its consensus heroes…In the season of the blockbuster [album], CDs still came in ‘long boxes’: tall rectangles shaped like skyscrapers, and meant to…fit record store bins, and provide at least a hint of the majesty that LP covers had offered. Unlike vinyl, however, once you bought a CD and ripped the long box open the effect was instantly gone. A couple of years later, the industry stopped faking consumers; the aura of the LP had been replaced by the profit margin of the CD…We need to hear Use Your Illusion I and II with the long boxes still intact, those twin towers of September 1991. Filter back in the audience they summoned and expected to speak for…”

And there’s more where that came from. (Check out his NPR article on Brad Paisley’s “Accidental Racist” if you like his style.) I understood what he was trying to do, and I think he succeeded in doing it. I can definitely recommend his book — with the caveat that, as the reviewers have made clear, it’s not really about the Use Your Illusion albums

And when he did get to some thumbnail analysis of the songs, he gets everything entirely wrong, naturally.

Good thing I’m here. I decided to plunge ahead and write the 33⅓ (or 66⅔ if you will) on Use Your Illusion I and II that people seemed to actually want. Along with my picks for a single-disc version. Not even Eric Weisbard could resist that little exercise. He may be a great writer, but his single-disc UYI mix blows. Continue reading

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