Two albums, one choice. Nirvana’s Nevermind or Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses. Which classic album has stood the test of time and keeps on rocking long after the last headbanger has collapsed in a pool of cheap cider?
Albums that define a decade and galvanize a generation don’t come along all that often, but when they do, much like an earthquake, you know about it.
Appetite for Destruction (July 21, 1987) and Nevermind (September 24, 1991) were recorded within four years of each other by two distinctly different bands, with one unifying factor — they were both originals and packed one helluva punch.
Years later and these two albums are still being played, downloaded, and cunningly exploited by clever DJs who want to inject some turbo charged juice into the dullest of parties and give the punters some quality bang for their buck.
Somewhere right now a kid is discovering the transformative and pure unbounded force of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or the sleazy glamor and vicious magic of “Welcome To The Jungle” for the first time, as they embark on a magical journey into that most elusive and rarest of things — an album which is all killer and no filler.
A good band is defined by its era. A great band, on the other hand, transcends it with songs capable of echoing through the ages and rallying each subsequent generation to tell the powers that be to go fudge ’em selves.
So riddle me this Batman, Appetite For Destruction by Guns N’ Roses or Nevermind by Nirvana? Which long-player has aged better and is still more than capable of going head to head with any successive pretenders to the throne?
When Nirvana first exploded into the consciousness of the record buying public at large with the unexpected monster that was Nevermind, they were praised in many quarters as the punk rock knights who would finally slay the flatulent and flabby dragon that was the hair metal cock rocker.
Much in the same way the Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Damned were applauded for exposing the hypocritical facade and silencing the grotesque bellow of multi-millionaire baby-boomer rockers who had long since sucked the life-force out of rock n’ roll, Nirvana were hailed as the three horseman of the grassroots apocalypse hell-bent on doing the same to bands who were once considered revolutionary but had now grown as stagnant as a puddle of three-day old puke.
And many were placing yesterday’s heroes Guns N’ Roses in this unenviable category.
By the time Nevermind was blasting out of everybody’s speakers, a lycra-shorts wearing Axl Rose and the boys were seen as yesterday’s dinosaurs, who were little more than repellant reptiles with sexist, homophobic, and retarded views on everything and anything.
According to who you talked to, Guns N’ Roses’ long list of crimes included sentimental ballads, cock rocking trivialities, inane and trite lyrics, cheesy guitar solos, stadium rock pomposity, and the churning out of videos that made Hollywood blockbusters look arty in comparison.
According to the ruthlessly uncompromising self-appointed guardians of cool, Guns N’ Roses and their toxic brand of “establishment rock n’ roll” were to be furiously scratched from anyone’s playlist and placed very high on the spit-it-out-list.
Which was a damned shame because when Guns N’ Roses were good, they were outstanding.
During the Appetite era, if rock n’ roll had a look, Guns N’ Roses were it. If rock n’ roll had an attitude, then they defined it, and if rock n’ roll had a sound, Guns N’ Roses owned it. With an effortless cool and ragged glory, the heck-raising outlaws scaled the highest peaks and entertained with the most elusive of epiphanies, and it’s all captured in the grooves of Appetite For Destruction.
Then, like anything touched by the hand of god or sense of infinite otherness, it didn’t last. It fell apart quicker than one of Slash’s solos. What was once raw and without compromise broke down in a very mundane, ignoble, and cliched manner.
By the time the Use Your Illusion era came crawling down the highway, the wheels had already started to fall off this rock n’ roll juggernaut, as massive egos, frayed nerves, addictive personalities, a weary nihilism, and an indifferent approach all conspired to create a freak show without equal — a freak show that would eventually run its course and come to a grinding and unspectacular halt.
Yet, before their sad and slow decline, for the briefest of periods, Guns N’ Roses ignited the world and one another, untouchable, unbounded, and complete.
Although the double sucker punch that was Use Your Illusion had been released a mere seven days before Nevermind, it was soon to be eclipsed by Nirvana’s breakthrough album; if not in terms of sales, definitely in terms of cultural impact.
And although Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain were both small-town guys from broken homes who viewed the world strictly through the eyes of born outsiders and shared an all-consuming love of punk and metal, they became sworn enemies very fast, and expected their fans to do the same.
Which was a shame because Axl was initially a big fan of Nirvana, even to the point of wearing a hat with the band’s logo in the “Don’t Cry” video.
Of course, a playful Kurt didn’t help matters none with Axl baiting quotes such as, “We’re not your typical Guns N’ Roses type of band that has absolutely nothing to say,” and, “Rebellion is standing up to people like Guns N’ Roses.”
Initially, Axl was willing to dismiss Kurt’s trash talks as just that, trash, and even pestered Kurt non-stop for Nirvana to join Guns N’ Roses on a massive stadium tour.
Kurt declined, and Axl, no stranger to trash talk himself, launched a tirade from the stage about how Kurt and Courtney were basically elitist junkies who belonged in prison.
The feud reached the point of no return at the MTV VMAs when Axl screamed at Kurt to “Shut your b—h (Courtney Love) up, or I’m taking you down to the pavement.”
Kurt pretty much made his feelings clear on the matter when he told LGBT publication The Advocate in December 1992 that Axl was a “sexist and a racist and a homophobe, and you can’t be on his side and be on our side. I’m sorry that I have to divide this up like this, but it’s something you can’t ignore. And besides they can’t write good music.”
And there we have it. The damage was done. On Kurt’s, let’s be honest: thousands of fans turned there back on the glory and grandeur of Appetite For Destruction and thousands more were to never experience it.
Well, at least not until such time that it became hip again, and music fans were no longer governed by the holy imperative to choose between grunge and metal.
Forced to grow like a poisoned mushroom in a darkened room during the years when Nevermind basked in the rosy glow of critical acclaim, Appetite has finally reclaimed it’s mantle as a true contender, and people once again feel safe to celebrate its raw power and unquestioning belief in the church of rock n’ roll.
In much the same way Nevermind blew away the pretenders and musical mediocrities of the early 1990s, Axl and his lieutenants delivered a similar death blow to the glam metal cowboys who haunted Sunset Strip in the 1980s like a particularly virile STD.
And Appetite For Destruction was the axe they wielded to chop away the dead wood.
From the menacing opening riff of “Welcome To The Jungle” to Axl’s kiss off on “Rocket Queen,” and everything in between, the Gunners’ debut bristles with attitude, aggression, and a big “screw-you I’m gonna have a good time before the whole house goes up in flames” mentality.
Yet scratch the surface and this is so much more than jock rock; there’s a vulnerability, heartache, and yearning for something transcendental and timeless in these grooves, which in sublime moments, such as the intro to “Sweet child O’ Mine,” sparkles with a world weary splendor.
Yet is it still capable of slugging it out for 12 rounds with Nevermind and perhaps even delivering a knock-out punch?
Whereas Appetite can be described as a party album that’ll get you in the mood for a night out on the town faster than a couple of whiskey shots, Nevermind doesn’t really slot into the let’s get wrecked and party hard category.
Time transforms all things, and since Kurt Cobain’s death, Nevermind sounds a lot different to how it did when he was alive.
Yet anyone who remembers hearing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for the first time when Nirvana were new or newish to the world will remember the rush, the strangeness, and the sheer force of nature that was contained in that five-minute epiphany.
On its release, Nevermind was slaughtered in some quarters. The Boston Globe reviewer Steve Morse wrote, “Most of Nevermind is packed with generic punk-pop that had been done by countless acts from Iggy Pop to the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” and added “the band has little or nothing to say, settling for moronic ramblings by singer-lyricist Cobain.”
The kids didn’t agree, and on the strength of Nevermind, for better or worse, a movement was formed and it was called grunge.
Not many albums have that sort of cultural impact, but Nevermind did.
It’s not hard to work out why. Whereas Appetite For Destruction was a classic rock n’ roll album, very much in the tradition and paying homage to the greats who went before, Nevermind for all its accusations of “generic punk-pop” was a new beginning. A sort of year zero for Generation X.
Nevermind seemed to say, “The excess and shallowness of the 1980s nightmare is over, we don’t know where we’re going but we’re getting as far away from the vacuous horrors back there over are shoulder as possible. You in?”
Hell yeah! Because a generation finally remembered that once upon a time, rock n’ roll was a young man’s game.
When the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly all got together in the chemistry lab to cook up the teenage dream many moons ago, they put a sign on the door that read, “No admittance to boring old farts.”
Of course, that’s all changed now, and the “boring old poops” have not only stormed the lab, they’ve taken the raw and undiluted product Elvis and the boys pulled from the fire and rejigged, repackaged, reissued, and resold it to create a billion dollar empire they can comfortably rule the roost from.
But now and then, and it doesn’t happen all that often, a band come along and reminds us what’s so great about rock n’ roll. Nirvana were such a band, and Nevermind was their offering to a generation.
Every track on the album pretty much said, “this is your music.” And the best part? “The older generation won’t get it, they’ll sneer at it, they’ll deride it and they’ll dismiss it, but that’ll just make it more powerful!”
Twenty five years on, and if you listen to Nevermind outside of history, context, and personal prejudice, it’s still an awesome album which deserves every accolade it receives.
The melodies of Nevermind’s songs are as poppy as pop can be, the quiet moments are sublime and the loud moments are all out rocking.
And that’s before we even get to Cobain’s incomparable vocals.
Cobain’s voice cuts through all the silly poop like a howl from an abyss, and demands to know what every young man wants to know, “What the darn heck are you hiding?”
It’s much more of its time than Appetite, but Nevermind continues to touch a nerve with kids who are still waiting for something crackling with the same sort of vibrant fury, feeling and outrage to call their own.
It’ll come again someday, but in the meantime in answer to the question, which album has stood the test of time better — Nevermind or Appetite For Destruction? Well, it’s kind of a dumb question but a good excuse to revisit these two musical gems and decide for yourself.
So what you waiting for? Variety is the spice of life.
[Featured Image by Kevin Estrada/MediaPunch/IPx/AP Images]