Cool Hand Luke

Guns n' Roses: The Use Your Illusion 2 Secret Mini Album

Use Your Illusion 1 and 2 are now over 25 years old. I can remember doing Physics homework when I was about 15, listening to them on vinyl. They didn’t help. I actually failed Physics twice before leaving school. I then got a Master of Science after studying computing later on at uni. So fuck you physics, and your laws of dynamics.

It’s interesting how these albums have aged. Appetite is always going to be the definitive GNR album, but I’d argue, that to an extent, the Illusion albums have aged better. On Appetite, obviously Sweet Child o’ Mine should be the American national anthem, but GNR still have some of the hair metal/Sunset Strip sensibilities that were prevalent at the time. Not that this is bad. It was infused with so much punk and aggression, that it sounded nothing like any of the other bands around. I’ve tried listening to Motley Crue, but aside from  ‘Kickstart my Heart’, they don’t do a lot for me.

Duff McKagen: The finest kickboxer in all 1980s action movies

Duff McKagen: The finest kickboxer in all 1980s action movies

The Illusion albums age well. I think one of the reasons for this, is that they have a very comic book feel to them. They’re neither too dark, or serious. Even when they are a little serious (Don’t Cry, November Rain), they sound to an extent like GNR were having fun with the arrangements. The final Slash solo in November Rain in particular, and Axl’s 25 second yowl at the end of Don’t Cry. I just listened to this to get the duration, and it’s also double tracked, meaning that Axl sang exactly the same part twice. Slash still has no idea what the November Rain video was about, but it's still cool to watch him walk out of the church in a bad mood and play a guitar solo. Maybe if I try playing a guitar solo when I'm in a bad mood, I'll kill people less.

One thing I love about the Illusion albums is that Axl really took time out to think about his voice. He described the albums at the time as having loads of ‘different voices', which is true. There’s a lot of low singing, high screaming, and also some spoken voice monologues throughout which I’ll touch on. I’d suggest though, that the biggest traverse that Axl does through his vocal range is actually from Chinese Democracy with ‘This I Love’. If you disagree, then you try singing through the range displayed here. It’s not just a jump from low voice to high scream, but a really fucking hard traverse that hits all the notes in between, and then some. Anyway, that topic is for another day.

The main thing I wanted to talk about was the mini album in the middle of Illusion 2. This starts on Shotgun Blues and ends on So Fine. Why do I call this a mini album? I think it’s a really cohesive set of songs, with some of the most interesting elements out of both albums. Also, it feels like the album is taking a breath from the first lot of songs containing 'Civil War', and having some calm before the final storm, containing 'Estranged'. Both tracks are the main epics on the album. To me, this mini album sounds like a dusty road worn slice of metal Americana. It's got more Americana in it than a Luke Bryan album. That's for sure. Here’s a breakdown.

Shotgun Blues
A quickfire song than is reminiscent of the way that Lies opens with Reckless Life. It’s a silly but fun song with the eloquent line ‘You can suck my ass’.

The beginning sounds like it could have been whistled by soldiers during the American civil war. Then it’s just got a great groove throughout. But the best thing about this track is when Slash kicks in with second guitar solo, near the end, and Axl impersonates the blind DJ from the ‘Vanishing Point’ movie. When listening to the album initially, I never knew this was from a movie. When I eventually (not connected!) watched Vanishing Point, I nearly wet myself when hearing these lines. It’s a similar thing with Civil War. It introduced millions of kids to Cool Hand Luke, to the extent that they thought the movie had borrowed from the album. Maybe not, but you get the point. Oh, and the banjo song from Cool Hand Luke is called 'Plastic Jesus', and it's one of the saddest moments in the movie when Paul Newman plays it.

Pretty Tied Up
Breakdown ‘breaks down’ at the end, and the segues seamlessly into a sitar intro for Pretty Tied up. This is another fun groove which is allegedly about bondage, but was lost on me as a kid, and I still don’t really listen to the lyrics here anyway. One thing I did notice, is that around the 3.17 mark, Axl says ‘Cool Ranch Dressing’. There was a cool t-shirt for this song. I can remember my friend wore it to basketball at school, but was told by the teacher to turn it inside out, as it displayed breasts, which are obviously evil.

The guitars on this song actually sound like a locomotive which was probably deliberate, and is also an old blues trick. This song is a little messy to an extent, but in a good way. There’s a breakdown towards the end ‘I know it looks like I’m insane’, where the vocals seem to live outside of the music. But it makes sense. There’s a slowdown after this, where Axl makes some really cool muted scream sounds, and the whole song turns into a road movie again, like Breakdown. It still surprises me that GNR haven’t licensed more of their songs for movies, as it’s not selling out, and they would sound amazing. Especially in a Vanishing Point remake.

So Fine
This has been a real slow burner for me that took years. It’s also not till after the 2 minute mark that it takes off, and boy, at this point, it REALLY takes off. My main issue with it, was it sounded like another ballad in the same vein of Yesterdays, which I got a bit bored of. When I was studying English literature at Aberdeen uni, I used to always leave my essays till the last minute. Time after time, I’d try staying up late and drinking coffee, but it never ever worked for me. What I’d always end up doing, was go to sleep eventually, get up super early, and write the essay. I never considered going to bed earlier the night before, as that was too logical. I usually wrote the essays directly on a computer, and listened to a Walkman at the time. I often rotated between Pearl Jam's Ten and and GNR’s Appetite and Illusions. These were great albums to listen to over and over again, and my super high tech walkman had a switch that would play both sides of a cassette without turning it over. It was during these essay sessions, when So Fine started to jump out.

It was written by Duff, who is a massive Johnny Thunders fan. If you’ve listened to ‘You can’t wrap your arms around a memory’ by Thunders, you’ll hear some similarities. Both songs are very ragged and raw, have slow build ups, then a great sing a long chorus that jumps out at your face. Duff was the biggest punk in the band, and it shows here. I got to see Duff playing solo a while back in London, and he played this, and I got so excited that I nearly soiled myself. I also love the story about Duff, where he thought that it was bad drinking a lot of vodka, so switched to red wine. He then drank about 10 bottles a day, and nearly died when his pancreas pretty much exploded. I just said that I love this story. Duff nearly dying isn’t cool, but thinking that red wine would make general alcoholism a little easier going is kind of funny. No?

I'm listening Use Your Illusion 2 whilst writing this, and it's reminding me of doing fucking physics homework again.