The story of Guns N’ Roses’ debauched first London tour

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Guns N’ Roses’ debut studio album, Appetite For Destruction. Paul Elliott recalls how the American hard rock band battled it out in London – and won

In the early days of June 1987, as Guns N’ Roses were about to fly out of LA for London, their reputation preceded them. It was a time when the British press was in a frenzy of moral outrage over the Beastie Boys, the bratty New York rappers whose defiantly anti-PC stance was symbolised in an over-the-top stage show featuring a giant inflatable penis. Not since the heady days of the Sex Pistols in 1977 had a band been viewed as such a corrupting influence on the nation’s youth.

In one newspaper there was a warning of worse to come, as the Daily Star declared: “A rock band even nastier than the Beastie Boys is heading for Britain.” The story that appeared in the Star was a piece of classic tabloid sensationalism. In reference to a joke that Axl had made – “I hate poodles, everything about them makes me want to kill them” – the paper introduced the band by stating: “Los Angeles-based Guns N’ Roses are led by the outrageous Axl Rose, who has an endearing habit of butchering dogs…” It continued: “The other members of the group are as sleazy as their crackpot leader. Guitarist Slash and bass player Duff McKagan claim they have been on a boozing binge for TWO YEARS. Says Slash: ‘When we get up in the afternoon […] we can’t play because our hands are shaking like windmills.’”

The plan

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The strategy from manager Alan Niven was simple: to create a buzz about Guns N’ Roses in the UK with the three shows at the Marquee, and to use that story – of an American band making waves in London – to open doors in the US.

Two important factors in this plan were the relative sizes of Britain and America, and the power and influence of the British music press in the 1980s. “The US is a continental-sized market,” Niven explained. “Britain, on the other hand, is comparatively small. Furthermore, it had a great music press in those days. There was Kerrang!, Melody Maker, Sounds, and NME, and they were far more important than radio in breaking bands.”

Kerrang! was the first UK magazine to put Guns N’ Roses on its cover, on 11 June, eight days ahead of the band’s first gig at the Marquee. The feature was written by LA-based journalist Sylvie Simmons, who began with a provocative quote from Axl: “Know what I want to do? Really want to do? Go over to Japan and pollute it. I’m not talking about drugs, I’m talking about teenage sex, bring over some crazy porn magazines and drop them from the tops of tall buildings.”

Axl also took a shot at the LA band they most hated, Poison. “I’ve told those guys personally that they can lock me in a room with all of them and I’ll be the only one who walks out!” Simmons, with a vivid turn of phrase, really nailed the essence of the band’s music: “Rawer than a whore’s thighs, and toxic as rock ’n’ roll was always meant to be.”

With the release of Appetite for Destruction still more than a month away, she confidently stated: “The album has every indication of being a killer.”

The carnage

In the lead up to the first Marquee show there was, Slash said, no sense of nervousness within the band at all. “I know there was supposed to be pressure,” he recalled, “but I didn’t feel it. None of us did. I was just having a great time hanging out in London, having a few pints, meeting kids, and meeting girls. That’s what we did, all of us.”

What happened when Guns N’ Roses walked out on the Marquee stage on the 19 June was not quite as Slash had anticipated.

“It’s good to be in fucking England finally,” Axl said to a full house before the band started playing the first song, ‘Reckless Life’, but within seconds they were being pelted with plastic beer cups thrown from the audience, and a few people close to the stage were spitting at the band.

The attack continued through a second song, ‘Out Ta Get Me’, with cups bouncing off Adler’s cymbals, and spit catching in Izzy’s and Axl’s hair. There were loud cheers when the song finished. It was only a small minority in the audience that was out to cause trouble. But Axl was fuming. “Hey!” he yelled. “If you wanna keep throwing things, we’re gonna fuckin’ leave. Whaddaya think?”

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As another beer cup whistled past his head, he pointed to one guy in the crowd. “Fuck you, p***y!” In that moment, things could have gotten very ugly. Axl and Duff were ready to dive into the crowd and fight it out.

Instead, the band blasted out a third song, ‘Anything Goes’, and the mood suddenly changed. There was nothing more thrown at the stage and no more spitting. The band had stood their ground and toughed it out.

They played eight songs from the album – no ‘Sweet Child O’Mine’, only the hard stuff. One song they performed for the very first time was a cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door’. They finished with another cover, ‘Mama Kin’. And by the end, Axl was smiling. “D’ya like my shirt?” he asked the audience. “It says, ‘Fuck Dancing, Let’s Fuck.’ I think that gets to the point.”

He later described the show as a hard-won victory. “Shit, it was hot in there,” he said, “real hard to breathe. When we started it was like, man, we’re in hell! The crowd threw some shit to start with, but they were so fucking into it, so much energy.”

On the band’s second night at the Marquee, 22 June, there was no trouble. “That show was just a blast,” Slash said. They brought a few different songs into the set: a really big one in ‘Welcome To The Jungle’, plus ‘Shadow Of Your Love’ as the opener, and then they played ‘Nice Boys’ as the encore.

And for a young British rock band – the support act that night – it was an experience they would never forget. Little Angels were an up-and-coming band from Scarborough, all still in their teens, and when they arrived at the Marquee on the afternoon of the show, Guns N’ Roses were doing a sound check.

As singer Toby Jepson recalled: “There was this racket, volume like I’d never heard, and standing on stage was this guitar player wearing a top hat and shouting, ‘Man, I can’t hear it – turn it up!’ That was our introduction to Slash. And a few minutes later there was a fight between a roadie and some other guy – a proper brawl, in the fucking sound check!”

There was something else about the band that made an impression on Jepson. “They all stank really badly,” he said. “But were lovely.”

For Toby Jepson, if meeting these guys was a little scary, watching them onstage was awe-inspiring. “As they came on, the place was rammed,” he said. “You couldn’t move. Everyone who was anyone was there. You could feel this air of anticipation. And from the first song it was just incredible. So exciting. And they had so many great songs.

“I’d grown up on Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin and you get to understand there’s a benchmark that sets those bands apart from other bands. To me, Guns N’ Roses were the new Aerosmith. And that gig at the Marquee – that was the best band I’ve ever seen live.”

According to Kerrang! writer Malcolm Dome, the band’s final Marquee show on 28 June was even better. He wrote: “You want me to describe the feeling and atmosphere on that night? Try these adjectives for brain size: raw, savage, furious, emotional, dangerous, rebellious, vibrant, hungry, intoxicating… There was an edge of the uncontrollable on this Sunday night that always threatened to take everybody over the sanity edge, a bourbon-fuelled spirit of the rollercoaster, which at any moment would career off the rails. But then, this is perhaps the ultimate fascination with all great bands, the passion and intensity is so overwhelming it comes close to engulfing us all, only being held at bay by that indescribable combination of charisma and musicianship, of which GN’R have plenty.”

The aftermath

What Malcolm Dome had described so poetically – that “bourbon-fuelled spirit of the rollercoaster” – was evident in the aftermath of that show. Back at the apartment in Kensington shared by Slash, Duff, and Steven, a drunken party left the place in a state of ruin.

“It was a pile of matchsticks,” Alan Niven said. “Expensive.”

But for Niven, a little collateral damage was to be expected, and what mattered was the bigger picture. “The plan to break the band was getting effected,” he said. For Slash, the taste of Guns N’ Roses’ victory in London was sweet. Slash recalled in his autobiography that the London performances went down so well with the audiences that Guns N’ Roses were never thought of in Britain as being just another of the same brand of LA hair-and-lipstick bands. They were recognised as being different, and it meant a lot finally to be acknowledged as such. 

‘Guns N’ Roses: The Life And Times Of A Rock ‘N’ Roll Band’ by Paul Elliott is out now (Palazzo Editions, £25)