GUNS N' ROSES NOVEMBER RAIN
A DECADE IN THE MAKING, AXL ROSE’S BELOVED BALLAD DROVE THE FRONTMAN – AND EVERYONE AROUND HIM – UP THE WALL…
Axl Rose has long been used to getting exactly what he wants – and using any means necessary to get it. In Los Angeles in 1989, for instance, he stood onstage at the enormous LA Coliseum and declared that the band would be over should his bandmates not shake their drug habits. Later, in 1993, he would reportedly threaten not to go onstage in Barcelona should guitarist Slash and bassist Duff Mckagan not sign over ownership of the band to the frontman (something Axl has stringently denied ever since).
And so, when in 1990 Axl said that he would “quit the music industry” should Guns N’ Roses not able to record the song November Rain to his satisfaction, it wasn’t exactly clear where the joke began and ended.
The vocalist’s attachment to the song was understandable. It had begun forming in his mind even before he upped-sticks and left behind a troubled Indiana childhood marked by abuse at home and police attention on the streets in search of something more in the bright lights of Los Angeles. Upon arriving
in the City Of Angels in December 1982, and adopting the name by which he would be known ever since, Axl set about finding himself a band, with those he came in contact with since talking of November Rain as a song the then-21-year-old was trying to work through in his mind. As Guns N’ Roses took shape in 1985 and 1986, Slash remembers one version of the song, comprising piano and acoustic guitar, that bordered on 20 minutes long. Tom Zutaut, the man who signed GN’R to Geffen Records, recalls hearing November Rain for the first time in early 1987 as studio work on debut album Appetite For Destruction began. “Axl had been working on a song, and we were doing a bunch of vocals one day and he wanted to take a little break,” Tom recalls to Kerrang!. “There was a little piano sitting in the studio, and he said, ‘Hey, Tom, I want to play you this idea I’m working on.’ He sat down and played me November Rain from start to finish, and I was like, ‘Holy shit…’ It was just amazing.” The song was just one that would ultimately find its home on the Use Your Illusion albums of 1991, but which had their genesis in the Appetite sessions. “It’s not a well-known fact, but almost all of the songs that came out of the original Guns N’ Roses were written during the six months before I signed the band and through the Appetite sessions,” Tom says. “A lot of those songs that ended up on Use Your Illusion were riffs and ideas written before and during that record.” Pretty Tied Up, Civil War, The Garden, Dust N’ Bones, Yesterdays, You Could Be Mine and Back Off Bitch were all demoed for consideration on Appetite four years prior to their inclusion on the Illusion albums. Don’t Cry and November Rain, too. Tom Zutaut, however, was of the mind that Appetite should capture the dangerous rock’n’roll “essence of the first GN’R show I ever saw in LA”, and should therefore have no more than one ballad – a spot taken by Sweet Child O’ Mine. “I knew November Rain wasn’t done, and I didn’t want anyone to help me write it,” claimed Axl. “At the same time, I knew it would take a lot of work, and I didn’t feel capable or that the people around me were capable of understanding what I was trying to do, so we decided to save it.”
Whatever the truth, November Rain found itself on the shelf.
he Use Your Illusion sessions – which ran sporadically from early 1990 through mid-1991, after Appetite had established GN’R as the biggest and most dangerous band in the world – were a troubled time, marked by drummer Steven Adler’s departure and increasingly erratic behaviour from Axl. The frontman’s interests, when he turned up to the studio at all, extended predominantly to perfecting November Rain above the 28 other tracks that would comprise the two Illusion discs, said replacement drummer Matt Sorum. The sticksman’s drumming on the track, under direction from Axl, took inspiration from Elton John (Elton would later perform the song with GN’R at the 1992 MTV VMAS); Tommy Lee’s performance on Mötley Crüe’s Home Sweet Home, meanwhile, would inspire Axl’s piano playing. “[November Rain] was torturing [Axl],” was Duff Mckagan’s memory of the studio sessions.
The song – about “having to deal with unrequited love”, said Axl – was to be the cornerstone of the first Use Your Illusion disc, and would later take its place alongside Don’t Cry and Estranged as part of a trio of videos based around the short story Without You, penned by Axl’s friend, the journalist and author Del James (Estranged, the “theme song” to the story, says Axl, references the title in the lyric ‘I’ll never find anyone to replace you / Guess I’ll have to make it through, this time, oh this time / Without you’). British director Andy Morahan was charged with realising the full trilogy, of which November Rain would follow Don’t Cry and precede Estranged (some fan theories interpret the running order of this trilogy differently, but that’s a story for another day).
“It wasn’t particularly fleshed out,” Andy recalls of November Rain’s concept, which would balloon into one of the most expensive music videos ever, with a rumoured price tag of $1.5 million. “It was basically to do with Axl falling in love with a girl, who’s played by [Axl’s then-second wife, pictured left] Stephanie Seymour [though oddly, the Without You story was in large part influenced by Axl’s relationship with one-time girlfriend Gina Siler and first wife Erin Everly, about whom Sweet Child… was also written]. He falls in love, there’s a wedding, then an accident with a gun and the girl gets half her face shot off… It became a really abstract canvas of ideas, mainly about Axl’s faults and angst, whatever he was going through at the time.
“I’ve always said working with them was like working with vampires,” Andy remembers of the filming. “It was very hard to get them to do anything in the day. Their hours were dusk until sunrise. We had to keep the band up all night just to do a daylight scene. One of the days, when we were recording the funeral scene, they just didn’t turn up [until the evening], which is why they’re not at the funeral, and why Axl, in his cape [kneeling at the grave, pictured above], is in the dark.
“It was very bizarre,” Andy laughs. “It was a bit ridiculous, but there’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, some of the best videos are the most ridiculous.”
More ridiculous still was to come. By the filming for Estranged, Axl’s relationship with Stephanie Seymour had broken down. The frontman flippantly demanded his videos feature no more “beautiful girls”; instead, he’d rather have a dolphin. And, of course, as his later cuddling of a dolphin in the trilogy’s infamous closing video would prove, what Axl Rose wanted, Axl Rose would get.
“I DIDN’T FEEL PEOPLE WERE CAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING WHAT I WAS TRYING TO DO” AXL ROSE