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How Guns 'N' Roses stumbled onto their best ballad, 'Sweet Child o' Mine'

In the late ’80s, no band was more dangerous than Guns ‘N’ Roses. Straddling the line between glammed-out hair metal and rough-edged Aerosmith-inspired blues, Axl Rose and his band of misfit musicians carved out a unique niche in hard rock that the explicit lasciviousness of “Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” out of its makeup phase and back into the realm of debaucherous grime.

But like any good songwriter, Rose knew the power of a ballad. An acolyte of Elton John and Freddie Mercury, Rose would later bring in delicate pieces like the acoustic-driven ‘Patience’ and epic piano-centred workouts like ‘November Rain’ for Guns to sink their teeth into. In 1988, however, the band needed to make a hard-hitting first impression, so their ballad on Appetite for Destruction required a fair amount of bite. 

While rehearsing at their shared house in Los Angeles, Slash began goofing off trying to make drummer Steven Adler laugh. In his mind, he was playing “circus music” in a deliberate attempt to create something ridiculous. As fellow guitarist Izzy Stradlin walked in, Slash began improvising the central riff of what would become ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’, still trying to be humorous. When the other members started fleshing out the arrangement, Slash began to have doubts.

“You know, Guns N’ Roses was always a real hardcore, sort of, AC/DC kind of hard rock band with a lot of attitude,” Slash told radio host Kidd Chris in 2014. “If we did any kind of ballads, it was bluesy. This was an uptempo ballad. That’s one of the gayest things you can write. But at the same time, it’s a great song — I’m not knocking it — but at the same time, it just did not fit in with the rest of our, sort of, schtick. And, of course, it would be the biggest hit we ever had.”

Despite Slash’s reservations, the rest of the band built the song’s melodic structure and began to jam around a fairly simply D-C-G chord progression (tuned half a step down, like most GNR songs). Rose heard the song from his room and began thinking about his girlfriend Erin Everly, daughter of legendary singer Don Everly. Rose’s take on love at this point had been salacious, but the tenderness of the track took him to a warmer, gentler mindset. 

Conjuring images of childhood innocence and natural splendour, Rose is as heartfelt and sweet as he would ever be on record when he sings ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. Within a few days, the band had the song’s verses, choruses, and guitar solo all worked out, but when they went into the studio, something was missing after Slash’s extended riffing. In a classic case of not overthinking it, Rose simply took his uncertainty about the ending section and verbalised it: “Where do we go now?”

What the band ended up with was something altogether different from any other songs on Appetite. ‘Paradise City’ and ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ celebrated the street-dwelling nature of being a young kid in a big city, ‘Nightrain’ and ‘Mr. Brownstone’ took on the excesses of drug and alcohol abuse, and ‘My Michelle’ and ‘Rocket Queen’ were nearly-pornographic takes on lust and sex. There wasn’t a lot of room for earnest love songs on the album, but there was room for one.

The band were hesitant to release the song as a single, opting for a double A-side of ‘It’s So Easy’ and ‘Mr. Brownstone’ instead. Struggling to get a foothold in the record industry, GNR released ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ as their second single. The video for ‘Jungle’ became a staple on MTV and increased the band’s notoriety, priming them for major success if their next single could translate to popular radio. Recognising the opportunity, the band finally released ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’ as the album’s third single, nearly a year after Appetite‘s initial release. It became the group’s only number one on the Billboard Hot 100.

As the ’80s turned to the ’90s and hair metal was thoroughly eradicated by grunge, Guns ‘N Roses were among the few Sunset Strip bands to survive and thrive in the new rock scene. Grunge bands didn’t have ballads, but GNR sure did, with Rose going full progressive-rock epic by the time group began recording the Use Your Illusion albums.

The grandiosity and excess eventually broke the band, but when it came to triumphant rock and roll tunes that retained a certain ardent sincerity, Guns ‘N Roses nailed it with their first, and best, ballad.