Retro Radio: Revisiting Guns n’ Roses’ The Spaghetti Incident?

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I’m an eighties kid. Not as in I was born in the eighties, but as in I was living in the eighties. Madonna was Queen. Michael was King. And the great controversy of our time? The mullet versus the mohawk.

I worked for the now defunct 97 KROY Radio. DJs spun discs, and the long haired rocker boys sold out stadiums. And then the CD came along and changed the world.

I belonged to the school of thought that prophesied the CD as a passing phase. Turns out that I was right—it took years, but Beck released an album on vinyl and the Renaissance began in earnest. Still, even now, nothing sounds better than records that were made to be records; that scratchy, raw quality that is somehow to the ear.

Enter 2010. A typical winter evening in New York City. I didn’t really know what ‘typical winter in New York’ meant, as I’d only been here for two months, but New York proved to be an orgiastic feast for the senses—all of the senses; even ones you didn’t know existed.

One of my first New York purchases was the unlimited Metro Pass. I’d catch random trains, and go to random parts of the city. On this particular evening, I found myself in The Village, a place I had an instant love affair with; a place where the ghosts of Bohemians past still wandered the cobblestone streets, where hand painted storefronts graced the walkways and where Mom & Pops shops still ruled.

It was here I discovered what I believe may be the best vintage vinyl shop in New York—Generation Records on Thompson Street. From the weird to the obscure, the bins runneth over.

And then I spied it—a forgotten treasure, buried deep in the used and abused bin. I fished it out, tattered corners, worn face and fading paint. The first time I bought this album, I paid nearly $15.00. A small fortune for me in 1993.

Seventeen years later, I paid $1.99 plus tax for the same record. I could smell the vintage-ness of the Frisbee-like disc. I handed over $2.08, and The Spaghetti Incident?, was mine again.

The mid-’80s Los Angeles rock scene that gave birth to Guns n’ Roses was a curious thing, neither quite punk scruffy nor given to glam excess and largely populated by hip kids who were too young to remember that Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith had long been completely passé. In retrospect, the original Guns n’ Roses formula seems obvious enough, but no one had ever before successfully crossed the grungy street attitude of the underground Hollywood bands with the polished, riffy sound of the pouf-haired Sunset Strip pop metal bands, and the result was a giant paradigm shift in rock and roll.

But although the tremendous success of G n’ R may have all but erased the few vestiges of the underground rock scene that still existed in Hollywood, a legacy of punk rock continued to thrive, at least as a hip influence: Punk rock codified the underground anti-establishment groove that was now mandatory for any artist harder-edged than Whitney Houston, and rock groups as mainstream as Skid Row and Mötley Crüe now considered it more or less obligatory to include Sex Pistols songs in their sets.

On The Spaghetti Incident?—an album of mostly punky cover versions of drunk rock classics—Guns n’ Roses reasserts its roots in hard-edged Rock & Roll—some punk rock, some not—the way that U2 tried to with Rattle and Hum when the band’s “authenticity” had become suspect.

But in recording half an album’s worth of punk songs, Guns n’ Roses revealed themselves as a glam-rock band, and a good one—as if T. Rex and the Dolls had come out of early punk rather than the other way around.

“Black Leather,” a post-mortem Sex Pistols song written by Steve Jones, sounds better than the original, thanks to more bounce and heartier groove. The tough swagger of Guns n’ Roses on this track may be what the original Pistols aspired to before Malcom McLaren pushed Johnny Rotten on them.

There are quick, goofy versions of the Damned’s “New Rose” and U.K. Subs’ “Down on the Farm,” which Axl delivers with an English accent as contrived as that of any Orange County hardcore singer; there is a loose, sloppy version of Iggy’s “Raw Power” that would be a hit at any Whisky Jam Night.

Punk rock is sometimes best read as a vigorous howl of complaint against one’s own powerlessness, but Axl doesn’t quite connect to the punk-rock material on Spaghetti as anything but a conduit for pure aggression. He can’t even seem to curse right. In his version of Fear’s punk rock chestnut “I Don’t Care About You,” his is not the “fuck you” of Fear’s Lee Ving (the epithet of the misfit yelling at the cop car after it has safely rounded the corner) but the “fuck you!” the tavern bully grunts as he shoves you hard in the chest.

When Chris Cornell sings, “I want to fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck you,” in the Sound Garden anthem “Big Dumb Sex,” his voice is filled with longing and desire; Axl, reprising that Sound Garden chorus as a tag to the T. Rex song “Buick Makane,” sounds like a guy reading cue cards on the set of a porno movie.

But the Nazareth anthem “Hair of the Dog” is almost a primo Guns n’ Roses song to begin with, muscular riffing, forged-iron arpeggios, enraged lyrics just built for Axl’s manly scream, exactly the sort of thing Guns n’ Roses is best at—hip wiggle music, ’70s sounding without being explicitly retro—powered by the sort of glam-groove Slash guitar and oddly baroque Matt Sorum drumming that seem merely overwrought elsewhere on the album. “Buick Makane” works the complex riff until it screams.

Punk-rock virtues are most apparent in the Duff-sung version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” which features irregular arrangements, wavery vocals, even a splash of vulnerability.

It’s also the one song on the album you will probably fast-forward through in the car or skip on the record.

Still, I love The Spaghetti Incident? It takes me back to a simpler time—when gas was still a buck, Beavis and Butthead were controversial and it was only the parking lot of the World Trade Center that got bombed.

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