Richard Fortus

#798: Chinese Democracy

A sequel to Record Store Tales Part 285: Chinese Democracy

GETTING MORE TALE #798: Chinese Democracy

I met Thussy back in 2007.  He joined the team at work and we became friends immediately.  We liked the same stuff.  Trailer Park Boys, Guns N’ Roses, comedy.  He is responsible for getting me into Super Troopers, which admittedly took a couple tries.  We were also both getting married around the same time, so we had similar complaints and gripes to talk about.  Drama with bridesmaids and seating plans, egads.

Thuss is a gamer, and we enjoyed chatting games.  Axl Rose did a voice (a radio DJ) in the video game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.  You could switch between stations, and if you chose the rock station you got Axl.  It was one of the few things Axl did that was released during that long dry spell between albums.  Of course, this led to ample discussions of Chinese Democracy.

“It’s never coming out,” Chris insisted.  I hated to say he was right, but it sure seemed that way.  He refused to back down on his position.  We’d been fucked with by this band for so long.  Guns had missed several release dates, so many that it had become a joke.  Axl chewed up managers and spat them out like stale bubblegum.  Then the Dr. Pepper soda company offered to buy a Dr. Pepper for everyone in America if Axl managed to make his 2008 release date.  Axl seemed good-naturedly amused by the idea, offering to share his Dr. Pepper with Buckethead when the album comes out.  (This because Dr. Pepper said the only Americans exempt from this offer were former Guns members Buckethead and Slash!)

On October 22 2008, I was working at my desk, listening to the radio when the DJ, Carlos Benevides, announced that they would shortly be playing a brand new single by Guns N’ Roses.  It was the title track, a song both Thuss and I were already familiar with.  He had a disc of rough mixes for many of the tracks, and I had the Rock In Rio bootleg CD set.  We already knew half the new songs, and “Chinese Democracy” was a track I thought smoked.  I called Thuss and he listened in as it played.

It sounded like shit on our little mono telephone speakers, but we were listening to brand new Guns!  The overall listener reaction was mixed to negative, but I already loved it.  “The album’s never coming out,” said Thuss.

“It has to, now.  There’s a single out.  It’s definitely coming.”

“No.”  Thuss was insistent.  “It’s never coming out.”

“But Dr. Pepper…” I began before being cut off.

“No.  Not coming out.  Never.”

The funny thing was, “Chinese Democracy” wasn’t actually the first song released from the album.  A month earlier, “Shackler’s Revenge” became the first new Guns song in nine years, when it was released as part of the Rock Band 2 video game, which neither of us had.

A new release date of November 23 was announced.  “Nope,” said Thuss.  “Nothing is coming out on November 23.”  It was, strangely, a Sunday.  Generally, nothing came out on Sundays.  It was absolutely an odd move that did throw the whole release into question for some.

I asked ye olde Record Store to hold a copy for me.  “Do you want vinyl?” he asked.  “No, just CD.”  It was something I’d regret, when he sold out of the vinyl a week later.  I emailed to ask if he had any left.  “Do you remember me asking you if you wanted vinyl?” he scolded.  “Yeah,” I sulked.

When I walked into the store on November 23 and was handed my precious copy of Chinese Democracy, it was so anticlimactic.  There it is.  It’s in your hands, the culmination of a decade and a half’s work.  You’ve been waiting all this time for this album, and there it sits.  An album that had “release dates” going back to 1995 and every single year since.  Then, you witness Guns return to the live stage from their cocoon, different but recognizable.  You watch them struggle to establish a lineup, and you hear rumour after rumour about song titles and release dates.  Then you’re holding a CD in your hands, a pitiful little plastic case with a little paper cover inside.  You hand the guy your debit card, he rings it in.  Transaction approved, you are handed your receipt.  Chinese Democracy goes into a little plastic bag.  Even though it’s probably the most expensive and longest gestating album of all time, your little plastic bag weighs the same as if you bought Sex Pistols.

At least I’d be able to show it to Thuss.  Monday the 24th rolled around.

“It came out.  I have it,” I told him as I strolled into his office.

“No it didn’t.  It never came out.  It’s never coming out.” He was sticking to his story come hell or high water!

“Yes it did! It’s in my car right now!  I’ll show it to you.”

“You have nothing,” he responded, refusing to come and look.

In the years since, Thuss has stubbornly stuck to his guns and his believe that Chinese Democracy has never come out.  “I have the unreleased mixes,” he says.  “That’s all there is.”


I emailed him to tell him I was writing this story, our tale of the time Chinese Democracy was released.

“So you are going to take a crack at some fictional writing…nice.”

I will never win this one!

So now I have two stories both titled “Chinese Democracy”.  I say, why not?  Peter Gabriel has three self-titled albums.

REVIEW Round-up: Guns N’ Roses “Not In This Lifetime” Tour (Guest editorial)

GUNS N’ ROSES “Not In This Lifetime” Tour

By David Martin

A little while ago we reached back to the late-‘80s with a review of a Guns N’ Roses live session in New York. It wasn’t a perfect recording, but it’s a nice glance back to the early days of a band that’s become one of rock’s truly iconic groups. Another interesting thing about looking back at this time is that Guns N’ Roses has, against the odds, become something of a modern sensation.

Our first hints ought to have been when GNR started showing up anew in non-music pop culture. The band put out a vague teaser trailer before screenings of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for instance, and also partnered with an online developer to produce a video game in 2016. The latter was particularly random, though it makes sense when you look at the industry. An Australian gaming resource site states simply that presentation is a huge factor on betting and gaming sites, and part of that means introducing visually and sonically interesting games – like a slot reel based on an iconic rock band, in this case.

Neither a teaser trailer nor a video game tipped us off to what would actually start in the spring of 2016 – one of the most surprising tours, arguably in all of musical history. The band took the stage at Coachella – with Axl Rose and Slash sharing the stage for the first time in years – and kicked off an international slate of shows that ultimately extended into 2018. The tour, dubbed “Not In This Lifetime,” has become one of the most successful in modern history from a financial standpoint. And while reviewing it in its entirety isn’t easy (or necessarily possible) we can look at a roundup of reviews for particular shows along the way.

Coachella (April ’16) – “The magic was absent.” This was a take from Vice, building on a headline suggesting that Guns N’ Roses had shown its age at the Coachella show. The review noted hints of pleasure when the band played the hits, as well as Slash’s enduring skill, but ultimately pointed to a lack of chemistry and the simple ravages of time as reasons for an underwhelming reunion.

Detroit (June ’16) – “This was history being made.” This comment came from none other than Rolling Stone, in a piece that directly refuted some of the earlier reviews. Citing a straightened out lineup and an Axl Rose out of the foot cast he’d appeared in for Coachella, it painted the picture of a reunion tour that had found its groove.

London (June ’17) – “You can’t blow the roof off a stadium that doesn’t have one, but they damn well tried.” So said The Guardian after one of GNR’s European shows, painting a picture not only of an electric performance, but of the thrill for an original fan seeing the band back in action again.

Cleveland (October ’17) – “Guns N’ Roses have no intention of coasting to the finish line.” This was a take offered on one of the tour’s later dates. Not only was it yet another positive review, but it was one with the perspective to mention the almost universally positive response to the tour – as well as growing hopes of fresh material from the group.

All in all the impression left by the “Not In This Lifetime” tour is that while there are occasional frustrations stemming from the simple fact that the band’s members have aged, it’s been good to have them back. And on some occasions, they’ve absolutely wowed all their old fans.

 

#460: Appetite for Reunions

GETTING MORE TALE #460: Appetite for Reunions

Unless you have been living under a pile of rock (and roll), then you know that the hype machine for a 2016 Guns N’ Roses “reunion” has already begun.

But this is not a reunion.  This is not Axl, Slash, Duff, Izzy, and Steven.  Matt Sorum is not involved, nor is Gilby Clarke.  The new lineup is supposed to consist of:  W. Axl Rose, Slash, Duff “Rose” McKagan, Richard Fortus, Frank Ferrer, Dizzy Reed, and Chris Pittman, with new member Dave Kushner (Velvet Revolver) in the third guitar slot.

Of course, many lineups labelled as “reunions” in the past were not.  Van Halen’s current “reunited” lineup consists of three classic members and one new guy, Wolfgang Van Halen.  Any time The Who go out there for a tour, there are only two original members.  Not much can be done about that, with Keith and John both gone.  Not that it matters since both bands have made millions on these tours, and both bands even managed to put out new albums, without the full original lineups.  New music always trumps a tour.

Few bands seem to reunite with all the beloved members intact, either due to death or stubbornness.  There are exceptions, obviously.  The Eagles and Fleetwood Mac came together with their most beloved lineups, and a tremendous amount of success, but even they couldn’t make it last.  Don Felder was fired from the Eagles years ago.  Christine McVie only recently returned to the Mac after being gone for ages, and meanwhile the band did a new album without her.   And Black Sabbath?  Their farewell tour only has ¾ of the original lineup!  Meanwhile Bill Ward sits at home, having alienated the band and Sharon Osbourne.  The chances of Ward ever playing drums again in the band he co-founded are slim to none.  One does not piss off the Osbourne camp without consequences.  Regardless of his reasons, justified or not, a Black Sabbath farewell tour without its still capable original drummer is a hollow thing indeed.

Even when you do get the full original lineup of a band that you wanted, that doesn’t necessarily mean the band is returning to full functionality.  When Kiss reunited in 1996 with the full original band, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss were hired hands.  They didn’t get a say, they didn’t get a vote.  They got a contract stating their responsibilities and compensation.  As if Paul and Gene would ever give up any control in their band, now!  So what we saw live was Kiss, but what we got behind the scenes and on the album Psycho-Circus was just “more of the same”.  Ace and Peter didn’t even appear on many of the songs, even though they were on the album cover.  But that’s nothing new for Kiss!

What band has had the most successful reunion?  I’m not talking in terms of numbers; then we would probably have to include Spice Girls and New Kids on the Block.  Who has had the most success in terms of quality?  That would have to be Iron Maiden.

Steve Harris did something very creative when he reunited with Bruce Dickinson.  Instead of just bringing Bruce back into the band, he also brought in Bruce’s guitarist and former Maiden member Adrian Smith.  But Adrian was not cool with coming in to replace somebody else.  “What about Janick Gers?” he asked.  Janick had been in Maiden for a successful decade, and Adrian didn’t want him out of a job.  Steve always envisioned a three-guitar Iron Maiden, and Adrian Smith coming back gave him that opportunity.  It worked out brilliantly, especially live, when it could have been a train wreck.  Technically, what Iron Maiden did is the same thing Guns N’ Roses are said to be doing:  a new version of the band, with both classic and current members.  Maiden made it last, too.  Harris was very clear with Bruce:  nobody was coming back to Maiden just to hang around a while and leave again.  Anybody coming back to Maiden was coming back for life, and that is exactly what happened.  Five more studio albums later, Maiden rule absolutely.

What will happen with Guns N’ Roses?  That is harder to predict.  It is unlikely their most talented member, Izzy Stradlin, would want to return to the circus of insanity that is a GN’R tour.  As for Slash, he has always preferred a stripped down band.  It’s hard to imagine how he will be happy playing in a band with two keyboardists, but that’s what they say is happening.  How long will it last?  A few shows?  Coachella and gone?  Much like Ace Frehley, Slash will probably be a contracted musician.

A band of Guns’ stature all but had to reunite.  The fans have been loudly demanding something like this for over a decade.  The fans hoped Izzy and Steven Adler or Matt Sorum would be a part of it, but that has always seemed unlikely.  Slash couldn’t even get Izzy into Velvet Revolver.  What they are doing is probably the closest to a reunion that is likely.  Perhaps Izzy will show up to guest as he has in the past, but fans shouldn’t get their hopes up of seeing Adler on stage.

Perhaps this, the most anticipated “reunion” since Led Zeppelin (also a new lineup with Jason Bonham), will stop the constant questions from the media and fans.  “Will you ever get back together?”  It must be tiring answering that question daily, when you have new music out there to play.  Sometimes a band just has to give in and take a step backwards.  Sometimes, as in the case of Iron Maiden, the way forward is to go backwards.

Will it work?  The only way to find out is to stay tuned.  You know where you are?  You in the jungle, baby.

Let’s see if the bad boys of rock and roll can still survive the jungle.

GNR

DVD REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Live in Paradise City (2011)

GUNS N’ ROSES – Live in Paradise City (2011 Access All Areas DVD, from a television broadcast source)

Rock In Rio 4, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, October 2, 2011.  Guns N’ Roses headlining the final night.

Paddington Rose

Paddington Rose

Rio loves Guns N’ Roses!  Always did, still do.  It’s pouring rain, but the fans are present and accounted for.  Good thing they are able to see the huge stage through three massive video screens, otherwise I don’t know how they’d tell one member from another.  Well, Axl’s blinding yellow Paddington Bear coat makes him easy enough to see.

“Chinese Democracy” opens the set, with bassist Tommy Stinson handling the backup vocals on the chorus.  Ron Thal’s playing a double neck (the top one is fretless)  and is rocking the samurai hair.  The solo is played by DJ Ashba, with Thal handling the outro shredding.  “Good evening! Good morning!” says Axl after the first song, before asking, “Do you know where the fuck you are?”  Of course that means “Jungle” is next.  Axl’s voice just sounds shredded, as he struggles high and thin through the hard notes, no grit left intact.  Once in a while the old Axl wails, but he was really off in Rio.

IMG_20141122_181521

THAL-1138

One thing about Guns N’ Roses new vs. old:  The old band looked unified in image.  All of them looked like Hollywood dirtbags.  In this band, you have the glam looking DJ Ashba, Frank Ferrer who looks like a trucker, Axl with his pimpstache, and a guy in a Stormtrooper helmet.  Admittedly though, Tommy Stinson looks the part as the punk rock bass player, and he also fills Duff’s role as backup singer.

“It’s So Easy” is up third, top loading the setlist with some serious Appetite heavy hitters.  Ashba doesn’t quite nail the solo, but the band are as tight as the originals.  Keyboardist Dizzy Reed looks weird as hell just hitting a tamborine to this sledgehammer tune.  As for rhythm guitarist Richard Fortus (a dead ringer for Izzy Stradlin), he seems to literally attack his instrument with every strum; looks more like he’s punching them!   Another Appetite classic, “Mr. Brownstone” follows.  It is here that I miss Slash for the first time.  His playing on “Brownstone” was always so greasy; so perfect.  Ashba’s playing is a bit too sophisticated.

IMG_20141122_183540

Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal

A bloated looking Axl is accompanied by Ron Thal for the opening to “Sorry”, a slow grinder from Chinese Democracy.  This changes the pace of the set.  The song fails to connect.  It’s more expressive live, but not interesting enough.  Time to pee.  Axl then introduces Richard Fortus on guitar who plays some blazing fast licks.  It makes me wonder why the hell this guy doesn’t play more leads.  He’s insanely fast.  This turns into a bit of a band jam, including the James Bond theme.  That strategically merges into “Live and Let Die”, the McCartney original of which was of course the theme of the same titled Bond movie.  The stage has flame throwers blasting, and the crowd goes wild.  Axl’s changed out of the raincoat, now sporting black leather and doing his trademark spinny-spinny dance.

IMG_20141122_193325

Frank Ferrer

After a brief pause, Frank Ferrer begins the familiar drum beat that opens “Rocket Queen”.  The fans know it and scream in anticipation.  Unfortunately Axl’s thin voice fails to impress.  Fortus does impress, handling the slide guitar solo himself.  “This I Love” is the next song, and the first ballad of the evening.  Axl struggles a bit with the vocal before he finds his stride part way in.  The dual keyboard concept can be best heard here.  Dizzy plays the piano, while second keyboardist Chris Pitman plays the orchestral arrangement.  But let’s face it: “This I Love” will never replace “November Rain” or “Estranged” as a concert favourite.  It fills that same epic ballad role,  but it just ain’t classic.

IMG_20141122_183523

DJ Ashba

DJ Ashba takes the opening lead guitar on the next Guns N’ Roses jam.  I don’t recognize the tune, but it sounds like another soundtrack piece.  I’ve heard some journalists complain that Guns play too many solos from band members that nobody cares about.  They couldn’t be more wrong.  These players are good; very very good.  These instrumental sections, apart from giving Axl a chance to rest his voice, are a showcase for the guys in the band that, like it or not, happen to be Guns N’ Roses.  The fans in Rio treat the members as if they were the originals.

IMG_20141122_185847

So once again, Jones, what was briefly yours is now mine.

Ashba breaks into the “Sweet Child O’ Mine” intro, and the fans lose their collective minds.  Rose dons a tan fedora, now looking a bit like René Belloq.  Thal nails that unforgettable wah-wah solo, no mean feat.  But then it’s time for “Estranged”, and Axl just can’t find the key. He pulls it together on the first verse, but this isn’t an easy song.  It does eventually fall into place with the help of some epic soloing.

I would say that the song “Better” from Chinese Democracy is well overdue in the set.  While undoubtedly modern sounding, I think it’s one of the best tunes.  It gives the band a chance to play around with a different kind of heavy.  Bumblefoot Thal plays the fast shreddy guitar part and does backing vocals.

Axl then introduces the band, aside from Bumblefoot and Ashba:

  • Chris “Mothergoose” Pitman
  • Frank “Thunderchucker” Ferrer (“I can never say that last name right. It’s like Ferarri, only different.” — Axl)
  • Mr. Richard Fortus (no nickname)
  • Mr. Tommy Stinson (also no nickname)
  • Mr. Dizzy Reed (I guess his nickname is Dizzy?)

This leads into a Dizzy piano segue on The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”, as an intro to “Street of Dreams”.  I had made no secret of my love for this song.  I first heard it back in 2001, when Guns played Rio that year.  It was known as “The Blues” at the time.  It’s a concise version of the “epic Guns ballad” and it stands up on its own.  Then it’s time for “You Could Be Mine”.  Ferrer impressively nails the drum intro, and Thal plays the opening guitar moans on his fretless neck.  This great version is followed by Axl sitting at the piano himself, for…you got it…”November Rain”.  There are some sour moments, not least of which is Axl forgetting some of the words!

IMG_20141122_193202

Bumblefoot

Finally it’s time for one of my favourite moments of the set: Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal’s rendition of the “Pink Panther” theme (Henry Mancini) on double neck guitar.  It’s familiar melodies like this that keep the solo spots interesting to fans who don’t know the players all that well.  It’s easier for them to swallow.  It’s not like Axl is leaving the stage for some guy to go wheedle-wheedle-wheedle for four and a half minutes.  Guns give you quality for your time.

“Pink Panther” turns into a space age blues jam and back again, merging into “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”.  Axl sings this annoyingly nasal.  I will take this moment to point out the irritating habit of the camera to focus on a guitar player who is not the current soloist.  It’s Ashba playing these solos, but half the time the camera is on Fortus, as if they are not sure who is playing, so they guess.  Fortus does get to blaze a solo at the end, thankfully with the camera on him.  Axl playfully quotes Elmer Fudd:  “Be vewy vewy quiet!  I’m hunting wabbits!”  Why, I don’t know.  Maybe he was watching cartoons on the plane.  It’s as good an answer as any.

The main set closes with “Nightrain”, bringing it all back full circle to Appetite again.  In a cool moment, Ashba walks (with security personnel by his side) through a barricaded and secured pathway within the crowd.  “Nightrain” is a strong finish for a band that plays as long and hard as Guns N’ Roses play.  And soon they’re back on stage, acoustic guitars in hand, to play “Patience”.  The quiet tune is all but drowned out by thousands of screaming Brazilians, but even they cannot drown out “Paradise City”.  It’s a natural epic closer, and it’s perfectly awesome, right up until Axl leaves the stage…then the video and audio abruptly fade and that’s the end! Was the broadcast cut off?  I don’t know, but the end jam is cut out, as is the final bow.  That’s it that’s all.

Shoddy.  You can tell it’s not an official release.

3/5 stars

REVIEW: Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy (2008)

By request of reader Johnny Sixx: A review of Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy so long that I split it into two installments. For the first part, click here.

GUNS N’ ROSES – Chinese Democracy (2008 Geffen)

Chinese Democracy, over a decade in the making, became both the biggest joke in rock and the most anticipated album of all time. It polarized music fans as expected. Was it worth the wait? That’s a pretty hard question to quantify. Ultimately it’s up to the individual. Did I expect more, personally?

No. I didn’t expect more. I got what I expected. I did hope for more, but by and large I was very happy with Chinese Democracy.

My first exposure to these songs came in 2001, after the Rock In Rio concert. I downloaded all the new tunes from Limewire. (Remember Limewire?) My favourite of the new tunes was “The Blues” (later renamed “Street of Dreams”) but I also loved “Chinese Democracy”, “Madagascar” and a track called “Silkworms”. Those of us who had heard the songs in advance of the album release were much more likely to enjoy the new GN’R for what it is: Axl attempting to keep the GN’R name going, and stay current. For better or for worse.

For Axl, staying current meant incorporating more electronics. It also meant replacing feel-based guitar players like Slash with shredders.  No, this does not sound like the dirty, blues-based majesty of Appetite. Yet, it does rock. Hard. Add in some samples, lush ballads and some cool lyrics and we have a modern followup to Use Your Illusion I and II. It has the same diversity and experimental bent, even if it sounds nothing like those two albums.

I won’t sit here and defend Axl’s decision to keep going with the name, that’s a dead horse that’s been flogged over and over again. It is what it is, and at least Axl has chosen musicians that are at the top of their fields. The Rock In Rio lineup was already long gone by the time of this album release, but all those guys contributed to Chinese Democracy. That means you will hear guitar solos by ex-members Robin Finck (an underrated player) and the incredible Buckethead. You will also hear drums by Brain, and Frank Ferrer too. You will have contributions from everybody. Hell, you will even get one song that dates back to the Slash n’ Duff years called “This I Love”, another epic ballad. It was written way back in 1993; it’s most likely the oldest song here.

The album is chock full of riffage. The title track itself (written by Axl and ex-drummer Josh Freese, yes that Josh Freese) is a monster. That riff is infectious, as are the verses. Axl loads the whole album full of vocal hooks, piano hooks, guitar hooks — this album may pack more hooks per minute than any other in history, who knows? He certainly had time to come up with and perfect them.

This is an even more dramatic Guns N’ Roses than anything before. Some might say over-dramatic. You thought “Estranged” was epic? This is even more so. Yet, boiled down, “Street of Dreams”, “Madagascar”, and “Better” are all emotion-drenched tunes and extremely well written and executed. The production, as expected, is thick and sweet. Maybe too sweet. A tune like “If The World” for example might have been better served with more basic guitar oriented production? Who knows? I’m sure Axl has done a thousand mixes of each of these songs, before selecting these final versions.

GNFNR_0004

Highlights: “Better” for its angry, awesome riffage. “Street of Dreams” as the natural successor to “November Rain”. The title track, for anger and aggression. “Madagascar” as the next “Civil War”.

Lowlights: Wasn’t much into “Scraped”, “If The World”, and the overly-techno “Shackler’s Revenge”. Illusions had filler too, y’know.

Most of all I love the playing. These are some of the best players in the world, bar none. Plus a guy like Tommy Stinson is a rock veteran with a history longer than Axl’s. With these kinds of experienced rockers on board, Chinese Democracy was bound to be impressive. What Chinese Democracy lacks are two things:

1. Band chemistry. You can’t fake it.

2. A suitable predecessor. If Guns had even one interim album to bridge the sounds and introduce new members gradually, Chinese Democracy wouldn’t sound like such a shock to the old-time fans.

It may turn out that Chinese Democracy is as close to a “bridge” record as we will get. Axl claims the next two albums that he’s written are even more extreme departure from the Guns sound.

Hopefully, those next two Guns N’ Roses records will eventually materialize.  They should include “Silkworms” a great punky synth-rocker, and a song that Sebastian Bach raves about called “The General”. Whenever Axl feels motivated enough to finish them.

4/5 stars

GNFNR_0002