The Chinese Democracy Years – 1994: The Beginning
The Chinese Democracy Years – 1994: The Beginning
It’s January 1994. For several weeks, Slash has been delivering various tapes of guitar riffs (and jams with Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum) to Axl, intended as ideas for the band to work on with their next studio album.
On January 3, Axl Rose tells Rockline Radio: “We’re aiming at ’96 [for the album] and we’ll probably be doing a lot of recording, and trying to put a lot of things between now and then… We may work with Brian May on a project upcoming.”
They had some songs ready. The previous year, Axl had spoken to Hit Parader about a song that – 15 years later – would be unveiled as the penultimate track on Chinese Democracy: “We really haven’t really sat down to collaborate on songs yet,” he said. “I wrote and recorded a new love song that I want on the next record called This I Love, that’s the heaviest thing that I’ve ever done.”
Producer/engineer Dave Dominguez placed the song even earlier, later commenting that, “This I Love is actually an old GN’R song… recorded for the Illusion records. I like that song a lot… it took a couple of weeks to find all the tapes because they finished recording Use Your Illusions on the road and one tape was in Paris another in London and another in Sydney, I believe.”
In reality, Dominguez may be mistaken: as for This I Love originating as a UYI song (the albums were released on September 17, 1991 and, comparing tour dates with studio time, GNR played in London on August 31, 1991 and Aparil 20, 1992, Paris on June 6 1992, and Sydney on January 30, 1993) – it’s more likely the song was originally recorded around the same time as the bulk of The Spaghetti Incident?.
On January 19, Axl appeared at Elton John’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. He also performed The Beatles’ Come Together with Bruce Springsteen. It was to be his last public performance for several years.
The ‘Snakepit’ Demos
“Initially I was just writing what I thought was cool,” Slash said in 1995. “I was a kid in a toy store. I had a studio in my house. Get up in the morning. Literally, press ‘on’, plug in your guitar and go. I don’t look at stuff from the concept of writing the quintessential hit record. Just guitar riffs… It’s our band. So if I write something, my first and foremost priority would be to dedicate it to Guns.”
Slash was still dedicated only to GN’R, but in the Rockline interview Axl let slip that – like Duff McKagan and Gilby Clarke – he was starting to think of a solo project. “I’m trying to put a project together that is kind of a top-secret weapon right now,” he said.
Later that year the singer was asked, if he was to do a solo project, who would he like to work with?
Axl: “Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails is one, and Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction is another guy… I’ve talked to Trent about working with me on an industrial synth project, at least on one song, and I definitely want to work with Dave… I’ve always been curious what he would sound like working with Slash on something.”
In 1995, Slash recalled this period to Metal Hammer: “There was a point there where Axl goes: ‘I’m gonna do a solo record, and I’m gonna get Trent Reznor and Dave Navarro, and the drummer from Nirvana…’ and so on. And it’s like – he doesn’t even know half of these people. He’s just pulling them out of the sky. And I was like, ‘Cool! Do your thing. That way you’ll get it out of your system, and when you get back we’ll just be Guns N’Roses’.” (In 1995 Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet asked the guitarist why just about everyone in the band had made a solo record except Axl. “Axl thinks that Guns is his solo project,” said Slash.)
In early ’94, Slash met with Axl to talk through the demos that would eventually surface as Snakepit songs.
As Slash recounted in his autobiography: “I started hanging out with Matt and recording demos of that stuff just for fun, and Mike Inez from Alice In Chains and Gilby started to come around and play with us. The three of us just got into a groove of jamming and recording every night. We didn’t know what it was going to be. At some point I played it for Axl, who took a pronounced disinterest in it.”
As he also told Rock Hard magazine: “I played Axl a demo with some of my ideas for songs, and all he said was: ‘I don’t feel like playing this kind of music’. I answered: ‘But this could be an excellent Gunner record, a hundred percent in GN’R style’.He didn’t really care ’cause he only wanted to play industrial and Pearl Jam-sounding crap.”
Gilby suggested to Kerrang! at the time that Duff McKagan didn’t like the direction of Slash’s demos either: “[Axl] just wasn’t into what we were doing, so he’s kind of rethinking what he wants to do. He just kind of threw a wrench into everything that me, Slash and Matt had worked on. And then Duff came in. Duff and Axl have an idea what the album should be, and the rest of us have another idea.”
In 1999, Axl put his own spin on the idea that it was him and McKagan versus the rest of the band, telling MTV: “What people don’t know is, the [Slash’s] Snakepit album – that is the Guns N’Roses album. I just wouldn’t do it… Duff walked out on it, and I walked out on it, because I wasn’t allowed to be any part of it. It’s like, ‘No, you do this, that’s how it is’. And I didn’t believe in it. I thought that there were riffs and parts and some ideas, I thought, that needed to be developed. [But] I had no problem working on it…”
Duff did think that they had lost a vital part of the songwriting process: “We started going to Slash’s house… and we had a batch of songs. But, ya know what? Without Izzy, we just weren’t writing the old way. We had a bunch of great songs, but the way we used to write wasn’t all sitting in a room and trying to force ourselves to be a family. We just were. But there was a point up there where it was looking good and we started cranking out songs, but it just started falling apart.”
It appeared that Axl didn’t think that Gilby was a worthy replacement for Izzy. “We don’t know if we’re gonna be writing with Gilby or somebody else,” he said in 1993. “We know we want to play with Gilby, but we’re not sure about the writing.”
“My last conversation with [Axl] was when he called me and was trying to explain what he wanted to do,” Gilby told Spin in 1999. “And, basically, it was: ‘I want to change the sound of the band. You know, I want to go more into a current direction… I want to use, you know, more industrial type things’. You know, he was really into bands like Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. And I just kinda laughed and said: ‘Look – I want to play guitar in a loud version of The Rolling Stones’, you know?”
“I had known for a long time that Axl was going to change the direction of the band. I knew the end was coming,” he said. “That’s why I dug deep into my solo career. There were days when Axl would call Slash and go, ‘Fire Gilby – he doesn’t fit in with my plan,’ but he would never tell me. That was going on for a long time.”
(Slash wrote in his 2007 autobiography, Slash: “Axl fired Gilby without consulting anyone. His rationale was that Gilby had always been a hired hand and that he couldn’t write with him.”)
Around the same period, on May 10 Duff McKagan was rushed to a Seattle hospital – his pancreas had exploded after years of alcohol and drug abuse. “I was in my house in Seattle when a small pain became acute. It was so bad that I couldn’t pick up the phone to call anyone,” he said. “Luckily, my best friend happened to come over to my house, and I got to [the emergency room].” Lucky to survive, when he was released eight days later he was warned that just one drink could kill him.
Around August/September ’94, Slash returned to the studio to flesh out the demos turned by Axl and make the album that would become Slash’s Snakepit’s It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere, with Mike Clink producing, Matt Sorum on drums, Mike Inez on bass, and Eric Dover of Jellyfish on vocals. “He and I wrote the lyrics to all 12 tracks,” Slash wrote in his autobiography, “and I think it’s pretty easy to tell which songs he wrote and which ones I wrote: all of my songs are directed at one person… though no one picked up on it at the time. I used the record as an opportunity to vent a lot of shit that I needed to get off my chest.”
It’s a safe bet, then, that Slash wrote What Do You Want To Be with lines like, ‘What the hell do you want to be/Following the trends that never end’, and, ‘Ya ain’t been out in days/Will the sunshine burn your face/Preserve your precious skin/I’ll go out, you stay in.’
According to Slash the album took 26 days to record and mix – much to Axl’s surprise. As the guitarist remembered the following year, “All of a sudden, after the album was finished, [Axl] goes: ‘Remember those tapes I have? You know, I want to…’ He didn’t know we’d finished the record. And he goes: ‘[I like] this song, this song, this song, this song and this song’. And I went: ‘Dude – we finished it already. It’s gone’. And he goes: ‘You couldn’t have done an album in two weeks’. I said: ‘Oh yeah. I can’. You can do that. And it turned into a big fight.”
In October, Guns’ A&R man Tom Zutaut came up with the idea of recording a version of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For The Devil for inclusion on the film soundtrack of Interview With A Vampire. Slash agreed, thinking that at least it would get the band in to the studio together.
“It didn’t work,” he admitted to Rolling Stone later. “We didn’t all show up at the same time in the studio – put it that way. And that was pretty indicative of what I didn’t want to happen.”
In his autobiography, Slash says that Axl passed on comments via someone else that he “needed to re-record my guitar solo so that it sounded more note-for-note like the Keith Richards original”. When he got a finished DAT of the song he “noticed that there was another guitar layered on top of mine in the solo. Axl had gotten Paul Huge to double over me”.
Who was Paul Huge? Also known as Paul Tobias, “Paul’s just a friend of Axl’s,” Slash told Metal Express. “He brought Paul in without telling me. I got really angry, cos the main thing is the band – getting the band together… It’s not like you hire a bunch of session people and make Guns N’Roses – it doesn’t work that way.”
To Q magazine in 2001 he added: “That’s one of the biggest, most personal things that Axl and I have gone through – to bring in an outside guitar player without even telling me.”
Snakepit booked a tour across the United States, Europe, Japan and Australia when Axl threw a spanner in the works. “Axl asked me not to go on tour with Slash,” said Matt Sorum later. “If I toured with Snakepit, it could have cause serious consequences… So I stayed at home and I worked a bit with Axl and Duff. I’m sure I took the good decision.”
Instead, Slash enlisted Brian Tichy and James LoMenzo from Zakk Wylde’s band Pride & Glory. On December 10, 1994, Pride & Glory played the last show of their tour in Los Angeles (with LoMenzo already having left the band in November and been replaced by John DeServio). Slash joined them onstage to perform the Hendrix songs Voodoo Child and Red House.
Both Pride & Glory and GN’R were managed by Doug Goldstein’s Big FD Management at the time, so it was no coincidence that Zakk Wylde was then asked to try out for GN’R.