The Chinese Democracy Years – 1999: The Album Gets A Name
The Chinese Democracy Years – 1999: The Album Gets A Name
The rumours that Axl would like to complete the album by the summer of ’99 and have GN’R headline various festivals were strengthened with the band’s interest in appearing at Lollapalooza. Soon however, album work apparently overrode any desire to tour.
The day after GN’R missed their contracted deadline of March 1, rumours surfaced that the band would release a new song on a film soundtrack. A few months later, a mash-up of Sweet Child O’ Mine (featuring the Use Your Illusion line-up) and a ’98 re-recording was included in the Adam Sandler film Big Daddy. MTV reported: “[Music supervisor] Lori Lahman says that the initial part of the song features the near-original group (Axl Rose, Slash, Duff McKagan, Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum) recorded live at a concert in Paris. More than halfway through that rendition, the new band – presumably Rose, guitarists Robin Finck and Paul Huge, drummer Josh Freese, bassist Tommy Stinson, and keyboardist Dizzy Reed – kicks in with tracks of the same song recently recorded in the studio. The tune’s intro also includes a voice repeating the word, ‘Figaro,’ which was a last-minute addition ‘for fun,’ courtesy of Rose, says Lahman.” Also worth mentioning is the fleeting vocal clip at the very beginning, which is apparently Axl saying ‘without you’. The song is not included on the soundtrack CD. At the same time, it was rumoured that the title of the album would be 2000 Intentions.
The Sweet Child O’ Mine mash-up was no coincidence and worked as a precursor for the next project, again to soothe Interscope: a GN’R live album, Live Era ’87–’93.
Slash: “The original idea came of course from the record company, who slowly starting panicking, since Axl hadn’t give them any new material since the band fell apart.”
According to Axl, “Del James worked for a couple of years off and on going though every single show we did on DAT tape from the Use Your Illusion tour and then every other available tape…”
At the time Duff’s website claimed: “Slash was responsible for most of the work on the album. He and Axl worked the hardest. Stevie, Izzy and the others were all involved in one way or another.”
When the album was finally released on November 30, the reception was lukewarm. For Matt Sorum, his credit was the most interesting thing about it. Around that time Sorum had commented that, “Axl got metaphysical and started spending a lot of time in Sedona, Arizona. These people were taking advantage of a guy with millions to blow on lunacy.” When the album came out, he wondered if Axl had taken his revenge: on the sleeve he was listed as only an ‘additional musician.’”
“‘Additional musician’?” Sorum snorted to The Times. “Suddenly I’m the tambourine player.”
With the studio band on holiday for July while Axl was working on Live Era, Robin Finck had the time to consider his options. His two year contract was up on August 1st. Robin’s former employer and band mate Trent Reznor had just recently completed work on the Nine Inch Nails album, The Fragile and Robin rejoined NIN at the MTV Video Music Awards, with a full tour beginning in the following month.
“I’d helped write and arrange and recorded enough songs for several records,” Finck said later. “It was great for a while, but then it became terribly frustrating not seeing anything completed because no lyrics were finished… Not one song was ever completed and I was there for two and a half years.
“We’d get a song done to an extent and wait for Axl to write a lyric and/or song. I couldn’t work on songs with titles like Instrumental 34 anymore.”
GN’R manager Doug Goldstein had a more optimistic view in November: “As far as I can tell,” he said, “we are now 99 per cent musically done and 80 per cent vocals done. I see the record being done February or March for a summer release.”
Finck’s departure caused Axl some anguish. Queen guitarist Brian May, who would soon contribute to the album, commented the following year that, “Axl was feeling that he was in a difficult place, because the guitarist he’d been working with on this new album… that’d done most of the tracks, had departed and Axl had a real emotional attachment to what he’d done, and yet… he didn’t really want him to stay on the album because he’d disappeared, you know.”
It was a pattern that was to be repeated for some years to come.
Soon after Robin left to tour with NIN, the band began working on a new song to be included for the soundtrack of the Arnold Schwarzenegger film End Of Days. The song they’d work on was an
old track, originally written by Paul Huge and Dizzy in 1997, around the time when Moby was producing the album.
Finck’s part was wiped and Jane’s Addiction/Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Dave Navarro was invited to add guitar parts. “There’s no story,” Navarro said later. “They just called me up, and I went down to the studio. I spent about an hour and a half there. I played a guitar solo, and that’s it. There really wasn’t much direction to give me. I think that that’s why they called me.” (Navarro later said that Axl called the studio while he was playing and from the speakerphone had told him to “play with more feeling”.)
In November the album’s title was officially announced. In an interview with MTV, Axl was quizzed on what it meant.
[Reporter] Kurt Loder: “You’re going to call this album Chinese Democracy. What is the meaning of that, since there is no Chinese democracy, of course?”
Rose: “Well, there’s a lot of Chinese democracy movements, and it’s something that there’s a lot of talk about, and it’s something that will be nice to see. It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don’t know, I just like the sound of it.”
A follow-up album was also seemingly in the cards. Metal Hammer reported: “Guns N’Roses are preparing to end their lengthy silence, as they finish up work on two new studio albums, both of which are being produced by Sean Beavan and expected to be released simultaneously in October. The two, as yet untitled, albums feature the new line-up of vocalist Axl Rose, guitarists Robin Finck and Paul Huge, keyboard player Dizzy Reed, drummer Josh Freese and bassist Tommy Stinson. One source close to the band describes the new material as being, ‘Cleaner and fatter, but completely Guns N’Roses. Despite the rumours, there’s no hint of any techno or industrial influences.’”
Following the completion of Oh My God, Josh Freese and Billy Howerdel now found themselves once again with some spare time, so they used it to start their own project. They called it A Perfect Circle and recorded an album, Mer de Noms, which went on to sell 1.7 million copies.
While Freese’s downtime could be explained with the drum tracks being recorded, Howerdel’s surfeit of free time came from working nightshift.
He told Total Guitar: “At night, the band, the crew and the producer would go off and I would come in and work with Axl on the guitars and sometimes the vocals. And the music sounded great then and so I’m curious to hear it like everyone else is today too. I can’t imagine what they’ve done since then. What I did on that record isn’t going to be anything significant though. The only thing that I did that was of significance was work on things that were so obscure I don’t even know if they’d made the record.” [Howerdel only gets a credit for ‘digital editing’ on There Was A Time on the final release.]
In late November, Axl Rose played nearly a dozen tracks from the album for Rolling Stone, who reported, “Imagine Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti remixed by Beck and Trent Reznor, and you’ll have some sense of Axl’s new sound…
“Song after song combines the edgy hard rock force and pop smarts of vintage Guns N’Roses with surprisingly modern and ambitious music textures. In addition to the album’s almost grungy title track, tentative song titles include Catcher In The Rye, I.R.S, The Blues… Oklahoma – heard tonight only as an instrumental… and TWAT, which he says stands for ‘there was a time.’”
They added: “[Axl] appears to view the album as a final offering-up of his side of all his myriad battles – notably with his estranged band mates and, even more painful, with his one-time fiancée, supermodel Stephanie Seymour, with whom he had an ugly split. He speaks of his desire for Seymour’s son Dylan to someday be able to come across the new record. ‘I hope he’ll hear it when he grows up, if he ever wants to know the story, to hear the truth,’ Rose says a little quietly.”
Following Dave Navarro, Axl enlisted another old favourite to step in and contribute: Brian May.
May: “[Axl] said, ‘Brian can you come and do stuff which I will like and I won’t feel too bad about ditching this other stuff?’ So I did. I went over there and I think I played on three tracks and messed around on various other things. But it worked out pretty well, as far as I can tell.”
Chris Pitman commented: “[Working with Brian May] was one of the biggest joys of my life. He’s the greatest guitarist in the world to me. To meet him and see what a sweet fellow he is was great. He came in and just played these solos that just ripped up everything we were doing – you would expect nothing else from him.”
But, as always, nothing was straightforward. “[Axl] liked it, but he wanted to get into every single take of every single note,” May commented later. “And, you know, from one day to another Axl would’ve been in there like from 5 o’clock in the morning ’til 7am comping little bits of my solos and saying, ‘can you get Brian to try this?’ You know, he’s utterly meticulous.”
One of the tracks May worked on was Catcher In The Rye. “Catcher is a great track…,” said Brian when the track was later leaked. “My guitar is there, nice and crisply recorded. It was a blast doing the sessions… I like the track a lot and always did… and it still sounds very fresh.” His contribution is not on the final mix.
Others would follow on Brian May’s heels to substitute Robin. Former Marilyn Manson guitarist Zim Zum (who, incidentally, played on their Sean Beavan-produced album, Mechanical Animals), was possibly approached, as was Stevie Salas (who’s played with George Clinton and Mick Jagger). Salas commented: “When we jammed, they had each guy with a Pro Tool rig adding hours of little things – you know, bells and whistles – and the concept was, at least to my understanding, that they would shift through hours of music to search for one section that perhaps would be a great part of a song then they would take that piece of music and start the process over. I thought they were all mad.”
Richard Fortus, a friend of Tommy Stinson was also considered before Axl settled on Brian Carroll, aka avant-garde shredder Buckethead. Axl invited Bucket over on Christmas Day. The guitarist was upset that no-one had given him a certain hard-to-find Leatherface doll he’d been coveting as a gift. As Buckethead later put it: “Got invited to Axl’s on Christmas night; never met him before. Sad about not getting the doll but it is OK, but still sad. Get to Axl’s, he presents this box wrapped up. The Michael Myers version has been out for a while, knew it was the same box. Figured it was Michael Myers and opened it up. There was Leatherface.”
To Buckethead it was a sign that Axl understood him – he was in. Another year had passed.