The first band I ever saw was Motorhead, at Southport Arts Centre in 1987. This was the tail end of the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) and the era of Hair Metal, but mostly I listened to the dinosaur rock bands of the previous decade; Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Deep Purple and its spin-offs and Hawkwind.
However there were two contemporary bands I was aware who were neither spandex wearing Glam Rockers nor older than I was; Guns 'n' Roses and Metallica. They are both still with us, and both have been candidates for Biggest Rock Band in the World at different times, but their career paths have been a little different.
Round One: 1987
Guns 'n' Roses came along four years later, formed from the merger of two other bands.
Then in 1986 Metallica released Master of Puppets, probably the best Thrash Metal album of all time. All the songs are great, but it's the title track that sticks in the memory. It is seven minutes of head-banging that is scored like a symphony, and made Metallica a band that even people like me, who looked down on Thrash, admired. Few people usually read the lyrics of Thrash songs, but in Metallica's case it was worth making the effort, and the album includes songs inspired by H P Lovecraft's Shadow Over Innsmouth, Ken Kesey's One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest and, in the case of the title track, cocaine addiction.
|Guns 'n' Roses in 1987|
They were initially considered too toxic for MTV. The station eventually agreed to play the Appetite for Destruction once, at four o'clock in the morning, but after fans jammed the TV station's switchboard afterwards to demand more they gave in and the band were on their way to fame. It was hard rock, but so popular they even got played in the trendy discos that girls went to, which was a bonus for me.
There was also controversy in the form of a robotic rapist in the front cover, which perhaps should have raised a few concerns amongst liberal listeners like me, but which we largely passed up at the time.
|Metallica in 1986|
At the time I dressed rather more like Metallica - at least until I discovered paisley shirts. However if I'd had a top hat and the guts to wear a man-skirt that's what I would have been doing, because without a doubt their look made them the coolest thing in the world in the eyes of seventeen year old me.
So it's a strong start for both bands, but on balance you'd have to say G'n'R take this, but only by a small margin. So lets put the scores at this point as:
Metallica 2 Guns 'n' Roses 3
Round Two: 1988
Patience, which showed they were also the master of the Power ballad, it contained - against the advice of the rest of the band - Roses' song One In A Million in which he lets loose at a variety of things he hates, includes black people, immigrants and homosexuals. He also had a go at the police for good measure, but G'n'R were now sounding less like rebels and more like my parents.
Metallica meanwhile released And Justice For All. Not quite as good as Master of Puppets, it did contain One, a song about the First World War that manages to be both heavy and meaningful and is one of the best things they ever did. Lyrically the album dealt with themes on ecological destruction (Blackened), corruption (...And Justice For All) and discrimination (The Shortest Straw).
By this time I was running a rock disco at the university in Leicester which, thanks to a low admission price and cheap beer, attracted every rock fan in the city. It was still Paradise City and Sweet Child O'Mine that filled the dance floor, but Metallica had escaped from the Thrash Hour and were getting regular plays later in the evening. So this round is both a musical and moral victory for the Thrashers, a clear two-nil win. The aggregate score is now:
Metallica 4 Guns 'n' Roses 3
Round Three: 1991
Their fifth album, released in 1990, cost a million dollars and three marriages, but is one the greatest rock albums of all time. It was marketed in a jet black cover a la Spinal Tap and lacked an actual name, a la Led Zep IV.
Like Appetite, there wasn't a bad track on it. Of Wolf and Man is a classic Thrash track, Wherever I May Roam is a well constructed song by band that tours more than most and The Unforgiven is an angry song about the struggle to remain an individual in a repressive society. However the two songs that stand out are Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters. The first is a Thrash track with a rif so catchy and commercial it sounds made for MTV whilst the latter is their entry into the Power Ballad category and another candidate for The Best Thing They've Ever Done.
Live and Let Die and Knockin' On Heaven's Door, the surprisingly poignant anti-war song Civil War and You Could Be Mine ,which was used to great effect in the film Terminator II. Best of all there were two fantastic Power Ballads in Don't Cry and November Rain. The video to the latter was almost a major motion picture in itself, but it deserved the Hollywood treatment being, in my opinion, there best ever song.
However in between there was an awful lot of crap. An awful lot. G'n'R were seemingly incapable of telling the difference between a classic and something they should have left on the studio floor. At this time I was still listening to them on vinyl, so not only was I pissed off that I'd had to pay twice, but also because lifting the needle up when pissed was always a but dangerous so I had to listen to the shit songs to get to the good stuff.
Meanwhile drugs were starting to cause problems. Heroine had rendered Steven Adler almost unable to play the drums and so he was fired. Rhyme guitarist Izzy Stradin menawhile decided to clean himself up but then found he couldn't stand life in the band if he wasn't on drugs, and so he left too. Slash continued to take pretty much every substanced known to man whilst Axel continued to sneer and demand he actually listent to the lyrics of Mr Brownstone.
Mucially though in this Battle of the Bands less is definitely more, and so I award a two-one win to Metallica, making the scores:
Metallica 6 Guns 'n' Roses 4
Round Four: 1999
Both bands decided to follow up there last albums with sequels made up of cover versions. G'n'R managed to take songs such as Since I Don't Have You by The Skyliners and Ain't It Fun by the Dead Boys and rehash them so well they felt like original compositions. However they also decided to add as an unlisted 'Easter Egg' a cover of a Charles Manson song. Not only is the song pointless and tasteless, not to mention rubbish, the whole thing seemed like such a manufactured controversy that I suspected some music industry exec was behind it.
In fact it was all Axel Rose's doing and, like with One In A Million, he pissed of the rest of the band in the process. He also pissed off a lot of the fans with some pretty offensive language and behaviour on the stage, and relationships within the G'n'R fell apart.
The band did make another awesome cover version, this time of the Rolling Stones' Sympathy For The Devil for the film Interview With Vampire. A brilliant song brilliantly used in the film, as it meant they didn't need to ruin Interview by making The Vampire Lestatt. (Or maybe not...)
Metallica meanwhile toured and toured. Their album Garage Inc was interesting rather than spectacular. But as it was in effect a tribute to the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal bands that had inspired them, they are to be thanked for remembering a genre that by this time was on its last legs. So for doing this, keeping going and not behaving like complete idiots, I award Metallica a one-nil win.
The scores now are:
Metallica 7 Guns 'n' Roses 4
Round Five: 2008
By 2008 Metallica had played virtually everywhere you can play, including our own Monsters of Rock festival four times, and have continued to release albums that, although not up to the best of their back catalogue, are still interesting.
Guns 'n' Roses meanwhile have been in the studio apparently since the last century with all sorts of rumours flying around about what the guitarist was up to. In fact a lot of the time we weren't even sure who actually was their guitarist. The resulting album, Chinese Democracy, must rank as one of the most over-produced and over-promoted in rock history. It's not rubbish, but it is totally forgettable.
One-nil to Metallica then.
Metallica 8 Guns 'n' Roses 4
Round Six: 2014
2014 and Metallica play the Glastonbury Festival for the first time, inflicting Thrash classics on the various rich kids and slumming accountants that make up the Glasto audience these days. A whiff of controversy preceded them thanks to Hetfield narrating a documentary about bear shooting in Alaska. However as far as I'm concerned he could shoot unicorns, Metallica were deservedly the Biggest Rock Band in the World.
Guns 'n' Roses meanwhile, having lost every original member apart from Rose, started a residency at The Joint in Las Vegas. With Rose having let himself go a bit since the days he was married to supermodel Stephanie Seymour it seemed they were headed down the Elvis route to Living Legend status.
Rumours of a G'n'R reunion have continued for years, but apparently the main stumbling block is that Axel believes that after his last OD Slash's soul leftb his body and another soul replaced it. This other sould certainly appears to still be able to play th eguitar, but Axel only wants to play the first one.
I think I'd have to award this a two-one win to Metallica giving the final scores as:
Metallica 10 Guns 'n' Roses 5
A clear win but...
....if I wanted a Hard Rock/Metal song that could be played to a mainstream audience I'd go for Sweet Child O' Mine over Enter Sandman, if I wanted a Power Ballad I'd opt for November Rain over Nothing Else Matters and if I wanted to air guitar I'd go for Paradise City rather than Master of Puppets.
They may have gone from the Baddest Band in the World to one of the Saddest, but G'n'R will always have a special place in rock history, and my history.