30 Years Ago: Chaos Reigns as Guns N’ Roses Open for the Rolling Stones
Guns N’ Roses were the next big thing, topping charts all over the world while embracing a legion of fans. The Rolling Stones were the already-establish legends, an iconic group making the slow transition into heritage act. In October 1989, the biggest band on Earth opened for the greatest rock band in the world.
The event nearly destroyed GNR for good.
It was the Stones camp that made the first move. The band had a history of inviting ascending, of-the-moment artists to open its stadium shows. Prince, Santana and Lynyrd Skynyrd were among the many successful groups to have previously played the role. Still, Guns N’ Roses were different.
Appetite for Destruction was one of the best-selling albums of all-time, a once-in-a-generation LP that rocketed the band to superstardom. And though it’s follow-up, Lies, was more of a hastily assembled EP than true album release, it also managed to sell millions of copies without breaking a sweat. Simply put, GNR already had massive rock-star clout of their own. So when the Stones offered $50,000 per show to open four performances in Los Angeles, Guns N’ Roses’ manager Alan Niven shot them down. When the Stones upped the amount to $500,000 for four shows, Niven countered: Guns N' Roses would open the four performances at Los Angeles' Memorial Coliseum for $1 million.
The Stones agreed and a deal was made. Now came the more difficult part: getting Guns N’ Roses into performing shape. The band had not toured in more than eight months, and drug addiction, particularly heroin use, had deteriorated some of the members' skills. What started as an an element of their party personae -- and inspired songs like "Mr. Brownstone" -- was now crumbling the band.
Still, GNR were enthusiastic about the concerts. In an interview with the LA Times, frontman Axl Rose noted the impact the Rolling Stones had on his band. “We have lots of influences, but the Stones are most definitely a big part of it,” the singer asserted. “As a band, we haven’t seemed to wear out the Stones yet. We keep learning more and more from them ... about the fact you are able to do anything you want in your music.”
Guns N' Roses decided to book a warm-up show before the Coliseum dates, ostensibly a club performance for RIP magazine. At the gig, Rose told guitarist Izzy Stradlin that he was quitting the band.
This was not a strange occurrence. By his own account, Rose quit GNR “every three days.” Still, ongoing drug use had created strained tensions within the band, while controversy over Rose’s racially charged lyrics in the song “One in a Million” had stoked public outcry. It was obvious that the mercurial frontman was angry, and his patience with GNR seemed to be at its breaking point.
On Oct. 18, 1989, Guns N’ Roses assembled at the Coliseum for their first set opening for the Rolling Stones. All of the GNR members were there, except for one. Rose was missing in action, and as time ticked away, it became clear that excessive measures would need to be taken.
Niven enlisted the help of Stones’ production chief Brian Ahern. Together, the men called in a favor to the LAPD. "I want you to immediately send two no-questions-asked uniforms to this address, get the occupants out of that condominium in any which way they can, and bring them right here – in handcuffs if necessary," Niven demanded. Within minutes, a pair of police officers were banging on Rose’s front door. “The startled occupants were herded down to the cruiser," writer Mick Wall recounted in Last of the Giants: The True Story of Gun N' Roses. "Sirens wailing and all lights ablaze, the police car sliced through the evening traffic.”
Once the police dropped Rose at the Coliseum, the singer was given another dose of startling news: The night’s first band, Living Colour, had delivered a passionate onstage lecture, clearly in response to the “One in a Million” controversy. Guitarist Vernon Reid spoke about the evils of racism, while also criticizing anyone who justified hate speech. The audience gave the Living Colour member a standing ovation. Meanwhile, Rose was once again fuming.
Guns N’ Roses took the stage just before 8PM. The band was still tuning up when Rose grabbed the mic and addressed the audience. “Before we start playing, [I want to say] I’m getting fuckin’ sick and tired of all this publicity about our song,” the singer declared. He then denied he was a racist or a bigot, arguing that certain words -- which had been labeled hate-filled or demeaning toward various minority groups -- were acceptable in an artistic context. “If you still want to call me a racist,” Rose proclaimed, “you can shove your head up your fuckin’ ass.”
This wouldn’t be his most notable tirade of the night.
GNR launched into "It's So Easy," but their delivery was off. Reviewers noted the band sounded “more ragged than they looked.” Then, in a Spinal Tap style moment, Rose fell off the stage and into the photographer’s pit. The singer had been blinded by spotlights and was clearly disoriented by his surroundings. Two security guards helped the frontman back to his feet. With embarrassment now mixed with his rage, Rose launched into another diatribe.
“I hate to do this onstage,” the singer announced, “but I tried every other fucking way. And unless certain people in this band get their shit together, these will be the last Guns N’ Roses shows you’ll fucking ever see. 'Cause I’m tired of too many people in this organization dancing with Mr. Goddamn Brownstone.”
Suddenly, the band’s dirty laundry was aired out in the open. More than 70,000 fans witnessed one of rock’s biggest stars call out his bandmates for their drug use.
"I shrank, I was so fucking embarrassed," bassist Duff McKagan said in his autobiography It's So Easy and Other Lies. "Once Axl took his concerns public, the times of being a gang – us against the world – were over. We played the rest of the show, but it was a halfhearted effort at best. Afterward, and really for the remainder of our career, we just went our separate ways. That night officially rang the bell for the end of an era in GNR."
The band would eventually pull things together enough to finish its Coliseum set on a high note. Renditions of “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Knockin on Heaven’s Door” closed the performance, with screaming fans applauding the group as they departed.
Later that night, the Rolling Stones would deliver a masterful headlining set, powering through many of the band’s vaunted hits. At one point, singer Mick Jagger paused and commented on their opening act. “I think Axl did a good show,” he said, seemingly tongue-in-cheek, “but I wish he’d just shut up and play.”