>> BackThe Story Behind The Song - Guns N' Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine" 

December, 2005
The Story Behind The Song - Guns N' Roses "Sweet Child O' Mine"
Q, December 2005
ROCK'N'ROLL HAS sucked a big fucking dick since the Sex Pistols," sneered Guns N' Roses guitarist Izzy Stradlin in March 1987. Luckily, his band were there to save it. Touted as rock's next big thing, their snotty debut EP 1986's Live ?! *@ Like A Suicide, had served notice of their antagonistic intent. But it would be the following year's riotous debut album, Appetite For Destruction, that turned them into superstars. At the heart of it was their secret weapon: an unexpectedly touching ballad called Sweet Child O' Mine that revealed a sensitive side to the band's volatile singer, Axl Rose, and gave Guns N' Roses their first-and only US Number 1 single.

In early 1986, Guns N' Roses were the most notorious upstarts on Los Angeles' rock scene, based around the city's notoriously sleazy Sunset Strip. Their lives revolved around drink, hard drugs and bedding as many groupies as possible. The centre of operations: a crumbling two-storey Hollywood condo nicknamed "The Hellhouse".

'A lot of crabs were transferred in that place," recalls guitarist Slash. "It was a place where the whole sleaziness of the band could fester."

Impressed by their explosive live shows, Geffen signed GN'R in March 1986. The first thing the band's new paymasters did was move them out at The Hellhouse and into an unfurnished house in the upmarket Griffith Park neighbourhood to focus on writing and rehearsing songs for their debut album. It was here, in the summer of 1986, that the seeds of Sweet Child O' Mine were planted.

"I was fucking around with this stupid little riff," says Slash. 'Axl said, Hold the fucking phones! That's amazing!"

Within five minutes, the band had worked Slash's cyclical riff into the bare bones of a song. Fleshing it out wasn't so easy.

"Writing and rehearsing it to make it a complete song was like pulling teeth," says Slash. "For me, at the time, it was a very sappy ballad."

Axl Rose felt differently. He supplied uncharacteristically intimate lyrics based on a poem he had written for his then girlfriend, Erin Everly, daughter of '60s pop icon Don Everly. To get the right sound, he went back to an unlikely source: unfashionable '70s longhairs Lynyrd Skynyrd, the hard-drinking Southern redneck rockers decimated by a plane crash in 1977 that killed singer Ronnie Van Zant and two other band members.

"I'm from Indiana, where Lynyrd Skynyrd are considered God to the point that you ended up saying, I hate this fucking band!" said Rose in 1987. "And yet for Sweet Child... I went out and got some old Skynyrd tapes to make sure that we'd got that heartfelt feeling."

While Rose was adamant about the song's potential, his bandmates were less convinced.

"It was like a joke," says bassist Duff McKagan. "We thought, What is this song? Its gonna be nothing."

Guns N' Roses entered Rumbo Studios in Los Angeles in August 1986 to begin work on Appetite For Destruction. The man picked to produce the album was Mike Clink, a veteran studio hand whose most famous credit was Survivor's 1982 soft-rock classic Eye Of The Tiger. Clink was undaunted by the band's reputation for debauchery.

"I went to their house," he recalls. "It looked like somebody had decided to do some remodelling and had knocked down the walls."

A firm taskmaster, Clink introduced a rule: no drugs in the studio.

"He kept us at arm's length," confirms Slash. "We partied really hard, but when we were in the studio, we were pretty much together. There was no doping and all that stuff."

Fuelled by nothing stronger than cigarettes and Jack Daniel's, the band knuckled down to work on the album. With Clink determined to "capture the band's essence, not beat it into the ground", most tracks were recorded in just a few takes.

"Sweet Child O' Mine was easy to record, apart from the guitar intro," says Slash. "It took me all afternoon to time it out and be at the right place when the drums came in."

When the track was finished, Mike Clink was certain they had something special.

"That song made the hairs on my arms stand up," he says. "It was magical."

A few weeks later, the album was mixed by pop producers Steve Thompson and Michael Barbiero, who had previously worked with Whitney Houston and Simply Red.

"Sweet Child O' Mine sounded like a hit to all of us," recalls Barbiero. "So much so that I remember Axl asking me when we were finished if I thought the album would actually sell. I told him that, despite the fact that it was nothing like what was on the radio, I thought it would go gold. I was only off by 20 million records."

Sweet Child O' Mine was released as a single in August 1988. It reached Number 1 in the US Billboard charts the following month, sparking interest in Appetite For Destruction. By the end of the year, the album had sold three million copies worldwide, transforming Guns N' Roses from a cult rock band to a mainstream phenomenon. It has sold more than 20 million copies to date.

Axl Rose married Erin Everly in April 1990 at Cupid's Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas. The volatile marriage was annulled less than a year later, though the song Rose wrote for Everly was built to last. Even Slash came round to liking t in the end.

"I hated it for years," he says. "But it would cause such a reaction - just playing the first stupid notes used to evoke this hysteria - so I've finally gotten to appreciate it."

Written by: Axl Rose, Slash, Izzy Stradlin, Duff McKagan, Steven Adler
Performers: Rose (vocals), Slash (guitar), Stradlin (guitar), McKagan (bass), Adler (drums)
Recorded at: Rumbo Studios, Los Angeles, August 1986
Producer: Mike Clink
Released: August 1988 and June 1989
Highest UK chart placing: 6 (in 1989)
Available on: Appetite For Destruction (Geffen, 1987)


>> BackArticle index