GUNS N’ ROSES – LOS ANGELES FORUM – AUGUST 3, 1991
Saturday, August 3rd, 1991 was a pretty good day for live gigs. Phish fans will immediately recognize the date as that of the legendary “Amy’s Farm” show in Auburn, Maine, a free 3-set event that was the band’s first “larger” festival gig. The first Lollapalooza tour held forth in Chicago that day, and its stacked lineup included Jane’s Addiction, Fishbone, Nine Inch Nails, Living Colour, and Ice-T, along with several others. And out in Seattle, two young bands named Pearl Jam and Temple of the Dog would scorch a young crowd at the now-defunct, all-ages dive, RKCNDY.
On this day, however, none of these shows—nor any others—would hold a candle to the one by Guns N’ Roses, who played the fourth of four consecutive sold-out hometown gigs at the 17,000-capacity Los Angeles Forum and sealed their entrance into the club of the biggest and best rock bands of all time with a volcanic marathon of a show that ran close to four nonstop hours.
INTO THE CITY WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
The 1980s will always be one of the wildest and most successful decades in the history of the music industry, fueled by the introduction of MTV and the onset of the CD. Guns N’ Roses would be one of the last figurehead bands to emerge from the decade, and their rise to the top remains an utterly chaotic tale of music industry excess that never happen again.
The band formed in Los Angeles in March 1985 when two members of Hollywood Rose, guitarist Izzy Stradlin and singer Axl Rose (aka Jeff Isbell and William Rose, two childhood friends from Indiana) teamed up with three members of LA Guns, who would all be replaced within three months by the members who’d comprise the “classic” lineup of Guns N’ Roses. First in was Izzy’s new neighbor on bass, a recent Seattle arrival named Michael “Duff” McKagan. Then came LA natives and Hollywood high school buddies, guitarist “Slash” (aka Saul Hudson) and Steven Adler (aka Michael Coletti).
The chemistry between these five musicians would become the stuff of legend. While Slash and Steven were your classic ’80s California hard rock and heavy metal dudes, Izzy and Duff were much angrier punk rockers whose attitude and raw, unpolished approach would immediately and permanently set the band’s songs and performances apart. On top of that, it was all fronted by Axl, a volatile bandleader with wide musical tastes, an unmistakable voice, and unpredictably violent mood swings. It also didn’t hurt that Guns N’ Roses were a gang of model-thin, good-looking bad boys who really were bad, which made them perfect for magazines, posters and bedroom walls.
The band would quickly forge their bonds and their identity by renting a storage space in Hollywood and converting it into a rehearsal space, party spot, and living quarters by building a loft out of stolen plywood. They’d frequently make ends meet through activities that were far from legal, and their tastes for drugs, alcohol, and all-hours were unparalleled in the LA rock scene, so run-ins with the law were frequent. But Guns N’ Roses turned out to be world-beating songwriters, with Axl’s split personality spawning lyrics to flagrantly evil anthems like “It’s So Easy” and “Welcome to the Jungle” on one day before yielding deeply emotional love songs like “Sweet Child of Mine” and signature ballad “Patience” on the next. They could also deliver their goods live, and it didn’t take long for the music industry to take notice.
RAGS TO RICHES, OR SO THEY SAY
Geffen Records A&R executive Tom Zutaut would win the race to sign the hot new band to a recording contract in March of 1986. As the months passed, however, numerous possible producers flunked interviews by suggesting GNR become “more metal” to match the trends of the day. Mike Clink finally said the right things, and band found their match.
On July 21, 1987, the band released their debut LP, Appetite For Destruction, which made Guns N’ Roses a household name within 18 months and went on to sell over 18 million copies in the United States alone. The band’s two years of touring to promote Appetite would be highlighted by opening stints for rock legends Aerosmith and The Rolling Stones, and as the band ascended to stardom, it was pretty hard to miss the fact that Guns N’ Roses had modeled themselves on those very two bands. Each had their dark-haired, iconic, laconic, cig-in-mouth, cool-as-f— guitarist in the forms of Keith Richard, Joe Perry, and Slash, with Slash set himself apart through his trademark top hat, mirrored shades and stunning chops. Meanwhile, Axl would combine Mick Jagger’s hyperactive physicality and Machiavellian business sense with Steven Tyler’s unpredictability and grandiosity, and then mix that with a rage borne from a poverty-stricken, traumatic childhood. Axl would be the most traditionally handsome of the three vocalists, as well as the most genuinely dangerous.
It soon seemed like each time Guns N’ Roses sold another million albums, they’d find another new way to get into trouble. The first album cover for Appetite contained artwork so violent that the album had to be reissued with the now-iconic “5 skulls on a cross” cover. The stopgap GNR Lies LP (actually an early 4-song EP paired with 4 new acoustic songs, including “Patience”) released in November of 1988 would sell over 5 million copies, but Axl’s first-person, street-kid lyrics to “One In A Million” contained racist and homophobic slurs that were rather justifiably ill-received, while “Used To Love Her” got the band slapped with the “misogynist” tag.
Alongside these scandals, the success and newfound wealth that arrived did little to prevent the band from fraying around the edges throughout 1990 through increasingly self-destructive behavior. By that summer, Slash, Duff, and Izzy were all drinking hard liquor by the bottle, and Izzy would hit rock bottom in August after an arrest for disrupting an airplane mid-flight during an alcoholic blackout. But the biggest casualty would be Steven, whose heroin addiction left him unable play his drums and track his parts. He was dismissed from the band in November while they tried to move forward with recording their next album.
SO NEVER MIND THE DARKNESS
As the Gunners moved into 1991, Matt Sorum was plucked from The Cult to replace Steven on drums. Matt’s heavier, pounding, and more technical style was a clear stylistic switch from Steven’s bouncy and frenetic playing, and they would fill out their sound even further by adding keyboard player Darren “Dizzy” Reed. All the while, the now-sober Izzy was contributing remotely via delivered demo tapes and tracking his guitars in a separate studio in order to avoid the alcohol and drugs that followed his bandmates wherever they went. There was also the not-unimportant question of what kind of direction their next album would take—with more than 30 songs up for potential inclusion running the entire gamut of rock music.
But Guns N’ Roses now had so much clout that they were able to dictate an absolutely stunning decision during this physical-product-only era: their next album would instead be two albums. On top of that, each of the two releases would essentially amount to a double-LP of music, respectively entitled Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II, and they would both come out on the same day and contain 31 songs between them. It would be the rock industry’s biggest all-at-once gamble since Kiss had released solo LPs by all four band members on the same day in 1978, and that had been a colossal overshoot with disastrous consequences for Kiss’ label, Casablanca Records. Somewhat predictably, the recording and mixing of the albums dragged on and on for months, soaring over budget and delaying release dates.
On the good side, two songs slated for Use Your Illusion II had already been released as singles—and they were both classics. First, the epic “Civil War”—the last GNR recording to feature Steven—appeared on a 1990 charity compilation album and became an immediate rock radio staple. Next, the hard-rocking, venomous “You Could Be Mine” was released in June 1991 as the theme song to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the highest-grossing film of the year, with lead actor Arnold Schwarznegger doing a bit of cross-promotion by appearing in the band’s promo video, in character.
On the bad side, the albums were nowhere close to being completed and delivered when the Use Your Illusion tour started in May of 1991. Now that GNR were a headline act, Axl had acquired a habit of deciding to go onstage only when he felt he was truly ready—sometimes leaving bandmates, crew, venue staff and sold-out venues of fans waiting for hours. Sometimes, the waits were worth it. Other nights were uneven.
Then, on July 2nd, another low point came around 90 minutes into the band’s sold-out show in St. Louis when Axl waded into the crowd to seize a bootlegger’s video camera. The ensuing fracas led Axl to call off the rest of the show, and the resulting riot by fans led to the band quickly fleeing across state lines to avoid arrest while their stage set and gear were destroyed. If there was an ”upside” to this, it was that the incident generated a huge wave of unexpected “bonus” publicity for the opening weekend of Terminator 2, which was released the following day on July 3rd. All this while, Izzy remained present but distant from everyone to maintain his sobriety, traveling separately and only really seeing his bandmates onstage.
By now, Guns N’ Roses had become the rarest of creatures: a band big enough to headline stadiums while remaining so volatile and unpredictable that buying one of their concert tickets was akin to buying a lottery ticket. Fans had no idea what might or might not happen on a given night, and for that matter, neither did the band. This was the state of affairs as the first leg of the tour wrapped up with the band heading into their coronation shows: four sold-out nights at their hometown Forum arena in Los Angeles.
I GOT THE TIME AND I GOT THE MUSCLE
Guns N’ Roses were clearly cognizant that this was their hometown-triumph moment, and they’d done it quickly—four years after playing the Appetite release party show at 400-capacity Whisky-A-Go-Go on the Sunset Strip, they were playing four sold-out nights at the 17,000-capacity Forum. Even with all of the craziness, the band arrived at the shows knowing they had reached the summit they had all once dreamed about.
Another positive milestone finally took place on the afternoon of the first Forum show on July 30th: the band officially signed off on the final mixes of both Use Your Illusion albums. After over 18 months of struggles and lineup changes, it was all a wrap, and the albums could now be mastered, pressed, and shipped to stores for release in six weeks’ time. Relief quickly turned to joy, and the band now truly had something else to celebrate on top of the existing achievements.
The first three nights of the four-show run all found the band in great spirits and playing at a very high level. There were even hijinks such as sending Rip magazine editor Lonn Friend out on stage wearing only his underwear and Slash’s top hat and boots to introduce the band on the opening night. The band didn’t use setlists during this era, so shows varied slightly from night to night, with a typical show lasting a little over two hours and featuring around 20 songs, including encores.
Then, on the afternoon of the fourth and final show, the ever-mercurial Axl Rose made another mercurial decision. Axl decided that tonight’s show was going to be the best Guns N’ Roses show that would ever happen, and he sent word to the rest of the band that they should plan to play all night long.
Slash, Duff, Matt and Dizzy reacted to this by spreading the news: all of them uncharacteristically crashed the VIP backstage pre-show party to knock back drinks with the guests and leak the advance knowledge that the band was going to break the record for the longest show at the Forum, explaining that tonight was going to be the night.
One can only wonder what the folks who heard this must have been thinking as they made their way to their seats. It’s one thing to say you’re going to go out and play the greatest gig of your life, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do it. On this Saturday night, Axl and Guns N’ Roses would do both.
I GOT THE NEED TO LAY IT ALL ON THE LINE
After New Jersey’s Skid Row warmed up the crowd with a strong set that got them called back for an encore, Guns N’ Roses took the stage at 11:00 pm and indeed set the venue record for the longest show, playing until nearly 3:00 a.m.
The main set would last for over two-and-a-half hours, and it was unintentionally but satisfyingly symmetrical— four groupings of three songs or interludes would lead to the set’s centerpiece, followed by four more groupings of three. The opening salvo was a lethal only-time-ever trio that placed the zig-zagging, hypnotic riffs of “Mr. Brownstone” in between surprise opener “Perfect Crime” and “Right Next Door To Hell”, two short 90-miles-an-hour blasts that were basically punk songs. The effect was overwhelming, with regulars quickly realizing that things were happening on another level.
After another half-dozen songs, it became apparent that Axl wasn’t saving anything for tomorrow, covering every inch of the stage while singing with a full-on delivery that touring vocalists quickly learn to avoid as the band played their hardest to match his intensity. Another effective trio of songs would consist of signature ballad “Patience” placed in between the two “known” original songs from the Use Your Illusion albums, “Civil War” and “You Could Be Mine”.
For the aforementioned centerpiece, a grand piano appeared at center stage for Axl to use on his magnum opus, “November Rain”, complete with Slash climbing up on top of the piano to play his iconic guitar solo at the song’s climax. Soon after, Axl would open himself up completely before the band started “Welcome to the Jungle”, making a longer and unusually heartfelt introduction to the song that included the following: “These four shows, at the risk of repeating myself from the other nights, are the four most important shows that THIS f—king band will ever play… Anything we do after these four gigs… (is) just icing on the f—king cake. These are the four shows we’ve been working for, for ten f—ing years.”
Later, the band’s deft adaptation of “Speak Softly, Love” (better known as the theme from the 1972 film, The Godfather), would make a smooth transition into “Pretty Tied Up”, which was followed by “Rocket Queen”. These back-to-back bad girl songs made an ideal pairing, but this would be the last of the 8 times it would ever happen. In an unexpected turn, the main set ended on a decidedly more tender note, with Blind Melon’s Shannon Hoon providing additional vocals on breakup song “Don’t Cry” (much like he did on the studio recording and in the music video) before the band closed it out with their cover of Bob Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” and a “Peace!” declaration from Axl.
It had been a long, emotional, and intense set, with the two new band members’ heavier, forceful styles helping to pummel the crowd. Even with a customary encore of a couple of songs, this would still have been one of the best Guns N’ Roses gigs of all time, and it would still be the one that sealed their ascension to the Mount Olympus of rock bands. However, what the band did next would move this show firmly into the “greatest rock n’ roll gigs of all time” column.
The first encore would instantly become legendary, and it would run long enough to be considered another set to the show. Axl would call it “Guns N’ Roses Jam Hour”, and it consisted of every deeper cut or leftover song that this lineup knew well enough to play. Shannon Hoon would return for “You Ain’t The First”, and Skid Row’s maniacal lead singer Sebastian Bach would duet with Axl on the highly appropriate choice of “You’re Crazy”.
By now, Axl had been singing at full blast for so long that his voice was audibly rough, but it was perfect for the what-the-Hell, just-go-for-it vibe of the proceedings. As they passed the 2:00 a.m. mark, it was as if they’d invited everyone back to their old Hollywood loft for the sort of impromptu show they used to play for their friends in 1985. The looser and more imperfect the band became, the more immortal the show would become, with the band powering through “Out Ta Get Me” and “Dead Horse” before staggering off for the second time.
However, they still weren’t quite done as Axl had stashed away two songs for the very end: a pair of epics in the form of “Estranged” and an extended take on their anthem, “Paradise City”. The two songs would last almost 20 minutes, and before the latter, Slash would come to make a heartfelt comment of his own: “This is the last f—in’ tune of the night. All you guys who have f—in’ hung in there? You guys f—in’ kick f—in’ ass, man… These four f—in’ days (have been) the best four days of my f—in’ life, and I think I’m speaking for the rest of the guys in the band as well.”
The house lights finally came up just before 3:00 am on a bludgeoned, exhausted crowd. This was also back in the days before decibel limits, and the volume had been loud. How loud? One prominent entertainment lawyer who’d scored prime seats for the show told us he had to “lay low” for the next four days because his ears rang to the point where he couldn’t hear anything or take phone calls in a time before email and text messages. One almost feels a touch of sympathy for the well-connected folks who were “obligated” to tough it out and attend the band’s after-show party, which would last until dawn. Almost.
The day after the show, Axl would make a stunning admission to Lonn Friend, who’d include it in his subsequent write-up of the show for RIP: “We would have gone on longer, but we didn’t have any more songs!
WHY MUST IT DRIFT AWAY AND DIE
Four weeks after the last Forum show, Izzy Stradlin played his final show as a full member of Guns N’ Roses on August 31st, 1992 at Wembley Stadium in London. Axl’s pleas for his old friend to stay in the fold were unsuccessful, but the band quietly recruited Gilby Clarke to replace him before Izzy’s departure was finally announced on November 7, 1991.
The two Use Your Illusion albums were released on September 17th, 1991, and they combined to sell 1.5 million copies the first week while claiming the #1 and #2 spots on the Billboard album charts. The sprawling, 76-minute albums would go on to sell over 7 million copies each, and the nine-minute “November Rain” still remains the longest song to ever reach the Top 10 on the Billboard singles chart when it peaked at #3 in August of 1992.
The Use Your Illusion tour continued into 1993, with the summer 1992 leg of the tour highlighted by 26 co-headlining stadium shows with Metallica, with each band playing full, 2-plus hour sets. However, the tour remains as legendary for its riots and cancellations as it does for the shows themselves. On-time starts for the Gunners remained the exception and not the rule, and for their part, Metallica opted to play first at each show so their sets were never affected by what might happen afterwards.
In the following years, the Use Your Illusion lineup of the band would slowly disintegrate, with founding members Slash and Duff leaving, followed by Axl cutting Sorum loose. Axl would continue on for the next two decades with a revolving cast of top-flight musicians and the occasional live cameo by an OG member; only keyboardist Dizzy Reed has remained the the entire time, and in 2008 the band finally released a new album, Chinese Democracy.
Slash and Duff would eventually return in 2016 for the Not In This Lifetime tour, which continued up through the beginning COVID-19 pandemic.
Just last week, the modern-day GNR lineup returned to the stage in Hershey, PA to kick off their rescheduled 2021 outing under the billing We’re F’N Back. The band’s current set list remains heavily based on the format they established for the Use Your Illusion tour, but with the added bonuses that shows now start on time. The band had also started to reviving some lost classics at the last shows before the pandemic, signaling some further exploration of their catalog as the 2021 outing gets underway.
It’s a beautiful thing that this band is now back and gigging again, and today we can also celebrate the night thirty years ago when Guns N’ Roses was the best rock n’ roll band on the planet.
For a list of upcoming Guns N’ Roses 2021 tour dates, head here.
HONEY, WE GOT THE NAMES: GUNS N’ ROSES SET LIST, 8/3/91, ANNOTATED:
(All dates and numbers listed below are based on the 961 known Guns N’ Roses shows from 1985 to today.)
Setlist: Guns N’ Roses | The Forum | Inglewood, CA | 8/3/91
Perfect Crime (only played 42 times, shelved since 1992)
Right Next Door to Hell (only played 11 times, final version, shelved since 1991)
Live and Let Die
It’s So Easy
Yesterdays (6th version)
Dust n’ Bones (only 8 more versions after this one, shelved in 1992)
Double Talkin’ Jive
You Could Be Mine
My Michelle (final version with Izzy)
14 Years (only played 37 times, shelved since 2012)
Welcome to the Jungle
Matt Sorum drum solo
Slash guitar solo
Godfather Theme ->
Pretty Tied Up (only played 31 times, final version with Izzy, shelved since 1992)
Don’t Cry (w/ Shannon Hoon on vocals)
Only Women Bleed (partial) ->
Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door
You Ain’t The First (w/ Shannon Hoon on vocals)
Used To Love Her
Move To The City (final version with Izzy, shelved since 1992)
Sweet Child Of Mine
You’re Crazy (w/ Sebastian Bach on vocals)
Locomotive (only played 8 times and shelved in 1992, revived in 2019)
Out Ta Get Me (final version with Izzy, then shelved for over a year)
Dead Horse (only played 59 times and shelved in 1993, revived in 2019)