By the start of 2008, a zillion dollars and a million years down the line, an actual release date for Chinese Democracy was no longer even being speculated on. Most serious people had stopped even asking about it, demoting it to the same category in their minds as those other great ‘lost’ albums in the past like The Who’s Lifehouse, or Smile by The Beach Boys. But not even those had inspired more bare-knuckled hammering. The album’s incessant delays, middling dramatic sub-plots and bloated, eight-figure budget had reduced the project to an industry punchline.
And then, on 23 November that year – miracle of miracles, and to almost no fanfare whatsoever, not even a video or a tour – Chinese Democracy was finally released. Distributed exclusively through US electronics retail giant Best Buy — a deal struck by then-manager Irving Azoff similar to the one AC/DC struck with Wal-Mart the same year for their album Black Ice, intended as a shrewd means of recouping at least some of the eye-watering $13 million that had been the estimated cost of the album. It was reported that Best Buy ordered 1.3 million copies up front in anticipation of a frenzied assault by GN’R fans.
The album debuted at No. 3 in the US, No. 2 in the UK and made the Top Five in eight other countries, selling over a million copies worldwide in the first week alone – impressive numbers in an era when physical CD and vinyl sales had declined drastically. Critically, opinions were generally favourable too, with outlets like Spin and Allmusic awarding decidedly positive reviews. Few, though, were as effusive as long-time GN’R watcher David Fricke, who gushed in Rolling Stone, “The first Guns n’ Roses album of new, original songs since the first Bush administration is a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard rock record. In other words, it sounds a lot like the Guns N’ Roses you know.” While Robert Christgau, the godfather of American music critics wrote, “This effort isn’t just pleasurable artistically. It’s touching on a human level. Noble, even. I didn’t think he had it in him.”
Note that ‘he’, as opposed to the ‘they’ a real band would have deserved. At the same time, the detractors were many, with the Village Voice calling the album “a hilariously painstaking attempt to synthesise that lightning, a lost cause taken to delirious extremes, a fascinating catastrophe inspiring equal parts awe and pity.” Others lambasted the album for a perceived excess of pretence and absence of heart.
Acclaimed American biographer Stephen Davis described Chinese Democracy as simply “the worst album ever.” You had to wonder at such extreme views, though. The truth was, had Axl released Chinese Democracy within three or four years of the Use Your Illusion releases, it would have been hailed as a mature and sharply focused follow-up to the meandering over-indulgence of its evil-twin predecessors.
Drawing deeply from its industrial, pop and classic rock influences and spangled with flourishes of keyboards, electronica and even flamenco, Chinese Democracy fitted awkwardly into the GN’R canon, no doubt, but only in that it is really an Axl Rose solo album in all but name. And, as such, was a masterwork of its type, towering over the Velvet Revolver albums, barely able to register such specs of dust as whatever Loaded or the Juju Hounds may have been up to these long gone years, it soared so much higher than they.
Thematically, Axl had tapped back into the jagged vulnerability, sneering resentment and embattled paranoia that dominated Use Your Illusion. Mighty salvos like ‘Riad N’ The Bedouins’ and ‘Scraped’ deliberately harked back to the pugnacity and wild abandon of the band’s early works, though what Axl meant exactly with lines like ‘Blame it on the Falun Gong’, from the aggressively romping title track was anybody’s guess.
Described as ‘a Chinese spiritual practice that combines meditation and qigong exercises with a moral philosophy centered on the tenets of truthfulness, compassion and forbearance’, it seems an odd addition to verses otherwise powered by words like ‘hate’, ‘iron fist’, ‘hell’ and ‘masturbation’. Perhaps Axl was merely applying a bit of yin to his yang?
It hardly mattered. Not when placed in the context of meatier fare such as ‘There Was A Time’ – with a breathtaking build-up that eclipses the song’s hopelessly puerile acronym – and the poppy tunefulness of ‘Catcher In The Rye’ revealed a provocative cinematic vision tailor-made for the new generation of ear-bud listeners.
Nevertheless Chinese Democracy was confounding for those who had been chomping at the bit to pass judgment on it; for many, it became a creeper album that divulged new secrets with each progressive listen. For others it was a mystery wrapped within a mania. Compared to historically similar overworked classics it yielded no obvious hits. When, in 1976, Fleetwood Mac had entered the studio with unlimited time and money at their disposal they emerged a year later with Rumours, one of the best-selling records in history.
This though was different. Notoriously averse to speaking with the media, Axl granted an interview to Jonathan Cohen of Billboard magazine in February, 2009, in which the singer explained the album’s withering delay with a now familiar raft of excuses. “There aren’t too many issues of the hundreds [we ran into] that happened as quickly as anyone would have preferred, from building my studio; finding the right players; never did find a producer; still don’t have real record company involvement or support; to getting it out and mixed and mastered.”
In short, everybody’s fault but Axl’s. Didn’t he already have the right ‘players’ in Slash, Duff, Izzy and Matt? But that was a stupid question. Axl also expressed satisfaction with the final product while seeming to address criticisms that perhaps the original GN’R line-up might have put the album out more quickly, by pointing out, “It’s the right record and I couldn’t ask for more in that regard. Could have been a more enjoyable journey, but it’s there now. The art comes first. It dictates if not the course [then] the destination artistically.
“For me, once the real accompanying artwork is there with a few videos and some touring, the package was achieved and delivered. And to do so at this level in terms of quality, both artistic and performance-wise, both on record and live, is something that’s a miracle at minimum and something that wouldn’t have happened, no matter how anyone tries to convince others, with old Guns, regardless of anyone’s intentions. It was just as ugly in old Guns, regardless of our success.”