Very little about Guns N’ Roses in the Nineties actually fits the story that people tell about the Nineties.
The band’s Use Your Illusion I and II dropped within the four weeks between the tectonic-shifting combo of Pearl Jam’s Ten and Nirvana’s Nevermind, but GN’R were still afforded a solid three years of rock excess at its most excessive: A release day where they dropped more than 150 minutes of music, multiple million-dollar videos, diva moves that resulted in riots and even Slash bringing a mountain lion into the Four Seasons. Rock music was entering its insular, shaggy Richard Linklater phase, but Guns N’ Roses remained proudly in James Cameron mode, complete with an actual Terminator 2 tie-in.
The Spaghetti Incident?, released in 1993, appeared almost as a release valve. This loose-limbed frolic through 13-or-so hard rock, punk and glam covers was the reminder that the big-budget band carving out nine-minute chunks of MTV was once stripped-down blues-metal dirtbags that made Los Angeles hair bands look like the spandex Monkees in 1986.
It began, as Slash said, as a way “to levitate the pressure of making the Illusions records.” In between recording eight-minute epics like “November Rain” and “Estranged” at Hollywood’s Record Plant, the band jammed on blurs of vintage punk rock tunes. Though the actual session history is somewhat murky, the results would eventually feature whiplash-speed songs by the Stooges, Fear, the Misfits, U.K. Subs and more.
At some point, the long Illusion sessions took a toll on now-sober guitarist Izzy Stradlin, who reached his limit of constantly being on Axl Standard Time. “On Illusion, we did the basic tracks in about a month,” he told Musician in 1992. “Then there was a time lag of about a year before the vocals were finished. I went back to Indiana and painted the house. If you’ve got a group and people are focused, it just shouldn’t take that long. … On tour, [Rose] had a real hard time finishing the sets. And he had a hard time getting onstage. So you’re sitting there in the dressing room at a hockey rink and for, like, two hours the walls are vibrating while the audience is going, ‘Bullshit! Bullshit!’ That time goes slow when you’re sober.”
After Stradlin left, new guitarist Gilby Clarke dutifully re-recorded his parts on the covers they already laid down. “A lot of people think I erased Izzy’s parts,” Clarke told Songfacts. “That’s actually not true. Izzy didn’t play on a lot of them, so I got to just put my parts on songs that were recorded. So it was a little bit of both.”
“When we were first doing it, it was supposed to be like a punk rock covers record,” he continued. ” But then it just kind of became a covers record, and I did suggest T. Rex. Back then I was wearing a T. Rex T-shirt, like, every single day. Matt used to joke, ‘OK, we got it, we got it. You’ve worn the shirt every day.’ And I did make the comment about [‘Hair of the Dog’] because I always thought Axl sounded like the singer of Nazareth. Not even knowing that the band actually played that song way before I got in the band.”
While a good chunk of The Spaghetti Incident? was ultimately recorded at the Use Your Illusions sessions, eventually the project was rounded out by recording songs like the 1958 Skyliners doo-wop classic “Since I Don’t Have You” in-between tour dates.
“We cut ‘Since I Don’t Have You’ in Boston on a day off,” drummer Matt Sorum tells Rolling Stone. “Axl sent cassettes around and we went to a local studio and set up our own gear and cut the song. The crew was stuck somewhere, and I remember it being one of the best sessions. The engineer was a young guy in Boston we called at the last minute and showed up. I’ll never forget the look on his face. It was like, ‘Oh shit'”
A version of Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” came from Duff McKagan’s time-killing demos where he played guitar, bass and drums like his hero Prince. Axl, Dizzy Reed and acoustic guitarist Carlos Booey would lay down a cover of Charles Manson’s “Look at Your Game, Girl,” which they would use as a hidden track. Covering a notorious murder-conspirator would be one of the last big controversies in the band’s original run.
Michael Monroe, former frontman of Finnish glam-rock icons Hanoi Rocks, was in Los Angeles to record blues harp and saxophone on Use Your Illusion and played a vital role in The Spaghetti Incident?‘s most emotional tune. Previously, Axl Rose had told him he never really listened to New York-via-Cleveland punk degenerates the Dead Boys, so Monroe dubbed him a cassette of their two studio albums, which they blasted while driving around Hollywood.
Monroe tells Rolling Stone: “When he heard, ‘Ain’t It Fun’ … he called Slash and said let’s put the band together tomorrow, we gotta record this song.”
Monroe split up the vocals as a duet for him and Rose. “Of course I wanted the line, ‘Ain’t it fun when you’ve broken up every band that you ever begun,'” Monroe says, laughing. “That was true for me at the time.”
“Ain’t It Fun” had special emotional weight for Monroe, who had lived with Dead Boys guitarist and vocalist Stiv Bators in London after the dissolution of Hanoi Rocks — and was his friend until he died in 1990. Monroe and Rose recorded their slow-swaying cover, surrounded by candles, face to face. “In some places he sounds so much like Stiv. I was like, ‘Wow, it was not really a duet. It was like a trio.’ Stiv was there in spirit, sure,” says Monroe. The song became the album’s first single.
“At that point, the Dead Boys were kind of becoming a footnote,” founding member Cheetah Chrome tells Rolling Stone with a laugh. “At the time, it was kind of nice that somebody actually remembered us.”
Having one of the biggest rock bands in the world cover your song was actually more than just nice. “Having your song on a Guns N’ Roses album is a considerable chunk of change,” says Chrome. “I moved down to Nashville, got resettled down there and was able to live and not work for a whole. Definitely turned my life around a little bit. It got me through a rough time.”
“We wanted to call the record Pension Fund,” Rose joked in 1994. “‘Cause we’re kind of … helping these guys pay some rent. … Some of those songs I liked, I got ridiculed and criticized for at the time those songs were out. So, it was kinda like, well, now maybe some of those people will listen to it.”
“It’s the energy and the defiance that punk rock had and that it didn’t really hit the mainstream all that much,” Rose said. “And we are, whether we like it or not, in some ways in the mainstream, so we’ve got to bring certain songs to people’s attention.”
Another person who got a check by the band around 1993 was former drummer Steven Adler, who was booted three years earlier for the nearly unfathomable feat of being on too many drugs for Guns N’ Roses. He blamed them for his addiction and sued them, settling out of court to the tune of $ 2.5 million. The band at least got an album title out of the experience.
During the trial, McKagan was asked about a specific period in 1989. “Steven was doing a lot of crack cocaine at this point, and he’d keep his blow in the refrigerator. So his code word for his stash was ‘spaghetti,'” McKagan recalled. “So then I’m in court, with a jury and the whole thing, and this fuckin’ lawyer gets up, and with a straight face says, ‘Mr. McKagan, tell us about the spaghetti incident.’ And I started laughing.”
After the album was released – and with Clarke now out of the band as well – Rose, Slash and McKagan would only record one more song together, a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” that appeared on the end credits of 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. “If you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a band breaking up sounds like,” Slash wrote in his memoir, “listen to Guns N’ Roses’ cover of ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ If there is one Guns track I’d like to never hear again, it’s that one.”
“I couldn’t have been more disappointed, pissed, frustrated and confused,” Slash said in his memoir about hearing the song for the first time. Notorious tinkerer Axl Rose had childhood pal Paul Tobias double his guitar parts. “The only upside I saw to signing off on it was that it would accomplish what we’d been unable to do to any degree in the past seven months: It would actually get all of us into the studio.”
“That was the last track we recorded together,” remembers Sorum. “Duff, Slash and myself cut that the day before and Axl tracked separate. I liked our version but felt that song had already been recorded perfectly by the Stones.”
Additional reporting by Kory Grow.