11 Years, $14 Million: The Long Wait for Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’
When Guns N’ Roses’ sixth album, Chinese Democracy, arrived on Nov. 23, 2008, some said the only way it could have lived up to its hype was by never being released at all.
With a massive amount of production issues, personnel problems and financial challenges, it seemed to epitomize the mess that Guns N' Roses had become as Axl Rose fought to struggle with everything that had upset him in the preceding years. The fact that it was, by all standards, a fairly good album, was completely eclipsed by its backstory.
In 1997, work started on what was to be the follow-up to 1993’s covers set The Spaghetti Incident? – only, of course, the band lineup had significantly changed. Classic-era guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan were out of the picture as the LP began development, with both having become disillusioned over the band Rose wanted them to be – Slash described it as “like a dictatorship," adding, "We didn’t spend a lot of time collaborating. [Rose would] sit back in the chair, watching. There’d be a riff here, a riff there. But I didn’t know where it was going.” Second-era men Gilby Clarke and Matt Sorum were also gone, kickstarting an era of instability that would involve 12 further members over time – along with last-men-standing Rose and Dizzy Reed.
Geffen A&R man Todd Sullivan recalled that, even three years after Rose had started work, nothing seemed very concrete; but the singer's eccentric behavior was certainly on full power. "Most of the stuff he had played me was just sketches," Sullivan recalled. “I said, ‘Look, Axl, this is some really great, promising stuff here. Why don’t you consider just bearing down and completing some of these songs?’ He goes, ‘Hmm, bear down and complete some of these songs?’ Next day I get a call… saying I was off the project.”
In 1998, the lineup featured vocalist Rose, guitarists Robin Finck and Paul Tobias, bassist Tommy Stinson, drummer Josh Freese and keyboardists Reed and Chris Pitman, began recording sessions. By that time it had been said that between 50 and 60 songs were in the frame, and Moby, who was briefly involved as producer, alluded to an industrial sound when he said, “They’re writing with a lot of loops, and believe it or not, they’re doing it better than anybody I’ve heard lately.” He was replaced by Youth, who described Rose as “quite isolated,” meaning it was impossible to build a working relationship, so Youth moved on. "He kind of pulled out, said ‘I’m not ready,’" the producer said.
The label, facing a difficult period, appeared to feel like it had no choice but to wait it out. "The Hail Mary that’s going to save the game is a Guns N’ Roses record," an anonymous executive said. "It keeps not coming and not coming.” Eddie Rosenblat, one-time Geffen boss, admitted to "getting a little bit nervous" over the wait. "[Owner] Edgar Bronfman picks up the phone more than once. He wanted to know what was going on. You unfortunately have got to give him the answer, you don’t know. Because you don’t.” Bronfman all-but dismantled Geffen the following year, with Rosenblat one of 110 employees to be fired. The change is said to have left Rose feeling even more insecure.
In 1999, Rose decided to change tack. Suffering writer’s block as a result – he said – of criticisms leveled by Slash, McKagan and others, he’d left his band to work on the song ideas alone, and had CDs of their progress forwarded to him, building up a collection of over 1000. He decided to abandon the project in favor of having the current band re-record Guns N' Roses' debut Appetite for Destruction – recordings which were also mainly abandoned. In doing so he missed record label Geffen’s first known deadline – they’d paid him $1 million to complete the new original LP, with a further $1 million promised if he’d handed it in by March 1 of the year. Another aside saw Queen’s Brian May recording guitar tracks for “Catcher in the Rye,” but they were never used.
That same year, Rose told the world that the LP would be titled Chinese Democracy, saying, “There’s a lot of Chinese democracy movements, and it's something that there's a lot of talk about, and it's something that will be nice to see. It could also just be like an ironic statement. I don't know, I just like the sound of it.” He’d denied the “industrial” tag, saying instead that the record was a “melting pot” of sounds. He added that the band had recorded enough for a double album, and enough for several LPs in other styles.
Attempting to explain his whole mindset, he said, "I originally wanted to make a traditional record or try to get back to an Appetite thing or something, because that would have been a lot easier for me to do. I was involved in a lot of lawsuits for Guns N' Roses and in my own personal life, so I didn't have a lot of time to try and develop a new style or re-invent myself, so I was hoping to write a traditional thing, but I was not really allowed to do that."
Saying he had no idea what to do with the Appetite re-recordings, he argued, "But you know, it has a lot of energy. Learning the old Guns songs and getting them up, you know, putting them on tape, really forced everybody to get them up to the quality that they needed to be at. Once the energy was figured out by the new guys, how much energy was needed to get the songs right, then it really helped in the writing and recording process of the new record.
Listen to Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Oh My God’
Toward the end of 1999, Guns N' Roses released “Oh My God,” their first new song since 1991. Displaying a clear industrial metal influence, it didn’t land well, and was described in some quarters as a stopgap in order to keep peace with impatient fans and worried label execs. It featured Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro and appeared in the movie End of Days. By the end of the year producer Sean Beavan, who’d reputedly overseen the laying down of 30 tracks, left the project, while Frinck and Freese went too.
"[I'm] listening to everything that's out there as far as music goes," Rose said, explaining the new song. "That was a big difference between myself and Slash and Duff, is that I didn't hate everything new that came out. I really liked the Seattle movement. I like White Zombie. I like Nine Inch Nails, and I like hip-hop. I don't hate everything. I don't think everybody should be worshiping me 'cause I was around before them." He also mentioned that 70 songs were on his list. Addressing his reputation as a recluse, he said, "I just, you know, I pretty much work on this record and, and that's about it. It takes a lot of time. I'm not a computer-savvy or technical type of person, yet I'm involved with it everyday, so it takes me a while."
In 2000 Rose explained the delays by saying he needed time to learn to work new recording technology, saying it was challenging to do so while “not wanting it just to be something you did on a computer.” The album was said to be heading for a release that summer – but, on hiring new producer Roy Thomas Baker, the decision was taken to re-record it. New sessions got underway with guitarist Buckethead – rumored to be Slash in disguise – and the returned Finck, who’d settled personal differences with Rose. New drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia was set the challenge of re-recording what Freese had done and staying faithful to it, while also trying to inject his own personality.
In 2001, A&R man Tom Zutaut, who’d previously been fired by Geffen, was brought in with the aim of securing a final version of Chinese Democracy. Rose finally opened up about personal frustrations about finding the sound he wanted. Those addressed, Zutaut persuaded Buckethead to reconsider his decision to quit, and built him a man-sized chicken coop in the studio to keep him happy. Zutaut, who said 50 or 60 songs were under production, estimated he’d saved the band $75,000 a month, partly by returning hired equipment they weren’t using. Details emerged that the main artists were being paid $11,000 a month, with guitar techs earning $6000, the chief engineer $14,000 and a recording software engineer receiving $25,000 per month.
Zutaut was fired after Rose attended a film preview, saying he thought it was just for him, and was angry to discover others present. "I really thought I could get him to deliver the record,” Zutaut said. “And we got close.” At the time he said a dozen tracks had been ready for final mixing, and that Chinese Democracy could have been on sale by 2002. Baker also quit.
In 2002, Rose made a public statement – speaking after the band had returned to playing live, and guitarist Richard Fortus had become a member, the frontman said, “We feel that we have clarity as to the album we're trying to make, we're wrapping it up. We've sorted it down to what songs are on the record, what the sequence of the songs is. The album art is ready.”
Addressing accusations of being paranoid, he said, "It has nothing to do with paranoia; it was to do with reality. If the material were strong enough for me to sink my teeth in then I would still be in a certain public position in regards to Guns, we'd have possibly still held a certain popularity with the public as I have previously been fortunate enough to have had."
Later he told a reporter that while completion was near, “I don’t know if ‘soon’ is the word.” He accused the label of having left him to do more than should have been expected of him, saying, “I’ve had to be manager, A&R man, producer, sole lyric writer, and a lot of other things.”
In 2003, the subject of Rose being a perfectionist was raised after it was reported that Guns N' Roses had started recording again from scratch. One engineer associated with the project said, “Axl wanted to make the best record that had ever been made. It’s an impossible task. You could go on infinitely, which is what they’ve done.”
Listen to Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘Chinese Democracy’
The same year, California punk-pop band the Offspring made headlines with a press release that jokingly insisted they'd decided to steal Chinese Democracy as the title of their next album. "You snooze you lose," singer Dexter Holland explained in a statement. "Axl ripped off my braids, so I ripped off his album title." They instead called the record Splinter. "I heard Axl [Rose] was looking into legal options," Holland said years later, "but there aren't any, since you can't copyright an album title before it's released."
In 2004, Stinson said the album was “almost done” and had been held up by legal issues. Buckethead left for a second and final time, and was berated in a band statement that called him “inconsistent and erratic in both his behavior and his commitment.” Another predicted completion date, November 2004, came and went. Geffen officially removed Chinese Democracy from its release schedule, refused further funding, and argued that, after having spent millions more than what had been agreed, it was Rose’s obligation to fund the rest of the work. Replying to the accusation that, at one point, the band had been spending $250,000 a month, Rose said the costs would be offset by the number of albums that would come out of the sessions.
In 2005 a report suggested that $13 million had been spent to date, and labelled Chinese Democracy “the most expensive album never made.”
In 2006, the inevitable finally happened – five tracks were leaked online, giving fans the chance to hear studio versions of “I.R.S,” “The Blues,” “There Was a Time,” “Better” and “Catcher in the Rye.” The band went back on tour with Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal in Buckethead’s place. Thal laid down new guitar tracks for the LP, under Rose’s argument that the recordings should feature the personalities of the current band members. The reclusive frontman even went relatively public, hosting listening parties in which he allowed 10 songs to be heard, while it was reported that the LP would definitely arrive on Nov. 21 of that year – which, of course, it didn’t. Once the date had passed, Rose canceled a handful of live shows so that he could focus on studio sessions, and set a release date of March 6, 2007.
In 2007, after Rose had recorded some final vocal tracks, the band said recording had finished and mixing was underway. Rumors suggested that the frontman wanted the album released in time for Christmas.
In 2008, it was reported that Geffen had taken delivery of the final work, but that disagreements had broken out over how the LP should me marketed. Rose had taken a personal stance on the “loudness war” of the era, choosing a final master that didn’t feature techniques that sacrificed subtlety for sheer level. In October, the release date of Nov. 23 was confirmed at last. Just before its arrival, Guns N' Roses broke streaming records of the time when they put the whole album on their MySpace page.
By the time Chinese Democracy hit shelves, and peaked at No. 3, it had cost a reputed $14 million, been through 15 studios, involved 17 musicians and 16 lead production staff, and taken 11 years to finish. Only three of the 14 tracks had neither been leaked nor performed live. But Rose was far from happy. He said the label hadn’t done nearly enough to promote it, and that they’d used a rough, unapproved version of the cover. A dispute broke out with Dr. Pepper, who’d said they’d give a free can of their drink to every American if the album arrived in 2008, and then made a mess of keeping their promise, issuing a voucher system that failed to work properly. The following year, Guns N' Roses were sued by musician Ulrich Schnauss, who said the band had used samples of his work without permission. And if that wasn’t enough, the album was banned in China for supporting anti-Government activities.
Despite positive comments from former members including Slash, McKagan and Izzy Stradlin, Chinese Democracy was never going to be able to live up to its hype. It’s said other artists who hadn’t released material for some time – such as David Bowie, Steve Perry and perhaps Tool – learned from Rose’s experience and tried to avoid those pitfalls; for example, by keeping a low profile during production and staying relatively faithful to what fans expected of them.
Meanwhile, it's more than a decade since Guns N’ Roses released a new album. This time, if there’s one on the way, the partially reunited classic lineup are keeping cleverly quiet about it.
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