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The Meaning Behind “Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses

The Meaning Behind "Civil War" by Guns N' Roses

Guns N’ Roses was too many a hard-rock band with plenty of songs about their debauched lifestyle spent on the Sunset Strip and one ballad, “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” However, it was “Civil War” that showed the group could construct rock epics centred around meaningful topics.

“Civil War” was a turning point for Guns N’ Roses, but its meaning is still mysterious to many. This is why today, I am looking at the meaning behind the song and its overall impact.

Making “Appetite for Destruction” and Struggling With the Follow-up

It had taken Axl Rose and his bandmates almost five years to become an “instant success.” Their Geffen-released album “Appetite for Destruction” became an underground sensation thanks to the dark, menacing single “Welcome to the Jungle.” It had then become a global smash on the strength of the memorable power ballad “Sweet Child O’ Mine.”

The band set about promoting the album, sharing the stage with bands like The Rolling Stones or Aerosmith before becoming full-fledged concert headliners.

“What about the follow-up?” That was a question they often heard from the label and from magazines looking to interview them.

“Gn’R Lies” was a stopgap record. It was a quick fix meant to keep fans happy. It included acoustic songs like “Patience” and live tunes taken from their first live demo. It also sold tons.

By the time the Axl Rose-sanctioned follow-up, “Use Your Illusion”, was ready to come out, the band had exhausted their musical ideas on a double-set album and had nearly exhausted their relationships with each other. “Civil War” was the most serious song that the band had ever written and the first that they decided to share with the world from this new iteration of the group.

The Meaning Behind "Civil War" by Guns N' Roses

The Meaning Behind “Civil War” by Guns N’ Roses

GN’R’s Slash, Duff, and Axl Rose put this song together, and the song would be added to the album “Use Your Illusion II,” which Rose later remarked had more of a Southern-rock vibe.

But before it hit that album, it was part of a special project in 1990 to help orphans in Romania. The album was called “Nobody’s Child.” It included songs by The Travelling Willburys, Elton John or Billy Idol. It was put together by George Harrison and his wife Olivia, and helped raise a lot of money when it was most needed.

Duff McKagan shared how the song started during a chat on the Rockline radio show in 1993. He said it all began with a simple guitar riff they’d play during soundchecks. Axl came up with the first few lines, and Duff remembered a time he joined a peace march for Martin Luther King with his mom when he was just four. That memory inspired part of the lyrics, especially the line about wearing a black armband.

The song kicks off with a famous quote from the movie “Cool Hand Luke”: “What we have here is failure to communicate…” It sets the tone for a song that’s all about big issues like war, peace, and rights. The figure of the always at odds with the law Luke, must have truck a chord with perenially in trouble Axl Rose.

By the end of the main guitar solo, another spoken word part is integrated into the song. “We practice selective annihilation of mayors and government officials, for example, to create a vacuum, then we fill that vacuum. As popular war advances, peace is closer.” This is a quote from an officer of the Peruvian neo-Communist movement called The Shining Path. The organization was also quoted in Rage Against The Machine’s song “Bombtrack.” It was inspired by Chinese Maoism philosophy. And while some praised its initial actions, terrorist attacks in Lima have permanently stained its standing in Peruvian society.

The True Meaning of the Lyrics and the Video to “November Rain” by Guns N’ Roses

A cool fact: the tune starts and ends with parts of an old song from the Civil War called “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which Axl whistles.

“Civil War” is also notable because it’s the only track on the Use Your Illusion albums featuring Steven Adler, the original drummer before Matt Sorum took over his spot in the band. In another sadly famous moment, Adler can be seen falling from his drum riser before the band debuts “Civil War” at Farm Aid 1990. This was Adler’s final show with the band before a few guest appearances helped bring the story to a pleasing end in 2016.

About author

Eduard Banulescu is a writer, blogger, and musician. As a content writer, Eduard has contributed to numerous websites and publications, including FootballCoin, Play2Earn, BeIN Crypto, Business2Community, NapoliSerieA, Extra Time Talk, Nitrogen Sports, Bavarian FootballWorks, etc. He has written a book about Nirvana, hosts a music podcasts, and writes weekly content about some of the best, new and old, alternative musicians. Eduard also runs and acts as editor-in-chief of the alternative rock music website www.alt77.com. Mr. Banulescu is also a musician, having played and recorded in various bands and as a solo artist.
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