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Alternative History

The Story of the Guns N’ Roses Album Covers

guna n roses album covers

Guns N’ Roses have always known how to cause a stir, and they always used their album covers to get music fans and the media talking about the band. The album artwork was occasionally shocking, yes. But was this a calculated move on the part of Axl Rose and the group?

Today, I’m looking at the strange artefacts that are the Guns N’ Roses album covers, digging through their stories and looking at the legacy that those records have created.

The Guns N’ Roses Album Covers

guna n roses appetite for destruction album cover

“Appetite for Destruction” (1987)

Guns n’ Roses crafted a bonafide classic with their debut album “Appetite for Destruction.” And, if they never did anything again, something that looked like a real possibility due to their lifestyles, this album and its iconic artwork would surely have created their cult-like status.

The songs on the album tell tales of debauched, dangerous living on the Sunset Strip. Naturally, the album’s cover arrives from much the same place.

But did you know that the famous cross and skeleton design wasn’t the original artwork? It featured cartoon art created by Robert Williams. In it, a robot assaults a young woman while a gigantic red monster waits to get revenge on the robot.

The artwork was chosen by lead singer W. Axl Rose. To him, it was a metaphor for society and for how the world was planning to deal with his band. Geffen, the record label that had taken a chance on singing the band, pushed back. Or did they?

“David Geffen gave me a long lecture about the wrong cover. But all that was kinda planned to sell records. You know, the first cover gets banned, we go with the second,” Axl Rose later told reporters at MTV.

Well, Mr. Geffen ought to have seen what Guns N’ Roses had first planned to be their debut artwork. Axl, fascinated with the news of the disaster of the Challenger shuttle, wanted a picture of its spacecraft blowing up U Lunch to serve as the cover. The singer later said that if the image could be used by TIME Magazine, why couldn’t it be used by Guns n’ Roses?

Third time’s a charm. What about the famous cover that did make it onto the album?

guna n roses appetite for destruction album cover

The iconic “Appetite for Destruction” album cover

Axl Rose finally got Geffen Records to accept an album cover featuring skulls of the five members: Axl, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler, assembled on a cross. Not uncontroversial, but marginally better than the two previous attempts.

The singer initially wanted the design to be a tattoo for himself and asked artist Billy White, Jr to work on itit. The style of the cross is a reference to Phil Lynott and Thin Lizzy, one of Axl’s favourite hard-rock bands.

The “Appetite for Destruction” album cover has become marvellously iconic. It’s one of the most famous record sleeves in rock music. It’s featured on millions of T-shirts and arm tattoos. It’s been used by the band for merchandise and to promote new tours ever since Guns N’ Roses’ improbable reunion.

guna n roses lies album cover

“G N’ R Lies” (1988)

“G N’ R Lies” was meant as a stop-gap record. It was designed to appease the millions of fans that the band had accumulated on the strength of their previous album until they could record a proper follow-up. It featured a handful of acoustic tracks and live songs originally included on the band’s demo “Live ?!*@ Like a Suicide”.

But it was also an attempt to take punches at those who had wronged the group and an opportunity to stir some controversy, as the band did with the lyrics to the song “One in a Million.”

The album cover of “G N’ R Lies” was designed as a tabloid newspaper. It played brilliantly into the band’s notorious reputation, complete with sensational headlines alluding to their controversial antics. Axl and the band managed to blend humour with a critique of media sensationalism.

But the jokes weren’t appreciated by everyone. Faux titles like “Wife-beating has been around for 10,000 years” were replaced on later pressings. All of this didn’t stop the record from becoming another highly successful release.

guns n roses use your illusion album cover

“Use Your Illusion I” and “Use Your Illusion II” (1991)

Guns N’ Roses, Axl especially, set about outdoing themselves with their proper follow-up to “Appetite for Destruction.” A work this ambitious needed artwork of a similar calibre. Once more, the singer took the reins.

Artist Mark Kostabi designed the artwork, likely on Axl’s suggestion. The cover itself is a redesign of the famous painting “The School of Athens” by Raphael. And while most would remember the focal point of the painting featuring the likes of Socrates and Pythagoras, few would have noticed the characters chosen for the cover whose identities remain unknown.

Guitarist and friend of the band, Paul Kostabi, titled the painting “Use Your Illusion.” This also became the title of the albums. Guns n’ Roses chose to release “Use Your Illusion” as two separate albums, both featuring the same artwork and distinguished only by the fact that one’s colour was blue and the other was yellow. And, yes, it was a more ambitious piece of work with epic rock songs such as “Civil War” and “November Rain”, preparing Guns N’ Roses for their arena-dominating era.

There was no controversy this time apart from the liner notes featuring the words “Fuck you, St. Louis!” This was a reference to a 1991 concert that ended in a riot when Axl Rose punched a cameraman while the band was in the middle of playing “Rocket Queen.”

guna n roses the spaghetti incident? album cover

“The Spaghetti Incident?” (1993)

Without context, “The Spaghetti Incident?” is one of the more disappointing rock covers of 1990s rock. However, the story behind the artwork is known as another chapter in the eventful and often dangerous way in which Guns n’ Roses conducted themselves during that period.

The stark, minimalist design of a bowl of spaghetti left fans puzzled. To be fair, like the straightforward punch of the punk-rock covers featured on the album, the artwork focused on simplicity.

But what about “The Spaghetti Incident?” Allegedly, the incident came up during the trial when drummer Steven Adler took his former bandmates to court after they fired him. According to reports, Adler accused the band of consuming the spaghetti he’d left in the fridge. Other reports suggest that spaghetti was the word that Adler used to refer to his cocaine which he stashed in a container of Italian food.

When asked during his court deposition, Duff McKagan answered, “The Spaghetti Incident?” It was an inside joke that ended up being used as the album artwork and title.

However, the artwork also came with a hidden message. At the very bottom of the cover, some storage symbols, written in small font, could be seen by those with a keen eye. The symbols were part of the code used by “The Zodiac Killer” when sending letters in 1968 taunting the police. On the “The Spaghetti Incident?” album cover, they read as “Fuck ’em all.” Erm… a Metallica reference, perhaps?

guna n roses chinese for democracy album cover

“Chinese Democracy” (2008)

It may have taken Axl Rose 15 years to produce a follow-up to Guns N’ Roses’ last album. But, the time of the highly anticipated release of “Chinese Democracy,” his penchant for creating controversy had not cooled.

The title meant that the album would surely be a hard sell in China. However, the proposed artwork, created by Chen Zhuo, featuring a Disneyland-like amusement park that featured images of Mao Zedong and Tiananmen Square protesters, could have caused even more trouble. It was titled “China Carnival No.1-Tiananmen.”

Zhuo had already taken a risk in producing the art piece. He wasn’t about to further endanger himself by having it be used by a famous Western rock band.

In the end, it was a simple picture of an old bike leaning against a wall that had the words “Guns n’ Roses” spray painted that ended up being used as the official artwork.

An alternative artwork, chosen by Axl Rose, has also made the rounds online and seems to have gathered more favour with fans than the original. This artwork features a bright red hand with the fingers making a mudra pose and with red ants crawling on it.

Like Guns N’ Roses music and exploits, the release of their album covers, too, has proven eventful. Should the partly reunited group, featuring Axl, Slash, and Duff, release a new studio album, as they have hinted at in recent years, fans will hope for something equally powerful. The artwork for recent singles, “Perhaps,” “Hard Skool” and “The General” have certainly created some intrigue.

AI-generated artwork next?

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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