“Do you know where you are? You’re in the jungle, Glastonbury!”. It’s the sort of tweaked line you sense gets hauled out at whichever location hard rock behemoths Guns N’ Roses touch down upon. A move ripe for spoof, if not directly lifted from a deleted Spinal Tap scene or The Simpsons.
They made for quite a ridiculous sight too, like a carnival float of ‘80s excess and hard rock cliché, with signs of bloat migrating from the widdling guitar solos to, in the case of Axl Rose and Slash, their waistlines.
Whichever way you cut it, it’s surreal witnessing the one-time bad boys of rock strutting atop the Pyramid Stage of Glastonbury – a festival founded on hippy ideals and a million miles away from the debauched, neon-lit iniquity of the Sunset Strip. It may be a crude metric, but it’s perhaps a sign of their slightly faded star that the crowd was noticeably roomier than it had been the previous night for the Arctic Monkeys. But those present were engaged and keen.
When the band emerged – bejewelled, tattooed, and like middle-aged caricatures of their younger selves – Axl tore across the stage like he had downed adrenochrome backstage in a claim to turn back the clock. Despite the gusto, the sound mix was their nemesis out front. The guitars sat low in the mix, making Slash’s guitar acrobatics hard to discern in the early stages. Whether this was the case for viewers at home is something this writer cannot comment upon.
One thing that seemed to unify the Twitterati and those in the field was Axl’s voice. It was difficult to make out whether his pipes were displaying the ravages of time or whether he was wrestling with tech issues for the duration of the set, but his voice veered from screech to silence at odd times, see-sawing between audible and inaudible. It was a mystery that remained unanswered even as the final notes of ‘Paradise City’ reverberated from the speakers.
They played plenty of deep cuts, even squeezing in the deliciously thick chug of ‘Slither’ from Slash’s Velvet Revolver side-project. They also aired the title track from their much-maligned 2008 album Chinese Democracy. It’s safe to say there were elements during the first half intended to please the devoted rather than the curious. For the latter, it wasn’t until ‘Civil War’ onwards that the band truly cooked with some festival-pleasing gas.
As much as you may wish to fight it, there’s no denying the pulling power of songs like ‘November Rain’, ‘You Could Be Mine’, ‘Nightrain’, and, of course, ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’. The latter almost as ubiquitous, and yet also as welcome, as Dave Grohl at Glastonbury this year. Grohl sauntered onstage to play rhythm guitar on the closing ‘Paradise City’, looking happy but slightly superfluous too, as the song charged towards its frantic crescendo.
Elsewhere, Guns N’ Roses revived their established covers of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and ‘Live and Let Die’. Although McCartney was on site, he didn’t join the band as they “celebrated” the song’s 50-year anniversary. It might make for some recondite trivia somewhere, but it was notable that the same song was played by two different artists on the same Glastonbury stage and night in consecutive years – Macca having delivered a pyrotechnic-fuelled version in 2022.
This aside, by the time the band concluded their marathon two-and-a-half-hour set, Axl had donned more wardrobe changes than a pop star dress rehearsal, while Slash had played every single note on his fretboard around 23,000 times apiece (at a rough estimate). For all of the tech and vocal bumps, it had been a more successful headline performance than Arctic Monkey’s muted occupation 24 hours earlier. There were flashes of brilliance on offer here amid the wonkier moments.
Guns N’ Roses are undoubtedly carbon-dated to an era that sits firmly in the rear-view mirror. Whereas they were once at the vanguard of a scene that was a global, chart-bothering phenomenon, they are now a mere heritage act and a peripheral concern; a band trading safely on the past, no longer hell-raising, scaring the establishment out of its wits. Nevertheless, Glastonbury was welcomed into the jungle and it wasn’t at all bad.