In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we focus on Guns N’ Roses 1993 album of covers, “The Spaghetti Incident?”, which turns 20 today.
By Andy O’Connor
When was the last time you were excited about a covers album?
When was the last time a covers album made a flap at all? Most of the time you hear about an artist doing a covers album, their contract’s about to be up and at least three of the guys know “Louie, Louie” and “Land of Confusion.” Most of the time, bands can’t fill an album with decent songs they they wrote themselves, so what’s the use of releasing a record that butchers other peoples’ tested successes? It’s as if bands are clamoring to become wasted space on terabyte hard drives, rotting in the mausoleum that is the used CD bins in pre-fab mall music stores.
Why would you make a covers album?
Sometimes, it’s all you can do.
Guns N’ Roses‘ “The Spaghetti Incident?” is one of the few covers albums in history to create any sort of real chatter. The hubbub came mainly from the album’s “hidden track” – a relic of the CD age where an unlisted track would close out the album following silence after the last listed track – where Axl Rose performed an acoustic version of Charles Manson’s “Look At Your Game, Girl.” Rose wasn’t shy about his love for Manson, rocking shirts with the singers’ face during the Use Your Illusion tour. The song…well, there’s a reason it’s hidden: It doesn’t add to the album, and feels tacked on solely to gain attention. Even in metal, where showmanship is king, you gotta have some riffs too. Whatever “darkness” present feels like a bunch of black construction paper stapled to a wall.
Incidentally, the song preceding it is Fear’s “I Don’t Care About You,” and contrary to what most rock bands want you to believe, they very much care what you think. Rose, after all, is the man who wanted to literally fight his critics in “Get in the Ring,” because if there’s a conflict best solved by violence, it’s Robert Christgau saying, “Back when they hit the racks, these posers talked a lot of guff about suicide. I’m still betting they don’t have it in them to jump” about their 1988 album Lies. Imagine if “Look At Your Game, Girl” came out today. You wouldn’t hear the end of it. There’d be 50 thinkpieces on every website by lunch, and you wouldn’t be able to eat your lunch if you read at least one. Axl would need a ring the size of Alaska if he wanted to make good on assaulting his critics.
“Game” is a hiccup in what is otherwise a solid covers collection. Guns N’ Roses, in their heyday, could make covers that rivaled their originals, which is the main reason why this album, unlike many of its ilk, succeeds. Their covers of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” were hits in their own right, and both happen to be pretty damn good renditions too. Whatever you make of the Use Your Illusions records, whether you thought their ambitions paid off or whether you cringed at “My World,” the looseness of Spaghetti is refreshing. If you liked Appetite for Destruction the best, you might be inclined to choose Spaghetti as #2. Their version of “Raw Power” is tamer than the original, but pretty much every rock band ever are featherweights against the Stooges in the early 70s.
It also speaks to what made Guns N’ Roses a success in the first place – they had better hooks than their LA peers, and they had the right amount of sleaze. Nazareth’s “Hair of the Dog” was a Guns N’ Roses song before Rose abandoned Indiana for life in the big city – I even thought the original was a by Guns the first time I heard it! Bassist Duff McKagan takes over for Rose on Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” giving a rousing tribute to the singer, who had died two years before Spaghetti came out. It could have been released on Lies and people might mistake it for an original, that’s how good it is.
Spaghetti remains a scribbled in the margins of the band’s career, with some see it as the beginning of their downfall. And while most of the time it’s useless to speculate on what could have been, especially Guns N’ Roses were pretty successful when they came out, they could have been bigger. They could have formed a triangle with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones as The Bands That Matter The Most. They had the right stuff, but maybe not the right personalities. Spaghetti didn’t change the lives of many, unlike several of the records featured here. It won’t be heralded as a classic any time soon. Rose’ll never make good with Slash and McKagan and do a tour where they play the album in its entirety. But it’s a curious part of the GNR canon, and is worth more than just being in the margins. Let’s upgrade it to, “lengthy footnote that is only optional if you don’t want to understand the whole story.”