Guns N' Roses: Chinese Whispers
Orginall printed in Guitar World, October 2008.
Guns N' Roses' Chinese Democracy is the most expensive and eagerly awaited album of all time. In 2001, the man that signed GN'R their first record contract, Tom Zutaut, returned to the fold to help them finish it. He found a world ruled by physics, chicken men and wolf poop.
On October 12, 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks on America and five days after the first coalition bombs dropped on Afghanistan, a group of musicians sat in front of a television in a Los Angeles recording studio and watched the news. “Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Pakistan, Indonesia and Iran today,” the newscaster reported, “as the Islamic world continues to protest against the U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan.” The screen showed riot police firing tear gas, black smoke billowing out of burning cars, protesters hurling Molotov cocktails. “Thousands of Islamic militants fought with police in the Pakistani city of Karachi, setting fire to cars, buses and an outlet of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Let’s go over to our foreign affairs correspondent…”
As the screen lit up with images of the Karachi KFC, orange flames licking out of its windows, one of the musicians jumped to his feet. Buckethead, the shred guitarist known far and wide for wearing a KFC bucket as a hat both on- and offstage, was spitting mad.
“That’s fucking it!” he yelled. “They’ve gone too far now. I’m joining the fucking army. They are not going to hit KFC, no fucking way! I can’t record anymore—I’m joining the army! Now we really are at war!”
And with that, he grabbed his KFC bucket hat, collected some things from the chicken coop that had been specially built for him in the studio, and left. Some of the other musicians and hired hands stayed on a while. Little work was done that day, but no one seemed to care. After all, what’s one more day when the album you’re recording is already seven years in the making, two years past deadline and millions of dollars over budget?
Welcome to Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses’ most anticipated album to date. The album is legendary for all that it is, and for what it is not: finished. Chinese Democracy has been in the works since 1994 and will be the sixth studio album from Guns N’ Roses when, and if, it is released. It has been worked on by at least six producers and featured numerous musicians during its countless session hours, including guitarists Dave Navarro and Brian May and Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach. Most infamous among its credits is its production costs, which the New York Times placed at $13 million—in 2005—making it, according to the paper, “probably the most expensive recording never released.”
By 2001, there was good reason to think its arrival was imminent. Guns N’ Roses kicked off the year in style. After years of lineup changes, they had settled into a semisolid formation around singer Axl Rose. In addition to Buckethead, the group featured guitarist Robin Finck and Paul Tobias, keyboardist Dizzy Reed (a Gunner since 1990), former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson and drummer Brian “Brain” Mantia. They played their first-ever gig on New Year’s Day at the House of Blues in Las Vegas. Two weeks later, the group played in front of some 200,000 people attending Rock in Rio III in Brazil. Doing press duties at that time, Axl Rose told a Chilean radio station, “Hopefully, we will put out a new single sometime this spring, and then the record’s gonna be done in June or shortly thereafter.”