Thursday, September 4, 2008

Singularly Absurd

Remembering Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle"

The Typing Monkey picks a hit single from the past to dissect, inspect, discuss and analyze. Specifically, we will seek out the hits that sound especially odd to modern ears -- songs that are frozen in time, trapped by the eras that created them. Sometimes these songs became hits despite the standards and expectations of the time. All of them sound, to today's listener, singularly absurd.

Song: "Welcome to the Jungle"
Artist: Guns N' Roses
Released: 1987
Label: Geffen

Anyone who saw the The Dead Pool during its original theatrical run during the summer of 1988 might have noticed "Welcome to the Jungle" in the soundtrack.

In what's likely the last Dirty Harry film, a pre-fame Jim Carey plays hair-metal superstar, Johnny Squares, whose murder prompts Clint Eastwood to launch an investigation that leads to various car chases, shootings and general ass-kickery.

Given Carey's Hollywood grotesque of a rock star, viewers unaware of the existence of Guns N' Roses are forgiven for assuming the song was a studio creation -- those odd imitations of popular music that usually pollute television shows with budgets too small to acquire actual pop songs.

However, "Jungle" had already been out for a year and was building steam as the welcome return of rock & roll with a little hair on its chest. No matter how gruff sounding GNR were at the time, that song was pure, unadulterated pop-metal.

Context clues
In the late '80s, American Top 40 radio was giving up on British new wave and synth-pop, MOR American rock, and the Prince and Michael Jackson knock-offs that most of us identify the decade by.

As the Reagan era slid into the weak epilogue that was Bush I, three genres suddenly dominated pop radio: rap, mall pop, and pop metal.

Pop-metal acts such as Mötley Crüe, Poison and Cinderella dressed up simple rhythm & blues riffs with spandex, eyeliner and hairspray and rode the gimmick through the bank and into rehab.

Fans of Guns N' Roses insist the band was more meaningful, muscular and musical than its teased and lipsticked contemporaries. We'll grant them muscular, especially in contrast to the likes of say, Winger or Slaughter. But "Welcome to the Jungle" could not have been a hit if our appetites weren't already whetted by a legion of Mick Jagger caricatures.

"Jungle" may be the smartest pop-metal single ever written though. The tune snarls and buzzes loud enough to convince listeners that it's something other than a soundtrack for pounding beers and trying to get with the ladies.

The evidence
The cascading guitar that opens the track sounds more menacing than say, Crüe's "Don't Go Away Mad (Just Go Away)." But anything less would be inappropriate for a song about evils of the Big City.

"Jungle" is the flip-side of all the high-kicks and bacchanalian delight that other pop-metal bands promised. The song is obligated to at least give the impression of seedy, back-alley muck.

The key to understanding why "Jungle" is pop/hair metal and not just plain hard rock or actual metal (or whatever genre ownership champions of Guns N' Roses insist on) lies almost entirely with the only member of the band who remains in the line-up today: W. Axl Rose.

As Slash and the gang blast away, Axl Rose tries his best to sound threatening. But try not to laugh when he wails "nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-nuh-knees" and later refers to his boy bits as his "serpentine."

Sorry Axl, but such an obvious genetalia reference outside of hip-hop or pornography means you can only be one thing: pop metal. The (unintentional?) humor doesn't even require ironic perspective or the comedy provided by distance and time.

Other pop-metal singers performed variations on, or combinations of, Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, Ziggy-era Bowie, David Johansen and David Lee Roth. Axl Rose is pure Jim Morrison, and nothing could be more silly than believing your own hype as much your fans do.

Fashion-wise, GNR's rhythm section avoided the neon-bright palette preferred by their preening counterparts, though the hairspray remained. Lead guitarist Slash drew attention to himself by swiping Marc Bolan's Slider look. (Somehow Slash looks more Muppet-like than Bolan, which is an admirable achievement.)

Then there's Rose, with his bandanas, scarves, jeans, bicycle shorts, football jerseys and flannels. Axl Rose dressed for the stage the way most pop/hair-metal fans dressed for work or school. His schtick was dressing up by dressing down. That's calculated pop-metal showmanship.

Finally, we must not forget that the band would never again hit big again with such thunderous, sleazy material. "Paradise City," "Sweet Child O'Mine" are mid-tempo rock, while "Patience" is one step away from Scorpions' "Winds of Change" and that's right next door to Mr. Big's "To Be With You."

Of course, the best evidence in this case is Axl's hair in the video for "Welcome to the Jungle."