Guns N’ Roses Hit the Top With ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine': The Story Behind Every ‘Appetite for Destruction’ Song
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Guns N’ Roses were slowly on their way to superstardom after the release of their debut album, Appetite for Destruction, in July 1987. Almost a year after the LP arrived in stores, a third single was pushed out to radio. Nothing was ever the same for the band after that.
“Sweet Child o’ Mine” entered Billboard‘s Hot 100 on June 25, 1988, following the non-starters “It’s So Easy” and “Welcome to the Jungle,” which would get a second, and more prominent, life on the charts later in 1988. On Sept. 10, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” reached No. 1 and stayed there for two weeks.
Guns N’ Roses had officially hit the big time.
But for a while there, things were a bit more rocky for singer Axl Rose, guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler. Appetite for Destruction already had an impact on the hard-rock scene of the mid-’80s, which had gone soft thanks to glammed-up bands that spent more time on their makeup than their songs.
It would be another few years, and the start of the grunge revolution, before rock ‘n’ roll was pushed back to the dangerous and authentic place it had existed during its first couple of decades. Guns N’ Roses were one of the first bands to bring the music back to its basic foundations, and Appetite for Destruction was more or less a statement of purpose. But MTV and commercial radio were having a tough time convincing mainstream audiences that Guns N’ Roses weren’t just another rock ‘n’ roll band, and Appetite for Destruction wasn’t just another rock ‘n’ roll album.
Then they heard the closest thing the record had to a love song, “Sweet Child o’ Mine,” and soon one of the best rock bands on the planet was on its way to becoming one of the biggest and most popular.
Like many Guns N’ Roses songs, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” started with a riff. “I was f—ing around with this stupid little riff,” Slash told Q in 2005. “Axl said, ‘Hold the f—ing phones! That’s amazing!'” The guitarist disagreed. He thought what he was playing was no more than simple warm-up notes, but the other members – like they often did – started to fill in the pieces. “Within an hour, my guitar exercise had become something else,” Slash added, in his 2007 autobiography.
Slowly, very slowly, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” began to take shape. The breakdown section near the end of the song was suggested by producer Spencer Proffer, who was working with the band on its demos. According to Slash, nobody was sure how that breakdown would work. “Where do we go now?” Rose asked, and that question became an integral part of the finished song.
“Writing and rehearsing it to make it a complete song was like pulling teeth,” Slash told Q. “For me, at the time, it was a very sappy ballad.” It didn’t help matters that the song’s lyrics started out as a poem Rose wrote for his girlfriend at the time, Erin Everly, who happened to be the daughter of Don Everly – one-half of the pioneering ’50s rock duo the Everly Brothers. “I had written this poem, reached a dead end with it and put it on the shelf,” Rose said in the album’s press materials. “Then Slash and Izzy got working together on songs and I came in, Izzy hit a rhythm, and all of a sudden this poem popped into my head.”
It also didn’t score any points with Rose’s bandmates that their first love song was also partly inspired by Lynyrd Skynyrd, whom Rose has said he revisited to obtain a proper “heartfelt feeling.” “It was like a joke,” McKagan told Q. “We thought, ‘What is this song? It’s gonna be nothing.'” Everyone figured it would end up as filler.
They were wrong. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” sounded like a hit from almost the moment the band wrapped recording.”That song made the hairs on my arms stand up,” producer Mike Clink told Q. “It was magical.” Mainstream audiences agreed. It shot up the singles chart and propelled sales of Appetite for Destruction along with it. It wasn’t long before Guns N’ Roses, who were on the road with Iron Maiden when the single was released, were hailed as rock ‘n’ roll’s new saviors – and they had the hit record to back it up.
They also had a hit video. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” went into heavy rotation on MTV, even though nearly a minute of the six-minute track was trimmed for airplay. Most of the cuts came to Slash’s intro and solo. “I hate the radio edit,” Rose told Rolling Stone in 1989. “My favorite part of the song is Slash’s slow solo. It’s the heaviest part for me. There’s no reason for it to be missing except to create more space for commercials.”
There’s still no overlooking the song’s power and the push-and-pull dynamic between Rose and Slash that spills over into the song’s final minute or so, when everything seems to be on the verge of collapse but it all comes together so magnificently. As a love song, “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was tough and abrasive, and totally fit into Guns N’ Roses’ emerging reputation as a dark and dangerous band. Few songs in the history of rock ‘n’ roll balance this combination of vulnerability and raggedness as well.
Even though there’s been some controversy surrounding it over the years – most notably that it sounds like an obscure 1981 song called “Unpublished Critics” by the band Australian Crawl – “Sweet Child o’ Mine” has remained Guns N’ Roses’ most popular song, and their only No. 1 single, in the three decades since its release. Blender, Guitar World, Q and Rolling Stone have placed it on all-time-best-songs lists, and the track – and its famous opening riff – has appeared in everything from video games and TV shows to movies and other songs.
Even Slash eventually came around. “I hated it for years,” he admitted. “But it would cause such a reaction – just playing the first stupid notes used to evoke this hysteria – so I’ve finally gotten to appreciate it.”
McKagan, in the book Watch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns N’ Roses, pointed out that “before, only the people in front even knew who we were. They came to see us because they were our fans, all two dozen of them. Afterward, when [we performed ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine’], everybody was on their feet with their cigarette lighters switched on. It was amazing, night and day. It happened that quickly.”
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