First Drafts: Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’
A year before Guns N’ Roses released Appetite For Destruction, the hard-rocking debut record that sold 30 million copies and set them up as the most dangerous band in the world, Slash was sitting cross-legged, picking an acoustic guitar while Axl Rose delivered the most earnest, yearning lyrics of his career.
The song was a five-minute ballad named ‘November Rain’, and it was demoed, then shelved.
With the Laurel Canyon-style finger-picking, and Rose’s echoed, emotive vocals, this song sounds like something Jackson Browne and the Eagles would have smashed out in the early ’70s while on peyote buttons. Rose is restrained in his vocal delivery, the tone of the guitars are like a warm bath, and you could imagine Joni Mitchell covering this version in concert and changing very little about it.
By the time the version of the song we are all familiar with surfaced in 1991, the guitar had been replaced with rolling piano lines, Rose had fastidiously crafted an entire string orchestra’s worth of arrangements using only artificial digital keyboard tones, and this version’s laconic, hypnotic feel had been replaced by high drama, a slow-burning crescendo, and Slash standing on a grand piano, delivering a blistering lead solo.
As mentioned, this version of the song was recorded in 1986, predating the band’s debut record. Had this plaintive ballad been included on their first album, it could have changed the Gunners’ entire trajectory. Maybe the album would have been completely ignored save for this one, obvious crossover single, casting them in the same light as hard-rocking ’80s metal bands like Mr. Big and Extreme who became largely known for fey acoustic songs that stray wildly from the rest of the band’s sound.
Completely missing in this early arrangement are the lead guitar breakdowns, the entire dramatic coda (the ‘doncha think that ya need somebody’ bit), and the middle eight. While these elements undeniably add to the composition of the song, making it the nine-minute evergreen epic it is, it is also nice to hear this heavy-lidded version just roll by, unhurried.
Turn off, your mind, relax and float downstream. After all, you’re in the jungle, baby.