Appetite turns 20

People either loved or feared it. There was no middle ground. Appetite for Destruction split the masses. It was Elvis shaking his hips, The Beatles saying they were bigger than Jesus, Alice Cooper killing chickens on stage.

Twenty years have gone by, and we're still waiting for something that's as repulsive and romantic, as grabby and heavy as GNR's irresistibly decadent debut album. Maybe you picked up the record when the cover featured Robert Williams' painting "Appetite for Destruction," the rendering of a robot rapist and his victim. Chances are, though, you didn't purchase a copy until the disturbing painting was moved to the inside of the record sleeve and was replaced with a cross and skulls depicting the five band members.

Despite a huge buzz building up to its July of '87 release, Appetite for Destruction — Guns N' Roses' debut album — didn't produce a No. 1 single until '88. That's when "Sweet Child O' Mine," which featured the combo of Slash's steely yet sensual guitar licks and Axl Rose's signature wail, became one of those songs that even third-graders knew word for word. "Welcome to the Jungle," "Paradise City" and, to a lesser extent, "Nightrain," would all enjoy heavy rotation through '89, catapulting Appetite to a reported 26 million copies sold worldwide. The album continues selling and sounding fresh as your first high, because in the two decades since its release, a better hard rock album hasn't come along. Discs by contemporary bands like Puddle of Mudd and Nickelback sound silly by comparison. Nirvana's Nevermind, Soundgarden's Superunknown and Pearl Jam's Ten are all masterstrokes, but suffer from too much grungy gloom. They're records that sound revelatory when you're 15 and pissed at the world, but lose their luster as you age. Unlike the confessional fare of the grunge and nü-metal era, Appetite told a story, putting the listener on the seedy streets of Hollywood circa the mid-1980s. Cheap thrills and hazardous behavior are the name of the game, and the Gunners are knee-deep in gore. But despite all the drugs and distractions, the men retain enough self-awareness to detail the madness with the panache of fly-in-the-ointment writers like Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson.

Two decades ago, cheesy hair metal and frothy dance-pop dominated the airwaves. N.W.A. would release its debut album the same year as GNR's, but it wasn't until the early '90s that rap overtook suburbia and became the rebel music of choice for angry teens. As for heavy metal during the Reagan era, Slayer and Metallica rocked hardest and fastest, flirted with Satanic themes and maybe even scared the shit out of a few naïve youngsters. But their music and concerts had all the sex appeal of a Dungeon & Dragons convention.

GNR created a near perfect mix of metal thunder, melodic balladry, swagger, malice and romance. While Aerosmith came close to updating the Rolling Stones' brand of cock-strutting rock, GNR nailed it, delivering an album that had all the dynamics of, say, Sticky Fingers, but with a Sunset Strip cynicism that proved more sincere and gripping than most of what Mick and Keith had riffed on.

Appetite is an album of extremes: The kiss-offs are mercilessly misogynistic. A sample lyric from "It's So Easy" ranks as one of the most demeaning in rock history: "Turn around bitch, I got a use for you," Axl sings. "Besides you ain't got nothing better to do."

There's a pause, and then comes the kicker: "And I'm bored."

But the same singer, a man in possession of a distinct and dexterous howl, can also sell lines that would look nice on a Hallmark card: "She's got a smile that seems to me/ Reminds me of childhood memories" goes the opening salvo of "Sweet Child O' Mine." It's not Keats, but it's still romantic. After all, what's sweeter than a great childhood memory?

It's probably a good thing that aspiring stars no longer feel the need to live a perilously hedonistic lifestyle in order to create a titanic rock record. Somehow, the Gunners were able to survive a self-inflicted hell and emerge with an album that's dangerous for all the right reasons: It paints an accurate picture of sin and excess, the highs and lows of dancing with "Mr. Brownstone" (their code word for heroin) and screwing party girls like "Michelle" (the one whose daddy works in porno). The sound is brutal and beautiful. Slash and Izzy Stradlin's twin guitar attack, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler's taut rhythms, Axl's piercing vocals — it's the complete package. Chops and style, recorded before Pro Tools and Auto-Tune made such things nearly inconsequential.