Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Chinese Democracy’: 10 Things You Didn’t Know
Axl’s psychic advisor, Buckethead’s in-studio chicken coop and other trivia related to the band’s notoriously delayed 2008 LP
“What we’re trying to do is build Guns N’ Roses back into something,” Axl Rose told Rolling Stone in January 2000. “I’d like to take some of the old Guns fans along with me gradually into the 21st century.”
At the time, Guns fans and Geffen Records were anxiously anticipating the supposedly imminent arrival of Chinese Democracy, the band’s long-awaited first album of original material since 1991’s twin Use Your Illusion releases. Doug Goldstein, the band’s then-manager, informed Rolling Stone that “we are now 99 percent musically done and 80 percent vocals done,” and that everything appeared to be lining up nicely for a summer 2000 release.
But summer 2000 would come and go without a new Guns N’ Roses album, as would eight subsequent summers. In January 2006, Axl told Rolling Stone that “People will hear music this year”; 10 months later, GNR’s then-manager Merck Mercuriadis insisted that Chinese Democracy was on the verge of a year-end release. And still, the months continued to tick by without a definite release date. And then, on November 23rd, 2008, Chinese Democracy was finally released via an exclusive retail deal with Best Buy; after all the rumors and whispers and false promises surrounding the album, the reality of its existence was almost too much to fully process, kind of like spotting a sasquatch at your local big-box store.
The music on Chinese Democracy was often difficult to fully absorb, as well. “The first Guns N’ Roses album of new, original songs since the first Bush administration is a great, audacious, unhinged and uncompromising hard-rock record,” David Fricke wrote in his Rolling Stone review of the album. “In other words, it sounds a lot like the Guns N’ Roses you know.” But Guns N’ Roses had gone through multiple lineup upheavals since Use Your Illusion, leaving Axl the only original member in the band; and while his sardonic growl and police-siren wail were instantly recognizable, the sleazy, street-hardened rock & roll of GNR’s landmark 1987 album, Appetite for Destruction, was nowhere in evidence.
Recorded and re-recorded in 15 different studios with multiple producers — including Youth, Sean Beavan and Roy Thomas Baker — densely layered, ambitiously arranged tracks like “Street of Dreams,” “Madagascar,” “There Was a Time,” “Riad N’ the Bedouins” and “Prostitute” gave full rein to Axl’s grandiose musical vision. Even more straightforward cuts like “Better” and the title track are thick with electronic instrumentation and 21st-century production flourishes. Is Chinese Democracy a masterpiece? Is it just a ridiculously expensive monument to Axl’s ego? Is it even a true Guns N’ Roses record? A decade after its release, the debate continues to rage.
In honor of its 10th anniversary, here are 10 things you might not know about Chinese Democracy.
1. The band’s label offered Axl a million-dollar bonus to finish the album by March 1999.
In September 1998, Rolling Stone reported that Guns N’ Roses had engaged Marilyn Manson/Nine Inch Nails producer Sean Beavan to produce their forthcoming, as-yet-untitled album. Though the band had officially begun work on the album in 1997, the record had been delayed considerably by lineup changes — the late-’98 model GNR consisted of Axl, former NIN guitarist Robin Finck, former Replacements bassist Tommy Stinson, Vandals drummer Josh Freese and longtime GNR keyboardist Dizzy Reed — and Axl’s inability to find a producer who he could vibe with (Mike Clink, Moby and Youth had all passed in and out of the project), and Geffen Records was clearly losing patience with the whole thing.
According to a New York Times article printed nearly seven years later, hit-starved Geffen executives were so desperate for a new GNR album — “The Hail Mary that’s going to save the game,” as one industry source described it to the newspaper — that they offered to pay Axl a million-dollar bonus if he would turn in the finished product by March 1999. The company never had to write the check, however; while Beavan would be of vital importance to Chinese Democracy, his arrival did not, in retrospect, herald its speedy completion. In February 2004, having already spent a reported $13 million on the project, Geffen finally pulled all further funding for Chinese Democracy. “Having exceeded all budgeted and approved recording costs by millions of dollars,” the label wrote in a letter to Guns N’ Roses’ management, “it is Mr. Rose’s obligation to fund and complete the album, not Geffen’s.”
2. The majority of Axl’s vocals were recorded nine years before the album was actually released.
During his time in the producer’s seat, Sean Beavan recorded 35 songs for the album before amicably parting ways with the band in 2000. “There’s a certain thing you have to have with Axl, and I don’t think we ever had the right guy [producing the record],” Tommy Stinson told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2017. “Sean Beavan was the closest, and most of the songs on that record pretty much started and ended up with what he did.”
Indeed, despite the subsequent involvement of producer Roy Thomas Baker, who convinced Axl to re-record most of the album, Axl apparently decided to keep most of the vocals he’d recorded with Beavan and use them on the album. In a February 2018 interview for the Guns N’ Roses Central podcast, Beavan recalled that he was surprised to see himself credited on eight of the 14 album tracks. “Most of the vocals they used on the record were the ones that I had done in ’99,” he said. I’m sure every single thing I recorded was re-recorded by somebody else, because the band members changed so much — and every time the band changed, Axl would want to re-record with the new guy. I think the only things that didn’t get re-recorded were the vocals.”
3. Axl wasted studio time re-recording Appetite for Destruction with new GNR members.
Chinese Democracy songs weren’t the only things that kept getting re-recorded whenever the Guns N’ Roses lineup changed. Axl also burned countless studio hours re-recording tracks from Appetite for Destruction with his new bandmates. In a November 1999 interview with Kurt Loder of MTV News, Axl revealed that the current membership had re-recorded the entire record “with the exception of two songs, because we replaced those with ‘You Could Be Mine,’ and ‘Patience.’ ” He went on to justify the re-recordings, saying, “Well, we had to rehearse them anyway to be able to perform them live again, and there were a lot of recording techniques and certain subtle styles and drum fills and things like that that are kind of Eighties signatures that subtly could use a little sprucing up … a little less reverb and a little less double bass and things like that.”
Axl insisted to Loder that these re-recordings were simply a way to get the new GNR members into the proper spirit of things. “Learning the old Guns songs and getting them up, you know, putting them on tape, really forced everybody to get them up to the quality that they needed to be at,” he explained. “Once the energy was figured out by the new guys, how much energy was needed to get the songs right, then it really helped in the writing and recording process of the new record.”
4. Queen’s Brian May recorded some guitar solos for the album, but they didn’t make the final mix.
As an ardent and longtime Queen fan, Axl invited guitarist Brian May to contribute a solo to the Chinese Democracy track “Catcher in the Rye,” as well as some other tracks. But while May was more than happy to oblige, he deeply disliked how Axl and Sean Beavan “comped” the final “Catcher in the Rye” solo from several different takes.
“Sean and I [edited the solo] out of Brian’s different runs, versions, practice runs, etc., to make sure we had those elements in one version,” Axl explained during a December 2008 chat on the Here Today … Gone to Hell message board. “It’s entirely constructed from edits based around one specific note Brian hit in a throwaway take. And though Brian seems to have warmed a bit to it, at least publicly, he was, unfortunately, none too pleased at the time with our handiwork. I remember looking at Brian standing to my left and him staring at the big studio speakers a bit aghast, saying, ‘But that’s not what I played.’ Sean Beavan and I were not in any way trying to mess with Brian, we just did what we do and then try and do our best to stand up for our decisions.”
Ever the gentleman, May has continually denied holding any hard feelings over the experience. “It was fun, to throw something in there to help out a friend,” he told Uncut in 2011. “I think I played on two-and-a-half tracks…. I have rough mixes of these tracks somewhere in my archive, but I’m not going to let anyone listen to them, out of loyalty to Axl.”
5. Shaquille O’Neal dropped in during a Chinese Democracy rehearsal session to record a freestyle rap and do the Worm.
One of the oddest moments in the strange and protracted saga of Chinese Democracy occurred in April 1997, when Shaquille O’Neal showed up at a Guns N’ Roses rehearsal session and jammed with keyboardist Dizzy Reed and guitarist Paul Tobias. O’Neal, who had arrived at a rehearsal and recording complex in Santa Monica to record a Taco Bell commercial, discovered that Guns N’ Roses were rehearsing next door and decided to say hello. “I saw Guns N’ Roses listed on the bulletin board in the lobby of the studio,” he told Spin in 1999, “so I stuck my head in to check it out. They asked me to join them, so I started freestylin’ over their track. It was the first time I ever performed with a rock group, and it felt good.”
“He sits down and starts playing this poly-synth sound, this riff on my keyboards,” Reed recalled in a 2006 interview with the My GNR Forum. “My friend Syd was playing drums, and I motioned for him to get a hip-hop beat going … and Syd goes into this groove … and Shaq started vibin’ on it and Paul started playing guitar … and Shaq looks over at me … and like this magic thing happened — he says, ‘Take over,’ and so I watch what he’s playing and I sat down and started playing it. And he got this groove, this vibe going, and he and his buddies grabbed the mic and started doing this rap. And our engineer was rolling tape the entire time.”
As if things couldn’t get any more surreal, Shaq capped the impromptu jam session by getting down on the floor and doing the Worm. “I mean, if you’ve ever seen a 7-foot, 300-pound guy do the Worm, it’s the most amazing thing,” Reed marveled. Axl, who tended to show up at GNR sessions long after sundown, unfortunately missed the entire thing. “I’ve never met the man,” he said in a December 2008 interview on the Chinese Democracy website, when asked about Shaq. “He goofed around with Paul and Diz and it went from there.” Needless to say, the Shaq track did not make the final cut.
6. Buckethead recorded guitar parts for the album while standing in a custom-built chicken coop.
When guitarist Robin Finck — who had been hired in 1997 to replace original GNR lead guitarist Slash — left the band in the fall of 1999 to return to Nine Inch Nails, Axl replaced him with Brian Carroll. A deeply eccentric guitarist better known as Buckethead, Carroll was recommended by former Primus drummer Bryan “Brain” Mantia, who had recently joined GNR. Onstage and in the studio, Buckethead preferred to play while wearing a hat made from a KFC bucket and a Michael Myers–type face mask, and he would only communicate with the band’s managers via a hand puppet called Herbie. “[He would] wear out the managers,” Mantia told the I’d Hit That podcast in 2015. “There’s millions of dollars on the line, and they’re talkin’ to a fuckin’ puppet!”
Insisting that he’d been raised by chickens, Buckethead requested that a special chicken coop be built for him in the studio, and the band obliged. “It’s like an apartment within the studio that’s a chicken coop,” A&R man Tom Zutaut recalled to Classic Rock in 2008. “He’s got his chair to record and a little mini sofa in there, and there’s, like, a rubber chicken with its head cut off hanging from the ceiling and body parts. It’s totally Buckethead’s world. It’s like Halloween in the chicken coop: part chicken coop, part horror movie. We built the coop and then he brought in all his props and toys and put straw on the floor! You could almost smell the chickens. No one was allowed to go in there apart from the assistant engineers to adjust mics — you could not destroy the spirit and karmic vibe of the coop, his personal retreat.”
Thus comfortably situated, Buckethead happily got down to the business of recording — at least until Axl scolded him harshly for watching hardcore-porn DVDs inside the coop for inspiration. “Bucket was pretty despondent,” Zutaut recalled. “He disappeared for a few days [after Axl took him aside] because he was pretty torn up about it. Not because he was angry or because he thought he should be able to watch what he wants. I think it was more because of the emotional implications that Axl brought up to him: that it wasn’t right to be inspired by shit like that.”
7. Axl visited a psychic during the sessions in order to cleanse himself of any negative energy that might be hindering the recording.
Ever sensitive to the vibes and energies surrounding him, Axl had long been consulting with a psychic based in Sedona, Arizona, named Sharon Maynard, who would judge the suitability of the people in Axl’s orbit — including band members, roadies and record company executives — by assessing the auras she saw in their photographs. In the early 2000s, when work on Chinese Democracy hit yet another snag, Axl decided that he and Tom Zutaut should pay Maynard a visit.
“Axl felt it would be a good idea if we went to Sedona so Sharon could check on our psychic energy health and cleanse us of any impurities that might be lingering on,” Zutaut told Classic Rock. “Axl was picking up negative energy and thought it might be attaching itself to us. This was actually quite perceptive on his part, as the studio crew was making fun of him behind his back when he wasn’t there.”
8. Baseball Hall of Famer Mike Piazza leaked the Chinese Democracy song “I.R.S.” to radio.
Another weird turn in the Chinese Democracy saga came in September 2003, when the song “I.R.S.” was leaked to radio by none other than New York Mets catcher (and major GNR fan) Mike Piazza. During a guest appearance on WAXQ-FM’s nationally syndicated show Friday Night Rocks … With Eddie Trunk, Piazza played the track off of a CD that had been sent to him anonymously a few weeks earlier; simply labeled “New GNR,” the CD reportedly also contained completed versions of two other songs, though Piazza didn’t spin them during Trunk’s show.
The station was immediately flooded with phone calls — including one from GNR’s management, who went ballistic over the leaked track. “We’ve gotten hundreds, dare I say thousands, of e-mails since, urging us to play it again,” WAXQ program director Bob Buchmann told MTV News. “But we can’t because the management flipped when they heard it on the air.”
How (and why) did this CD end up in Piazza’s hands? Buchmann theorized that Piazza’s well-known love of all things metal-related had inspired a GNR insider to send him the tracks. “Mike is a huge music fan,” Buchmann told MTV News. “The truth is, Mike is so passionate about certain music that I would argue that he’s on the top-10 list of real music fans that a band might circulate their unreleased stuff to.”
9. Axl sued his manager for intentionally botching the release of Chinese Democracy.
After several more lineup changes, re-recordings and arguments with Geffen, Chinese Democracy was finally released to the world on November 23rd, 2008. But while the album sold well enough to reach Number Three on the Billboard 200, it wasn’t anywhere near the blockbuster hit that the industry had been anticipating. The album’s underwhelming performance was widely blamed on a number of factors — including the lack of a strong single, Best Buy’s poor promotion, Axl’s unwillingness to sit for interviews with any major media outlets and the lack of a U.S. tour to support the album — but Axl claimed that Irving Azoff, his manager, had actually “sabotaged” the album’s release.
In May 2010, Rolling Stone reported that Axl had sued Azoff’s Front Line Management for $5 million, claiming that Azoff — whom he’d hired to manage the band in 2008 — had “abandoned Guns N’ Roses on the eve of a major tour,” after “devising and implementing a secret plan to set up Rose and the [current] band for failure so that Rose would have no choice but to reunite with the original Guns N’ Roses’ members.” Axl also claimed that Azoff had intentionally botched the Best Buy deal and leaked the album’s tracks as part of his plot to tank the LP and force a lucrative GNR reunion tour. The suit was eventually settled out of court in 2011.
10. A sequel to the album was supposed to have been released by now.
In June 2014, Axl revealed that two new Guns N’ Roses albums would be released in the not-too-distant future: A Chinese Democracy remix LP, and an actual sequel to Chinese Democracy.“We recorded a lot of things before Chinese was out,” he said. “We’ve worked more on some of those things and we’ve written a few new things. But basically, we have what I call the second half of Chinese. That’s already recorded. And then we have a remix album made of the songs from Chinese. That’s been done for a while, too.”
The news wasn’t completely surprising. In his February 2000 interview with Rolling Stone, Axl had hinted that he was already planning Chinese Democracy’s follow-up; and in 2007, Sebastian Bach — who had contributed some backing vocals to the Chinese Democracy track “Sorry” — informed Metal Edge that Axl had already recorded enough tracks for four albums, and that Chinese Democracy was supposed be the first album of an eventual trilogy.
Also unsurprising, unfortunately, is the fact that — more than four years after Axl’s announcement — neither of those promised records have been released. Now that Slash and original bassist Duff McKagan have been back in GNR since 2016, the future of those unreleased tracks from the Chinese Democracy sessions looks cloudy at best. But only Axl knows for sure …