What Axl Could Learn From Angus

So the numbers are in, and "Chinese Democracy" is officially a commercial disappointment in addition to being a mild artistic disappointment. (OK, TWP's review was fairly positive, and the album is sitting at 67 points on Metacritic. But David Cook got 67 points, too! And let's face it: Come March, who's breaking out "Chinese Democracy"?)

The long-delayed -- can't really say it was long-awaited, can we? -- album only sold about 260,000 copies in its first week. Of course, 99.9 percent of bands would be thrilled to sell that many albums. But for a decade-and-a-half-in-the-making white whale of an album from the formerly biggest band in the world to get outsold by 69,000 in its first week by Nickelback? To get outsold by Cook?

This is a recording that famously cost millions of dollars (three years ago, The New York Times called it "the most expensive album never made"). At various times, it was seen as a last great hope to save a sinking industry. That makes the first week number an outright failure.

Here's the storyline that Axl -- and the people who signed all of Axl's checks -- were hoping would play out: A pantheon-level rock band returns from a long recording layoff to top the charts, selling more albums than even the most optimistic folk could have anticipated, helped out by a clever distribution campaign that saw the album made available only at a top retail store. The band then embarks on a sold-out nationwide tour that is well-received by fans and critics alike, launching the group into another extended period of success.

The thing is, that storyline already played out this year. Except it wasn't Guns 'N Roses. It was AC/DC.

AC/DC's "Black Ice" sold a whopping 784,000 copies in its first week of release and continues to post big numbers as a Wal-Mart exclusive. The band's tour is a hit. Lots of shows sell out, but few are actually tough tickets. Craigslist usually serves as a decent gauge for what's a hot ticket, and for AC/DC's Verizon Center show last month, there were more people looking for tickets than looking to unload them.

So how did AC/DC succeed where Axl failed?

The biggest problem with "Chinese Democracy" is that all the years of delays turned Guns 'N Roses into a nostalgia act. They lost an entire generation of would-be fans due to Axl's insanity. And the thing with nostalgia acts is that people don't want anything too different. People wanted badass "Appetite for Destruction" rock-and-roll, not the over-processed studio manipulations of "Chinese Democracy."

Plus, the circus around the album turned it into a curiosity more than an artistic statement. People were able to get their fix of GNR without actually paying for the music. It's sort of the same reason why Lindsay Lohan is supposedly very famous and in tabloids all the time, but nobody would actually pay to see her in a movie. (Well, that and she's in terrible movies.)

AC/DC, on the other hand, did things the AC/DC way. There was no new album for eight years because, well ... what's the rush? The band took eight years off, but there wasn't any high drama involved. They had been a functional band long enough to earn the long break.

When "Black Ice" came out and -- surprise -- it sounded a whole lot like "Stiff Upper Lip" and the dozen or so albums that came before it... well, so what? It was AC/DC doing what it did best, and what it still did better than all of its imitators. "Black Ice" contains zero surprises. It's exactly what people wanted. You can't really blame the band for not pushing the artistic envelope, because AC/DC perfected riffy hard rock and has been the best in the world at playing it for 30-some years. Ain't broke, don't fix, etc.

The other place where AC/DC (well, the band's management) had the right idea was in going with Wal-Mart as its exclusive retailer. Bob Lefsetz covered this yesterday. But really, it doesn't take a retail genius to know that Wal-Mart is where you want to be. Unless, maybe, you're a KCRW or Pitchfork-plus-Fader fave. Best Buy? Bzzzt.

But it mostly comes down to having a proper grasp on what your band is all about. It should come as no surprise that Axl fails when it comes to "having a proper grasp." He mistakenly believed that people wanted Axl Rose, when they really wanted Guns 'N Roses. (Sort of like the hecklers at this show.) Angus Young has never used AC/DC has a tool to promote himself, just as a vehicle to deliver the same old chords he's been playing for 35 years.

It's the riffs, stupid.

By David Malitz |  December 3, 2008; 1:56 PM ET Charts , Screeds
Previous: I Turn My Camera On: Q-Tip and the Cool Kids | Next: Live Last Night (Two Nights Ago): Vampire Weekend

Comments

Please email us to report offensive comments.



I *loved* GnR back in the day, saw them at Cap Center in 91 and RFK in 92. Wish I'd seen them at the Bayou and Hammerjacks in 87/88. BUT... I have no interest in this new album. Axl jumped the shark a long time ago and until he reunites with Slash, he's not getting my $$.

AD/DC, on the other hand, never fails to deliver the goods. Their show last month was fantastic and the new CD is pretty damn good (Angus even plays a slide guitar, I think that's a first, at least on record).

Posted by: sobugged | December 3, 2008 3:37 PM

I *loved* GnR back in the day, saw them at Cap Center in 91 and RFK in 92. Wish I'd seen them at the Bayou and Hammerjacks in 87/88. BUT... I have no interest in this new album. Axl jumped the shark a long time ago and until he reunites with Slash, he's not getting my $$.

AD/DC, on the other hand, never fails to deliver the goods. Their show last month was fantastic and the new CD is pretty damn good (Angus even plays a slide guitar, I think that's a first, at least on record).

Posted by: sobugged | December 3, 2008 3:40 PM

I loved GNR back in the day. I agree with the column. Fans are savy about the fact that this isn't a GNR record but an Axl Rose album. It would be like Paul McCartney trying to put out an album as the Beatles, Roger Daltry touring as the Who, etc.

Posted by: kvs71 | December 3, 2008 4:09 PM

Better watch it Malitz, Axl might call you out to Get In The Ring.

Posted by: goodgravy | December 3, 2008 4:28 PM

AC/DC also promoted the snot out of that album, including full blown commercials and even a special on radio that did nothing but promote the new album. Best Buy did NOTHING. The Black Friday ads had the album in small print and then there was NOTHING featuring the album afterwards. They dropped it before it even became a bad habit. On top of this, rock stations such as DC101 did not play the album. They jumped on "Rock N Roll Train" by AC/DC, but have not touched Chinese Democracy. If I were Axl and David Geffen, wouldn't you be wondering why? It's obvious fans want it, at least judging by how many hits the album received on Myspace. So why doesn't radio touch it? Smells funny to me. (And any studio exec who would pay for Axl to be in the studio for over 10 years should be fired. Axl could have paid for the entire thing himself and not missed a dime. "Appetite" still sells over 1 million a year.)

Posted by: bascomb | December 3, 2008 4:37 PM

Best Buy and DC101 probably heard the album and said why bother...

Posted by: vansmack | December 3, 2008 6:04 PM

98 Rock up in Balmer plays a decent number of tracks off Chinese Democracy and plays them a fair amount, so it's not everyone skipping it. I'm considering picking up a copy at some point soon when I have some more money. I almost did on Black Friday to go with the Appetite For Destruction copy I picked up, but decided to save my money for now. If BB does a price drop to 9 or 10 bucks I'm sure they'd sell more, though I guess 12 aint bad for a new album these days.

But yeah, if Axl wants the big money again he's gonna have to get over himself and get the other Gunners back in the lineup. The other guys will also have to swallow some pride to I would wager.

Posted by: EricS2 | December 4, 2008 12:59 AM

Clearly the lesson for hard rock dinosaur bands is: if you're going to sign an exclusive deal with a mega chain store, go with Walmart.

I bet REO Speedwagon are miffed that they just inked a contract with Big Lots.

Posted by: graveyard_duck | December 4, 2008 9:38 AM

To Bascomb: Studio time isn't paid for by record companies. They will pay for it in advance, but the actual cost will be repaid out of the band's (or in this case, probably Axl's) royalties. Axl will pay, one way or another. Promotion isn't free either. Basically record companies rob artists blind. That's why everyone goes on the road, which is where most of the only real money is for performers.

Posted by: nycwoman | December 4, 2008 1:01 PM

GNR without Slash is like Brian Johnson fronting AC/DC without Angus Young: unimaginable! Like the writer said, "it's the riffs, stupid!"

Too bad Axl doesn't get that. Unfortunately, I don't know if Slash will ever speak to Axl again. He's such a crazy f__ker.

Clearly, Slash knows how much money he could make in a real GNR reunion, both in the studio and on the road. Most admirably on his part, making huge piles money doesn't appear to mean everything to Slash. Surely not enough to have to deal with Axl again. Must be self-preservation.

Posted by: nycwoman | December 4, 2008 1:11 PM

I actually saw The Axl Rose Project when they rolled through Baltimore 2 years ago, and Axl still has it on stage. Maybe if he just called it "The Axl Rose Project" he might actually do better? Calling his current group Gn'R is really unfair to the old Gunners and the current guys. One is just not going to compare to the other no matter what.

On the plus side, there are rumors around again that Axl wants to get Slash, Duff and I guess Matt back in the band. Izzy already is in, sometimes, when he feels like showing up.

Posted by: EricS2 | December 4, 2008 7:09 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
 

© 2010 The Washington Post Company