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Guns N’ Roses Exclusive: 1988 Photos and Memories from Ian Tilton

Austin’s Modern Rocks Gallery has amassed quite an impressive collection of legendary rock ‘n’ roll photos — from Queen‘s Freddie Mercury riding on the shoulders of Darth Vader to behind-the-scenes snaps from Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover shoot and early looks at artists such as Van Halen, AC/DC and Bruce Springsteen.

The gallery’s latest acquisition is a collection of Guns n’ Roses backstage and live photos taken by award-winning British rock photographer Ian Tilton. These shots date from Axl Rose and company’s 1988 tour opening for Aerosmith — the time period when Appetite For Destruction was just starting to take off and make superstars of Guns N’ Roses.

Ultimate Classic Rock is pleased to present an exclusive slideshow of photos and commentary from Tilton, who was on assignment for a magazine called Sounds.

Words by Ian Tilton:

The commission in July 1988 was a front cover and inside feature for the British music tabloid magazine, Sounds. Sounds had a reputation for writing about great rock and metal bands. The other two British music papers (Melody Maker and the NME) weren’t interested in rock/metal music, but I loved those having been brought up on AC/DC, Queen, Deep Purple, Status Quo [and] Black Sabbath before getting into U.K. and American punk in the ’70s.

Appetite For Destruction had been released and had quickly sold close to one million copies, and Guns n’ Roses were about to play Donington Monsters of Rock Festival in the U.K. in a few weeks’ time, so it was perfect timing to do a major feature with the band. So, Sounds journalist Paul Elliott and myself flew over to Dallas for three days to meet up with Guns n’ Roses, who were on a big U.S. tour supporting Aerosmith.

The band were very close with each other and hung out together except Axl, who hung out with his girlfriend, not with the band and the two of them were so enamored with each other (according to the band and their manager Doug Goldstein), they just wanted to be together. Axl turned up for the soundcheck and the gig on the second night we were there. I hadn’t seen him for the first day at all.

That first day hanging out with the rest of the band and Doug was great because they were, after all, the “most rock n roll band in the world.” Aerosmith looked on and must have seen the obvious comparison, except Aerosmith were now survivors of all that excess sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and Guns were now doing what Aerosmith have done for years previously. Duff [McKagan] told me he was amazed that Aerosmith were still alive to do this tour.

The fans and the press loved the excitement of a genuinely chaotic band, and it was obvious that Guns n’ Roses were hell bent on creating great music, world fame and drinking themselves into oblivion every day. A bottle of Jack Daniels was always with Slash. He had at least one a day plus drinks on the rider, or at the bars we went to. I didn’t count, but I was impressed and pretty shocked with his capacity for booze. Duff too, whose favorite at the time was vodka cocktails made to his own recipe which Paul, Duff and myself drank plenty of one night in Duff’s hotel room. (Ingredients: three-part Smirnoff, one-part orange juice.)

If there were any drugs, then the band were discreet. Everyone enjoyed their chemical of choice. Slash his neat JD; Duff his vodka cocktail; Steve Adler his spliffs, which the following morning he forgot to collect from under his pillow in the hotel room. This caused a big argument on the tour bus with manager Doug, who made Steve go back to the room pronto before room service changed the bed linen. “Aww, you do it, Doug! You’re the tour manager. It’s your job!” Steve was literally whining to Doug. Doug was having none of it, and like an angry father told him to do it himself and the longer he procrastinated, the more chance that room service would find it and get everyone in big trouble … and may that be a lesson to him!

Anyway, back to our cocktail party. We then proceeded, giggling and merry to Slash’s room on the floor downstairs. “Just go in, don’t knock, Ian,” said Duff. “Slash called me earlier and said he’ll leave the door open.” So, we walk in, and Slash is there in bed with a groupie. “Hi, come in,” he says. “It’s okay.” And I’m feeling relieved, in my English reserved way, that we hadn’t just stumbled in there in a few minutes earlier. Slash’s new friend seemed very pleased I was there with a camera, sits up in bed next to Slash and gives me a big smile. I thought she might hide under the blanket when Slash introduced me to her saying, “This is Ian, he’s doing a documentary on us for the British music press.” “Hi, is it ok to take a photo?” says I. Just then the room phone rings and Slash says, “Go ahead.” I’m so drunk, I take a shot on my Pentax that is out of focus and I feel a little embarrassed but I’m also thinking, “This will make a great photo for the feature.”

Soon we are all off to a club in Dallas (without Axl, of course) where Slash knows some guys in a band that are doing a small gig that night. The band are getting lots of looks of recognition from girls in the club and security usher us to the VIP area. Duff says I should rest my camera and just enjoy myself for a while — his tactful way of saying, “No photos just now.” He tells me he is very loyal to his missus and there are loads of girls coming over to say hello to them. Slash is invited onstage with the band and he’s so full of JD, he amazes Paul and myself by playing a faultless (almost) guitar solo, but it’s cut short when his left foot misses the 18-inch-high stage, and he falls off mid-solo to great laughter and applause.

Outside, our tour bus has pulled up and our “gang” get on board. There are loads of gorgeous girls queuing outside to get on our tour bus too, but security won’t let them. The bus windows are one-way blackened — the band can see what’s going on outside but nobody can see the band inside. “Gee, she’s cute,” says Slash, looking through the one-way glass. “You know, Ian, American girls would love to go with you because you’re English. The attitude to sex is different over here. If you want just point out a girl and tell the security guy or Doug, there’s beds on the tour bus you know.”

I’m feeling awkward and struggling for words at this point because, for me, it’s a no brainer, as I have a beautiful woman I’m engaged and I’m missing her back in Manchester U.K., but I want to be seen as being one of the “gang,” and I have this issue of being a people pleaser. So, I mumbled something like “No, thank you very much, very kind of you, but erm … no thank you.” People-pleasing wasn’t part of Slash’s personality, as he didn’t give a shit If I did or I didn’t. His “cute” girl is already on the bus and they are hand in hand making their way to the back of the bus together. Duff tells me he’s not going to go there either; he’s staying loyal to his missus.

Next day, we are backstage at the Dallas Starplex Arena. It’s a brand-new venue, and ours is only the second event to be hosted there. (Rod Stewart had christened the Starplex earlier that week.) Axl turns up (without his girlfriend) for our scheduled group photoshoot backstage that afternoon. He’s wearing this cool black leather jacket with fantastic customized Guns n’ Roses embroidered badges all over it. He takes it off because it is so hot in Dallas that day, around 40 degrees Celsius [about 104 degrees Fahrenheit] and thank God for the air conditioning.

Underneath the jacket his tattoos look amazing, too: a rose, a girls’ face with dark hair, Guns N’ Roses logo with skulls of each band member. Perfect photo ammunition for a great front cover. Sounds covers at that time were nearly all black and white, so I only took black-and-white film. A week later, when my editor Tony Stewart had got all my prints, I got a call from him. They now wanted a color cover. Tony knew I was expert at hand-coloring black and white prints and thought Axl’s tattoos and leather jacket would make a fine color cover, so I set to work printing a perfect 20×16″ print and using my dyes and paint brushes, which took me about two days.

We were in the green room backstage at the Starplex Arena. My set up was just one light, and Axl was so easy to photograph. He knew how to look good, how to pose and vary the poses, [and] where to place his customized jacket on the arm of the sofa. He posed, I took a shot. He changed the pose, I took another shot. All this while the band members and crew looked on. Axl loved having an audience and loved making everyone laugh by goofing and pulling a few faces. I didn’t need much time or many shots. I knew we had great cover shots almost straight away, and the whole of that session took about an hour to photograph everyone individually and do posed group photos too.

After that, we all went onstage to soundcheck, but Axl didn’t show for it. I never asked why and the band weren’t fazed by his absence, but I thought it odd that he wasn’t there. I later learned he was notorious for skipping sound checks. Slash and Duff were so hot they just wore shorts, and Duff wanted my white Stetson hat I’d bought at a cowboy shop earlier in the day. I let him borrow it, and he looked funny in just shorts, cowboy boots and my hat. Well, he wouldn’t give me that hat back.

“Iaaaan! I love your hat so much will you give it to me?” Well, I loved that hat too, and had walked a mile in the Texan heat earlier that day, before everyone was awake and out of bed in order to buy it, and I didn’t want to give him my precious Stetson. “Iaaaaan! You would be doing great things for Anglo-American relations if you give me this great hat.” Hmmm … my answer was still no, and I told him I’d want another one to take home with me if I gave him mine. I hoped he would say he’d ask one of the crew to drive out and buy another, similar hat. But we both knew there wasn’t time to do that.

An hour or two later, and it’s just before the band go onstage for the gig itself. Duff, Izzy, Slash and journalist Paul come over to me. Me in my precious white hat. Duff says, while the others sidle close to put the pressure on me and everyone is smiling deviously and in cahoots together, “Iaaaan! We all think I should have your hat and you should swap for this one. It’s a really great looking Jack Daniels baseball hat and its really rare and you will be doing a really good thing.” The combination of his charm and peer pressure made me do the “really good thing.” Elated, he swaps my hat for his and they run onstage. It made for some great photographs during their set, when Axl and Duff swap hats. “That’s my hat,” I say to Paul Elliott. “Not anymore, it’s not,” says Paul.

Next morning, I got up early before everyone was out of bed, and I walked that hot mile to the cowboy shop and picked myself an identical white Stetson. I really loved that hat. It got accidentally squashed a week later by a British soldier when I was in Morocco photographing the Army on maneuvers in the Sahara. We were crammed into the back of a Land Rover and the squaddie rolled over in his sleep, flattening my eccentric hat.

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