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The Most Expensive Album Never Made

Chinese Democracy: ten years in the making

Friday 4 March 2005, by admin


By JEFF LEEDS  [1]

EST HOLLYWOOD, Calif

IN the faint red light of the Rainbow Bar and Grill, Tom Zutaut sips at his drink and spills a bit of regret. It’s been 19 years since he signed the then-unknown rock band Guns N’ Roses to a contract with Geffen Records, where they turned into multiplatinum superstars. Back in those days, the Rainbow was their hangout of choice.

Years after he left the label, he returned in 2001 to try to coax Axl Rose, the band’s magnetic leader and by then its only original member, into completing one of the most highly anticipated albums in the industry: an opus tentatively titled "Chinese Democacy." The deadline for turning in the album had passed two years earlier.

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GN’R MTV ’02
Axl Rose singing at the MTV Music Awards in September 2002.

"I really thought I could get him to deliver the record," said Mr. Zutaut, who spent nine months trying. "And we got close."

He is speaking in relative terms. Mr. Zutaut is but one of a long series of executives and producers brought in over the years to try to conjure up the maddeningly elusive album - to cajole the reclusive rock star into composing, singing, recording, even just showing up. Like everyone else who had tried, or has tried since, Mr. Zutaut came away empty-handed.

Mr. Rose began work on the album in 1994, recording in fits and starts with an ever-changing roster of musicians, marching through at least three recording studios, four producers and a decade of music business turmoil. The singer, whose management said he could not be reached for comment for this article, went through turmoil of his own during that period, battling lawsuits and personal demons, retreating from the limelight only to be followed by gossip about his rumored interest in plastic surgery and "past-life regression" therapy.

Along the way, he has racked up more than $13 million in production costs, according to Geffen documents, ranking his unfinished masterpiece as probably the most expensive recording never released. As the production has dragged on, it has revealed one of the music industry’s basic weaknesses: the more record companies rely on proven stars like Mr. Rose, the less it can control them.

It’s a story that applies to the creation of almost every major album. But in the case of "Chinese Democracy," it has a stark ending: the singer who cast himself as a master of predatory Hollywood in the hit song "Welcome to the Jungle" has come to be known instead as the keeper of the industry’s most notorious white elephant.

AT THE STROKE of midnight on Sept. 17, 1991, Guns N’ Roses was the biggest band in the world. Hundreds of record stores had stayed open late or re-opened in order to cash in on the first sales that night of "Use Your Illusion," Vols. 1 and 2, the band’s new twin albums. On the strength of that promotion - and the coattails of the band’s blockbuster 1987 debut - the band set a record: for the first time in rock history, two albums from one act opened at Nos. 1 and 2 on Billboards national album sales chart. But by 1994 their fortunes had changed. After years of drug addiction, lyric controversies, onstage tantrums and occasional fan riots, their members had started to drift away, their lead singer had become bogged down in personal lawsuits, and "The Spaghetti Incident?," their collection of cover versions of classic punk songs, had been released to mixed reviews and disappointing sales.

The members of the band - what was left of it - reconvened at the Complex, a Los Angeles studio, in a massive soundstage with a pool table and a Guns N’ Roses-themed pinball machine, to prepare for their next album, which Geffen executives expected to release some time the following year. But they quickly began suffering from an ailment that has proved fatal to bands from time immemorial: boredom.

"They had enough money that they didn’t have to do anything," said a longtime observer of the band, one of the 30 people involved with the album who spoke for this article. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, as did many others who had signed a confidentiality agreement while working with Mr. Rose. "You couldn’t get everyone in the room at the same time."

Mr. Rose had appointed himself the leader of the project, but he didn’t seem to know where to lead. As Slash, the band’s longtime guitarist, said recently, in reference to the singer’s songwriting style: "It seemed like a dictatorship. We didn’t spend a lot of time collaborating. He’d sit back in the chair, watching. There’d be a riff here, a riff there. But I didn’t know where it was going."

Geffen was riding toward an uncertain destiny as well: its founder, David Geffen, retired, and its corporate parent, MCA Inc., was sold to the liquor giant Seagram, led by Edgar Bronfman Jr. With all those changes swirling, and with old Guns N’ Roses material still ringing up millions in new sales, executives decided to leave the band alone to write and record.

A cover of the Rolling Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil," however, which was released as part of a movie soundtrack, would be the last addition to the original band’s catalog. Slash quit the band in 1996; the drummer Matt Sorum and the bassist Duff McKagan were the next to go. Of the founding members, that left just Mr. Rose. But instead of starting something new, he chose to keep the band’s name and repopulate it with new musicians. Geffen wasn’t in much of a position to deny him. The label was on a cold streak and wagered that fans would still flock to the singer, even if a band had to be rebuilt around him.

Geffen wasn’t in much of a position to prod him forward, either. In 1997 Todd Sullivan, who was then a talent executive for the company, sent Mr. Rose a sampling of CD’s produced by different people, and encouraged him to choose one to work on "Chinese Democracy." Mr. Sullivan says he received a call informing him that Mr. Rose had run over the albums with a car.

The singer had encouraged everyone in the band’s camp to record their ideas for riffs and jams, hours and hours of song fragments that he hoped to process into full compositions. "Most of the stuff he had played me was just sketches," Mr. Sullivan recalled. "I said, ’Look, Axl, this is some really great, promising stuff here. Why don’t you consider just bearing down and completing some of these songs?’ He goes, ’Hmm, bear down and complete some of these songs?’ Next day I get a call from Eddie" - Eddie Rosenblatt, the Geffen chairman - "saying I was off the project."

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GN’R MTV ’92
Guns N’ Roses receiving an MTV award in 1992, with Axl Rose, center, and Slash at the podium.

Around the start of 1998 Mr. Rose moved the band that he had assembled to Rumbo Recorders, a three-room studio deep in the San Fernando Valley where Guns N’ Roses had recorded parts for its blockbuster debut, "Appetite for Destruction." The crew turned the studio into a rock star’s playground: tapestries, green and yellow lights, state-of-the-art computer equipment and as many as 60 guitars at the ready, according to people involved in the production. But Mr. Rose wasn’t there for fun and games. "What Axl wanted to do," one recording expert who was there recalls, "was to make the best record that had ever been made. It’s an impossible task. You could go on infinitely, which is what they’ve done."

As time and dollars flew by, pressure mounted at Geffen. The label’s dry spell lingered, making them more dependent than ever on new music from their heavy hitters. "The Hail Mary that’s going to save the game," the recording expert who spoke on the condition of anonymity explained, "is a Guns N’ Roses record. It keeps not coming and not coming." The label paid Mr. Rose $1 million to press on with the album, with the unusual promise of another $1 million if he delivered "Chinese Democracy" by March 1 of the following year. Geffen also offered one of the producers Mr. Rose had recently hired extra royalties if the recording came in before that.

He never collected. The producer, who goes by the name Youth (his real name is Martin Glover), started visiting the singer in the pool room of his secluded Malibu estate, to try to help him focus on composing. But that collaboration didn’t go any better than his predecessors’ had. "He kind of pulled out, said ’I’m not ready,’ " Youth said. "He was quite isolated. There weren’t very many people I think he could trust. It was very difficult to penetrate the walls he’d built up."

Youth’s replacement was Sean Beavan - a producer who had previously worked with industrial-rock acts like Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails - and under his care the riffs and song fragments that the band had recorded slowly began to take shape. But costs were spiraling out of control. The crew rented one piece of specialized equipment, for example, for more than two years - at a cost well into six figures - and used it for perhaps 30 days, according to one person involved with the production.

Mr. Rose appeared sporadically, some weeks just one or two days, some weeks not at all. "It was unorganized chaos," the same person said. "There was never a system to this. And in between, there were always parties to go to, different computers Axl was trying out or buying. There were times when we didn’t record things for weeks."

In late 1999 he invited Rolling Stone to preview about a dozen tracks. The magazine reported the album appeared "loosely scheduled" for release in the summer of 2000. In fact, Mr. Rose’s visits to the studio had become so irregular, according to several executives and musicians involved with the band, that an engineer working with him, Billy Howerdel, and the band’s drummer, Josh Freese, found time during that period to start their own project, the band A Perfect Circle, and to begin recording an album, "Mer de Noms," which went on to sell 1.7 million copies.

Label executives still clung to the idea that if they could just bring in the right producer, he could find a way to finish the album and finally bring a return on their ever-growing investment. They summoned Roy Thomas Baker, famed for his work with the art-rock band Queen. (Mr. Beavan, who was said to have tired of the project, soon bowed out.) But instead of wrapping things up, Mr. Baker decided that much of what the band had needed to be re-recorded - and painstakingly so, as he sometimes spent as long as eight hours on a few bars of music.

The process was drawn out even further after Mr. Rose hired two new musicians - the guitarist Buckethead, a virtuoso who wore a mannequin-like face mask and a KFC bucket on his head, and the drummer Brian "Brain" Mantia - whom the singer directed to re-record all the music that their predecessors had spent months performing.

Still, Mr. Rose seemed to be emerging from his sullen shell. In mid-2000, for what was thought to be the first time since the "Illusions" tour ended in 1993, he performed in public, with the Thursday night bar band at the Cat Club on the Sunset Strip. "He was psyched," recalled one person who worked with the band at Rumbo. "It seemed like it boosted him again, people still want to hear him."

At about 4 a.m on New Year’s Day 2001, at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, he and the new lineup of the band finally unveiled some of their new material. "I have traversed a treacherous sea of horrors to be with you here tonight," Mr. Rose told the crowd, which received him with roars of approval. Warm reviews followed. Making the most of the moment, he took his band on the road, going to Brazil to play in the Rock in Rio festival.

With the band’s return, Mr. Rose’s machinery cranked up again. One internal cost analysis from the period pegs the operation’s monthly tab at a staggering $244,000. It included more than $50,000 in studio time at the Village, a more modern studio where Mr. Baker had moved the band. It also included a combined payroll for seven band members that exceeded $62,000, with the star players earning roughly $11,000 each. Guitar technicians earned about $6,000 per month, while the album’s main engineer was paid $14,000 per month and a recording software engineer was paid $25,000 a month, the document stated.

Label executives were losing patience. Interscope turned to Mr. Zutaut, the original band’s talent scout. Could an old friend succeed where so many others had failed? He was offered a roughly 30 percent bonus, he said, if he could usher the project to completion within a year.

But Mr. Rose’s renewed energies were not being directed toward the finish line. He had the crew send him CD’s almost daily, sometimes with 16 or more takes of a musician performing his part of a single song. He accompanied Buckethead on a jaunt to Disneyland when the guitarist was drifting toward quitting, several people involved recalled; then Buckethead announced he would be more comfortable working inside a chicken coop, so one was built for him in the studio, from wood planks and chicken wire.

Mr. Rose was far less indulgent of his producers and label. Around Christmas, he ousted both Mr. Baker and Mr. Zutaut (who said there had been a miscommunication). It would be weeks before the singer would even allow an Interscope executive to visit him in the studio, according to people involved with the production. Interscope dispatched a senior talent executive, Mark Williams, to oversee the project. Mr. Williams declined to comment for this article.

If Mr. Rose appeared more remote, his vision of the project became more grandiose, people involved with the band said. He directed that music produced by Mr. Baker be redone again, those people said. He now spoke of releasing not merely one album but a trilogy. And he planned one very big surprise.

At MTV’s annual awards show in 2002, publicists buzzed through the audience whispering about a big finale. And with just minutes to go in the broadcast, a screen lifted away to reveal the band and Mr. Rose, in cornrows and a sports jersey, looking strikingly young. The musicians burst into "Welcome to the Jungle," one of the original band’s biggest hits, and the crowd went wild. But on television Mr. Rose quickly seemed out of breath and out of tune. He ended the performance, which included the new song "Madagascar" and the original band’s hit "Paradise City" in a messianic stance, raising his arms and closing his eyes. He left the audience with a cryptic but tantalizing message: "Round one."

Round two never came. The band went on a successful tour, but in the hours after their triumphant Madison Square Garden appearance, Mr. Rose was reportedly refused entry to the Manhattan nightclub Spa because he was wearing fur, which the club does not allow. That killed the mood. He didn’t show up for the band’s next performance, and the promoter canceled the rest of the tour.

Months dragged on as the band waited for Mr. Rose to record more vocals. In August 2003 when label executives announced their intention to release a Guns N’ Roses greatest-hits CD for the holidays, the band’s representatives managed to hold them off with yet another promise to deliver "Chinese Democracy" by the end of the year. But the album, of course, did not materialize. And then the game was over.

"HAVING EXCEEDED ALL budgeted and approved recording costs by millions of dollars," the label wrote in a letter dated Feb. 2 , 2004, "it is Mr. Rose’s obligation to fund and complete the album, not Geffen’s." The tab at Village studio was closed out, and Mr. Rose tried a brief stint recording at the label’s in-house studio before that too was ended. The band’s computer gear, guitars and keyboards were packed away. Over a legal challenge by Mr. Rose, the label issued a greatest-hits compilation, in search of even a modest return on their eight-figure investment.

Released in March of 2004, it turned out to be a surprisingly strong seller, racking up sales of more than 1.8 million copies even without any new music or promotional efforts by the original band. The original band’s debut, "Appetite for Destruction," which has sold 15 million copies, remains popular and racked up sales of another 192,000 copies last year, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It is a sign that Mr. Rose’s audience still waits.

Mr. Rose is reportedly working on the album even now in a San Fernando Valley studio. "The ’Chinese Democracy’ album is very close to being completed," Merck Mercuriadis, the chief executive officer of Sanctuary Group, which manages Mr. Rose, wrote in a recent statement. He added that other artists including Peter Gabriel and Stevie Wonder "have throughout their careers consistently taken similar periods of time without undeserved scrutiny as the world respects that this is what it can sometimes take to make great art." There’s certainly more than enough material; as Mr. Zutaut says, even years ago "people felt like the record had been made four or five times already." But of course, rumors of the album’s imminent release have circulated since almost the very beginning of the tale, more than a decade ago.

And at the center of that tale, now as then, is the confounding figure of Axl Rose himself. A magnetic talent, a moody unpredictable artist, a man of enormous ideas and confused follow-through, he has proven himself to be an uncontrollable variable in any business plan.

His involvement on "Chinese Democracy" has outlasted countless executives, producers and fellow musicians - even the corporate structure that first brought the band to worldwide celebrity. Even, in fact, the recognizable configuration of the recording industry as a whole, which since the band first went into the studio in 1994 has consolidated to four major corporations from six, and staggered amid an epidemic of piracy, leaving it more focused than ever on the bottom line, and on reliable musicians with a proven track record of consistent performance. The sort of rock stars that the original members of Guns N’ Roses, who recently submitted a claim seeking $6 million in what were called unpaid royalties from its catalog, used to be. But which Mr. Rose, with his mood swings, erratic work habits and long dark stretches, no longer is.

He hasn’t disappeared entirely. His voice can be heard on the latest edition in the "Grand Theft Auto" video game series, in the character of a grizzled 70’s-style rock D.J. "Remember," he advises the radio station’s audience, "we’re not outdated and neither is our music."

Interscope has taken "Chinese Democracy" off its schedule. Mr. Rose hasn’t been seen there since last year, when he was spotted leaving the parking area beneath Interscope’s offices, where witnesses reported that a small traffic jam had congealed when attendants halted other cars to clear a path for his silver Ferrari. Mr. Rose punched the gas and cruised into the day.

Footnotes

[1] Published: March, 2005

3 Forum messages

  • The Most Expensive Album Never Made

    19 October 2008 13:18, by Pete

    Amazing read ! Thank you so much !

    i am glad the album is coming out now !

    love the videos on the site !

  • The Most Expensive Album Never Made

    22 November 2008 00:59, by Jeff, die hard GnR fan!

    Just listed to the album and I can hear a lot of work was put into this album. To much time, to much thinking gets the album that is being released. No substance to it but, his own. Can’t relate to it... Sounds like one long song that you can’t tell what the beginning and the end is. It’s not head banging, fist in the air music. It’s not driving with the windows down blasting GnR music. It’s "I’m trying to figure it out how I feel music".

    The best work was "Use Your Illusion 1 & 2".

    Simple and effective and what we need again is "Appetite for Destruction". We want more of the above! That’s what made you the best!

    Take a page from AC/DC

    The Gun’s we love, The Axl we need. Get it together and come back from "where ever you are" and get it done right..

    Be my Hero again AXL! >>> Long live GnR!<<<

  • The Most Expensive Album Never Made

    15 January 2009 15:50
    Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy is now the most expensive album ever made and it is one of the best albums ever made. It aint old Guns but it is still Guns just transformed into somethin modern and Axl’s voice rocks especially on Catcher In The Rye and Scraped. Guns N’ Roses will never die, they will just transform. Oh and they shouldn’t take a page out of AC/DC’S book because AC’DC are a good band but they are always the same. There songs have similar names, they all sound similar and they never try anything different, which is what they should do. Guns N’ Roses for ever!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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