Photographing Guns N' Roses 1986-1987

by Greg Prato

When Geffen Records signed Guns N' Roses in 1986, it was like when the Bulls signed Dennis Rodman in 1995: huge upside, but could implode at any moment and might head to Vegas for a bender instead of showing up for work. GnR had built a following on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, where they lived in filth while indulging in all manner of hell and unrest. But unlike other bands on the scene (Faster Pussycat, Ratt, W.A.S.P.), their lead singer could shoot to the heart with his lyrics and their guitarist could divine the kind of riffs you'd remember the next day.

Geffen knew they could never tame this tiger, so they fought their battles sparingly. They didn't mess with the music, but when the band insisted on using their own photographer at all times, that became a problem of promotion. Bryn Bridenthal at Geffen convinced them to let other lensmen in on the action, which would give them a lot more exposure. One of those was Mark Weiss, who had shot Bon Jovi, Kiss, Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne.

"She fought tooth and nail and they finally agreed," says Weiss. "I shot for 30 minutes."

The original Guns N' Roses lineup in 1986: Steven Adler, Izzy Stradlin, Axl Rose, Duff McKagan, Slash

The shoot was for Hit Parader.

"No one outside of LA had heard of them," says Weiss. "They didn't even have an album out, but there was a big buzz. They were rehearsing, so we set up a quick little photo shoot, and I remember they didn't want to do a photo shoot with me or anyone else because they had their own photographer. They had an attitude right out of the gate!"

Axl Rose flexed some of that attitude when he told Geffen he wanted their album to be the biggest selling debut from a rock band... ever. But first, he needed to get his look in line with his message.

"I remember Axl with the glammed-up hair and he had this pair of pants on that said, 'GLAM SUCKS,'" Weiss explained. "So, it's kind of a contradiction because he had make-up on and a totally glam look going."

Axl's incomprehensibly unrealistic wish came true: Appetite For Destruction sold over 18 million copies in America, besting Boston for the best-selling debut not just by a rock band, but by anyone (a record later usurped by Hootie & the Blowfish). When they came to New York for a week in 1987, Weiss shot them again, this time at the legendary CBGB before they played the Ritz.

Izzy, Steven, Slash, Axl and Duff in 1987 outside CBGB, where they did an autograph session

"The last time I shot them with that original lineup," says Weiss, "they were at the Sunset Grill in LA. After the shoot, Axl asked if I wanted to make a call on his cell phone. It was the first time I used one."

Axl working a portable phone in 1988

August 21, 2020

Many of Mark's photos are compiled in the book The Decade That Rocked: The Photography of Mark "Weissguy" Weiss, available at thedecadethatrocked.com.

Also see:
Dude Looks Like A Lady: When Ozzy, Aerosmith and Nirvana Did Drag
Cover Story - Stay Hungry by Twisted Sister
Van Halen In Photos 1979-1982

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