The Guns N’ Roses Dustups That Led to ‘Breakdown’
When Guns N’ Roses turned their attention to the Axl Rose song “Breakdown” during sessions for the Use Your Illusion albums, the title proved to be surprisingly apt.
While Rose himself was frustrated over his bandmates' difficulties with the composition, drummer Matt Sorum and guitarist Slash both recalled their own struggles as they tried to keep to the rules of their work ethic. “We did a song a day – but some days were longer than others,” Slash said in his 2007 self-titled memoir. "Everyone in the band had a short attention span at that point, and no one wanted to work too long on one thing.
"We'd spend a few days on the arrangements, but when it came down to recording, we'd do one run-through and then the red light was on. It was a given that there would be some guitar overdubs and some vocals done later, but when it came to the basic guitar, bass and drum tracks, all of those live takes had to be keepers. No one wanted to embarrass himself by causing us to do it over and over while the other guys in the band waited for you to get it right.”
There were several specific challenges with “Breakdown,” Slash said. As a piano-led piece, “the guitar and bass parts had to be thought out and done precisely.” Plus, he noted, “that song was hard on Matt especially — he lost it a few times trying to get the drums perfect.”
Listen to Guns N’ Roses’ ‘Breakdown’
In his book, Double Talkin’ Jive, Sorum remembered finding himself under extra pressure because “we couldn’t get it right, and eventually both Slash and Duff [McKagan] got fed up and headed home.”
That left the drummer alone with Rose, who asked him if he’d stay on, leading to what became a long night. “He sat down at the piano, and I went into the other room and got ready behind the drums," Sorum recalled. "Before long, we were playing again. Axl … shouted down the microphone, ‘I like the sound of your toms.’ Then he suddenly cut off the take and said, ‘I’m gonna play this chord, and you're gonna hit that cymbal. Play that cymbal for me!’ He played the chord, and I hit the cymbal, and we kept that up for what felt like an eternity. Eventually, I tried to gently suggest a different arrangement, because his was wacky. It was all over the place. ‘Axl,’ I said, ‘what do you think about trying that three times before we ... .' I didn't get any further before he slammed the lid of the piano and rushed out of the studio. Before long, he was back. He sat down at the grand piano and said, ‘Let's try this again?’”
That long night was the start of three days’ work on “Breakdown” before the time came to hit the record button. “It's a complex song,” Slash reflected. "And as much as it sounds like we partied our way through recording, we were very focused when it came to work.” For Sorum, the experience cemented his understanding of what he’d done in leaving the Cult to join GNR. “That was a normal rock-band experience,” he said "But this was different; the energy was intense. People's reactions were different when they found out that you were in the band, too.”