Boasting one of the most memorable guitar intros in the history of rock & roll (and there have been quite a few), "Sweet Child O' Mine" made Guns N' Roses superstars, sending their debut album Appetite for Destruction on its way to staggering sales of over 13 million copies. An edited version of the song, chopping out parts of the instrumental intro and guitar solo, hit number one on the singles charts in the summer of 1988, which was at least moderately surprising -- even though several pop-metal bands scored number one singles in the latter half of the '80s, most of those hits were ballads, and none of the bands had as gritty or raw a sound as the Gunners. None were as dark or controversial in their subject matter, either, but that didn't matter with "Sweet Child O' Mine," a mid-tempo rocker (not, as some have called it, a power ballad) with starry-eyed romantic lyrics written by lead singer Axl Rose for his then-girlfriend Erin Everly (daughter of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers). That ability to combine ruggedness and vulnerability was the perfect hook the band needed to establish themselves as a massive commercial force -- and the quality of their music didn't hurt, either.
Slash's intro riff is a soaring, graceful, evocative arpeggio figure that indelibly stamps itself into the listener's consciousness as soon as it rings out (a slight variation reoccurs in the chorus, which pushes it to even greater heights). After one complete run-through of the intro, Izzy Stradlin's rhythm guitar -- the foundation upon which the band was built -- enters and leads into a lilting bass solo by Duff McKagan, proving that he can be just as lyrical in the spotlight as he is moving underneath the music in a supporting role; there's a third, straight-ahead full-band run through the intro figure before the verses begin. Axl Rose's scratchy whine might not seem the most evocative choice for a love song, but it effectively conveys an aching passion in a way that a smooth, polished performance simply couldn't. And that actually sells the song better, because even though Rose's lyrics might seem a little sappy, they're really about the primal emotions and inexplicable associations that loved ones call up in the recesses of our subconscious; every aspect of her face connects with some deep reservoir of affection formed in early childhood, and even takes him back to that emotionally simple and expressive state of being. One starts to wonder whether the "sweet child" of the title actually refers to Rose's own rediscovered younger self.
Slash's soloing on the short breaks between the choruses and verses is simple and lyrical, and his major, extended solo (introduced by a new chord progression) begins that way, but builds into a passionate frenzy of wah-wah-pedal-driven licks whose tension he expertly builds and releases, over and over, until the climax. There is an abrupt drop-off into a completely new part of the song, a quiet section driven by a full-band chant of "where do we go now?"; Slash and Rose interject occasional licks and lyrics, respectively, until the song crashes back into full-band high gear. The interplay here is absolutely stunning, as Slash's almost literally crying guitar weaves in and out of Rose's frantically emotive vocals. The song ends with Rose wailing as the band brakes to a halt behind him; Slash playing a final lick that slides down the full range of the guitar, Rose gives a final cry in the background, and a gentle arpeggio, barely heard, floats upward as the song comes to a final close.
Even though the song was more than solid enough to stand on its own, the band's striking presence in the accompanying video certainly helped put them over. Rose's dance moves at the microphone were the stuff stars were made of, a snaky, sinuous pelvic hitch that adolescent boys across the country tried (and generally failed) to copy. Izzy, in all black, wearing sunglasses, a cigarette dangling nonchalantly from his mouth, seemed coolly indifferent to everything going on around him, while Slash, with his face hidden behind a top hat and a massive bush of hair, gripped his Gibson Les Paul as though it were his only means of communicating with the outside world. "Sweet Child O' Mine" was so successful on MTV and radio that it paved the way for "Welcome to the Jungle," a throttling, vicious rocker that had flopped upon its initial release as a single, to hit the pop Top Ten, a feat that probably would never have occurred otherwise and which cemented the band's status as the top hard rock act in America.
All in all, "Sweet Child O' Mine" is the perfect distillation of everything that made Guns N' Roses' original lineup so great, and it's almost incomprehensible that a band wearing its hearts so transparently on its sleeves could also record some of the most self-indulgently offensive hard rock songs of the decade. Yet it's also evidence of the passion the band brought to both sides of the equation, dramatizing love and hate with equal intensity. The song was an instant classic, and hasn't lost an ounce of its potency since its release.