McKagan began to tune in as a young teen in late 1978 to the Sex Pistols, the Vibrators, the Clash, Generation X, U.K. Subs and others, under the guidance of older friends and record shop owners. At that point, however, he found it somewhat difficult to understand some of the Anglo-specific grievances (often economic or political) that leading British punk bands of the era focused on.
“Then I saw the cover of the Heartbreakers album L.A.M.F.,” McKagan told Kerrang! in 2021, “and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be!’ I could relate to it and to Johnny [Thunders] in particular.”
McKagan immediately began imitating the style of Thunders, as well as Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. “I’ve played guitar ever since, and that’s who I fashion my guitar playing after,” McKagan told Louder Sound in 2019, citing L.A.M.F. as one of the records that changed his life. “I got to play in a band with Steve [Jones] in the ’90s [Neurotic Outsiders], and it was like a dream come true. I started playing guitar and he immediately recognized where I got all my riffs from!”
Thunders’ first solo album particularly resonated with McKagan, who then was only a year out from joining his first band, the Vains. “I was 15 years of age and playing with people in their 20s, and seeing all sorts of new things,” McKagan said. “The punk rock scene was really cool at that time, full of freaks of every color and every orientation. So Alone was part of that experience for me. It offered a more emotional element of music and it was more reflective. It was full of storytelling. It was maybe my generation’s equivalent of a Bob Dylan record.”
Listen to Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘So Fine’
McKagan’s admiration of Thunders was, of course, shared with others – including bandmate Izzy Stradlin. McKagan and Stradlin met on accident prior to the formation Guns N’ Roses when both of them turned up one evening at the same woman’s house, an encounter they laughed off. “Izzy was into Thunders, Hanoi Rocks, Fear — the rough ‘street’ acts I also preferred to the technical polish of metal,” McKagan recalled in his 2012 memoir, <It’s So Easy: and Other Lies. “He reminded me of some of the cooler figures I had known back home, and I ended up giving him a ride to some other girl’s house later that night. We exchanged phone numbers and that was it.”
Thunders’ approach to music-making struck a chord with McKagan, not only figuratively but literally. “So Fine,” the 10th song on Use Your Illusion IIwas, in McKagan’s mind, less a direct tribute to his hero himself than an homage to his chord usage. (Thunders died only five months before the release of the LP.)
“Musically, he made it okay for us to start playing acoustic guitar, and to figure out some prettier chords that allowed us to take things to the next level,” McKagan told Kerrang! “I have an acoustic guitar which is within reach a lot of the time, and as soon as I pick it up, I go to a D chord – which is because of Johnny Thunders. That’s all because of So Alone.”
Like many admired in the punk scene for their voracious artistry, Thunders wrestled with issues in his personal life, falling deeper and deeper into drug addiction as the years went on and struggling to keep his concerts together. The last time McKagan saw Thunders perform live at an early ’80s show in Seattle, a small riot broke out. “I just sat back and watched it all happen and I just thought, ‘This is a mess,'” McKagan added. “The gig was over and I was starting to grow up, and I decided that I didn’t want to keep on going to see a guy who may or may not be able to finish the show.”
Listen to Guns N’ Roses Perform ‘So Fine’ Live in 2020
Thunders’ decline was underscored in 1986 when Guns N’ Roses was asked to open a pair of his shows at the Fender’s Ballroom in Long Beach, Calif. The evening quickly soured when Thunders was caught chatting up Axl Rose‘s girlfriend and asking around for a fix.
“Axl flipped out when he got wind that Johnny had hit on Erin, and began a tirade backstage,” McKagan said in It’s So Easy: And Other Lies. “Axl could be intimidating when he started yelling and carrying on. Johnny spent the rest of the night hiding in his dressing room, jonesing for a fix. Whatever remnants of a romantic and swashbuckling image I had of Johnny Thunders disappeared that night.”
Still, McKagan’s musical respect for Thunders endured. He popped in and out of studios throughout the Use Your Illusion tour, eventually completing a recording of Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory.” The cover appeared on Guns N’ Roses’ 1993 LP, The Spaghetti Incident? with a special introduction from McKagan: “This one’s for you, Johnny.”
Guns N’ Roses returned “So Fine” to their set list at a March 2020 concert in Mexico City, prior to the 30th anniversary of Thunders death. That was the first time the band had performed it since 1993.
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