Guns N’ Roses “Breakdown”

When Guns N’ Roses released their Use Your Illusion albums I & II simultaneously, they were at their creative peak. Coming off their massive Appetite For Destruction sales, all eyes were on the band to prove they weren’t just a one-trick pony. G’N’R answered with two albums which not only retained the rock style they demonstrated in Appetite, but also expanded their sound by adding a blues, country, progressive, and even hints of classical music to their repertoire.

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Use Your Illusion I debuted at #2 on the Billboard charts behind Use Your Illusion II. Both albums are certified 7x platinum and are often seen as a double-album instead of two separate releases. Some may argue that if you take the best of I and II and put that on a single CD, that would make a better album instead of two separate releases. I whole heartedly disagree because each album has its own identity and should be heard that way. If you mix them up, that identity would be lost and you’d just have another Cd full of songs rather than having a cohesive record that creates its own atmosphere and meaning.

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Use Your Illusion II (UYI2) is considered the darker, softer album. Although both albums demonstrated a more polished G’N’R, UYI2 was far more political and personal than the UYI1. It contained songs like “Civil War,” and “Get in the Ring” that dealt with matters of violence and media bias/framing. It’s also considered to be the “artsier” of the two albums, with a handful of songs clocking in at over seven minutes in length and includes the experimental Axl Rose cut, “My World.”

Since both albums together contained thirty tracks, it is not hard to believe that most people have never heard over 70% of the songs.

Which brings us to today’s Single Shot.

“Breakdown” is track seven off of UYI2. Written by Axl Rose, it is one of the most distinguishable songs off the album as it opens with a banjo. As Slash explains, “That’s a five-string banjo tuned to guitar because I don’t know anything about banjo. It’s something I wrote off-the-cuff when Axl came up with that piano part. I had this idea that it should sound like that so I tuned it like a guitar. I don’t know how to play banjo.”

The rolling piano keeps the song pulsating along as Axl unfolds the tale of heartache and mistrust. I have to admit that the lyrics are my favorite part of the song, and it was the first thing I noticed upon hearing it. Axl appears to be describing a love gone wrong between a man and a woman:

When sometimes we get burned
You’d think sometime we’d learn
The one you love is the one that should take you higher

… and through lines like this:

You ain’t got no one
you better go back out and find her

But I never really got the impression that the song was actually about men and women. It seems to me that Axl was referring to being betrayed by all of those around him, especially the ones he trusted and loved the most. Keep in mind, when the Use Your Illusion albums were being recorded, Axl Rose had become a household name and face. My guess is that when this happened, a lot of close friends, loved ones, and perhaps even family came out of the woodwork to get a piece of him. He writes, “But everybody darlin’ sometimes bites the hand that feeds.”

He seems to say that if we don’t have a someone to help us through these difficult and confusing times, that we’re going to get lost and become cold to all around us.

The one you love is the one that should take you higher
You ain’t got no one, you better go back out and find her

Axl isn’t sure who’s to blame in this regard, though. Maybe this is the price to pay for fame? Maybe he’s the one that pushed people away because he developed a sense of paranoia that consumed him?

When I look around everybody always brings me down
Well is it them or me well I just can’t see but there ain’t no peace to be found

At the end, we all hope that when we are so extremely lost and in need of some love, we still have those true to us that will always be there to support and help us.

But if I call you out of habit I’m out of love and I gotta have it
Would you give it to me if I fit your needs like when we both knew we had it

One thing I’ve always wondered about the last lines of the song is whether Axl is referring to Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns, or someone from that band (it should be noted that three of the original L.A. Guns members once belonged to Guns N’ Roses. G’n’R obviously became the bigger-selling artist).

Funny how ev’rything was roses when we held on to the guns
Just because you’re winnin’ don’t mean you’re the lucky ones

The last part of the song, Axl’s monologue, was taken from the film Vanishing Point. He explains, “There is nothing on the record that didn’t come out the way we wanted, except maybe the vocal speech (the monologue) at the end of “Breakdown.” The mix on the speakers that we did the mastering on was loud enough, but on other sets of speakers it’s not. It depends on what stereo you’re hearing it on, and we didn’t know that.”

I love the last line of the monologue: “… it is written, if the evil spirit arms the tiger with claws, Brahman provided wings for the dove.”

According to Hinduism, Brahman is the ultimate in space, time, and the universe, he is the highest god. So the way I interpret that line is that if harm is coming your way, Brahman gave you wings to just fly away and be safe. What a gorgeous line.

There are so many other tracks on the Use Your Illusion albums to discuss, but “Breakdown” has always held a special place for me because it shows so many sides of not only Axl Rose but Guns N’ Roses as well. They weren’t just a the raw, unruly, hard rockin’ and drinkin’ band they were intially seen as… they were songsmiths who took pride in their craft. “Breakdown” is melodic, intelligent, and well, rockin’ song that stays true to the G’n’R sound but also shows that things are not always as they seem.

And maybe if more bands would take chances like G’n’R did with the Use Your Illusion albums, more albums would be sold than singles. But that’s another subject for another time.

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12 thoughts on “Guns N’ Roses “Breakdown”

  1. Okay you are giving me way too much music in one evening. I am trying to keep up 🙂 Good thing there is an unlimited supply of music for you to write about. I do love me some Axl Rose especially the older classic Guns N’ Roses songs.

    Thank you again for another great article and for taking so much time to link us to everything we need in all of your blogs. I am glad you are having fun with this and doing what you love.

  2. Man, I’ve always loved Axl’s voice – so distinct, raw and raspy. Thanks for breaking down the song like that…pretty cool to read and then listen again with your interpretations in mind. And I agree, the last line is a gorgeous line – love how the song ends.

    Thanks for the tune! 🙂

  3. I have the “Use Your Illusion I” album, and now I wish I had “Use Your Illusion II.” Thanks for this eye-opening article. I’ve always loved Guns N’ Roses… and “Breakdown” is an amazing song! I was thinking that maybe that banjo sound was a keyboard set to “banjo” (like Chris Thomkins did with Bo’s “Jesus is My Neighbor” on RFF). Very creative that Slash tuned it like a guitar! The whole song is such an interesting combination… between the instrumentation, Axl’s voice, and the lyrics. Your “breakdown” of the lyrics helped me appreciate the song even more. Yes… that last line is gorgeous! I also found it interesting about the end monologue sounding different between the master and different sets of speakers. My friend had that same problem with his album. It sounded perfect on the master, but drastically different on different speakers!

  4. I absolutely loved G&R and had the opportunity to see them in concert. Axl Rose was (is?) genius on these albums, I have always loved his voice because it can take so many turns from growl to the softer side (just like that hippie guy with the long hair). What has bummed me out forever is that Axl let his “paranoia” (or whatever his issues are) turn him into a putz. It’s way too sad that he didn’t deal with his fame and success to keep G&R alive and making music. Oh yeah, I guess G&R is somewhat alive and, well, there’s Chinese Democracy, but I’ll believe its release when I see it. Thanks for the great blog, Thomas, G&R was one of THE greatest rock bands ever.

  5. Man, lemme tell ya, you must have been lurking around my house or something. GNR has been a main staple since my 10 yr old son started playing Burnout Paradise on PS3. He really liked the theme song (Paradise City of course) so I started pulling out all the old GNR tunes I had. Sadly most of them are on cassette tape and I don’t have anything to play them on, but this really makes me want to go out and grab some CDs. Axl Rose has such a distintive voice in that it can be so raw and almost scary and turn right around and be so haunting and sad. I think I’ve heard Breakdown maybe once or twice because I distinctly remember the banjo. EXCELLENT EXCELLENT article friend!

  6. I like the lyric breakdown. Reminds me of college poetry classes. Which I loved (mostly). A good song IS poetry, simply set to music. Guess I’ve got some listening to do. Tres cool.

  7. Of course the GNR topic got my attention. Always loved that song. The guitar parts are classic Slash and although the song is completely different than their other stuff, it still rocks.

    I just had this arguement the other day with a good friend of mine who is also a huge GnR fan…I prefer Use Your Illusion I and he prefers II. Don’t get me wrong, I love them both but UYII has some of my favorite songs on it… Dust n Bones, Back Off Bitch, Perfect Crime, Dead Horse, Coma…of course Don’t Cry, November Rain. I agree they are both completely different albums…and you’re right II is more “artsier”.

    I was lucky enough to get Slash’s book for Christmas last year and it is a must read. Its not just about Slash, it tells EVERYTHING about GnR from start to finish and really helps to explain who they were and what the music was all about. I’m afraid my take at the end is that they will never reunite….although I keep my fingers crossed that I’m wrong.

    In one month we’ll hope to be able to pick up Chinese Democracy, finally…and we’ll see if it was worth the LONG wait.

    Ah Rock n Roll….

  8. Yeah I got both UYI 1 & 2 when they first came out and I honestly do still listen to them. Both have songs I dig alot, this article was cool for me cuz Ive always been into the alot of rock/metal artists lyrics just as much as the music in them. Hope u do more:)

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