Fans of Guns N' Roses, the unfeasibly successful heavy-metal band of the late Eighties and early Nineties, have been tortured by the endless delay on Chinese Democracy, their third "proper" album, 13 years in the making. After running up a reported $10m (£5.6m) in studio bills, employing eight producers and hiring and firing at least 20 musicians, the singer Axl Rose still hasn't come up with the goods.
But, if recent reports are reliable, the wait may be over. Rose told Rolling Stone: "People will hear music this year... It's a very complex record. I'm trying to do something different. Some people are going to say, 'It doesn't sound like Guns N' Roses.' But you'll like at least a few songs on there."
This isn't the first time the album has supposedly been near completion. In July 2004, Tommy Stinson, the Gunners bassist, said the album was "almost done". At the time, Rose put the delay down to "legal and other issues" including "ego management" and "the psychological mind-game" of keeping a large band "simmering but pulling in the same direction". A few months later, he advised fans on a website that they'd be better off waiting for the resurrection of Christ.
Maybe Rose just doesn't know when to admit defeat. In the late Eighties, Guns N' Roses were just about the biggest band on the planet, but then the guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin and bass player Duff McKagan walked out. Ever since, Rose has had a shifting cast of band members and embarked on some catastrophic tours, claiming all the while to be working on a masterpiece.
Pop is littered with examples of songwriters either reluctant to get on with the job in hand, or incapable of it. Following his copious output in the 1960s and 1970s, Scott Walker dropped off the musical radar until 1995, when he made the wilfully inscrutable Tilt. Asked what he'd been doing with his time, he said he'd "sat in pubs watching guys throw darts".
Kevin Shields' reaction to the success of My Bloody Valentine's 1991 album Loveless was to build a 16ft barbed-wire fence around his house and swear never to darken the music industry's doorstep again.
Kate Bush's tardiness in following up 1993's The Red Shoes is music-industry legend. In a pop landscape increasingly starved of originality, her silence grew deafening - as did the demand for a comeback. Last November's Aerial was a spectacular 12 years in the making. In spite of its laboured inception, it was a critical and commercial triumph and sealed Bush's status as a bona fide legend.
Then, of course, there is Brian Wilson. The creative force behind The Beach Boys took 37 years to complete Smile, his answer to The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper. His fragile mental state during recording sessions led to him to having a sandpit installed in his living room so he could feel the beach beneath his feet. After trying - and mercifully failing - to burn the master tapes, Wilson threw in the towel and his "teenage symphony to God" ended up locked away in a vault.
After that, he didn't go near a recording studio for 20 years. It wasn't until last year that the partially rehabilitated Wilson dusted down the old Smile tapes with the help of the original producer Van Dyke Parks and released the album, to huge acclaim.
These delays conjure up pictures of an artist in torment, searching for their muse. But in the notoriously indisciplined world of rock, this is not always the case. Wilson's 20-year sabbatical might look like a punishing period of artistic purgatory until you learn that he spent much of that time in bed, only getting up to take delivery of consignments of cocaine and fast food. Unhinged he may have been, but these are hardly the actions of a man looking to get back to work.
One more persistent rumour about Kate Bush is that, rather than summoning her muse, she spent the last decade baking cakes. Two years ago, on visiting the singer at her home to see what she'd been working on, her label bosses were apparently confronted with a teatime spread that would have put Mrs Beeton to shame.
These cases cannot be called writer's block, but there have been plenty of artists claiming to have suffered from this in the hope that it will afford them the mythical status of tortured genius. In fact, "writer's block" can hide a multitude of sins. For a slacker singer-songwriter living off the spoils of the last multimillion-seller, there can be no better excuse to avoid going back to work. The rumour of creative constipation can be the perfect smokescreen for the artist whose greatest work is behind them, and for whom the prospect of a worthy successor seems impossible. In such instances, one imagines, it's less a case of writer's block than stone-cold fear.
The Stereo MCs, creators of the Zeitgeist-surfing, award-winning 1992 album Connected, took nine years to get back in the studio - but the resulting LP, Deep Down and Dirty, bombed. The Scots siblings The Proclaimers took seven years to follow up their Hit The Highway album, citing the death of their father and writer's block as the reasons.
And who could blame The Stone Roses and Elastica for clamming up when it came to their respective second albums? The Roses' sophomore effort Second Coming, released five years after their 1989 debut, failed to live up to the title's promise, while Elastica's The Menace, released after a six-year hiatus, was dead on arrival.
For a songwriter locked in artistic paralysis, a suitable theme can often be staring them in the face. Pete Townshend managed to haul The Who out of a creative quagmire with the lyrics: "When you take up a pencil and sharpen it up/ When you're kicking the fence and nothing will budge" in "Guitar and Pen". The Fall's Mark E Smith pulled off the same trick with "How I Wrote Elastic Man" - "I'm living a fake/ People say, 'You are entitled to and great'/ But I haven't wrote for 90 days." Last year, Nick Cave revealed the same affliction in "There She Goes My Beautiful World", complaining: "Me, I'm lying here, with nothing in my ears/ Me, I'm lying here for what seems like years/ I'm just lying on my bed with nothing in my head."
Of course, there's a difference between writer's block and simply being a perfectionist. But there is something compelling about a once-brilliant songwriter in creative exile. The artist Marcel Duchamp gave up painting at the age of 36 and devoted the rest of his life to playing chess. As for Axl Rose, maybe he'd be better off binning the album. That way, he can at least be sure the legend will live on.
'Chinese Democracy' will be released later this year. AllegedlyReuse content