If Noel Gallagher’s wading into a Glastonbury headliner debate, you know matters are taking a significant turn. Back in 2008, Noel was “not having” Jay-Z headlining; this year, indie music’s sagest commentator finds it “crazy s***” that Guns N’ Roses are topping Saturday night’s bill. And this time, rather than his comments being brushed like dirt from the shoulder of progress, he has a point.
By booking Guns N’ Roses, having spent 15 solid years widening the cultural remit of Britain’s most legendary festival, Glastonbury made its biggest backward misstep since Mumford & Sons. The festival could have honoured a rich and influential songbook, like those of the Pyramid Stage’s other heritage heroes Paul McCartney, Elton, Bowie or The Rolling Stones. But from the moment GN’R arrive – with uncharacteristic punctuality – they represent everything dated, rockist, indulgent and macho that Glastonbury has rejected since its inception.
Launching into the grisly Sunset Strip rock’n’roll of “It’s So Easy”, Axl Rose writhes around the stage like he’s in a pop-up ad for a very niche fetish website, while Slash works relentless quicksilver riffs from his Gibson. The 57-year-old holds his guitar at a permanently priapic angle, with the expression of a plumber installing a particularly intricate under-sink filter system. A structure is swiftly set. There will be sporadic air-punching to crowd-rousing hard rock classics, which are largely culled from 1987’s Appetite For Destruction. But enjoy these while you can, because it’s liable to be 30 to 40 minutes of self-indulgent soloing, set-padding punk covers and overlong bluster rock before the next one shows up.
Guns N’ Roses misfit a Glastonbury headline slot on so many levels that they might as well be wearing T-shirts reading “Leylines Suck” or “Beards NEED Moustaches”. Jock-friendly heroin tributes like “Mr Brownstone” are made to chug kegs to, not lose yourself, the size of a pinhead, in a pint of psychedelic cider. “Bad Obsession” sounds like Eighties Reading’s revenge. And despite them being this year’s only Pyramid Stage headline act with a female member (in keyboardist Melissa Reese), there are moments when they exude more toxic masculinity than Andrew Tate’s personal Lynx factory. Witness Axl berating a “syphilitic priestess” with a “p**** full of maggots” to visuals of slime beasts, banshees and crawling metallic Medusa hair, like the most incel of Tinder trolls. Or “Pretty Tied Up”, boasting the none-more-chivalrous chorus “pretty tied up, hanging upside down, pretty tied up and you can ride her”.
Axl, it quickly transpires, is Guns N’ Roses’ fatal flaw. The band may be capable of weighing down their paciest speed-rock workout (“Double Talkin’ Jive”) to a ponderous chug and could drag “The Wheels on the Bus” out to an overblown 12 minutes. But even when they’re locked into a powerful, charged union – on, say, “Estranged” or “Reckless Life” – Rose makes the whole thing sound like a Muppet Show pastiche of hard rock. It’s his voice: a creature that, were you to take it to a vet, would come home in a cardboard box. Mumbling vague approximations of English words as if chronically constipated (if you’ve hit the goat curry hard enough, you’ll feel his intestinal pain), he flips between a lower register that resembles a clogged lawnmower and a higher one that sounds like Barry Gibb suffering the mother of all wedgies.
It deflates even their most iron-clad tunes. Terf Twitter might watch him shriek his way through “Welcome to the Jungle” and consider it living proof that grown men are now identifying as cockerels. “November Rain” – Axl at the piano and band in full bombast mode – makes Elton’s “I’m Still Standing” look like a masterclass in enunciation. “You Could Be Mine” sounds like it’s being mauled by a pack of wild cats and Axl lands such relentless hammer blows to the skull of Wings’ “Live and Let Die” (minus the rumoured Macca guest spot) that “let die” becomes the kindest option. The righteous import of “Civil War”, adorned with images of a tattered Ukrainian flag, are lost in his formless mewling. A parade of rock cliché outfits – shiny biker king, Vegas magician – only serve to emphasise the sense that he’s become a lounge singer tribute to himself.
When Rose disappears and lets bassist Duff McKagen take the mike for The Stooges’ “TV Eye”, the visceral punk rock band at Guns N’ Roses core comes out to play in his absence. And to his credit, Rose adequately handles more leisurely tracks like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” and “Patience” and knocks a fantastic final “Paradise City”, featuring Dave Grohl’s 37th surprise guest slot of the weekend, clean out of the Avalonian vale. But by this point, even truncating their usual three-hour set to a relatively nimble two-and-a-half, they’re exhausting viewing and frontrunners for the worst Glastonbury headline set of all time. Crazy s***? If only it’d been crazy, Noel…
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