Banned for Life: “Paradise City”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 5, 2009
With every passing year, I become more and more impressed with the classic Guns n Roses songs. For songs that I’ve heard countless times, it shocks me how I’m still able to find new nooks and crannies that I’d never really noticed or appreciated before. Of course, that’s not too hard to do when you’re dealing with nine-minute multi-part epics like “November Rain” and “Estranged,” but it’s more of a feat when you’re talking about relatively simple songs like “Patience” or “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” and you can still be stunned by the whisper’s worth of silence before the coda kicks in to the former or the way the way the rubbery bass line brilliantly compliments and really kicks the far more famous guitar intro to the latter into a higher gear. But there is a big fat exception to this in the Guns discography, and it comes in the form of one of my ten or so least favorite songs of all-time (and an unfortunately rarely-mentioned blemish on a hell of a debut album)–accepted rock and roll classic, “Paradise City.”
To be fair, I love “Paradise City” for about thirty seconds. I can’t argue with the freshness of that sun-soaked guitar riff, ringing out loud and clear as if the band knew that it would have to fill large stadiums with its hugeness in a short matter of time. And then that classic bass drum trope kicks in–boom…BAP! boom-BAP!–and it’s similarly undeniable, the musical equivalent to priming for a night’s worth of partying by taking two shots of whiskey on your way out the door. It’s exciting, it’s invigorating…so far, so good. Then the chorus kicks in, that quintessential rock and roll phrase–“Take me down, to a-Paradise City / Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty!“–and we’re positively rolling, fist-pumping, feet-stomping, ready for anything and everything that is to come. It is, undoubteldy, a hell of a way to start a song. But here’s the thing–half a minute in, and we’ve already reached the song’s very peak. It’s all downhill from here. And we still have a long way to go.
“Paradise City” is approximately six minutes and fifty seconds long, with no popular radio edit, at least not that I’ve ever heard. Now, you see that running time today, and you would be forgiven for thinking “hey, no big deal–that would probably make it the shortest song on Use Your Illusions II.” Fair enough, except that this is no symphonic, complex, fucked up, multi-sectional mega-masterpiece. Rather, this is a song where just about all that anyone remembers is a guitar riff and one line–one and a half, if you count its reiteration. Take a look at the following lyrics:
Strapped in the chair of the city’s gas chamber
Why I’m here I can’t quite remember
The surgeon general says it’s hazardous to breathe
I’d have another cigarette but I can’t see
Tell me who you’re gonna believe
It’s not a bad verse, really. But without context, would you ever have been able to identify them as being from “Paradise City”? In fact, can you sing a single non-chorus lyric to this song? I certainly can’t, and I must have heard this song at least fifty times, if not closer to 100. Axl sings them relatively unintellegibly throughout, not helped by the fact that many of the lyrics are sung in rapid-fire succession at the same rhythm of the guitar and drum lines, making them blend into veritable verbal mush. The lyrics to “Sweet Child O Mine” might not have been poetry, and some in fact have severe issues with them, but who wouldn’t be able to sing along to “Now and then when I see her face / It takes me away to that special place / And if I stare too long, I’ll probably break down and CRYY-YYYY…”? In “Paradise City,” all you can do is mumble along, shout out the one or two words you can pick out, and hope they get to the chorus soon.
Speaking of that chorus–is it really even that great? I mean, there’s no doubt that the central conceit–green grass, pretty girls, going home, good times–is about as classic rock as you can get. But what’s it doing in a Guns n Roses song? If it was in an AC/DC song, it would sound raunchy and dynamic. If it was in a Thin Lizzy song, it would sound romantic and wistful. If it was in a Motorhead song, it would sound threatening and very possibly illegal. But in a GnR song, it just sounds…unlikely. As established earlier on Appetite, the jungle is where GnR really lay their hat, and by comparison, “Paradise City” seems safe and boring. Mere pretty girls aren’t going to do it for Axl, he either needs sinful fallen angels that are as fucked up as he is, or gorgeous, world-famous supermodels that he can obsess over and abuse and alienate and write overwrought, self-loathing power-ballads about. And how much green grass is there on the Sunset Strip, anyway? I guess you could call it satire–and the verses (now that I read and understand them for the first time ever) probably support that theory–but I think it’s safe to say that nobody got it, and that they probably could’ve made their point a little more succinctly. (At least Slash’s original lyrics–“Where the girls are fat and they’ve got big titties”–were believably scummy).
And even if you do like the chorus, you probably won’t by the end of it, since like everything else in the song, it’s repeated to the point of mind-numbing redundancy. Nothing is done in the song that isn’t eventually done too many times. The riff gets played out ad nauseum, the double-time rhythm shift happens multiple times, the verses all sound the exact same, and the outro lasts forever. Even within the chorus, the fact that the second line is just a pointless “Oh won’t you please take me home?” echo means that by the time it’s done its first time out (and of course, it’s repeated again before that) it’s already driven the point home well enough–and we still have about two dozen chorus repititions to go. And as a karaoke regular, the song is a fucking nightmare scenario–since everyone loves the song and thinks they know how it goes, even though they really only know the chorus, you get jerks who get up there and are REALLY PUMPED about the song for all of the first chorus, until they stumble their way through the first couple verses, repeat the hook until it’s lost all possible excitement…and still have about three and a half minutes left. I feel bad for them for having to do the whole thing, but far worse for me for having to listen to it.
Boring, boring video, too.