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Thread: The Cultural Impact of Two Classic Rock Songs (Guns N Roses Vs Nirvana)

  1. #1

    Default The Cultural Impact of Two Classic Rock Songs (Guns N Roses Vs Nirvana)

    I wrote this analysis as part of my Diploma of Music - tuition course I took last year. I thought I'd share it with this site and see what people think. Music theory geeks, like me, might enjoy this.

    By Dave Smiles

    Welcome To The Jungle and Smells Like Teen Spirit. Guns N Roses and Nirvana, two bands that dominated the rock scenes of two different decades. Two songs that changed not just the face of rock n roll, but also the world… well, at least the world of popular culture. By the mid-1980s rock n roll had become ‘safe’ and easily marketable to a mainstream market. Dance music had also become prominent and the rock n roll bands that were around were cheap imitations of Motley Crue and Van Halen. While Guns N Roses have been included in the ‘hair metal’ genre and originating from the ‘hairspray’ capital of the time - Los Angeles, they were actually kicking against the style. A collective feeling amongst the original members of the band was that rock and roll had gotten too safe and commercial and there was a real need for some stripped back dirty street level rock n roll. Taking influences from The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and supercharging them with the punk attitudes of The Sex Pistols and Haoni Rock, the ‘Gunners’ would become the biggest band on the planet by the end of the 1980s. By 1991, with many of the hard rock bands of the eighties burning out, breaking up, or just getting too ridiculous for fans to be able to relate to anymore, Nirvana would change the landscape once more, stripping rock music down to an even more bare bones structure, taking out the technical solos and flash stage shows, the grunge era took the attitude of the disenfranchised American youth to the world.

    Both bands brought rock n roll back down to earth, and then let success turn them into what they had sort to avoid.

    While it is true many rock fans like both bands, there are as many, if not more, who will prefer one over the other. Regardless of your opinions of either band, or your preference, there’s no denying the impact both bands had on popular music and on the world. Welcome To The Jungle and Smells Like Teen Spirit remain two rock classics, often appearing in ‘best of’ lists and influencing future musicians for years to come.

    Both songs came into existence in similar ways, both met initial resistance from the media and both were made successful by the voice of the fans, for their respective generations, who found something within the songs they could relate to.

    Hard Rock originated in the late 1960s with bands such as The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream and The Rolling Stones. 1970s rock bands like Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Ac/Dc brought a harder edge to the music but, like the 60s bands, still maintained their influences in the blues. When the 1980s arrived rock n roll lost some of the danger. Guns N Roses adopted more of a classic rock style and injected elements of Punk rock into the mix. Along with peers like Skid Row, Alice Cooper, Aerosmith and Motley Crue, Guns N Roses brought back gritty street level, honest Hard Rock. With the success of Welcome To The Jungle and Sweet Child o’Mine, Guns N Roses connected with millions and brought hard rock / heavy metal into the mainstream.
    Taking its influences from the blues, and even swing music, Hard rock can be described as loud and aggressive but just as often has its softer moments. Guitars heroes, the masters of dexterous and challenging solos, are often seen as the stars of the show. They often share, or fight for, the spot light with a charismatic singer. Singer’s voices need to be loud and vary from banshee like wails and screaming falsettos to deep monotone mumbles and guttural cries. They also need to be able to show a sensitive side. Songs vary from complex arrangement to simple two chord works of fun. The drums maintain heavy use of the kick drum, tom and snare double time beats and cymbal crashes left to ring for emphasis. The bass strengthens the rhythms guitar work, but often has a chance to shine with its own riffs and solos.

    Grunge, one of the many sub genres of hard rock, developed from alternative rock which emerged in the mid-1980s in Seattle. American media had been focused on Los Angeles and New York in the 1980s, ignoring Seattle until the success of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit in the early nineties. Grunge bands are inspired by hard-core punk, seventies hard rock, and indie rock. As in hard rock, guitars are heavily distorted, but include fuzz and feedback. Songs consisted of contrasting sections of soft and loud, and angst-filled lyrics about social alienation, confinement, feeling misunderstood and a need for individuality. It targeted a culture of teen depression and often mocked the glam rock popularity of the 1980s. Many grunge musicians had an unkempt appearance, with clothing consisting of op shop items and flannel shirts. Grunge concerts were straightforward with bands rejecting big budgets, avoiding complex lighting, pyrotechnics, and visual effects.
    Seventies hard rock bands like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin also influenced many Grunge bands, although many fans of the genre considered these bands ‘old’ and irrelevant. There seemed to be an overall rebellious nature from the grunge generation that extended to everything including music itself. While Guns N Roses fans respected bands that had come before them, Nirvana fans appeared to dismiss anything more than a decade old.
    When the popularity of Grunge shifted the world’s focus to Seattle, clothing companies started marketing "grunge fashion" and charged high prices for items best described as op shop fodder. Many grunge artists were uncomfortable with their success. Some even stating that the ‘wrong type of fans were buying their albums’, criticizing the music industry, businesses, ticketek radio stations, fans etc. One of the problems was the music was initially an underground culture intended for underprivileged teens who had similar issues that the musicians were writing about. When Grunge became mainstream, teens from middle class families latched onto it and started to create their own manufactured issues to become part of the style. Being depressed had become cool. (Opening the door for the mainstream success of hip hop in the mid to late nineties. At least the hip hop guys were interested in chicks, partying, cars and money. Everything mainstream hard rock was about in the eighties.)

    By the latter half of the 1990s grunge merged into ‘post-grunge’, a watered down version of the genre consisting of radio-friendly productions. Brit-pop emerged around this time as a reaction against grunge. Bands such as Blur and Oasis were against the pessimistic attitudes and sick of how miserable rock n roll had become.

    While the most of the grunge bands that dominated the 1990s have slipped into oblivion; There seems to be a bit of a resurgence emerging – Soundgarden, Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam recently resurrecting and releasing albums. The 80s metal bands such as Guns N Roses (and solo outings from each of the original members), Motley Crue, Poison; and 70s bands such as Aerosmith and Alice Cooper et al have constantly continued to tour and record albums.


    The Guns N Roses song was released in 1987 as the second single from their debut album Appetite For Destruction and helped to make it the biggest selling debut album of all time; a record still held to this day.

    The lyrics were written by singer Axl Rose while in Kingston Washington, (ironically, just outside of Seattle). Original rhythm guitarist Izzy Stradlin sums the song up as being ‘about Hollywood streets; true to life.’ The music originated from a riff that lead guitarist Slash wrote which interested Axl.

    After playing it to the band they worked up the basis of the song in about three hours. Slash credits bass player Duff McKagan for coming up with the main riff, which Duff says came from a song called The Fake, written in 1978 for his punk rock band Vains. The lyric ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ comes from a 1984 song Underwater World by Finnish glam punk band Hanoi Rocks. A band cited by Axl as the biggest influence on Guns N Roses.

    Geffen Records had trouble selling the video to MTV, until a deal was made between David Geffen and the network. The video was aired once at about 5:00AM on a Sunday morning. After its debut the network received numerous calls from people wanting to see it again. It soon became one of MTV's most requested videos.

    The song has been a standard in the bands live set since its creation. Tours with the original line up(s) included the song in any part of the set, but rarely as a show closer (set lists were changed nightly). Since touring resumed with the ‘new’ Guns N Roses the song was a standard show opener until 2009 when it was moved to the second slot and replaced with the song Chinese Democracy.

    It has been used as a show introduction during Shakira’s world tour ‘The Tour Of The Mongoose’ and Pink covered the song live in 2003 during her Try This Tour.

    Welcome to the Jungle was selected by Clint Eastwood to be used in the final Dirty Harry movie The Dead Pool, which featured an unknown Jim Carey playing a rock star lip synching to the song. Guns N Roses have a brief cameo in the film.

    Song Analysis

    Welcome To The Jungle is in the key of E minor. (The guitars are detuned down a half step, but for the sake of making things simple, this article will review the song in standard notation.) The first note played is a B, the Perfect 5th of the key. The tempo starts in 104 b.p.m. The first two of which are not in strict time, with a bar of 4/4 and a bar of 2/4. These could be called a ‘teaser’ intro as a single note ‘B’ is struck with an echo effect repeating it, creating a slow build up. It is an instantly recognizable intro to fans.

    Next the melody pattern is established, the echo effect still present. It runs down a B blues pentatonic scale. B, A, F#, E, D, B for the next five bars as ringing power-chords begin in bar 5. The power-chords are B, A, G and E, (V, IV, III, I). Under this progression a solo lick is played using the B pentatonic scale. Heavy use of the B and A chords could be the 4th or 5th from either the E major or E minor keys however using the G chord (III) and D (VII) chord, the 3rd and 7th from E minor strengthens this as being the key. The intro ends as the tempo increases to 124 b.p.m. The lead guitar does a chromatic run up the B pentatonic scale, with the 3rd note flattened to C#, establishing the note that will be used in the forthcoming F# power-chord in the main riff. It’s also the 6th note from E minor’s parallel E major scale, which is borrowed from throughout the song.

    Over the intro, Axl lets out a long siren type vocal howl.

    After the intro the main riff is quickly established. The riff is in A, the 4th of the key. The chords in the riff consist of A, G, A, F#, E, (IV, III, IV, ii, i) Two guitars play variations on the riff. Guitar 1 plays power-chords for three bars and then finishes with a semiquaver blues run. Guitar 2 uses open string chords and single notes before cutting back in bar four to let the blues lick from guitar one shine through.

    During the verse the guitars simplify the riff with smaller chords. The riff stays in A for four bars, then is transposed up a 5th to E. The riff now contains a C# power chord, but includes a D natural so it hasn’t modulated completely to E major. This is more the result of maintaining the same intervals between the chords by just moving the whole progression up a 5th. The vocals range from B to a high C#. The lyrics stabbing the point across in quick, energised bursts.

    The chorus once again sticks to E minor, but includes C# from the parallel major. The first two bars of the chorus are similar, but a tone apart. Bar one starts on C, bar two on D. The remaining crotches follow the same intervals before the remaining four bars of the chorus mirror the main riff with single notes. The vocal range is from E to high D, consisting of the famous ‘Sha-na-na-na-na knees’ line; helping to establish Axl as one of the most unique vocalists in hard rock.

    The first solo is 8 bars, with the rhythm guitar sticking to an E minor chord with some single notes mixed in until bars 7 and 8 when he chugs chromatically D, D#, E in quavers four times (the D# being a chromatic passing note). The notes contained in the solo include C#, G# and the occasional D#, making it an E major scale. The majority of the notes in this solo are played in thirds, mostly minor. The use of the triton note A# helps to create tension, as does using the E major scale over an E minor chord progression. Using intervals of minor thirds and tritons helps to create feelings of tension, perhaps implying the struggles of ‘life within the jungle.’ The final note of the solo is C#. The major 6th of E. The song isn’t finished so there’s no reason to resolve just yet.

    The bridge section could be divided into three parts. Part one is in seven bars, D F / G F / D F / G F / D F / G F / D F. The F chord is placed briefly before changing to the next chord. This raises the question ‘has the song changed keys?’ The use of the D chord, the 7th of the minor key, which contains the F#, creates overall tonality of the section so it stays in E minor. The ‘F5 chord is used in this case as a passing chord. Part two of the bridge uses the same trick of using the F chord, this section has more strumming of the chords, building up to the second solo. Part three contains three bars and consists of triton slides G/C# to G#/D, which resolves to B/E the first time, then D/G on the second.

    The second solo is 16 bars. The song modulates to E major as this backing rhythm contains the chords E, F#, G#, A, B, C#, D#. (I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, vii) All from the major scale, while maintain the power chord style typical of rock music. It gives a more harmonically pleasing feel to the song, almost as if the listener and the band have adapted to deal with overcoming the obstacles of life in ‘the jungle’. (Or they just decided to give each solo a different feel but using a different progression of chords.) There is a brief venture into the E pentatonic scale in the 11th and 12th bars of the solo, before returning to the E major scale. To reinforce that we’re in E major now, the rhythm guitarist chugs on a C# power chord, then switches from B to A. This is done over 2 bars, repeated three times. It follows with an eight note chug on E for two bars, then B for two bars. This is repeated a bit fancier, before finishing with an F# power chord chug ending with an E to F# switch.
    The song continues with a 16 bar breakdown. We’re now back in E minor, drum and bass have taken over for a slow build up before we head for the end of the song. The guitars kick way back, using atmospheric harmonics and slides, with an echo effects. On the 7th bar, the guitars begin a chromatic chug in 16ths. E, D#, D, C#, C, B played twice, then harmonised in minor 3rds twice. It’s repeated another four times as Axl asks ‘You know where you are…?’ ‘You gonna die!!! Is quickly followed with the breakdowns final two bars, consisting of a back and forward progression, F#, F, F#, G, then A, G#, A, A#. Back and forward, almost hesitant to continue; before charging head first into the outro chorus.

    The riff has been shortened for the final chorus from six bars to four, cutting back on two bars which contain variations on the main riff, creating a sense of urgency. This abridged version of the chorus riff is repeated three times before a quick three bar outro, consisting of a variation on the main riff power chords. E, D, B♭, A, G -- A major, G major, E major. Then ending on a E7#9 chord.

    E7#9 played on the guitar is a basic E major open string chord with a high D and G added. The six notes played are E, B, E, G#, D, G. The E major chord is represented with the G#, whereas the E minor chord is represented by the G natural and reinforced by the minor 7th note – D. In terms of the chord name, the #9 is a G natural. The ninth note in the scale being F#, sharpened to G natural.

    Song Structure
    Intro – 14 bars / Riff – 4 bars / Verse 1 – 8 bars / Chorus – 6 bars / Verse 2 – 8 bars / Chorus – 6 bars / Solo 1 – 8 bars / Verse 3 – 8 bars / Chorus – 6 bars / Bridge – 15 bars / Solo 2 – 16 bars / Breakdown – 16 bars / Chorus – 14 bars / End – 3 bars.

  2. #2



    Upon release as a single Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, from their second album Nevermind, only sold amongst the band’s already established fan base. It was never expected to be a hit and the surprise success in late 1991 brought the album to the top of the charts in early 1992, kick-starting the ‘Alternative Rock’ craze that dominated mainstream rock music in the 1990s. The song was dubbed an "anthem for apathetic kids" of Generation X.
    Kurt Cobain was influenced by the song-writing style of The Pixies. He borrowed their ideas of playing soft and quiet and then loud and hard. After presenting the main riff and chorus melody to the band, they worked on it until they had the song. It’s the only song on Nevermind credited to all three members. The title comes from a misinterpretation of a spray painted message on Kurt’s wall. "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit". He thought the slogan had a revolutionary meaning, but it actually meant that he smelled like the deodorant Teen Spirit.

    Smells Like Teen Spirit follows a Fsus4–B♭–A♭sus4–D♭ (i, iv, III, VI) chord progression. The sus4 of F being the tonic of the approaching chord – B♭, which works almost as a leading note. The same applies to the sus 4 of A♭, leading to the D♭ major chord. Having only one guitarist in the band, the album track is doubled to make it stronger. Although it follows a different chord progression, there has been a comparison to the riff from the 1976 Boston hit More Than A Feeling. Cobain agreed with the observation stating it was ‘such a clichéd riff.’

    Cobain’s slurred vocals, along with utter nonsense of the lyrics themselves make it difficult to understand just what the hell he’s talking about. This caused a resistance from radio stations to playing the song. MTV prepared a version of the video that included the lyrics running across the bottom of the screen. It is widely interpreted as a teen revolution anthem, however drummer Dave Grohl stated he doesn’t believe the song has any message. "Just seeing Kurt write the lyrics to a song five minutes before he first sings them, you just kind of find it a little bit hard to believe that the song has a lot to say about something. You need syllables to fill up this space or you need something that rhymes.”

    The video premiered on MTV's late-night alternative rock program 120 Minutes and became so popular MTV added it to its regular daytime rotation. By the end of the year the song, video, and the album Nevermind had become hits, reaching all the major rock radio formats.

    During live performances the band often altered the song's lyrics and tempo. It has been covered in various styles including piano, Jazz, industrial, Moog synthesizer, beat box, a cappella, swing, and techno as well as being sampled and used for Yahoo and as entrance music for wrestlers. Artists who covered the song include Tori Amos, The Bad Plus, The Melvins with former child star Leif Garrett, Xorcit, The Flying Pickets, Paul Anka, and Patti Smith. It has also been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic and Pansy Division

    Song Analysis

    Smells Like Teen Spirit’s intro consists of a four bar riff. The chords are Fsus4, B♭, A♭sus4, D♭. (Isus4, iv, IIIsus4, VI) The key is F minor. F, G, A♭, B♭, C, D♭, E. The intro riff is written over four bars. The first time it’s played is in a clean tone before the distortion kicks in and the riff is repeated twice.
    The main riff that plays throughout the verse consists of two notes C and F. The verse is eight bars. The vocals range is G to F, the melody is repetitive and hypnotic.

    The pre chorus is straight crochets of F and C. With power chord minims of intro riff chord progression. The vocal range is F to A, monotone, hypnotic. The chorus consists of the same riff as the intro. The vocal range is C to B. Higher, Kurt’s awake now and yelling.

    There is now a bridge section. 4 bars, power chords. F, E, G♭, B♭, A♭. Two bars, repeat. Variation at the end.

    The solo, if you can call it that, mirrors the vocal melody. There are no accidentals, it just sticks to the key and leads into the breakdown section which is the final note of the solo sustained with feedback. Then the outro. ‘A denial’ vocal range from F to A.

    Song Structure
    Intro – 12 bars / Main riff – 4 bars / Verse – 8 bars / Pre-chorus – 8 bars / Chorus – 12 bars / Bridge – 4 bars / Main riff – 4 bars / Verse – 8 bars / Pre-chorus – 8 bars / Chorus – 12 bars / Solo – 8 bars / Breakdown – 8 bars / Verse – 8 bars / Pre-chorus – 8 bars / Chorus – 12 bars / Outro – 11 bars fade out.

  3. #3


    an interesting article/essay Dave...
    i have read it but to be honest i dont understand some of it because i am a music listener...not an expert...!
    you may get a better,more indepth response from Jerome...

  4. #4


    Thanks Crazy-Horse for taking the time to read my work. Much appreciated.

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