Break-ups don’t come much cooler.
One afternoon in late 1993, according to drummer Chalo Quintana, Izzy Stradlin left the Ju Ju Hounds’ studio for cigarettes and never came back. Two years earlier, he’d left Guns N’ Roses, by then the biggest rock n’ roll band on the planet, in only slightly less casual circumstances. It seems Axl Rose wasn’t the only member of Guns N’ Roses who has difficulty working with others; most accounts of the Ju Ju Hounds break-up concede that Izzy simply didn’t want to work with another dominant personality- so he left.
Stradlin resurfaced in 1998 with 117 Degrees
, his first “solely solo” release. Five years is a long time to drop of the face of the earth: Axl was by now the only original member remaining in Guns N’ Roses, Izzy had cut his hair, and his original music had come along leaps and bounds. Izzy Stradlin & The Ju Ju Hounds
wasn’t a particularly distinctive album, heavily indebted to The Rolling Stones, The Faces and The Clash. Conceived primarily as a reaction to the elaborate stadium rock that the latter-day Guns N’ Roses had become under Axl Rose (and that Izzy had only a minor role in creating), it was a return to that band’s roots. The follow-up was to be an entirely more adventurous album.
Five years saw Izzy develop a distinctive, and continually evolving, style as a solo artist as well as a steady studio line-up, which included ex-Georgia Satellite and Ju Ju Hound Rick Richards, Guns bassist Duff McKagan, drummer Taz Bentley of psychobilly legends Reverend Horton Heat and producer Eddie Ashworth (who produced Ju Ju Hounds
.) From a songwriting perspective, the Stones’ influence is as important as ever, however 117 Degrees
is a considerably more diverse affair than its predecessor. The title track and ‘Parasite’ both contain hints of the Ramones, while ‘Bleedin’’ and ‘Old Hat’ recall pre-rock n’ roll blues music, complete with bottleneck slides and a semi-ironic twang. Most remarkable, however, is the rockabilly and surf influences which dominate the second half of the record and account for the album’s two covers: Chuck Berry’s ‘Memphis’ and Ronnie Dawson’s ‘Up Jumped The Devil.’
‘Here Before You’ is the album’s real turning-point. Nominally a Sticky Fingers
-era Stones-influenced rocker, it unravels with a hook straight from the rockabilly revival textbook with an echoed bass guitar riff to boot. What follows is one of the most remarkable flip-sides to a rock record in recent times. ‘Up Jumped the Devil,’ ‘Methanol’ and ‘Grunt’ demonstrate just how tight the interplay between the two guitarists is, the latter one of two instrumentals. ‘Surf Roach,’ the second, predictably hangs on certain surf rock clichés, with numerous whammy-bar dips and percussive, Dick Dale-style guitar riffs. ‘Grunt’ has a similar surf rock flavour, albeit more aggressive and with extra melodic variety.
‘Gotta Say’ and ‘Good Enough’ are among the gems in Stradlin’s armour, fully acoustic ditties (with mandolin!) that recall the best of Paul Westerberg’s post-Replacements material. ‘Gotta Say’ comes across as the harsher, more cynical cousin of ‘Patience,’ echoing that track sonically but offering a far less idealistic portrait of the failing relationship, as Izzy sings, ”I saw the truth out walking / It walked right out of my door / I didn’t try to follow / ‘Cuz I knew the score”
. Later, he asks, ”tell me what you’ve got to say? / I see through you anyway / I think you have underestimated me.”
If ‘Gotta Say’ is to be related to ‘Patience,’ then ‘Good Enough’ is surely the missing link. One of two tracks recorded with the Ju Ju Hounds at those abortive sessions, it’s more subdued and morose lyrically, as summed up by the phrase, “I'm done looking for the words to tell you what I'd say”
‘Memphis’ is the second Ju Ju Hounds track, a rousing rendition of the Chuck Berry classic with newly-composed dual-lead guitar lines and thunderous drumming. ‘Ain’t That A Bitch’ is a slide-heavy Stones-like rocker, while ‘Parasite’ is a minute-and-a-half of wild west punk attitude, containing the immortal phrase, ”You’re just a maggot in a one-horse town / You fucking loser, you stole my guns.”
Yet it all comes back to album highlight ‘Old Hat,’ a dirty twelve-bar blues number with a reggae-inspired beat that recalls the best of the early Guns N’ Roses tracks. Detailing all his old vices, he dismisses them one at a time and all at once as “old hat.” Cocaine? Smack? ”Been there, done that, that ain’t too clever / I sure don’t miss it, had enough of that crap.”
He goes on to say, “Though I wouldn’t mind to have myself a bazooka / I’d go play Elvis and blow a hole in my roof.”
In the end, that one line summarises perfectly how much of an achievement 117 Degrees
is: the story of a man so destroyed by drug addiction that he had to leave his band to escape it finally rediscovering his touch as a creative musician. And, arguably, it’s the most accomplished effort since Appetite For Destruction
from any member of one of the most creative rock groups of the last twenty years.