A Probably Far Too Forensic Analysis Of Guns N’ Roses’ November Rain Video
Guns N’ Roses have made history many times, and did so again recently. The video for November Rain became the first on YouTube of the pre-YouTube era to hit a billion views. That’s a lot of times that people have hit play and watched this thing. But not many will have watched it in quite the same way as we have, as you’re about to discover.
The nine-minute clip, dating from 1992, was at the time, one of the most expensive music videos ever made, topping a million and a half dollars thanks to helicopters, pricey locations and its all round general sense of massiveness.
What is it about this video that continues to compel people more than a quarter of a century after it came out? We watched it second-by-second to see what all the fuss was about.
Look at that aspect ratio. This was the early ’90s; everything looked like that. Unusually, the November Rain video begins with its title. The video is based on a short story by Del James, a rock journalist and friend of Axl Rose’s who later became the band’s tour manager, who also inspired the videos for Don’t Cry and Estranged. The story can be found in his book The Language Of Fear, which we haven’t read.
Axl Rose is recognisable even in silhouette. He’s got quite a nice bed, hasn’t he? His bedside table contains a glass of water, a tub of some kind of (surprisingly loud) tablets and a bottle of booze, as well as an ashtray that, in outline, looks like the bell on a hotel reception desk. Oh, and a sculpture-y thing of a headless statue missing a few limbs. So, his going to bed routine involves getting into bed, taking his tablets and then shipping his shirt off. It feels a bit like the tablets and shirt are in the wrong order, but the thing with bedtime routines is, each to their own.
Suddenly, with a dissolve, we’re in the Orpheum Theater in LA, as an ovation-ing crowd applaud the act on stage. There’s a conductor who looks a bit like Blake from Workaholics conducting a full orchestra, and backing singers making snakey shapes, and then there he is again, Axl Rose, tickling the ivories in a red jacket, red bandana and rounded sunglasses combo that not everyone could get away with, but he absolutely does. There’s a glass atop his keyboard (along with a lighter and ashtray) that probably has some sort of exciting booze in it, but at the same time looks quite a lot like lemon squash.
Cut to a white, wooden church in the middle of nowhere with some snazzy time-lapse clouds. This church had to be transported to the New Mexico location specifically for the shoot, along with a matching interior set with walls that could be lifted in and out as required by the camera. Look, there the inside is now, with Axl ticking another set of ivories.
The orchestra isn’t in the church with him. The candle is in the church in New Mexico, the orchestra is in the theatre in LA. There’s a lot of jumping about in this video, in both time and space.
Our first glance of Slash, coming briefly into focus before the video cuts away from his face to a closeup of his cigarette, which has jumped from his left hand to his right hand. If you’re worried at this point that Slash will be given short shrift by this video, don’t worry. He’ll get his moment in the sun.
Back to Axl in the church, in a more sedate brown jacket and white t-shirt, but what’s this? The walls have disappeared. Clouds roll across the landscape. Very good early-’90s greenscreen work by director Andy Morahan. While this is probably the most famous video of Morahan’s career, he’s worked solidly over the past three and a half decades, making videos for Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, Biffy Clyro and, er, S Club 7.
Like the gorilla in the Dairy Milk advert, Matt Sorum comes in with six hits of the drum that can easily make you think it’s all going to come in now and go mental, but it doesn’t. Not yet. This is a nine-minute song, remember.
Another church, in LA this time, St Brendan’s Catholic Church on Van Ness Boulevard. It’s bigger, nicer, surrounded by pretty trees.
Right, so there’s a lot going on. There are four things happening simultaneously in the video.
– Guns N’Roses are playing on stage in Los Angeles, accompanied by an orchestra.
– A wedding of some sort is taking place. Who’s getting married? We’ll know soon.
– In a small wooden church in the desert, Axl Rose is playing the piano.
– In a pleasantly blue-lit bedroom, Axl Rose is having a nice sleep.
A trickle of blood runs from the corner of Jesus Christ’s eye down His cheek, a timely reminder during hayfever season of the dangers of excessive rubbing.
Axl is tossing in bed. Not like that, you filthy reader.
Good on whoever put the orchestra together for this – they managed to find the most appropriate-looking flautist to accompany Guns N’ Roses that you’re ever likely to see. If you saw a picture of her isolated from this video you’d go, ‘She looks like she should play the flute for Guns N’Roses.’
In come the vocals, a full minute and half in.
Hello, who’s this? It’s Axl Rose’s then-girlfriend, Victoria’s Secret model Stephanie Seymour. Seymour had previously appeared in the video for Don’t Cry. Her dress was designed by Carmela Sutera, it cost $8,000 and inspired lots of cheap knock-offs.
Between the conductor, Sorum, Slash and Duff McKagan, there is a one-point-five-second sequence here that contains about a quarter of a ton of curly hair.
Gilby Clarke’s shirt is very good.
Our first look at Axl in the wedding sequence, and he’s dressed like a vampire bullfighter. We’ve mainly seen him in shades and a bandana until now, and he really looks different – sunglasses can change how we perceive the shape of someone’s face, plus the bandana was covering his enormous, lion-like eyebrows.
Hats off to Axl for not being afraid to be visibly shorter than his partner. According to a 2012 study, in 92.5 per cent of heterosexual couples the man is taller than the woman, so props to Axl for being unafraid to be in that other 7.5 per cent. Seymour is even wearing high heels, adding to the difference.
Smoking isn’t cool, obviously, but, when Slash does it, it sort of… is?
This is a real priest, a real-life pal of Axl’s named Gianantonio. This sequence is all shot inside the real LA church, coincidentally one that Gianantonio had worked in.
A fifth entry into the timeline! The Rainbow Bar & Grill in LA was Lemmy’s favourite bar in the world, as well as being frequented in the ’70s and ’80s by all the big names of the rock world. It still exists, and last year was inducted into the Hall of Heavy Metal History for its part in breaking new acts.
In the 1980s, everybody smoked. Like, that’s the main thing they’re doing here. They’re slightly drinking and slightly hanging out with each other, but mainly having an evening of smoking. Stephanie Seymour gets to try Slash’s hat on in this scene, which we’d all like to do. This scene presumably comes before the wedding, and is there to show how in love they are, how cool she is, how much she gets on with Axl’s pals and stuff.
A nice bit of ‘Slash, you idiot!’ acting from the priest, as the axeman’s only gone and lost the bloody rings. Slash, you idiot! Luckily Duff McKagan has more rings than he needs, worn atop his leather gloves, so the day is saved. Or maybe he nicked the actual rings, and was wearing them for a bit of a prank. Either way, the wedding has rings and everything can proceed.
Axl’s wearing a big metal claw. Ledge.
Awww. A nice big romantic open-mouthed kiss.
Slash’s walk is badass. He swaggers down the church aisle like a pirate undertaker.
Whoa! Slash walked out of the big LA church, but then exited the small New Mexico one, clad no longer in his ace suit, but in a badass leather jacket, chaps and no shirt combo. He strolls to the end of the church path, leans back and bang, it’s one of the most iconic images in rock videos – Slash playing a solo, shot from a helicopter that sends clouds of dust billowing around him. Weirdly for such an iconic shot, he’s missing both his hat and sunglasses, two of the things that have always made him one of the easiest rock stars to draw.
The guitar isn’t plugged into anything, obviously, but come on, fuck off, it’s ace.
Every time you think Slash’s legs couldn’t be spread any further out he surprises you, culminating in a helicopter shot moving forward across the church where he’s nearly doing the splits.
Back to the wedding, and the happy – or are they? – couple are photographed with the oldest flash in the world and covered in rice and confetti. Seymour looks wistful as they get into their car – is she regretting getting married already?
Slash again, still being all Slashy and excellent in the middle of nowhere. It would be a ridiculous place to build a church really. Nobody would turn up. You’d be looking at minimal foot-traffic. Like, it feels like the fence isn’t really necessary.
Axl trudges through a Wild West-looking town, passing a shop with a big sign that says GUNS. There’s a little bit of suspense as you wonder whether he’s about to pass a florist with a big ROSES sign, and it’s hard to work out whether that would be terrible or not (yes it would).
The crowd continue to adore this. It’s not a real GN’R crowd, as the amount of shots and angles involved in the video required performing the song multiple times over several hours. The band apparently performed other hits in between takes in order to keep all the extras entertained. The Orpheum Theater features in films like Last Action Hero and Transformers, as well as Avril Lavigne’s I’m With You video.
It’s cake-cutting time, and Axl’s in yet another magnificent jacket – blue and shiny this time – while Seymour has changed into a velvety black dress. Axl’s costume count now comes to at least six.
– Going-to-bed outfit: checky shirt.
– Concert outfit: red jacket, red bandana.
– Remote-ass church outfit: brown jacket, white T-shirt.
– Wedding outfit one: vampire bullfighter.
– Wedding outfit two: shiny blue thing.
– Rainbow Bar outfit: Leather jacket, baseball cap.
Plus we’re not quite sure what he’s wearing as he walks through the Wild West town. It’s probably the remote-ass church combo but it’s hard to know.
As everyone dances, and kids have fun, and a jolly time is had by all, Duff refuses to take his fag out of his mouth while dancing. Commitment to smoking, there.
There’s an odd cut here where there’s a shot of Slash’s arse and it looks like he’s stamping his feet in a manner completely devoid of rhythm, but then it cuts to a wide and he isn’t. The magic of Hollywood.
Shit! It’s raining! Like in the title! It comes suddenly out of nowhere, and everyone’s immediately soaked and panicky and stressed. Men throw jackets over their wives’ heads. Rock stars hide under tables to protect their leatherwear. Glasses smash. A dude falls through a table.
They should totally sell those cake-toppers as action figures.
Jumping through the cake in what is, let’s be honest, a pretty unforgivable, deliberate-looking move is Riki Rachtman, a friend of Axl Rose and host of MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball. It’s just a bit of rain, dude. No need to be a prick.
The song’s over. NO IT ISN’T!
Oh shiiiiiiiiiit, yo. Stephanie Seymour is dead.
Another new outfit for Axl, a tuxedo and some new Warren Zevon-eque glasses.
After about 20 seconds of everything gearing up for another Slash solo, it’s another Slash solo, delivered from atop Axl’s piano involving cameras whirling precariously around him – “One wrong twitch and the guitarist would’ve had a long drop!” said casting co-ordinator Mark Robertson at the time.
Sometimes, even if you’re Slash, doing your shirt up is appropriate. One of those times is almost certainly your best friend’s wife’s funeral. But no, there he is walking down the aisle, shirt completely undone except for a knot at the bottom. He’s Slash, so you’ll forgive him a lot, but still. Have some respect, man. You liked this woman enough to let her wear your hat.
This man’s sunglasses make no sense. Respect.
Rain again at the funeral. Poetic.
This is the coolest way to play the piano, doing that sweep-sweep-sweep thing while Slash stands on top of it and a bunch of backing singers sing with you. It’s fucking badass.
Back to Axl tossing and turning in bed, remembering everything that happened. The timeline seems to be:
– Axl Rose and Stephanie Seymour fall in love.
– They get married in a church.
– It rains a lot at the reception.
– She dies and has a funeral.
– At some point Axl walks through a Wild West town and plays the piano in a really remote church, possibly to process his grief.
– Slash also goes there.
– Axl, sleeping alone, has stressful dreams about it all despite being on sleeping tablets.
A flashback to the just-married Seymour throwing her bouquet cuts to flowers landing on her coffin. Oof. Bleak.
Axl sits up in bed terrified from his dream. Even with the window open he’s sweating like crazy. There might have been a bit in this script where it said “Axl rises” that people kept crossing out, replacing it with “Axl Rose”.
He looks a bit like Batman here, squatting in a cape over a grave. Who gave him a cape? Brilliant work, whoever did so.
The final shot is of those flowers on the coffin, being dramatically rained upon. After nine minutes of big-ass power ballad, It’s hard not to feel emotionally drained by this point. What a downer of an ending. Did Stephanie Seymour look pensive because she was hiding a fatal disease from Axl, or was that about relationship concerns, and her death was unrelated? Either way, what a sad nine minutes we’ve just had.
It’s all over. Some questions are left unanswered, like what Stephanie Seymour died of, why the bit in the remote church with the greenscreened clouds didn’t go anywhere, why the Wild West town bit didn’t either, whether anyone ever had a word with Slash about funeral decorum and what the deal is with Axl’s weird-ass bedside statue.
All in all, it’s a hell of a video. Epic in scale, incredibly dramatic, genuinely moving and cool as all fuck. Here’s to the next billion views.
Watch it in full for yourself below.
Words: Mike Rampton
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