Guns N' Roses' 'Appetite For Destruction': The Story Behind the Cover Art | Revolver

Guns N' Roses' 'Appetite For Destruction': The Story Behind the Cover Art

The high priest of lowbrow, artist Robert Williams, lends controversy to Axl & Co.'s debut
gunsnroses1987getty.jpg, Paul Natkin/Getty Images
photograph by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

When painter Robert Williams got a call from his publisher saying that a fledgling hard-rock band called Guns N' Roses wanted to use one of his paintings as the cover for their debut, the then 44-year-old artist couldn't be bothered to call them back. This was 1987, and unknown bands were regularly calling on Williams. As a member of the Zap Comix collective in the '60s and '70s (alongside celebrated underground cartoonist Robert Crumb), Williams had become a counterculture institution by the time Guns came knocking. In 1979, he had published The Lowbrow Art of Robert Williams, a folio book, which kickstarted the surrealist "lowbrow" art movement, sporting a painting from his four-part "Super Cartoons" series, titled Appetite for Destruction, on its cover.


"The paintings were highly detailed," he tells Revolver. "I did them with a magnifying glass—and they all had a certain degree of gratuitous sex and violence. It wasn't so much the subject matter that was important but the composition of an anxiety going around, an ellipse of violence. If you look at the painting, you see that a young girl has been assaulted and this robot has torn up her toys. And then here comes this vengeful orange thing over the fence to get him. Not the most intellectual thing in the world, but suitable for an underground comic."

At the time he painted it, Williams couldn't get his work shown in galleries. Still, he managed to sell the original Appetite for $10,000 in 1981. In the intervening years, his book gained a following, and Appetite for Destruction had particularly impressed a young singer from Indiana who called himself Axl Rose. "Guns N' Roses finally got my home number and called me," Williams says. "I suggested that they come over to my house and look through some slides and pick something other than Appetite for Destruction for the cover, because I knew they were gonna get in trouble with it. I'd faced a lot of legal troubles doing underground comics, so I was really well-versed in that."

Soon after, Williams opened his front door to find a "skinny, effeminate-looking guy" with his manager. Williams showed Rose slides of his other work but couldn't dissuade the singer. "You have to remember, they were completely fucking unknown at this point, so I gave them a four-by-five transparency and the price that I'd give a shitty punk-rock band. A few weeks later, they called me up and asked if they could use the name. They couldn't come up with a name for the album, I guess, so that's how Appetite for Destruction came into our vernacular."

When Geffen Records released Appetite on July 21, 1987, the shit hit the fan almost immediately. Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center began lobbying against it, and some retailers asked the band's label, Geffen, to cover it in brown paper. Williams was soon explaining his painting to national newspapers and MTV. The band eventually compromised and moved his image to the inner sleeve, replacing it with a painting by Billy White, Jr., who hung out at their "Hell House" abode, of the five band members' skulls arranged on a cross. Over two decades later, Williams is still ambivalent towards his painting being used as the cover. "The purpose of the painting [was] diluted in all the sensationalism," he says. "This painting was never intended for the general public. It was made for an arcane group of people who loved this sort of thing."