The year was 1983, and the band at the time was called LA Guns. But even though the album Use Your Illusion I wouldn’t be released for another nine years, Axl Rose was already working on the single greatest power ballad of all time: November Rain.
'When we were doing that EP for L.A. Guns, like ’83? He was playing November Rain,' guitarist Traci Gunns has said in interviews. 'And it was called November Rain — you know, on piano. The guitar solo is amazing. Way back then. It was the only thing he knew how to play, but it was his. He’d go, ‘Someday this song is gonna be really cool.’
And I’d go, ‘It’s cool now.’
‘But it’s not done,’ you know, he used to say. And, like, anytime we’d be at a hotel or anywhere, there’d be a piano; he’d just kinda play that music.
And I’d go, ‘When are you gonna finish that already,’ you know?
And he’d go, ‘I don’t know what to do with it.’
So Axl took his time with it, and he struggled with composing for strings and orchestras and everything bigger than what Guns N' Roses had traditionally been. And he pulled the rest of the band through their uncertainty about recording a “soft” song like that, at one point getting them to record a 20 minute demo before they all arranged it down to a much more manageable eight minutes and 57 seconds.
Was that struggle worth it? Of fucking course it was. Because it is without a doubt the greatest Power Ballad in the History of the World.
Now, that’s a grandiose statement, the kind of statement that argumentative readers are going to love to attack. But while there are all sorts of indisputably great power ballads out there, I will forever stand behind November Rain as the ultimate best. Let’s break it down:
What is a power ballad? There are several definitions, usually used to help sell different compilation albums and Time Life CD collections, but for the most part a power ballad is what happens any time a hard rock band slows it down a little bit and shows their soft underbelly so they can sing about love, heartache and emotions. Bands in the ‘70s and ‘80s started recording power ballads on their hard rock albums for a couple of reasons -- they would become enormously popular, and it was a great way to get laid after the show.
So if power ballads have been around since at least the 1970s, then how can anyone say that some song by a crazy person released in 1992 is the best of all of them? Let’s start by looking at some of the competition.
First off, the obvious granddaddy: Stairway To Heaven. Song for song, album for album, legend for legend, Led Zeppelin is clearly a superior band to Guns N' Roses. But November Rain has something really strong going for it that Stairway is missing simply because of the time it was released, and that is an incredible music video. Plus, while Stairway is such a staple of guitar playing that Wayne Campbell has his Stairway denied when he picks up his dream guitar in the music store, Slash’s solo in the middle of November Rain, with that helicopter flying over him, pretty much epitomizes the vision for the rock god that everyone who has picked up an electric guitar wants to become.
Aerosmith’s Dream On has a lot of similarities to November Rain, even a music video built around the band performing on stage with a string section behind them. But that wasn’t an official music video release, and was just part of MTV’s ten year anniversary… so that video and the string arrangement and everything that happened after November Rain was clearly capitalizing on that song’s success.
Of course, Aerosmith had every right to steal from Axl, since he was so clearly inspired by the earlier power ballads from the ‘70s that Aerosmith created. But still, no scenes based on a short story by Del James? Keep on dreaming, Dream On. Points to November Rain again.
Then there’s the other obvious choice, Free Bird, but unfortunately that song is now mostly a joke yelled out by drunken douchebags at any concert for any band in the world, so it’s automatically disqualified. I know it’s not the song’s fault, but that legacy can never be escaped.
Now some of you have jumped ahead and are already thinking, “Wait! What about Bonnie Tyler? What about some motherfucking Total Eclipse Of The Heart?!?!”
And yeah, that’s another really, really great power ballad. And it has one of the most famously awesome music videos of all time, too. It does have one strike against it, in that if you’ve ever worked as a karaoke DJ you hate that song more than any other by any recording artist from any era due to the fact that you’ve had to watch sorority girls sing it and think they’re hilarious five times a night, so, yeah. That hurts it.
That’s also what kills Journey’s attempt to win the crown. Don’t Stop Believing is another incredible power ballad that people in karaoke rooms across the world consistently think they are the first people to ever “remember.” Plus there’s no video, just a live concert recording from a show in Houston. It’s great, and Steve Perry’s jeans are very, very tight, but it doesn’t feature a model in a wedding dress with a mini-skirt front that shows off alllll of her legs, so if you’re a junior high kid watching MTV in the 1990s, it’s simply not as powerful, and that’s an important part of becoming the Best Song of All Time in any category.
But again, THESE ARE ALL AMAZING SONGS. And there are so many other great power ballads, too, which is obviously why we’ve produced the Action Pack’s Love Bites Sing-Along parties at Alamo theaters everywhere for so many years now.
I mean, I love love love the song and crazy music video where you watch a couple age and die while REO Speedwagon looks off camera very earnestly and sings I Can’t Fight This Feeling.
I love crazy Meat Loaf and his Michael Bay-directed “I guess the one thing he won’t do is turn you into a vampire” music video for I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That).
I straight up cry every time I watch the video for Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time, and I really hope someone eventually told Foreigner what love is.
I could go on and on and talk about other really good power ballads, but the fact remains that there can only be one Best of the Best, and it’s gotta be November Rain. It’s beautiful and soaring and epic and batshit fucking crazy all at the same time. In the video it starts raining during a wedding and so someone JUMPS THROUGH THE WEDDING CAKE. To get out of the rain? Why would you do that?
And thanks to the Internet, we can now all go to Scribd and find a copy of the short story it was based on, “Without You” by Del James, so we can start to understand a little bit about what is going on in the video. Not much, mind you, because “Without You” is sloppy, terrible writing, but we can see that it’s a story about a rock star whose girlfriend kills herself by shooting herself in the head, and so in that scene at the end of the video with Axl’s new wife in a coffin, the mirror is there because the other half of her face is gone. And then Axl keeps having dreams about it, so he drinks a lot, and… I think that’s it. BUT THAT’S ALL YOU NEED.
Here’s a typical passage from “Without You”:
Sipping deeply from the bottle, he flipped through the photo album that was all too short, carefully avoiding the final page. He rarely looked at the last page. As always, he wound up back on page two. With the bottle two-thirds empty, he pulled his pants and briefs down to his knees and poured the remaining champagne onto his palms. This was part of the ritual. Fine champagne was something he and Elizabeth enjoyed sharing. He could still share it with her. As he took hold of his wet erection, his thoughts began to slip…
Now imagine, if you will, Axl Rose in the late ‘80s, still working on the piano piece for the song that would become his masterpiece. There’s a moment where he reads this short story in its entirety, and he says, “YES.”
The man at the time was a Rock God, but immortalizing that story with the text at the end for his greatest music video ever was the most baller thing he could have possibly done.
But there’s one other reason November Rain is the greatest power ballad of all time -- it’s one of the longest. That means that if you’re lucky enough to get to dance with someone you like and that song comes on, you’re going to be awkwardly close to them for almost nine full minutes. That’s two minutes longer than seven minutes in heaven, so use your time wisely.