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SHOWDOWN AT THE COLISEUM : Guns N’ Roses Take on the Rolling Stones : For years, there was only one choice as ‘The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band'--but it’s all over now

Lots of people think the world’s greatest rock band will be on stage this week when the Rolling Stones and Guns N’ Roses appear at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but don’t assume they’re all referring to the Stones.

The Stones have been called the world’s greatest band for so long now that no one even considered the possibility on past tours of another group actually upstaging the masters.

But the Stones’ seven-year absence from touring has made the once-invincible band seem vulnerable, and rock observers and fans have began wondering if it isn’t time to nominate another group as the world’s greatest.

Guns N’ Roses is just one of several contenders, but it is the only one of the potential rivals that will be on the same bill with the Stones during the tour.

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There is such a sense of drama surrounding the Stones/Roses match-up that you can imagine a ring announcer stepping up to the microphone and introducing the contestants at the Coliseum, the only place on the Stones’ 3 1/2-month tour where Roses will be appearing.

“In this corner,” he might say, “from Los Angeles, California . . . a band that was formed just four years ago, but which has already sold more than 12 million records, including such mega-hits as ‘Sweet Child o’ Mine,’ ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and ‘Patience’ . . .

“A group whose lead singer Axl Rose conveys the charisma and mystery of such rock immortals as Jim Morrison . . . a band whose image and music live up to the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll attitude so fully that it has been called the bastard offspring of the Rolling Stones themselves.

“L.A.'s own . . . GUNS N’ ROSES.”

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When the cheering wanes, the announcer continues:

“And now the defending champions . . . from London, England, a band that has helped shape rock ‘n’ roll for more than 25 years . . . a band with more than three dozen Top 40 singles, including such masterworks as ‘Satisfaction,’ ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’ . . .

“A band whose lead singer, Mick Jagger, was outraging parents before Jim Morrison was even cutting classes at UCLA . . . a band that returned to live shows this summer after a seven-year layoff and is still able to pack stadiums around the country.

“Ladies and gentlemen . . . THE ROLLING STONES.”

Start your amps.

“I don’t see the Coliseum concerts as a contest at all,” a 17-year-old rock fan said shortly after the Stones/Roses package was announced in August.

A 20-year-old fan who overheard the remarks in a West Hollywood record store, also balked at the idea of the concert’s being a true battle of the bands.

“Showdown? It’s going to be a wipe-out,” he said condescendingly.

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The noteworthy thing is that the two Southern California fans were supporting different groups.

Gerald Macy, 17, said he thinks the Stones’ reputation and great backlog of material make it impossible for Guns N’ Roses to upstage them. “Everybody my age has been listening to the Stones and waiting to see them all our lives. I like Guns N’ Roses, but there would be no Guns N’ Roses without the Stones.”

But Bill Hardin, 20, said he thinks time is against the Stones. “I’m interested in seeing them, but they don’t mean anything to me,” he said.

“Guns N’ Roses are like the Stones were 20 years ago, and who wouldn’t rather have seen the Stones then than now? It’s like Muhammad Ali getting into the ring with Mike Tyson or something. You respect the Stones, but Guns N’ Roses are today .”

There’s no way--short of an exit poll--to know precisely what role Guns N’ Roses played in convincing more than 275,000 fans to pay from $35 (the Ticketmaster charge) to $500 (the broker charge for choice seats) to see Wednesday’s Coliseum match-up, which will be repeated Thursday, Saturday and next Sunday. Industry observers, however, believe the L.A.-based quintet may have been responsible for as much as 20 to 40% of the sales.

“The Who’s failure to sell out even a single show in August at the Coliseum demonstrated the value of having some insurance, which a hot new band like Guns N’ Roses provides,” said a concert producer who is not involved with the local Stones dates and asked that his name not be used.

“I believe the Stones are much a stronger draw in Southern California than the Who and that they would have been able to sell out at least two Coliseum shows, maybe even a third on their own, but Guns N’ Roses guaranteed a third date and enabled the promoters to add a fourth.”

Joseph Rascoff, business manager for the Stones and producer of the tour, said the sluggish Who sales in Los Angeles and San Diego didn’t worry him.

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“The Rolling Stones had planned from the begining to have a current album out and (work toward) being meaningful in the 1989 music environment,” he said. “This gave their tour a whole different dimension and momentum than the Who tour, which had a lot of nostalgic overtones.”

About the addition of Guns N’ Roses in Los Angeles, he said, “They were not added for ‘insurance’ purposes, though I think it is fair to say they are the icing on the cake of the Rolling Stones.

“Historically, the Stones have given fans in certain markets a substantial, multiact show. For instance, Prince opened for them in Los Angeles last time, Van Halen in New Orleans, ZZ Top in Texas and so forth. Guns N’ Roses is simply in that tradition.”

No one knows who first pinned the “world’s greatest rock band” tag on the Stones, but the group has carried it at least since the Beatles broke up in 1970. Some supporters, in fact, were even thinking of the Stones--who defined the idea of rock rebellion for a generation of musicians and fans--as rock’s greatest before then.

The group’s 1969 tour is still regarded by many as one of the supreme moments in rock history. Among the highlights: a pair of shows on one night at the Forum, the second of which didn’t end until dawn.

Though rivaled by such outstanding bands as the Who, Kinks, Cream, Byrds, Doors, Jimi Hendrix Experience, Yardbirds and Velvet Underground in the ‘60s, the Stones emerged from the decade with a variety of strengths that made it virtually impossible for new attractions to dethrone them. The Stones were a great live act with a marvelous collection of hits, a wildly provocative image and, crucially, enormous fame outside the hard-core rock community.

Other groups in the early ‘70s--including the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival--may have been as admired by critics, and still others--notably Led Zeppelin-- may have been as prized by young, hard-core rock fans, but no one could come close to the Stones’ celebrity.

Zeppelin and most other major rock attractions of the ‘70s were little known outside of the rock world, but the Stones--partly because of the notoriety surrounding the band in the ‘60s and the familiar string of AM hits--were virtual household names.

The Stones were an almost irresistible blend of renegade cool and society chic--a mix that made the group such a media favorite that the tours were often front-page news at a time when other bands’ tours were only reported on the pop pages.

Several bands in the late ‘70s made better records and/or exerted more influence (the Sex Pistols, Clash and Eagles, among others), but they couldn’t overcome the Stones’ dominance in terms of historical importance and fame. Besides, the Stones did occasionally bounce back in the late ‘70s with some terrific music (notably the “Some Girls” album) and spectacular shows.

(David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen were more exciting than the Stones at various points in the ‘70s, but they both fall more into the singer-songwriter tradition of rock than the classic “band” mold.)

When the Stones started bickering publicly rather than touring after the poorly received “Dirty Work” album in 1986, the band no longer seemed invincible. Maybe the band--whose key members were now in their 40s--was finally wearing down. The rock world started looking around for a new champion.

But who?

The criterion was no longer who could match the Stones for historical significance, because no one could. The question was simply who was making the most stirring music these days.

U2, the socially conscious Irish band, was a name placed in nomination. The group enjoyed not only enormous fan support (they played the Coliseum themselves two nights in 1987), but also considerable critical backing (the band’s “The Joshua Tree” won a Grammy in 1988 as album of the year).

And there were others, including Metallica, R.E.M., the Replacements, Talking Heads, the Cure . . . and Guns N’ Roses.

Great rock challenges as well as excites, and Guns N’ Roses succeeds on both fronts. It may not be the No. 1 contender to the Stones’ crown, but it is a worthy one.

To appreciate the group, however, most pop-rock fans will have to set aside some prejudices about hard rock and heavy metal.

The disheartening parade of calculated merchants who have marched in recent years under those rock banners makes it easy to think of every band in the genre as simply another weary cliche.

And Guns N’ Roses, on casual meeting, may indeed seem like just that cliche. There’s a loud and crude edge to most of their music, and lead singer Axl Rose sports a lot of your standard hard rock trimmings.

But there’s a difference.

The band’s themes may be about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, but they aren’t your typically hollow or recycled exercises. In tunes as varied as the nightmarish “Welcome to the Jungle"--a journey into the trendy, West Hollywood glam-rock world--or the disarmingly tender “Sweet Child o’ Mine"--a wonderfully effective reflection on lost innocence--the band examines the temptations and consequences of fast-lane behavior with convincing authority and emotion.

In fact, Rose, a high-school dropout from Indiana who moved to Los Angeles in 1980 and virtually lived on the streets for years, writes about his experiences with a bluntness that has, at least in one case, led to controversy. (See article on facing page).

This same independent, “take us as we are” attitude makes GNR a compelling force some nights on stage, but can leave it distant and ill-focused others. Like the early Stones, the band seems to live in greater fear of being mechanical on stage than of being merely bad.

Rose, 27, is a gifted, spontaneous performer who slips around the stage in an alluring, dream-like resonance with the music. His mates--guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin, bassist Duff McKagan and drummer Steven Adler--also play with an eye toward capturing the emotion of the moment rather than just replaying the record.

The band showed it can rise to the occasion when it opened last year at the Pacific Amphitheatre for Aerosmith, another outstanding veteran band that is in fine shape these days.

Guns N’ Roses was far from polished that night, but there was a sense of electricity in the band’s music and in Rose’s manner that upstaged Aerosmith. It’s not that Aerosmith was off its form, but that Guns N’ Roses drained the audience so thoroughly that there was little rock ‘n’ roll emotion left when the headliners came on.

But Guns N’ Roses has to be careful at the Coliseum. The circumstances aren’t the same.

First, GNR isn’t accustomed to stadium shows, and it takes a different kind of energy to be effective in that setting than it does in the kind of 15,000-seat venues that the band normally plays. Plus, GNR hasn’t been on tour for months, and it often takes several shows for a band to find a musical groove.

Third, the Stones are in excellent form. Jagger has shed many of the exaggerated movements that made him seem a caricature at times on the 1978 and 1981 tours, and the rest of the band is also tighter musically than on either of those tours. And finally, there is no way to underestimate the seductiveness of all those great Stones songs.

Added warning: Guns N’ Roses also has to be wary of being upstaged itself. Living Colour, the opening act on the show, is one of the few black bands in rock, and it backs its flashy, crowd-pleasing act with purposeful songs (about such matters as false idols and racial stereotypes) that give the band a liberating sense of mission.

Like a fighter being rushed prematurely into the ring with the champion, Guns N’ Roses--with just two albums--may be risking comparison to the Stones too early. But this bold, even reckless attitude is part of Guns N’ Roses’ magic.

The Coliseum stage will be worthy of a championship match. Ten stories high and 300 feet wide, it is believed to be the largest ever constructed for a rock tour--so high, in fact, that warning lights have been fixed to the towers to comply with federal regulations governing airplane safety.

Similarly, there’s the scent of money around this tour that is similar to what you’d find at a Tyson or Sugar Ray Leonard title fight. The tour promoter, Michael Cohl, president of BCL Entertainment Corp., shocked even hardened industry veterans when he guaranteed the Stones $65 million to do the tour. But his judgment appears to have been validated by what is happening around the country.

At an average ticket price of $28.50, the concerts will gross almost $90 million at the box office alone.

In an interview in Washington, D.C., where the Stones sold out two shows at 50,000-capacity R.F.K. Stadium, Richards, 45, was pleased by the way the band has been accepted after the seven-year break.

“The doubts seemed to have dissipated very quickly. The reviews and reaction have been amazingly good, so a lot of the voyeurism has been killed. People at the shows aren’t so much wondering, ‘Can they still do it?’ as simply having a good time, which is the way it should be.”

But what have the showdown contestants been saying about each other?

In an interview last December with The Times, Axl Rose noted a debt to the Stones.

“We have lots of influences, but the Stones are most definitely a big part of it,” he said. “As a band, we haven’t seemed to wear out the Stones yet. We keep learning more and more from them . . . about the fact you are able to do anything you want in your music.”

On the Stones side, Jagger, 46, explained in an interview last August why the band had invited Living Colour--on the entire tour--and Guns N’ Roses--in Los Angeles--to open for them.

“We added (those bands) because they’re proven people’s groups. They’ve come up not because of music industry flogging, but on their own, because they hit a populist nerve.”

But Jagger, in a Washington interview last month, downplayed the idea that the Coliseum shows are a special test for the Stones.

“Someone asked me the other day if we feel we have to prove something on this tour . . . if we feel we have to show we are the ‘greatest band on earth’ or whatever,” he said. “Well, I’m not trying to prove anything. I just want to go out there and have a good time, and I think that’s the way most of the fans approach the show too.

“I told someone the other day that I remember when the Dave Clark Five knocked us off the top of the charts back in 1965 or whatever and someone came up to us and said, ‘How does it feel not to be No. 1 anymore?’ ”

Asked about today’s young bands, Keith Richards, in a separate Washington interview, singled out U2 as a special favorite.

“That’s one of the few bands I’ve bothered to go see in the last two or three years, and they have a real nice band feel and spirit,” he said. “I like them a lot.”

And Guns N’ Roses?

“I don’t know much about them, but it’s another band that seems to have a spirit, and I’ve been told I’ll like them. I guess we’ll find out in Los Angeles.”

* THE NEXT GUNS N’ ROSES

The new sounds along the Sunset Strip. Page 67

* BIGOTRY? OR HATRED?

Debate over slurs in rock ‘n’ roll goes on. Page 68


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