There was a point in time in which the group Guns N’ Roses was the biggest band on the face of the earth and with the exception of groups like Led Zeppelin or The Beatles, the greatest band of all time. And this was after one album.

Similar to my following of Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses is one of the other groups I follow. Their first album, 1987’s Appetite for Destruction is pretty much perfect – many rank it as the #2 rock album of all time, just under Led Zeppelin’s fourth album. At the time people even hailed them as the second coming of Led Zeppelin.

A follow-up EP, Lies, (or GN’R Lies, depending on how you read the cover) had their earlier independent release Live Like A Suicide and four new acoustic tracks, including the controversial “One in a Million”. A song like that would derail most careers, but GN’R had too much momentum.

Three years later GN’R came out with two albums simultaneously, Use Your Illusion I and Use Your Illusion II. They were much different albums from their previous efforts – they were highly produced, featured long epic songs and horn sections, and were promoted by the band’s first headlining tour. Most fans came along for the ride, some decided that the new albums were too different and the result of Axl Rose’s increasingly eccentric mind. Izzy Stradlin left the group before the tour started, which was the first sign of trouble.

1993 saw the release of “The Spaghetti Incident?”, a 12-song EP of covers, mostly of punk rock tunes. No one knew it at the time but it would be the last full release from the “original” lineup of GN’R (sans Steve Adler, their original dummer who was fired after Lies). A cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” appearing on the 1997 Interview with the Vampire soundtrack album would be the last song from the original lineup.

For a long time nothing happened. Slash quit the group and started a short lived side project, Slash’s Snakepit. Duff McKagan left at the end of his contract. Matt Sorum and Gilby Clarke were fired. Slash, McKagan and Sorum eventually did have a “second coming” in the form of hooking up with Scott Weiland and forming Velvet Revolver – a band who experienced an unprecedented amount of initial success based more or less off of the fact that they were considered the second coming of GN’R.

Of course the real second coming of GN’R (or the other one, if you prefer) was with the band that Axl Rose was now the only remaining original member of. He started hiring new replacements for his former bandmates and started recording new material. Somewhat quickly, this new GN’R had a song called “Oh My God” ready for 1999’s End of Days soundtrack.

Shortly thereafter, though, the band went into stealth mode recording a new album and very little was heard from them for months at a time. Occasionally a snippet of information would come out, like a producer for the album had been hired (or quit, or fired), or a new member of the band (like guitarist Buckethead – famous for wearing a mask and an empty KFC bucket on his head) had been hired (or quit, or fired).

At some point, the name of the new album came out: Chinese Democracy.

In 2002 there was some hope that the band was nearing completion of the new album when they were the surprise closing band on the MTV Video Music Awards. This was followed by a national tour. However, eight dates into the tour the entire affair was canceled (they had maybe played four or five shows) and the band went into stealth mode again. Years went by without a peep from the GN’R camp, other than from producers or members who had quit. Axl became the next Bigfoot – people would report on seeing him in the same way one would report seeing the Loch Ness Monster (of course, Nessie never gets interviewed by a surprise camera crew coming out of a hockey game)

However, in January of this year, Axl went on record (and more or less came out of hiding) as saying “you will hear new music this year”, which was pretty much accepted by most as meaning that Chinese Democracy would be released in 2006. In February, decent quality recordings of the songs “There Was A Time”, “Better”, “I.R.S.” and “Catcher in the Rye” were leaked on the Internet – the unconfirmed rumor was that Axl leaked them himself to test out the waters. That same month, Slash claimed to have heard the album and said it would be released in March, which obviously never happened. Over the intervening months, Axl occasionally dropped hints about the new album – the most prevalent being that there were 32 songs in some state of completion, 23 of which he was working on completing, and 13 of which would actually be on the final album.

Axl made a surprise appearance on the Eddie Trunk show in May (his first interview in several years), he allowed Harmonix and Red Octane to put “Sweet Child O’ Mine” in Guitar Hero II as a playable song. Over the summer the New Guns N’ Roses played several sold out warmup shows and tried out the new songs. The plans were in place for the European tour over the summer with the North American tour to start in October.

And yet time went on with no announcement of the release date for Chinese Democracy. Axl had a chance to avoid or deny the idea that it would still be released in 2006 when he was asked about it on MTV News backstage at the 2006 Video Music Awards in August, but he still maintained that it would indeed be released in 2006.

In October a strong rumor was posted on which indicated the album was to be released on November 21, but no one has ever confirmed it. When asked about the release date, GN’R’s manager just stated “there are only fifteen Tuesdays left in the year” (new albums are released on Tuesdays). A Harley Davidson ad featuring the final studio version of “Better” was placed on the website on October 21, only to be replaced by a version featuring “Paradise City” (from Appetite for Destruction) with the “Better” version changed to “coming soon”. When asked further on the release date for the album, GN’R’s manager stated “we might not bother with a release date – you might just walk into your record store one day and find it there”.

So that’s where it stands today – the tour is continuing (one canceled date notwithstanding) and the album is still “officially” being released in 2006, but no one knows anything else. As I write this there are nine days until the rumored November 21st date and still nothing from GN’R and/or their label. One potential problem is that the 21st is also the date that the new Jay-Z album is released (Jay-Z had previously “retired” so this release is seen as significant). Employees from record stores not only report that their usual indicators of an impending release show nothing for Chinese Democracy, they also show nothing at all whereas albums coming out in 2007 have at least some trace in the system.

Some speculate that perhaps the management wasn’t kidding with their statements that the album might just appear on store shelves one day. Given that the aforementioned Jay-Z album that’s being released on the same day has already leaked online and Chinese Democracy hasn’t, it might be that the album is being handled in such an interesting manner to thwart piracy (it’s hard to pirate an album if you’re not even sure it’s finished yet). While an album magically appearing in stores would not be the best maneuver from a marketing push perspective, the Eminems album still sold amazingly well when their releases were pushed up unexpectedly to odd days of the week (like the Friday before the scheduled Tuesday) to thwart piracy. Of course those albums at least had a release date to speak of, and GN’R’s popularity in 2006 doesn’t compare to Eminem’s popularity in 2002.

Still, Axl does have in his possession something resembling the final album – he’s used it as collateral to get into clubs (he used it to get a club to stay open on his birthday – the DJ reported handling two CD’s). The “13 songs” statement seem to indicate that the final lineup of the album has been decided on (I find myself wondering why he’s trying to finish the other 13 songs). Sebastian Bach, who hung out with Axl enough to get himself used as an opening artist on their tour, says that he’s heard the album and that it’s “amazing”. Rumors have circulated that people in the parking lots of Interscope (the label, I believe – “Geffen Records” no longer exists) were listening to it via loudspeakers on the building. It’s also been rumored that last week’s concert cancellation (the original official story was that the fire marshals were trying to force GN’R to tone down their show and really force them out, the “official” official story was that the local police would fine the group if they drank beer on stage – but why they would forego a $200K concert to avoid a $250 fine is weird) was due to Axl needing to fly to California to make some last minute decisions on the record (the other rumor is that since only 3,500 seats of the 5,000 seat venue were sold, Axl took it as an insult and canceled the show). Supposedly the cover art is finished and the marketing campaign is ready to go.

And yet – no album. Or release date. It seems extremely weird for an album that’s supposedly going to be released by the end of the year to not have anything remotely more concrete available in the way of information. But then again, nothing about GN’R has been normal thus far – Axl has used the same name of the group despite being the lone original member (Dizzy Reed is a holdover from the Use Your Illusion days but he still wasn’t in the original lineup) and then went on to spend close to ten years recording an album at a rumored cost of $14 million (perhaps that’s it – the record label has already spent so much money they don’t want to spend money to promote it). This truly is the Duke Nukem Forever of the record industry. It could be that Axl and crew have been mum because they’re working so hard on it. It could be that they don’t want to disenfranchise concert goers by stating that the album in fact won’t make it out in 2006 like they promised. It could be that they just don’t know yet at this point when it will be out. It could be that they’re targetting December 26, 2006 as the release date – the last Tuesday of the year. And it could be that November 21, 2006 will see at least something – a single, an announcement, etc. (the “Talking Metal” podcast believes the date will be December 5, 2006 – and there’s some speculation that they might have insider information).

My main curiousity is – what is the point of no return? At what point is it that it’s literally too late to get the album into stores? It’s been said that between Thanksgiving and Christmas record labels “shut down” (which is why the Christmas albums all come out in October or so) and so if it doesn’t make it by November 21st (the last Tuesday before Black Friday) then it will likely come out at the end of the year or not at all. But if this coming Tuesday (the 14th) comes and goes with no announcement does that mean that the 21st is impossible? Or will it really be one of those “walk into the store” kind of deals? And if it is, will the album be successful? Appetite for Destruction shot up the charts with no video or radio airplay or advance promotion, could Chinese Democracy do the same?

And overall, I’m curious about the album because the leaks, to me anyway, sounded good. I know this isn’t GN’R with Slash (the closest we will get to that is Velvet Revolver). I know this is essentially Axl’s solo project with the same name. It would be like if Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip was also called The West Wing but it was still about an SNL show in LA and not The White House. I bought Daikatana the first day it was out because man – what a story. I want to hear this album because I want to know what an album from an eccentric perfectionist spending a decade and a small fortune sounds like. Was GN’R huge because of Axl, or despite him?

All I know is – no matter what, if I wake up one morning (maybe next Tuesday) and hear that Chinese Democracy is suddenly on store shelves, I’m stopping what I’m doing and running to the nearest store and buying it. And any CD singles with unreleased songs. It’ll be like 1992 again.