"November Rain" is one of the most popular songs by the band Guns N' Roses, written by Axl Rose. As well known as the song is itself, perhaps a greater amount of attention is given to the music video, which, when it was released in 1992, quickly became the most requested video on MTV, and won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Cinematography.
As revealed in the Chris Heath book Pet Shop Boys versus America, in an account of when Axl Rose came backstage to meet the British band on their 1991 North American tour, the song was partly inspired by the Pet Shop Boys song "My October Symphony", which appeared on their 1990 album Behaviour. However, early demo recordings of November Rain have circulated among collectors since 1988.
"November Rain" appears on the album Use Your Illusion I. At 8 minutes and 57 seconds, it is an epic rock ballad (in the tradition of "Hotel California","Dry County", "Stairway to Heaven," "Free Bird", "Won't Get Fooled Again" and "Bohemian Rhapsody") and is one of the longest songs not only on that album, but also that Guns N' Roses ever recorded (not the longest, however - both of those distinctions go to the 10-minute-long "Coma"). Its distinct symphonic overtone owes to a sweeping string arrangement. Production name charts listed Axl Rose as the synthesizer player, making the background not a 'true' orchestra backdrop. Almost all live performances during the Use Your Illusion tour had an orchestra backing the song, most notably the performance from the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards. It is suspected to be the San Fransisco Symphony although there is no fact to back this. It is also the longest song to reach the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot 100. The song peaked at #3 on the chart (becoming the band's sixth and last Top 10 hit and eighth and last Top 40 hit). On the radio, "November Rain" is sometimes played in a shortened version of approximately six minutes, but many rock stations continue to play the full version. "November Rain" also holds the record for the longest guitar solo (counting Slash's two solos) in a US Top 10 hit. This song is listed as Number 6 in the "The 100 Greatest Guitar Solos" from Guitar World. "November Rain" was voted #1 on the Rock 1000 2006, an annual countdown of the top 1000 rock songs by New Zealand radio listeners.
According to Tracii Guns, former Guns N' Roses guitarist and founding member, Axl Rose had been working on the song since at least 1983. In an interview, he said the following about "November Rain":
When we were doing that EP for L.A. Guns, like '83? He was playing "November Rain" — and it was called "November Rain" — you know, on piano. 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."
The video is something of a concept video, and by no means any less an epic than the song. The video entails Axl and then girlfriend Stephanie Seymour being wed, interspersed with a live performance at Carnegie Hall. Particularly, it can be noted for its large budget (about $1.5 million) and stunning cinematography. It is currently the 9th most expensive music video ever. Lead guitarist Slash is prominently featured in some of the video's most memorable scenes, including an epic sequence of helicopter shots swooping around him as he plays the first guitar solo and a later scene where he plays while standing on Axl's piano onstage at Carnegie Hall. Interestingly, the video for "November Rain", unlike comparable songs such as "Stairway to Heaven" and "Bat Out of Hell", uses the full version of the song as opposed to an abridged version. A theatre in downtown Los Angeles was acquired for an evening shoot that went several hours into the night, and to their credit, and unlike many other artists and bands, they didn't even mime for any of the takes. Between several differing versions of "November Rain", while the cameras on cranes that swooped close to Slash's frets were reviewed and set up for the next shot - the band entertained the 1,500 extras by playing more of their songs.
Many fans consider the "November Rain", "Don't Cry", and "Estranged" music video to be an unofficial trilogy, and, although the band has never made that statement, the similarity in production, style and plots can be considered evidence of this intent. Many fans believe "November Rain" to be the first in the series, as it shows Axl and Seymour getting married, and then the death of Seymour. "Don't Cry" appears to come next, with Axl reminiscing over the time he shared with Seymour, breaking down in a mental institution, and symbolically visiting his own grave. Finally, in "Estranged" we see Axl Rose come to grips with his life, and the "trilogy" is brought to an end.
"November Rain" is based on the short story "Without You", by Del James, available in James' 1995 book The Language of Fear. That short story would have an obvious appeal to Axl Rose, as it describes the misery of a former multi-platinum blues-influenced rock star, now so drunk and drug-addled he never knows what day it is, who reminisces over an on-and-off-again relationship. He leaves this erstwhile girlfriend a telephone message, becomes concerned when she doesn't answer, and then goes to her apartment, kicking down her door to find she had just shot herself in the head while listening to his music.
The lyrics to "November Rain" do not discuss the suicide issue, only the tempestuous relationship. According to one interpretation, the lyrics are from a man to a former girlfriend, saying how the troubled times (the 'cold November rain') will not last forever, and that he is willing to give her time alone if she will come back to him. The video, on the other hand, follows the short story more closely, from love and life, through to death and the funeral of the bride. Although the video doesn't explain how the girlfriend died, it can be seen, by looking at the girlfriend in the casket, that there is a line down her face; that is, a mirror. This appears at the 7:21 mark in the video. Families of head-trauma victims, who want to have an open-casket funeral, can use a mirror reflecting the intact side of the face to make the deceased appear whole. It can therefore be inferred that, as in the short story, the girlfriend was shot in the head. This scene implies that Seymour shot herself. However, another (though much less popular theory) involves an early reference in which Axl walks alone at night, past a gunshop with an open door, which can be seen at the 5:36 mark in the video. Some view this scene as an indication that Axl was the shooter: the suicide/homicide ambiguity corresponds to the storied protagonist's guilt over precipitating the suicide. Many, however, just think the gun store was a reference to the band name. A last theory is that the bride was killed on the wedding day during the "November Rain" storm that begins to fall at the reception. After a lightning strike, we see the bride's bouquet hit the ground in a slow-motion sequence. This may infer that she was struck by lightning and killed instantly.
* According to a story told to the audience during the 2006 leg of the Chinese Democracy tour, none of the other band members had wanted to partake in the production of this song (or the other notable ballad "Estranged".) Slash and Duff McKagan were particularly opposed to the drift to symphonic ballads, and felt their choice of more direct rock songs were being overlooked by Rose. However, Axl talked them into it over discussions at Can-Am studios (where the album was recorded).
* "November Rain" is referenced twice in the chorus of the song "On the Radio" by Regina Spektor: "On the radio/We heard November Rain/The solo's pretty long/But it's a pretty song" and "And on the radio/You hear November Rain/That solo's awful long/But it's a good refrain"
* In the music video there is a gun store next to a florist, the gun store named 'Guns' and the florist named 'Roses'; a reference to the band's name.
* During the video Ozzy Osbourne can be seen sitting next to Slash.