Correction appended, April 18, 2016
More than two decades had elapsed since Slash and Axl Rose last played together when Guns N' Roses first reunited earlier this month—a reunion that will be celebrated on Saturday, as they headline the Coachella music festival. The reunion has been an occasion for eager fans to look back at the decade or so during which the band dominated rock, between their start in 1985 and their sort-of end in 1993, when the band didn't exactly break up but essentially stopped being able to tolerate one another long enough to make a significant amount of music.
But their internal disputes weren't the only source of Guns N' Roses controversy. Their lyrics and image roiled non-fans—but it also helped make them what they were, as TIME explained in 1991:
It would be unfair to attribute all, or even most, of Guns N ' Roses ' success to their unrelentingly sexist and uncompromisingly violent lyrics or to their forays into xenophobia, racism and sadomasochism. Rock 'n' roll has always been filled with sexist, violent bands, but very few of them sell 14 million copies the first time out of the chute. What sets the Gunners apart is that they are a genuinely electrifying band that neither looks nor sounds like the interchangeable Whitesnakes, Poisons and Bon Jovis that make up the drab MTV universe. What the Gunners play is very, very good. What the Gunners say is very, very bad...
Guns N ' Roses tenaciously clings to hard rock's tradition of being loud, mean and obvious. No one alive looks more like rock stars than Rose, 29, and guitarist Slash, 26, with their tattoos, their headgear, their emotional problems (Slash has frequently used heroin, and Rose is a manic-depressive) and their we-sold-our-soul-to-rock-' n'-roll attitudes. The Gunners' success is giving the kiss of life to a moribund record industry, and has kept rock 'n' roll from doing what it keeps threatening to do: expire.
But when these images from 1985 and 1986 were taken, they'd barely started down that rocky road toward controversy, fame, disputes and reunions. The band at that time was on the brink of fame, just signing to Geffen Records and starting to amass fans (and freak out parents) all across America.
Read the 1991 profile of Guns N' Roses, here in the TIME Vault: Misfit Metalheads
Correction: The original version of this gallery incorrectly credited several of the photographs. They were taken by Jack Lue.