From strip clubs to the Superbowl, the spectacular ascent of LA’s funk rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers has been a particularly knotted and fractured journey.
Their self-titled debut album turns 30 this August, which marks as good a time as any to succinctly browse through their back catalogue and uncover the drugs, deaths and departures that cursed their heady rise.
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‘The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ (EMI, 1984)
Singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea were thrown a curveball from the off; co-founders and fellow Fairfax High School cohorts Hillel Slovak (guitars) and Jack Irons (drums) had jumped ship on the eve of recording in favour of their other band’s prospects. Replaced by Jack Sherman and Cliff Martinez respectively, the band’s intimacy was compromised, and the once sentient material was muddled in translation.
Signed in the wake of their notorious psychedelic-fed, half-naked, raucous LA club gigs, the band did however manage to introduce on their debut the impetuous elements that would come to define them – Flea’s bass puckers and pops in ‘Get Up And Jump’, while Kiedis rolls lascivious raps (getting almost tongue-tied in the autobiographical ‘Out In L.A.’) over serrated funk guitar licks.
It’s injected with playfulness (indeed, they acknowledge their clownish charm in ‘Baby Appeal’), but the whole thing is dulled by the production of Gang Of Four’s Andy Gill, whose conflicting “bubblegum pop” intentions and effects immediately sterilised and dated the material – when I first heard this album in 1991 its echoed snares were already archaic.
Flea made his feelings known at the time, delivering Gill a pizza box with his leaving gift inside: a freshly laid turd.
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‘Freaky Styley’ (EMI, 1985)
Slovak was drafted back in after the dismissal of Sherman, who’d clash frequently with Kiedis, thus reuniting three-quarters of the original line-up. The reconciliation refreshed their identity, and Sherman’s legacy – a schooling in funk for the more punk/rock-oriented group – transpired with the recruitment of Funkadelic guru George Clinton as producer and an array of nods to the genre’s greats across this second album.
Despite the inner-city Detroit sessions being enveloped by a cloud of narcotics – the band (and producer) were indulging in coke and freebasing, while Anthony was battling a heroin addiction – they endeavoured to find their groove. ‘Freaky Styley’ is instilled with that hedonic vibe; the composed motion of ‘Hollywood’ (RHCP’s interpretation of The Meters’ ‘Africa’) is punctuated by bright P-Funk horns, while a brassy cover of Sly Stone’s ‘If You Want Me To Stay’ is positively cosmic. ‘Nevermind’ meanwhile petulantly dismisses current bands like Duran Duran, Wham and Soft Cell (not that they’d notice – ‘Freaky Styley’ wouldn’t break the Billboard Top 200).
Sex permeates, of course, most especially in the successive run of ‘Lovin’ And Touchin’, ‘Catholic School Girls Rule’ and ‘Sex Rap’. Its underlying crudeness and profanities prevented much radio play, but the enduring appeal of ‘Freaky Styley’ – a personal favourite of mine – is in its cheerful character and perky rhythms. This is the sound of a band enjoying life a little too much, and almost discovering themselves in the process.
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‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’ (EMI, 1987)
Having lost interest in the music, and dismayed at the drug situation with the band, Cliff Martinez upped (drum)sticks and quit. The original Red Hot Chili Peppers were reunited when Jack Irons was persuaded back into the fold in the summer of ’86 – but not for long. Anthony’s heroin-induced unreliability saw him temporarily fired.
Welcomed back after rehab, Anthony’s enthusiasm (he’d soon slip back into addiction, but his energy was infectious) fed the creative ambition of the Chilis’ third LP, which expanded their sonic palette. Hillel’s guitar softened, Flea’s bass slapped, while Anthony, encouraged by producer Michael Bienhorn, explored his voice in melodic departures from his usual rap flow – as evident in the eco-ballad ‘Behind The Sun’.
Largely though, ‘Uplift…’ celebrates the foursome’s tight bond and is littered with in-jokes; ‘Fight Like A Brave’ defines their idealism, ‘Me & My Friends’ celebrates each member personally (‘Skinny Sweaty Man’ is reportedly Hillel), while ‘Organic Anti-Beat Box Band’ is a self-explanatory outline of their ethos. Today the production sounds a little too ’80s, but it proved their best chart showing to date, and bolstered their cult audience.
Just weeks after returning from an international tour to support the album, during which his escalating heroin use often rendered him incapable of playing, Slovak died of an overdose, aged 26.
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‘Mother’s Milk’ (EMI, 1989)
Grief affected the surviving Chilis differently; as Jack Irons quit in distress, Anthony and Flea chose to soldier on, now requiring a new guitarist and drummer. Enter (after other hopeful try-outs) Chad Smith, a Midwest heavy metal thumper whose skills behind the kit won the audition after his appearance threatened otherwise, and John Frusciante, an 18-year-old guitar prodigy and devoted RHCP fan.
For ‘Mother’s Milk’, John attempted to escape the pervading influence of Hillel, who he’d spent years studying, crafting a distinctive melodic style, but was somewhat badgered in the studio by returning producer Michael Bienhorn, who engineered his own layered sonic ambitions on the band. Flea dominated song compositions, enthused by Anthony’s melodious explorations and John’s imaginative chord structures.
‘Good Time Boys’ introduced the latest incarnation’s spirit (“Funky young kings / We sing of truth and soul”), where band members were allowed to shine – Chad’s machine-gun drumming on ‘Magic Johnson’ was elaborated on stage into a merciless solo. Tributes were paid to Stevie Wonder (‘Higher Ground’) and Jimi Hendrix (‘Fire’, recorded with Hillel and Jack), but it’s ‘Knock Me Down’ that exemplifies the group’s manifestation moving into a new decade; its cognizant structure and admonition on drugs implied a previously unseen depth.
Its success on college radio actualized the sardonic “Put us on MTV” pleas of ‘Punk Rock Classic’ and, as ‘Mother’s Milk’ headed for gold-sales status, RHCP finally found themselves on the brink of stardom, with room to negotiate their future.
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‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ (Warner Bros., 1991)
The breakthrough album. After a label bidding war that saw them leave EMI and land on Warner Bros., RHCP began work on their first ever recording with the same line-up as its predecessor. Def Jam founder Rick Rubin was hired as producer, and proved a considerate, supportive foil to the band, encouraging their improvised energy and contributing his arrangement skills (securing the role to this day). He also suggested moving sessions to a Laurel Canyon mansion, where the band lived and played, its communal bond evident in the album’s cohesion.
John evolved his own confident, distinctive style, coalescing with Flea and Chad to push the boundaries of their own definitions of what RHCP music was. Added to this, Anthony’s narratives became more personal, poetic and honest; the tender admissions of ‘Under The Bridge’, a cry for help amidst the isolation and desolation of addiction, was the surprise album stand-out and has become RHCP’s most enduring song.
From the Funkadelic grooves of ‘If You Have To Ask’, the strutting punch of ‘Suck My Kiss’, the gut-busting might of ‘Give It Away’, the savage riffs of ‘My Lovely Man’, to the epic, sensual allure of ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’, the Chilis’ musical palette was being thoroughly tested (they even included a frantic cover of bluesman Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot’). Released the same month as Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ – the former mirroring the UK’s embrace of rock’s crossover appeal, the latter heralding America’s grunge revolution and focus on all things ‘alternative’ – ‘BSSM’’s brazen exuberance and carnal appeal found an instant audience, finally breaking RHCP well and truly into the mainstream.
It found me, aged 12, and opened the doors to a world of inspiration and passion, and 23 years later sounds as fresh, invigorating and relevant as it did back then. Critically celebrated, the Chilis were launched to global fame, and despite the greater success that was to come, ‘BSSM’ remains the benchmark by which every subsequent album has been – and perhaps always will be – compared.
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‘One Hot Minute’ (Warner Bros., 1995)
The unthinkable happened in the wake of ‘BSSM’ as Frusciante, increasingly uncomfortable with the band’s growing stature and developing his own heroin habit, quit during its tour. A dark and challenging period followed: Flea was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, and was witness to the death of actor River Phoenix; Anthony, meanwhile, relapsed into addiction. A succession of guitarists finally culminated in the engagement of Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro, whose stylistic differences (more rock, less funk) proved problematic.
These elements collided to produce a complex and heavy listen – in style and substance – yet one not without its charms. ‘Warped’ is a full-throttle Zep powerhouse, Kiedis ruminating on his “tendency for dependency”; the slap-bass strut of ‘Aeroplane’ thrills; ‘Deep Kick’ reminisces on Anthony and Flea’s teenage adventures – the latter’s nostalgic coda, and the following ‘Pea’ reflect his significant songwriting contributions on ‘OHM’ (he also wrote the lyrics to distressing closer ‘Transcending’ in memory of River Phoenix).
Its more poignant moments, ‘My Friends’ and ‘Tearjerker’ (a tribute to Kurt Cobain), are too sentimental, while the longer songs (‘One Big Mob’, ‘Walkabout’, the title track) tend to stagnate, which may in part explain the mixed reaction ‘OHM’ received upon release.
I dip in and out of it – ‘Shallow Be Thy Game’ still ferociously pummels my senses – which is more than can be said of RHCP themselves; Navarro was fired in 1998, his drug use and musical differences cited as reasons (despite Anthony’s own ongoing proclivities), and since then no songs from ‘OHM’, with the exception of Flea’s ‘Pea’, have been performed live.
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‘Californication’ (Warner Bros., 1999)
Since leaving RHCP, John Frusciante’s descent into extreme drug addiction and depression left him destitute and near-death, excommunicated from his former bandmates. After Navarro’s dismissal, and learning of John’s success in rehab, an exhausted Flea, drained by the group’s impasse, would only consider persevering with RHCP if John returned. His reinstatement marked a creative rebirth for him, and a burst of new energy for the band, who’d assemble in Flea’s garage to reconnect and jam.
Their reawakening, coinciding with Anthony’s (attempted) and John’s (successful) healthy new lifestyles, imbued ‘Californication’ with a spiritual appreciation, an awareness of nature, the elements, and, in the case of the title track, the seedy underbelly of Hollywood. Kiedis’ melodic flow is in full effect throughout; dreamy on ‘Scar Tissue’, tender on ‘Porcelain’, bucolic on acoustic closer ‘Road Trippin’’. Its hard hitters – the volatile ‘Otherside’, the rigorous ‘Easily’, the hefty Cream-inspired ‘Savior’ – outweigh the more languid funk workouts (‘Get On Top’, ‘I Like Dirt’, ‘Purple Stain’), but the overriding resilient force is undeniable.
This was a group relishing in chemistry, redefining their limits and purging demons through creative self-expression. It became their best-selling album to date. The world’s arenas were calling.
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‘By The Way’ (Warner Bros., 2002)
With their ‘classic’ line-up intact, RHCP confidently began their eighth album with the familiarity and accord that enriched ‘Californication’, Frusciante’s confidence especially reinforced. He proposed a punk influence, and though Rick Rubin ultimately voted in favour of their more melodic songs, John’s creative voice had begun to outweigh Flea’s, tarnishing their earlier camaraderie.
John’s keen analysis of The Beatles’ and Beach Boys’ innovative production, his measured guitar style, plus a current obsession for progressive English artists – The Smiths, Souxsie And The Banshees, The Durutti Column – provided a lavish backdrop to Anthony’s quixotic musings, a reaction to his relationship at the time; the contrasts epitomised by the title track’s throbbing punk verses and delicate chorus.
There’s denseness in the layers of ‘This Is The Place’, ‘Don’t Forget Me’, and the ethereal ‘Midnight’, offset by the effervescent funk of ‘Can’t Stop’, the feisty flamenco-flavoured ‘Cabron’, and the brassy ska-pop of ‘On Mercury’. ‘Venice Queen’ is an elaborate, multi-layered finale, an impassioned eulogy for Anthony’s drug rehabilitation therapist, who’d recently succumbed to cancer.
Said track closes a warm, expressionistic album, which became their biggest seller in the UK, and led to gigantic concerts in Hyde Park and Slane Castle, but its tour further alienated Flea, who came closer to quitting than ever. Their next move would prove critical.
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‘Stadium Arcadium’ (Warner Bros., 2006)
Time to reconnect. Aware of Flea’s creative estrangement, the writing of ‘Stadium Arcadium’ was purposefully democratic, inspiring a flood of energy from all quarters, and unrepressed jams, producing over 30 songs that were carried onto recording sessions back at Rubin’s Laurel Canyon mansion.
With tension relieved and juices flowing, the songs took on epic proportions. John’s minimalist style suddenly exploded into voluminous dynamics, Flea’s visceral spectrum of bass blazed freely, and Anthony, in the throes of a new romance, scaled each challenging new height with penetrating force.
The potent compound produced a double album full of intrigue; disc one’s (‘Jupiter’) highlights range from power-pop opener ‘Dani California’, the fractured funk of ‘Charlie’, the hip-hop flow of ‘Hump De Bump’, to the stark lure of ‘Slow Cheetah’. Disc two (‘Mars’) has sweet textures (‘Hard To Concentrate’, ‘If’), bone-crunching riffs (‘Readymade’) and RATM-like brutality (‘Storm In A Teacup’). Sure, it’s indulgent in parts, but, after 22 years of flexing their (musical) muscles, RHCP were entitled to excess, and most of it pays off.
The album’s diversity was matched by its volume; reflecting the group’s stadium status, John claimed they had “designed music that was able to project to the back row”. Truth be told, I’ve rarely listened to it in its entirety – the mid-paced weaker moments have me scrolling to ‘BSSM’ – plus, the title and cover art is unforgivable. But the vision and execution of ‘Stadium Arcadium’ is to be applauded.
Upon completion of the album’s tour, the group announced they were on an indefinite hiatus, the result of their recent rigorous schedule. In 2009, history repeated itself as Frusciante, eager to pursue his versatile solo work, offered his resignation, but this time, a glimpse of hope for RHCP’s fate had already presented itself.
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‘I’m With You’ (Warner Bros., 2011)
Los Angeles native Josh Klinghoffer had entered John Frusciante’s orbit through mutual friend Bob Forrest, from Thelonious Monster. The guitarists collaborated on Frusciante’s solo material, before the Chili Pepper drafted his friend into the band’s touring group in 2007 to bolster their new, expansive sound.
His proficient chops and familiarity with the band and material proved the foundation of his natural succession to full-time band member when John quit, and after almost a year of rehearsing and writing, ‘I’m With You’ officially began life in 2010. Josh’s incoming dynamism mirrored Flea’s assiduousness yielded from his tenure in musical theory classes at USC (not to mention his stint in Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace), and resulted in a fruitful output – almost 60 song ideas were whittled down to a final 14, refining the focus of the album’s predecessor.
This time around we get heavy disco (‘Monarchy Of Roses’), angular post-punk (‘Factory Of Faith’), African rhythms (‘Ethiopia’, ‘Did I Let You Know’) and bombastic funk (‘Even You Brutus?’) in one charming, concise, collection, whose themes cover death, environmentalism, heartache, solitude and friendship. The lovelorn ‘Police Station’ is a personal highlight; its pragmatic maturity is a promising pointer for the road ahead.
‘I’m With You’ endured into 2013 as 17 unreleased recordings became singles’ B-sides, suggesting the plate is clear for the next round of Red Hot magic – their 11th album, set to mark their 30th year, is due, but considering their capricious history, can we safely assume a strapping dose of feral funk is imminent? As a wise man once sang: if you have to ask, you’ll never know.
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WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Flea: founding member, bass stalwart, gap-toothed rascal; still getting naked on stage with RHCP.
John Frusciante: longest-serving guitarist, quit in 2009. Now embracing electronic music in his prolific yet adventurous solo career – his 11th album, ‘Enclosure’, was released in April.
Jack Irons: founding drummer; left before debut, returned for 1987’s ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’, but left the following year after Hillel Slovak’s death. Subsequently played with Joe Strummer and own band Eleven before joining Pearl Jam in 1994 and leaving four years later. A solo album dropped in 2004; he is currently still active as a drummer in LA.
Anthony Kiedis: chiselled ladykiller, loose-lipped vocalist, ex-junkie, clean since 2000; still leading RHCP from the frontline.
Josh Klinghoffer: the latest six-string recruit; set to appear on RHCP’s 11th outing.
DeWayne McKnight: ex-Parliament/Funkadelic guitarist served briefly between Hillel Slovak and John Frusciante; plays solo and alongside George Clinton.
Arik Marshall: guitarist for a year after Frusciante’s 1992 departure; now in-demand session musician, having backed Macy Gray, Björk, and Carlos Santana, among others.
Cliff Martinez: drummer on first two RHCP albums; moved to film scoring and a close association with Steven Soderbergh, working on The Limey, Traffic, Solaris, etc. Most noted for the Drive soundtrack.
Dave Navarro: a Chili Pepper from ’93 to ’98, Navarro subsequently reunited his original band, the seminal Jane’s Addiction, while turning himself into a reality TV star.
D.H. Peligro: temporarily manning the drum stool between Jack Irons and Chad Smith, Peligro is a staple in the hardcore punk community and a respected solo artist.
Jack Sherman: guitarist on 1984 debut; Sherman resents his treatment by RHCP, feeling he’s been dishonoured by effectively being written out of history by not being included in RHCP’s Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame induction. Has since played with Bob Dylan, Solomon Burke and Mick Taylor.
Hillel Slovak: founding guitarist, missed the debut but returned for 1985’s ‘Freaky Styley’. Defined the band’s fluid funky signature sound. Died of a heroin overdose in 1988.
Chad Smith: joined RHCP as drummer in 1988 and has been pounding the skins ever since. Powerhouse, legend, professional Will Ferrell lookalike.
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Words: Simon Harper (Twitter)
Related: more Complete Guides