In defense of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

The Red Hot Chili Peppers: 27 years of blood sugar sex magik”¦ A defense of the Red Hot Chili Peppers by Luke Allen

I was 12 years old when I bought the 8th album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I’d been hearing a great song on the radio called “By The Way”, and was fascinated by the video which featured the singer Anthony Kiedis being kidnapped by a crazed stalker in a Los Angeles taxi. Not only did the video display an excellent sense of narrative and humour, this song was fucking incredible. Not long after it I heard another slice of gold from this band, still relatively unknown to me, called “Can”Ëœt Stop”, which again came with an exciting and entertaining video. I’d heard “Under The Bridge” and “Californication” of course, but at this point I hadn’t made the connection to these crazy LA punks that had been on one of the most colourful and at times harrowing journeys in the history of rock music. I grew up on David Bowie, The Smiths, The Stone Roses, Oasis, Joy Division etc thanks to my musically switched-on parents, but I’d missed these guys along the way and was starting to notice, big time.

So, confident that I was gonna love this record, I went to Woolworth’s and bought “By The Way”. It was, and still is probably one of the best ten pounds that I’ve ever spent. I went home and instantly listened to it cover to cover, embracing the rich textures of John Frusciante’s seductive guitar licks and Kiedis’s brilliant hybrid of tender vocals and tongue-twisting rap. Flea’s basslines ebbed with blistering funk and Chad Smith’s powerful drumming filled my ears and ultimately blew me away. All these elements came together to create something that I’d never heard or experienced before in my 12 years of being on this earth. I knew there and then that this was my favourite band in the world. And so began the journey for me; the research, the biographies, and the obsessive collecting of the band’s seven previous albums.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers met in Los Angeles, California in 1983, after 4 bright, outgoing and lively characters happened upon each other at Fairfax High School and decided to become a gang. Kiedis, the self-proclaimed leader of the group, Michael Balzary aka Flea (a talented trumpet player who was raised in a jazz-loving household), Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons spent their time at school skateboarding, getting into trouble and chasing girls. The kids shared a love of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and other legendary rock music of the time, and bonded through pot-smoking and general misbehaviour. Flea, Slovak and Irons already played in a band called What is This? (previously called Anthym) and Kiedis would occasionally jump on stage and introduce the guys before they kicked into their set. Known for his popularity and wild behaviour, Kiedis was regarded by his buddies as a born entertainer and so would invent wacky poems and opening lines to get the crowd going before the show.

None of the boys thought anything of it, until one night the gang supported a band at the Kit Katharina Lounge in LA purely just for fun. Under the moniker “Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem”, the boys rocked the shit out of the club and got more than they bargained for. Flea, Slovak and Irons jammed an improvised piece of funk music whilst Kiedis spat out a rhyme he’d written earlier called “Out in LA”, which would be the first Red Hot Chili Peppers song. The band received a pleasant surprise: the club’s owner and the audience loved them so much that they were invited to play again the week after. So more gigs were played and the young people of LA were embracing the group and their fun-loving mentality. The young men decided they needed a new name, something that people would remember, and came up with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Months later the band were spotted by EMI/Capitol, who wanted to sign them. A problem arose: What is This? had already been scouted and offered a deal by MCA, and due to Slovak and Irons only regarding the Chilis as a bit of fooling around with friends, the duo decided to stick with their original band and record an album. Kiedis and Flea were undeterred and so found two replacements, in the form of Cliff Martinez and Jack Sherman. Their first album was self-titled and produced by ex-Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill, who had little in common with the crazy, casual drug-consuming freaks (namely Flea and Kiedis) and pushed the band to make a radio-friendly, polished album that would threaten the charts. Despite getting to the end of his tether with the band and their practical jokes (the guys once took a shit in a pizza box and delivered it to him), Gill successfully completed the album and it did relatively well in the United States. The album still displayed the funky nature and rock spirit of the Red Hot’s songs, but not in the raw form that Flea and Kiedis intended, and didn’t sell very well at all in the US.

Tensions in the band between Kiedis and Sherman due to lifestyle and artistic issues led to Sherman being sacked. Sherman was out, and Slovak was in. This was a good thing in several ways, as Kiedis, Flea and Slovak were soul mates and were destined to play together, and were also on the same level musically speaking. The band continued writing songs and went on to record their second album, “Freaky Styley”, produced by the funk pioneer George Clinton of Parliament/Funkadelic fame. The album is without a doubt the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ funkiest album to date, faithfully tapping into the true essence of funk. It’s the sound of 4 white men making the blackest music to come out of 1985, and brings to mind one of Kiedis’s most memorable quotes, when he once said “I want to be the James Brown of the 80’s”.

One of the other great things about the band was their eclectic fashion sense. Instead of being super-serious like many groups in the LA scene at that time, who went for pretentious clothes and stylish haircuts, the Chilis showed everyone that they really didn’t give a fuck. They would bound onstage with daft, theatrical costumes and accessories, maintaining the obvious fact that they had a sense of humour and also portraying a team spirit within their brotherhood. A great example of this is when the whole band got mohican haircuts, giving an almost tribal edge to their image, which suited them well (think back to “Fight Like a Brave”). Highlights from “Freaky Styley” include “Hollywood (Africa)”, “The Brothers Cup” and the jaw dropping Sly & The Family Stone cover “If You Want Me To Stay”.

The band’s party ethics shone through in this record, and they were gaining an increasing fan base in LA. Clinton would often join the band onstage and although their drug consumption was growing, the gang were enjoying themselves and making the music that they had always wanted to. They were just 4 young guys living the dream and having the time of their lives. However, Martinez didn’t share the intense interest in drug use as much as the other 3 members, and so Kiedis, sensing a change, decided to fire their drummer. Irons rejoined the line-up and they toured “Freaky Styley”. Unfortunately, Kiedis and Slovak had developed extremely heavy heroin addictions, but Kiedis’s was so bad that it took a large toll on his contributions to the band. He would often miss rehearsals and disappear for days on end without any contact, causing the band to temporarily boot him out whilst he cleaned up his act. They gave him a month to get back on track, and he did so before returning to start work on the group’s third album, “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan”.

This album featured an edgier, more punk-rock sound than the previous two efforts (see “Me & My Friends” and “No Chump Love Sucker”) but still contained the Chili Pepper’s zany lyrics and sense of humour that had shaped them thus far. Despite still dabbling in drugs and making the odd fuck up, Kiedis was (just about) putting the music before his chemical dependency and showing his worth in the band once again. The album was completed and the band were delighted with what they had achieved, feeling that along with “Freaky Styley”, they were starting to make their music like they wanted to, without a kill-joy, domineering producer such as Gill.

But tragedy was about to befall the band. Kiedis and Slovak, the likely lads, had slipped back into crippling drug addiction and on the 25th of June, 1988, heroin took Hillel Slovak’s life. Kiedis couldn’t deal with the news, describing the experience as dream-like and otherworldly, and missing the funeral, decided to get out of town to mourn his soul brother. Many would have thought that the death of their insanely talented guitar player would result in the end of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But this was just one of the huge knocks that was to strike the band in their eventful career.

Drugs were a massive part of the band, for better or worse. For Kiedis, it was practically unavoidable. He was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1962, but moved away to Los Angeles when he was 11 to live with his father, the charismatic actor/drug dealer/socialite John Kiedis, better known by his stage name Blackie Dammett. Without wasting any time, Kiedis smoked his first joint with his dad and quickly learned how to roll his own, picking up the skill with precision. He wallowed in the hippy spirit and vibes of free love that floated around his dad’s home, which was always filled with vibrant characters and friends of his father. Dammett was a familiar face around the legendary Rainbow Club on the LA strip, and he would take his son along when he went to party and deal cocaine to the likes of Zeppelin, The Who and Alice Cooper.

Dammett was a celebrity and would show young Anthony the ropes in terms of narcotics, giving him quaaludes and beer to reach the right buzz before he delved into his father’s world. Kiedis was already learning fast. He lost his virginity at the age of 12, in possibly the oddest way you could imagine. Whilst they were out one night, a rather drunk Kiedis slipped his father a note, saying that he fancied his old man’s latest squeeze (aged 18), and proposed that a situation was set up in which he would have sex with her that very night. Dammett agreed straight away, and the event took place when they got home. So, at 12 years old, Kiedis was equipped with sexual knowledge and an interest in drugs. It was always pretty certain that he would end up being a rock star.

Slovak’s death had hit the Red Hot Chili Peppers hard. Kiedis fled, Flea wept and Irons decided that this was the last straw for him, and quit the band. They were now two members down. Despite this, Kiedis and Flea got together and came to the decision that they would pick up the pieces and do Slovak proud by continuing what they had started back in ”Ëœ83. They employed drummer Dead Kennedys’ D.H. Peligro and ex-P-Funk guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, but the new line-up was short-lived as neither of the new members gelled with Kiedis and Flea. Things seemed marred, but then Peligro introduced the band to John Frusciante, a young guitar prodigy who was obsessed with the Chilis and a massive fan of their music. At only 18, Frusciante auditioned and was accepted into the band. He became close friends with Kiedis and Flea, sharing the same musical tastes and a penchant for hot young girls. He and Flea were punk enthusiasts, both huge fans of Black Flag, Fugazi and the Germs. John said that when he was a kid, he learned the whole of the Sex Pistols’ “Nevermind the Bollocks”¦” album to prove to his father that he was serious about taking up the guitar.

The Chili Peppers were armed with their sensationally talented new guitar player and were ready to take on the world, but they still needed a drummer. With another stroke of luck, the band were introduced to Chad Smith, after one of their friends had told them that he “eats drums for breakfast”. He turned up to the audition resembling something out of a 1980’s hair-metal band, clad in denim and leather, topped off with a bandana. The Chili Peppers were punk skinheads and didn’t quite know if they could tolerate Smith’s attire, but after he showed his skills behind the drums they were totally silenced. The band told Smith that he was in the band and invited him to their rehearsal the next day, provided he shaved his long hair off that night. He turned up the following day still donning his shoulder-length hair and bandana, but still remained a Chili Pepper as the rest of the band admired his “fuck you” attitude.

The band went on a short tour across the states to allow Frusciante and Smith to settle and get into their groove. The next album the band were to record was entitled “Mother’s Milk”, which saw the band incorporate some elements of metal and heavy rock, whilst still retaining the trademark funk and punk core of their musical style. Frusciante and Kiedis fell out with the producer, Michael Beinhorn, claiming that he was trying to steer the band towards achieving hits and mainstream acceptance rather than the hard-edged funk-punk that they were aiming for. Beinhorn was like Gill all over again, only in this case he was trying to direct most of his attention towards beefing up Frusciante’s guitar into macho, hair-metal squeals, which the rest of the band opposed as they wanted their music to be slinky, sexy and funky as hell. Despite the disagreements, the album went on to garner worldwide success due to hits such as the Stevie Wonder cover “Higher Ground”, the ode to Slovak “Knock Me Down” and the dark rocker “Taste The Pain”. It was the Chili Pepper’s first gold record. The band’s live performances were electric at this point, and Kiedis was using his role as front man to its greatest effect, bounding around the stage shirtless and possessed, reminiscent of one of his idols, the god-like Iggy Pop.

Relatively clean from drug use, (Kiedis had stopped using heroin, which was working wonders for the band as their creativity was sky-high) the Chili Peppers were glowing with positive and artistic energy when they recruited Rick Rubin as the producer for their next album, the groundbreaking “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”, in 1991. Rubin was already well-respected due to his work with the Beastie Boys, Run DMC and his position as the co-founder of Def Jam Records. As an alternative to recording in a stereotypical studio, Rubin and the band came to the decision that they would instead record the album in a mansion in LA, which was pretty famous in the music world as it had been host to Hendrix, Bowie, Jagger and other stars in the past. Once home to Harry Houdini, the mansion was reportedly haunted. Frusciante and Smith both claimed they had witnessed ghostly happenings, and Smith was so unnerved by this that he chose to ride his motorcycle to the house each day instead of lodging there, which the rest of the band did during the entire recording process. Now legendary, the mansion has been the chosen recording spot for bands such as the Mars Volta, Slipknot and LCD Soundsystem.

The idea of staying at the mansion couldn’t have gone any better for the band. The album was released to global acclaim and shot the Chili Peppers to superstardom. “Give it Away” and “Under The Bridge” became the band’s biggest and most successful singles, and the album later went to number 3 in the US charts. Everyone dealt with this well, except Frusciante. He couldn’t come to terms with how big the band had become in the few years that he had been part of it, telling the rest of the group that he would be satisfied with still playing in the small clubs that they used to inhabit. Mass fame wasn’t what Frusciante wanted, and so he departed the band in May 1992 whilst they were on tour in Japan, jumping on a plane home hours before they were set to go on stage.

Arik Marshall was brought into the band to finish the BSSM tour, and despite cleaning up at the Grammy’s that year, the band asked Marshall to leave before they began work on their new album as they didn’t feel that they were connecting with him during song writing.

Meanwhile, in his LA home, John Frusciante had begun his descent into hell. For the next 5 years Frusciante would be a drug-addled recluse, taking cocaine, heroin and crack daily. During this time he would write and record 2 solo albums, dark masterpieces called “Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt” and “Smile From The Streets You Hold”, the latter featuring contributions from River Pheonix, who died from speedballing whilst he was at Johnny Depp’s club, The Viper Room in October 1993. Frusciante didn’t want to release his music, but with the urging of friends including Flea (who still visited Frusciante despite his lifestyle) and Depp, he went ahead and did so.

As one can imagine, the sales were poor, and people were very worried about the once happy and vibrant young guitarist. His appearance was rapidly deteriorating: his skin was paper-thin, stretching over his skeletal face, and his teeth were rotting and falling out. Also, because he hadn’t properly learned how to administer needles in which to inject heroin (unlike Kiedis who was so methodical that he may as well have been a nurse), his arms were getting more and more infected which was potentially life-threatening. Frusciante claimed that he took so many drugs because the world was a cruel and horrible place, and that he was only truly happy when under the influence of cocaine and heroin.

Whilst Frusciante was holed away in LA, the band recruited Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro for their next effort, “One Hot Minute”. The new line-up’s first gig together was at Woodstock ”Ëœ94, which was famous for the band’s ridiculous costumes, consisting of metallic silver suits complete with massive light bulbs on the tops of their heads. It didn’t take long for the band to become unsettled with their new member. Songwriting wasn’t flowing like it used to do with Frusciante, and to add to their problems, Kiedis had relapsed into heroin abuse once again (this was due to a dental procedure in which the dentist gave Kiedis an addictive sedative as a painkiller, unaware of his heavy drug history.) Things weren’t looking good.

“One Hot Minute” did rather well upon its release, with the band achieving its second number one single, “My Friends”. It didn’t come close to the insane success of BSSM, but it could have been a lot, lot worse. However, inside the camp, it was clear that Navarro’s stay was coming to an end. According to Kiedis, the decision for Navarro to go was mutual, and in early 1998 the Chilis were once again without a guitar player.

Somehow, John Frusciante was still alive. After barely escaping a fire which burned down his house and destroyed all of his guitars, Frusciante was persuaded to check into a rehabilitation centre by his friends and after a lot of persistence, beat his addictions to cocaine and heroin. The years of constant hard drug abuse had damaged Frusciante in a big way. His arms were a complete mess, and still show signs of scarring today due to poorly executed heroin taking, and his nose had to be surgically restructured as a result of the amount of cocaine he took. Finally, he needed a new set of teeth as his others were removed because of the risk of fatal infection.

Kiedis and Flea agreed that the only way the Chili Peppers could possibly continue was if they were reunited with Frusciante, and that they had taken his genius and song writing contribution for granted. The true chemistry of the Red Hot Chili Peppers could only be retained with this man. And so, whilst visiting Frusciante at his home in April ”Ëœ98, Flea asked him if he would like to return to the band. Overwhelmed by the proposition, Frusciante sobbed and told Flea that nothing in the world would make him happier. The funky monks were back.

Although it took a little while for Frusciante to settle back into the band due to the mental and physical trauma he had suffered from so much drug-taking, he eventually got back into his groove and displayed more talent than ever before. A year was spent on writing, rehearsing, recording and production, and the end product was their seventh album, “Californication”. The album contained less rap and was a departure from anything the Chili Peppers had recorded before, filled with layered vocals, and more consistent, memorable basslines. It appealed to a larger audience but by no means did it subtract any of the funk spirit that the Chili Peppers had previously exhaled. All of the album’s singles were successes (“Scar Tissue”, “Around The World”, “Otherside”, “Road Trippin”, “Parallel Universe” and the title track) and the Chilis were back on top once again.

Kiedis was weaning himself off heroin, and although the rest of the band didn’t know it, he was still quietly using during the Californication era. Luckily in time for the band’s next album, 2002’s “By The Way”, the entire band were clean and focussed, finally free of all drugs and substances. Another album with Rubin, and another success, as all of the album’s singles again succeeded in the charts. Kiedis and Frusciante bonded a lot over the recording process, which left Flea feeling like a bit of an outsider. He wanted to continue the band’s funk-driven style whilst Frusciante and Kiedis were opting for slower, more melodic songs, which was a great thing for the band as it showed development and another departure for the Chilis.

By doing this, they were evolving even further and displaying that they could dip their toes into other genres by expanding their range and sound. Despite this minor upset, all was resolved and the band embarked on an 18 month world tour. A particularly fond memory for me was the release of their incredible single “Universally Speaking”. I remember listening to it on the radio and it being stuck in my head for days, running around the school playground singing it at the top of my lungs. It contained so much positive energy, so much optimism. I fell in love with it. During this time they released their first live album, recorded during their three Hyde Park shows in London in 2004.

At this point the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the biggest band in the world without a shadow of a doubt. Their album and concert ticket sales were breaking world records, and despite the fact that they were filling arenas, they were still making incredible, diverse music that offered their fans something new each time. They garnered more fame and popularity but didn’t sell out and produce shit like, say, Kings of Leon did.

In October of 2004 I bought Kiedis’s autobiography, “Scar Tissue”, a deeply honest, shocking and beautifully written book that gave a “warts and all” account of his both his personal life and his adventures with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This was the first time that I became fully aware of the extent that drugs had effected the band over the years. At this point I was obsessed with the band, and so read the book in less than a week, savouring every sentence. This newfound knowledge and ocean of information that I had gained from Kiedis’s memoirs made the 2 year wait for their next LP almost unbearable. And then it came.

At the peaks of their career, the Chilis went on to record their next album in 2005, with its release in the summer of 2006. “Stadium Arcadium” saw the band return to Rubin’s haunted mansion, and it was every bit as colossal and grandiose as its title suggested. These songs sounded like they could be played in space to martians on another planet, adding even more to the spacey theme. Some critics called it self-indulgent and over-produced, but to me it sounded like a band having fun and enjoying their talent and chemistry every bit as much as its fans were. Featuring 28 songs, the double-album clocked in at over two hours, so time and attention was required, but the rewards were endless. I’m still listening to it now in 2011 and rediscovering things I hadn’t heard before. Most notable is Frusciante’s epic guitar work, and almost every song contains a face-melting solo, further pressing the fact that this album should only be listened to at maximum volume. Despite the naysayers, “Stadium Arcadium” continued the Chilis’ succession of critically acclaimed records, and led to them going on a long world tour to showcase the album.

Exhausted at the end of the tour, the band played the Leeds Festival in 2007 and despite still playing a great show, it was clear that they needed a rest so that they could recuperate, both physically and mentally. The band announced shortly after that they were going to go on a 12 month hiatus, which eventually became two years, so that they could spend time with their families and have some personal experiences of their own. Kiedis had his first son, Everly Bear, in October of ”Ëœ07 with model/journalist Heather Christie, whom he is now separated from. Flea enrolled at the University of Southern California to take music theory classes. Frusciante recorded his tenth solo album, “The Empyrean”, a spiritual masterpiece that features contributions from Flea, Johnny Marr and long-time friend and collaborator Josh Klinghoffer. And Chad Smith went on tour with rock super group Chickenfoot. Since then, Frusciante announced to the world that he was leaving the Chili Peppers for the second time, stating that he wanted to follow his own path and make his own music without being part of a touring rock machine. The Chilis didn’t know who to recruit, and questioned whether it was time to call it a day, but Flea said that he and Kiedis had poured their heart and soul into this band for the past 27 years and that it would be an awful shame to end things just yet.

So Josh Klinghoffer was in. An insanely talented young multi-instrumentalist who has worked with the likes of Beck, Gnarls Barkley, Vincent Gallo, The Butthole Surfers, Warpaint, PJ Harvey, Thelonious Monster and more, Klinghoffer was the obvious choice as had been a close friend of the band for years, with Kiedis saying that they had found someone “right in their own back yard”. It only made sense, as Klinghoffer had joined the band’s line-up during their “Stadium Arcadium” tour as a second guitarist and keyboard player, to help beef up the sound that the album had introduced.

And so here we are, 27 eventful years later, in 2011. I am excited beyond belief for the August 30th release of “I’m With You”, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ tenth full-length album. I’ve scanned through the publicity shots, read all the articles I can muster and checked online daily for any news that I might have missed on the topic of the Chili Peppers. Nine years later and these guys are still my favourites. I have every faith in them and cannot wait to go and purchase the album in 8 weeks time, just like I did back in 2002 and in 2006 with their last two efforts, fidgeting and buzzing on the bus ride home in eagerness of the unique funk-punk-rock-pop hybrid that only they can pull off. And to all the critics, the people who try to piss on their parade, I say “fuck you.” I am an avid music fan and adore hundreds of solo musicians and groups, but no other band makes me feel the way that the Chili Peppers do. And for that I thank them and salute them, and wish them only the best, in their lives with the Chilis and their personal lives at home. I just hope that those weather-beaten, revitalised and indestructible forces of nature can carry on blowing my mind and holding dear my faith in the power of music. Amen.

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  1. Neil… I never actually called it that, I called it “Red Hot Chili Peppers: 27 years of blood sugar sex magik” but I think John (who runs the site) wanted a more immediate title to grab people’s attention. I understand your point, though at times (in life in general) I do feel the need to defend these guys because they seem to get a lot of flack from people who don’t really listen to the music and judge the band on face value. I just wanted to show the many faces of the band and give some depth into what they’re really about. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

  2. ALSO. I would like to add that the Chilis played their first gig at the Kit Kat Lounge, LA. Not as I accidentally put, the Kit Katharina Lounge. Fucking goddamn dictionary auto-insert!

  3. Actually, I did indeed. Its always good to read a passionate piece that manages to be eloquent at the same time.
    My personal view of the Chilis as they are today isn’t really relevant, although I did enjoy their earlier work & who knows what the future holds ?
    Give Andy Gill a break, though – he isn’t the easiest of people to work with but he did a good job with what was an unfamiliar territory in spite of the ‘funkier’ edge to Gang Of Four.

  4. Used to love them, but for me since BSSM they’ve been making the same album again and again. it’s OK, it’s not that bad an album, but none of them stand up to Mother’s Milk or Blood Sugar.

    Good history piece though, and an interesting read.

    • BSSM and mother’s milk are indeed strong points in the band’s career. i dunno, i guess i just appreciate all the different sounds and departures that the band explore, however they rocked very hard during those eras.

  5. This was less of a defense of the RHCP and more of a Biography and fan’s declaration of his love for the band. It was definitely an interesting and well thought out read, though. It just had a misleading title ;)

    • haha, as i said, i never actually called it “in defence of…”, the editor of the site changed it to that, but yes you’re right. thanks for the feedback though mate and glad you enjoyed it, hope you learned some new things about the chilis.

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