Defying the laws of rock ‘n’ roll gravity, The Red Hot Chili Peppers find themselves in 2003 as the biggest group in the world. This is a band that pioneered funk rock and ran amok in the rock ‘n’ roll sweetshop. They were the first heavily tattooed, semi-naked physical manifestation of a new kind of rock – acting crazy, playing wild and loose and getting lost in amidst of hard drugs with the inevitable comedowns and, ultimately, of the tragic death of original guitar player Hillal Slovak.
His replacement, John Frusciante, had such a bad heroin problem that he left the band only to re-join and fire them up for their two multi-million selling albums ‘By The Way’ and ‘Californication’ – two albums that thrust the Chili Peppers into the major league.
These albums saw the band become, possibly, the first group in the history of rock to mellow out – and get better! The much more melodic approach coupled with Frusciante’s fantastic guitar playing, and vocalist Anthony Kiedis’ new-found singing/crooning, found the Chili Peppers at the top of the pile.
Their recent greatest hits set clearly documents their development from young dumb full of cum frat boy rockers with neat post punk record collections, through their late eighties breakthrough and the changes in sound as they went through their guitar player crises just as they hit heir peak. It details their rise as songwriters and their adept command of melody that found such big bucks fruition with their last two studio albums – a hard won mellowness that sees the triumphant band still sound cutting edge and mainstream in a seamless whole.
Despite this new mellow Peppers sound, the band still very much wears their original influences on their tattooed sleeves. You could still hear the leftfield riffing of the likes of Gang Of Four, or the splintered guitar rushes of The Minutemen in their muse, or the jangled guitar rush of Bow Wow Wow’s Mathew Ashman as well as the added harmony influence of the Beach Boys or The Beatles adding to their melodic rush. ‘Greatest Hits’ signposts this development and this tying up of fractured musical influences into a neat whole.
Formed in LA in the early eighties, their history is a familiar roll call of highs and lows. Kiedis, Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary and original guitar player Hillal Slovak met at Los Angeles’ Fairfax High School in the late seventies. Flea was a dab hand at playing the trumpet and Slovak was already making good headway on the guitar whilst Kiedis was writing poetry and working on his acting.
Kiedis’ father Blackie Dammett – who currently runs the band’s fan club – was originally an actor who moved into the music biz doing PR for the likes of the New York Dolls and John Lennon. Slovak taught Flea to play bass and they decided to put a band together adding the charismatic Kiedis, who was an obvious choice as singer.
Influenced heavily by the burgeoning L.A. punk scene – Black Flag, Fear, The Germs, Minutemen, X, as well as British post punk bands like Gang Of Four and Joy Division – the band added a twist to their sound with the funk of Parliament, Funkadelic and Sly & the Family Stone. Mashing this with the classics like Jimi Hendrix and Flea’s favourite all time band, The Clash, they broadened their sound and gave it a mainstream vision. Added to this was the bassman’s love of esoteric jazz that he and Kiedis used to drop acid and trip to. The trio became a full-on band with the addition of another friend, drummer Jack Irons and named themselves, rather bizarrely, Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem.
They cut their teeth playing the strip bars of LA’s Sunset Strip in the early eighties, working up a ferocious and physical live show that saw them appearing onstage naked apart from socks on their cocks – an image that twenty years later they are yet to shake off. The stage show and their grab bag of original influences marked them out from the predominantly poodle rock scene that dominated the post-punk landscape of the rock clubs in LA.
In 1983 they (thankfully) changed their name to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. With their extrovert live show (and theirs is one of the few great
organic major stadium experiences, as the recent ‘Live At Slane Castle ’DVD demonstrates) and unique cross-pollination of styles, it wasn’t long before the band was signed. EMI picked up the deal and sent the band to the studio to work on their debut album with Gang Of Four guitar player Andy Gill producing – an unlikely combination of suntanned Californian rock jocks and a pasty-faced genius English avant-garde guitarist. But before they could get their access to the studio, Slovak and Irons left feeling that their future would be better served in another band, What Is This. Swiftly, Flea and Kiedis recruited new members guitarist Jack and ex-Beefheart drummer Cliff Martinez; it was a foretaste of the band’s topsy turvey future.
Their self-titled debut was released in 1984 but it was something of a disappointment, failing to capture their renowned live show – perhaps inevitable for a band that had just grafted in two members weeks before recording. It was a loose combination of Gang Of Four clanking funk, white boy rapping and some great musicianship, but very much a band finding their feet.
The following year Slovak returned as guitar player after What Is This had fallen apart after one album. They went back to the studio with the inspired choice of George Clinton as producer and Maceo Parker guesting, recording the better ‘Freaky Styley’ that, although sounding more fully formed than their debut, still failed to capture the live Peppers who were building up a phenomenal reputation on the circuit. They would have to wait till 1987’s third album, ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’ to capture the band correctly, and it was their first, albeit, lower chart hit establishing the band at the forefront of the alternative/ underground college radio in eighties America.
A year later they released the odds ‘n’ sods five-track, ‘The Abbey Road’ EP – the one with the famous socks-on-cocks-crossing-Abbey-Road cover. The record again lifted them up another level and it looked like all the chaos that surrounded the band was a thing of the past, but tragedy struck when Slovak died from a heroin overdose on June 25, 1988. The shock of Slovak’s death ripped the group apart. Jack Irons left and it was only Kiedis’ iron will and sense of survival that kept the group going through this dark period.
The first line up they put together included ex-Parliament guitarist Blackbird McKnight and fantastic Dead Kennedy’s sticksman DH Peligro. But such a disparate line up was never going to work, so they drafted in 18-year-old skinny punk kid and Chili Peppers fan John Frusciante and 6 foot 3 drummer Chad Smith.
It gelled instantly. The Chilli’s had stumbled upon their perfect line up. 1989’s ‘Mothers Milk’ became their first mainstream smash due to MTV hammering their fluorescent video for their roaring cover version of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’, as well as the song they wrote for Hillal Slovak ‘Knock Me Down’.
Now fully in their ascendance and a full-on mainstream MTV backed rock act, the band went back to the studio (well, a mansion) and hooked up with Rick Rubin for 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magic’. It was a perfect combination. Rubin’s stripped down production caught the band at their creative best, and they put together an album that is stuffed with classic songs like the elastic bassline driven ‘Give It Away’ (which came with a great video of the band painted gold performing the song in a desert) and the classic ballad ‘Under The Bridge’ that detailed Kiedis scoring smack in the seedy underbelly of LA, set to a simple yet effective chiming riff from Frusciante, and the song that saw cigarette lighters lifted aloft for the years to follow.
The he band’s image now was of strutting funky monks, neo sexist rock goons – young, dumb and full of cum. But the Chilli’s were always far more complicated beasts than that. Their avowed love of their good times was always tempered by artfulness – for every gross out tour story there were name-drops for obscure jazz legends, underground punk rock bands or unknown painters.
The album took them to number one in America and sold more than seven million copies. Typically, the Chili Peppers then shot themselves in the foot. The druggy atmosphere surrounding the band had affected the sensitive Frusciante, who was now bogged down with a serious heroin habit and quit the band in 1992 to release a couple of obscure solo albums and wallow in a smack hell.
John left the band mid-tour but, again, their steely resolve saw them through and they recruited a new guitar player Arik Marshall and headlined the Lollapalooza tour. But Marshall’s tenure in the band was short lived and when they returned to the studio to work on their sixth album, he was replaced by Jesse Tobias who also left the band swiftly before ex-Jane’s Addiction guitar man Dave Navarro finally made the guitar spot his own.
At last it looked like the Chili Peppers had a settled line up. Navarro’s thicker, heavier sound beefed the band up but they missed Frusciante’s delicate melodic touch. Their next release, 1995’s ‘One Hot Minute’ although being yet another big seller, seemed to lack the breakthrough sound of its predecessor.
And then in 1998 Navarro left the band.They turned back to Frusciante. The guitarist had finally cleaned up after years of drug hell, his arms scarred by the ravages of heroin but his creative juices were untapped and the resulting sessions for 1999’s ‘Californication’ saw them take a gigantic creative leap forward. Finally after all the bullshit, problems and fuck-ups they realized that they had a powerful innate magic that was not to be fucked with. They also realized that they didn’t have to keep playing the socks on cocks funky monks card and put together an album that captured many different flavours and styles.
Less of the funk rock and more of the melodic power has become their new trademark. From Flea’s neo Peter Hook basslines to Kiedis’ new improved vocal croonings, to Frusciante’s fantastic guitar playing – the album oozed songwriting class but still echoed all the hallmarks of their sound.
‘Californication’ is a collection of seductive love songs and tracks tinged with regret, from ‘Scar Tissue’ with its great slide guitar from to the neat pun of ‘Californication’ – a sly look at the Americanisation of world culture that the Chilli’s with their global success are very much part of.
The record was a mega platinum success selling more than 12 million copies and gave the band the confidence to continue in their new sound. 2002’s ‘By The Way’ is yet another class act and is the Uzis best selling record over the past 12 months. It also shows off Frusciante’s creativity to the full – with the guitarist’s eclectic taste really coming to the fore. In interviews he was name checking the Human League’s first two albums as well as genius British seventies band Mott The Hoople and glamsters The Glitter Band, as well as old school punk and nu millennium electronic music mavericks. And just to push the eclectic envelope a little further, he wrote a letter to Mojo bigging up King Crimson and Yes and looking to Queen and Abba for ideas for his distinctive harmonies that have coloured the album brilliantly.
‘By the Way’ perfectly captures modern LA – a city of highs and lows, of beauty and damage, of optimism with a seedy underbelly. The album reeks Sixties melodicism twisted with those eighties post-punk influences. There are even flavours of Kraftwerk, a band that Frusciante loves (wearing their T-shirt at the Manchester show). Frusciante has really come into his own on this album playing all the keyboards and singing most of the harmonies. But never underestimate that rhythm section with Flea in fantastic form. His bass style is less funky chops and now incorporating all styles from Peter Hook to tune laden runs, and as ever it locks tight with Chad Smith’s precise and fantastically hard-hitting drums. The whole package is, yet again, organically produced by Rick Rubin and captures the sound of a band comfortable with itself playing together.
The Chili Peppers are the last of the early eighties post rock bands left on the circuit. Their take on the punk funk of the Gang Of Four gave them access to invent a whole new genre of music that has been massively copied but never equalled and this is down to bassman Flea’s astonishing ability. It’s a given that he is some kind of virtuoso on the bass guitar with his distinctive slap funk style but it’s the way that he plays this, in the concise driving punk rock style that lifts the Chili Peppers songs into an adrenaline rush.
Watching the Chili Peppers live on both nights in Manchester’s Evening News Arena was a total experience in 2003 – for two hours the band played a twisting, turning set from great ballads like the poignant ‘Scar Tissue’ to the Gang of Four spazz funk of recent single ‘Can’t Stop’.
The band drop hints at their influences and contemporaries at any given opportunity. Frusciante at the end of a chiming guitar flurry dedicated the song to ‘my favourite guitarist’ – Vini Reilly, the Mancunian cult guitar player who once worked with Morrissey as well as his own band the Durutti Column – the name is greeted with silence by the rock-leaning audience. The second night he returns to the stage for the encores alone and plays a great solo version of Joy Division’s ‘Colony’, and a watching Peter Hook and Barney are buzzing. Flea is still brilliantly eccentric. A punk rock heart beats hard and his bass guitar screams his roots with Circle Jerks and Minor Threat stickers. Like many of his generation he took his cue from punk rock and hardcore, but never got the tunnel vision that blighted British punk rock with it ridiculous year zero. For Flea music is a journey and an adventure. He seems just at home in a Miles Davies T- shirt or raving about LA punk legends X.
What makes a band like the Chili Peppers really work in an arena is the simplicity of their show. They know how to work a stage physically, whether it’s Fleas hunchbacked runs, Frusciante’s flailing dervish workouts or Kiedis’s bare chested rock god workouts that are greeted with whoops of joy by the packed audience.
The Chili Peppers are LA incarnate from their bad boy drug days, to their rock star mannerisms, to their current chilled out Yoga’d up and surfing lifestyle mode. This is a band that has lived the Californication lifestyle to the full – the soundtrack to the good side of America.
‘Greatest Hits’ tells this story. The story of an all-American party band grown up and surviving.
In the Summer, , Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ drummer Chad Smith announced that the group would reconvene in October to finally begin work on their follow up album to 2006’s multi-platinum ‘Stadium Arcadium’. Well, the nights are drawing in now, so how are the guys doing any news on the next instalment?
Luckily for us, Clash Music caught up with Smith to ask about their progress. According to him, things are moving forward — and they may be eyeing a release date for the album.
“We’re gonna write for a while, it usually takes us a while,” Smith said, which echoes his comments from July when he noted that the band “do a lot of improvising and jamming” when they start mapping out a new record. Asked about when we can expect the album, Smith was somewhat vague: “Some time next year, maybe this time [next year.”
As promised, the new album. from what we have heard so far, is the excellent ‘I’m With you’ first single taken from the album is ‘Monarchy Of Roses’ out 14 November 2012.
For fans the latest news is the conformation of two dates in the UK, Knebworth Park, Stevenage, Hants on June 23 and Sunderland, Stadium Of Light, June 24th 2012.With Guitars will post the latest European, Asian and US dates as we get them.
Written and researched by John Robb
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