While re-reading singer Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography Scar Tissue this week, I was slowly coming to the sad, soul-destroying realisation that I missed out on his band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ recent tour of SA – it had been something I had managed, until now, to feel a little philosophical about: constantly reassuring myself that if there was no John Frusciante in the band, then it really wasn’t the Chili Peppers after all.
Still, it kind of hurts to miss out on a band who have been on my must-see bucket list ever since, as a teen, I first heard the hazy rumble of Power Of Equality introducing me to the BloodSugarSexMagic album. Nonetheless, inspired by new insight from Scar Tissue into the history of the band, I was inspired to dig out my RHCP collection and revisit their remarkable and varied body of work.
At the height of my first Chili Peppers phase, between 1995 and 1999, it seemed as if I listened to very little else other music during that time: each Red Hot Chili riff, lick, beat and nuance became permanently etched on my brain. After a fair amount of time though – sometime around the release of the By The Way album in 2002 – I finally had to break away from the Chili Peppers, going off it completely cold turkey, in much the same way Kiedis had continuously weaned himself off his chaotic drug addiction, as brutally detailed in Scar Tissue. But, then again, also like Kiedis and his 800-pound gorilla-bitch of a coke/smack habit, one can’t really stay away from the Chili Peppers for too long.
By The Way is by far their least funk-infused; least rocking out album. It was never a particular favourite of mine, yet as I listened to it again this week, with all the background history filled in, it actually turns out to be a great album, a little bit different , a little more laidback, a very melody-oriented collection of songs as opposed to just another compilation of funk jams.
Of course, with classic albums like BloodSugarSexMagic (BSSM), Mother’s Milk and Californication – three of my favourite albums – setting the standard, it’s not hard to feel some of their later recordings may be lacking somewhat. But they’re all growing on me again, as I now start seeing the band in a new light.
The John Frusciante Mk2 years – from 1999’s Californication to Stadium Arcadium in 2007 – saw the band’s exiled guitarist, whose raw funk playing did much to define their melodious funk-rock aesthetic on the breakthrough BSSM album during the 1990s, return to help Peppers again redefine and recreate a new stripped down, song-focused and accessible sound – some calling it the Chili Peppers’ “pop sound” – that helped the band reach an even wider audience, without losing their edge.
I am a big fan of John Frusciante, in and out of the Chili Peppers – he has recorded some interesting avant-garde-minimalist solo albums that, while not for the faint of heart, are well worth hearing. His collaborations with the likes of Mars Volta are elevated substantially by his participation. I enjoy his sparse, minimalistic playing, particularly in the post-Californication era. He has had flashier, brasher moments on Mother’s Milk and BSSM, but now seemed to gravitate towards melody over maestronics, subtle restraint in lieu of heavier rock aggression. Some of his musical lines on these later albums are sublime, solos that could hardly be called solos, but rather crisp, lyrical, dulcet embellishments interspersed with unobtrusive but interesting innovative ruminations.
This style is logical juxtaposition of course, considering what Frusciante gets to work with in the RHCP musical dynamic: Kiedis’ much imitated, stylishly delivered telegrammed rap/croon, teeming with virile machismo. The solid horse-powered drums of Chad Smith – whose dependable beatkeeping throughout his tenure with the Peppers seem to suggest than he just never stops playing drums…ever, (which is completely ridiculous, of course, because when would he have had the time to make all those Anchorman movies (!))
Ceci n’est pas Chad Smith
And then, of course, there’s Flea’s pioneering snap, crackle and pop bass guitar virtuosity, unquestionably the very soul of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Say no more and watch this:
Frusciante’s subtle flourishes fit perfectly into this already competent and solid foundation, like a tasteful, aurally pleasing picture frame around a wild Jackson Pollock constellation of funk-rock. It was a crying shame when he left the band a couple of years ago, as they went on to release their most recent album, 2012’s I’m With You, without him. But naturally, with the Peppers’ well-documented history of revolving door guitar players, Frusciante may return yet again…maybe…hopefully.
Luckily for RHCP circa 2012/13, they seem to have found a suitable and competent replacement in Josh Klinghoffer, who, conveniently, is himself a close friend and learned scholar at the foot pedals of John Frusciante. (Klinghoffer features prominently on a number of Frusciante’s more recent solo works.)
There is no other band or group that sound like the Chili Peppers, their music truly their own: unmistakable, instantly recognisable. Even in their early years, in a vibrant climate of 1980s post-punk and art-rock that picked and replicated from a variety of contradictory styles and influences, the Red Hot Chili Peppers embraced everything and anything, from George Clinton’s P-Funk, The Ramones, early hip-hop/rap to Bowie and the rest of the classic rock montage – and created their own cocoon of uniqueness that has served them well for over 25 years, helping make them a genuinely immortal musical collective whose works I imagine will be listened to, and appreciated for centuries to come.
Here are just some of my personal favourites from the RHCP canon:
(once again, by no means a thorough list here – by rights the entire BSSM and Californication albums should feature here, but these are really just bits of the Chili Peppers I’ve been soaking up over the last week, some of which have continued to hold a special significance for me. Try attempting to select your own RHCP Top 10 without turning into a basket case.)
Aeroplane – from “One Hot Minute” 1995
An ‘ugly stepchild’ of an album that has long been derided by fans for its overt cock rock sensibility, and all but disowned by the band themselves, OHM nonetheless has some interesting deviations from the usual funk rock format to offer, and cannot be so easily dismissed.
Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro fills in for Frusciante and the difference is striking. Navarro’s art-punk touches at times seem very out of place, but his obvious talent within the group dynamic was not necessarily a disagreeable direction for the band. With Kiedis struggling with his addictions for much of the recording, the album’s captain is very much Flea, who guides the album with some of his best bass playing in years. Aeroplane is a quirky jovial track (“music is my aeroplane”) but with a melancholic undercurrent (“I like pleasure spiked with pain”). Both River Phoenix – a friend of the band – and Kurt Cobain died during the making, and the effects of which on the band are very much part of the blueprint for the album’s atmosphere, most notably in the album closer Transcending.
(Pull Tab To Open…)
Emit Remmus – from “Californication” 1999
Inspired by the short and unlikely love affair between Kiedis and Spice Girl Melanie C, Summer Time (backwards) is a dark, sexy summer anthem. I have fond memories of walking through London with the album, and this song in particular, in my ears, and seeing the actual famous landmarks name checked in the lyrics. An interesting experience. The low slung grungy punk pattern of the song makes a nice diversion from the rest of the album’s upbeat funk and jangly guitar rock.
Minor Thing – from “By The Way” 2002
An often forgotten third act throwaway, this upbeat song has a pretty and addictive chorus and features some great vocals from Kiedis, who often admits to struggling with finding his comfortable zone with vocal melody and harmonies. Working with voice coaches as well as the encouragement of producer Rick Rubin since the days of BSSM when he had to literally be forced into birthing the band’s first real straightforward ballad: Under The Bridge, all that hard work now comes to a head in this great song.
Higher Ground – from “Mother’s Milk” 1989
For many, this speedy-funk reading of the classic Stevie Wonder fight song was the first introduction to the Chili Peppers, who, in recording the song, officially bridge the connection between 70s funk soul and the burgeoning alternative rock scene of the late 1980s. The song is incredibly catchy and filled with so much spirit, its near impossible not to shake your funky self to it.
Around The World – from “Californication”
The opening herald of the second coming of Frusciante, it’s a jumpy, funky travelogue with all the elements that make RHCP great. Another classic Chili Peppers endless breakdown boogie towards the song’s conclusion is surprisingly refreshing. If I had a gun to my head, this would be my favourite Chili Peppers song. The album was great cradle of comfort during my travels abroad at the time, and each song is packed with warm memories.
Greeting Song – from “BloodSugarSexMagic” 1991
The only song from BSSM that both Kiedis and Flea dislike with great passion, it is nonetheless an interesting idea: a straightforward punk rock song with little embellishments and little substance, that forms a fluffy segue into the album’s final act. Seeing the album as a whole, this song may seem like an afterthought-of filler, but it still deserves to be included on this classic, ground-breaking album. It is also the first RHCP song I taught myself to play on bass, primarily because the rest of the album was just too difficult to play.
Knock Me Down – from “Mother’s Milk”
Proof that the Chili Peppers could write a real song before BSSM, even if the singing is a little iffy here. The most blatant reference to his addiction, Kiedis puts his heart into the lyrics and the performance. Michael Beinhorn’s production on the entire album is a little dated, seeped in too much 80s reverbing echo, so it would be curious to hear how the band would interpret these songs today. Alas, very few of these pre-BSSM songs are performed in their live shows. The song was a minor hit for the band as they approached the cusp of rock n roll greatness two years later with BloodSugarSexMagic, so it is an interesting blueprint of their style and song writing development.
Purple Stain – from “Californication”
Despite a rather dodgy opening lyric – something only the devilish Kiedis could deliver without sounding too sordid – this live performance favourite stands out for its boogie coda, where Chad Smith gets to raucously reinforce his authoritative heartbeat to the Chili Peppers universe.