Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Red Hot Chili Peppers

Sound Familiar?

“Give It Away,” “Under the Bridge,” “Scar Tissue”

Who Are They?

Those crazy Californian funk rock mofos who aren’t afraid to show off their, erm, socks.

In the beginning (or 1983), there was Tony Flow & the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. Founding members Anthony Kiedis, Michael “Flea” Balzary, Hillel Slovak, and Jack Irons played their first show under this catchy name. The gig was only supposed to be a one-time thing since Hillel and Jack had day jobs with a band called What Is This?, but the crowd went nuts for them (probably due to some intense improvisation and Anthony rapping a poem he wrote.) So after a quick name change to Red Hot Chili Peppers, the boys booked some more shows and eventually got noticed by EMI.

Hillel and Jack still considered RHCP as a side project, so they quit to focus on What Is This? (and I’m sure they’re so happy with that decision now.) That was no biggie for Anthony and Flea, who recruited new members Cliff Martinez on drums and Jack Sherman on guitar just in time to record their first self-titled album in 1984.

The album didn’t sell, but airplay on college radio and MTV (ah, the good ol’ days) helped the Chili Peppers establish a fan base. During the tour, however, Anthony and Jack Sherman locked horns over where the band was going musically and Jack got the boot. Hillel took his place, but only because he was tired of What Is This? (or perhaps he just had a good feeling about this Chili Peppers thing).

The legendary George Clinton produced the band’s follow-up, 1985’s Freaky Styley. He helped the boys harness that funk power we all know and love, but yet again, the album just wouldn’t sell.

By 1986, Anthony and Hillel were battling serious heroin addictions. EMI gave RHCP a budget of $5,000 to record a demo tape, but Hillel and producer Keith Levene decided to set aside $2,000 of that budget for heroin and cocaine. Cliff couldn’t deal with all the drug abuse going down, but refused to quit, so Anthony and Flea fired him.

After Anthony’s short stint in rehab, the band recorded The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, released in 1987. Anthony was so happy he turned back to drugs to celebrate after just 50 days of sobriety. Hillel followed him into the drug underworld, but didn’t make it out alive. His death in 1988 shook the band to the point where Jack left to join Pearl Jam.

But Anthony and Flea decided to continue with RHCP in memory of their fallen friend. After several auditions, they settled on John Frusciante and Chad Smith. The first album with the new lineup was 1989’s Mother’s Milk, which ended up being infinitely more successful than the previous three efforts.

After a label switch to Warner Bros. and a producer switch to Rick Rubin, the Chili Peppers got this crazy idea to record their next album in the Harry Houdini’s (supposedly haunted) mansion. Don’t try to tell me that’s not coolest idea you’ve ever heard.

The resulting masterpiece was Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which unfortunately shared a release date with another masterpiece by the name of Nevermind. Nonetheless, the Chili Peppers rocketed to fame, grabbing Grammys and VMAs on the way. But John just wasn’t digging this sudden popularity. He quit in the middle of the 1992 tour and was eventually replaced by Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro.

Dave stayed on board for Woodstock ’94, a tour with the Rolling Stones, and One Hot Minute. Despite the commercial success of One Hot Minute, Dave left in 1998 and the rest of the band fell into a rut. Meanwhile, John was dealing with a serious heroin addiction, which left him in poverty and near death. He eventually checked into rehab and upon completion of the program, decided to reunite with the Chili Peppers.

Now one big happy family once more, the band released the immensely popular Californication in 1999. They ended the decade with an appearance at the disastrous Woodstock ’99, a festival infamous for the inferno caused by angry concertgoers (this is why we can’t have nice things like Woodstock anymore).

Where Are They Now?

Still a funky force in the music world, sans Frusciante.

Immediately following the tour for Californication, the band set to work on 2001’s follow-up, By the Way. The recording process left Flea feeling a little left out. He was engaged in a musical power struggle with John, who had radically different ideas about the band’s sound. While Flea still wanted to bring the funk, John felt that the funk had been worn out and wanted to create more melodic songs. Flea considered quitting, but ultimately everything worked out nicely.

The double album (and to me, double disappointing) Stadium Arcadium was released in 2006. But since I have no authority in the music world, Stadium Arcadium ended up winning five Grammys, including Best Rock Album and Best Rock Song for “Dani California.”

Because of the nonstop touring and recording since Californication, the Chili Peppers took a much-deserved break in 2008. Anthony released an autobiography, Flea started taking music theory classes at the University of Southern California, Chad worked with the supergroup Chickenfoot, and John released a solo album.

Once the hiatus ended, John revealed that he was leaving yet again. Josh Klinghoffer, who was originally the band’s backup touring guitarist, replaced him and work began on the new album.

But Why Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Their tenth studio album, I’m With You, dropped last month and they’re also on the ballot for the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions. In other words, life’s pretty damn good for these guys.

And check out the '70s porn 'stache Anthony's sporting.

What Does Sam Think?

Before I whine about how much I miss John Frusciante, let me just say this band is mega talented. Something that initially came off as strange and unmarketable turned into a huge commercial success. Sure, they had to compete with the grunge trend in the early ‘90s, but they didn’t fade into the background. Out of all the major bands to come to fruition in this crazy decade I obsess over, RHCP is among the most successful (along with the likes of Pearl Jam, Radiohead, and Green Day). You may not like their new stuff (I know I don’t), but you can’t deny that these guys are still relevant almost 30 years after their formation.

So let’s take a step away from their longevity and look at their sound. The Chili Peppers are primarily funk masters, mostly due to Flea’s insane bass skills. (If you haven’t noticed, I love bass. Hence why I’m such a huge Primus geek.) Anthony is a great songwriter and he’s got the personality and stage presence of Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler’s lovechild.

But I think it took John’s technical prowess to harness all this energy. He wasn’t familiar with funk when he joined the band, so what did he do? He found a way to blend his own melodic style with the rest of the band’s free-form approach. I’m not saying Anthony, Flea, and Chad ran around in a sugar-induced haze while John tried to corral them into the studio. John helped by giving them a new element to work with, which contributed to a much more original sound. Just listen to the differences between The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

You can even hear a difference between Blood Sugar Sex Magik and One Hot Minute. Despite appearances, Dave Navarro is a great guitarist, but his style just wasn’t right for RHCP. And I don’t mean to write off Josh Klinghoffer either. I just feel that John was the perfect fit.

That said, this new album really isn’t doing it for me. I was already disappointed with Stadium Arcadium, but I’m With You deviates way too much from the Chili Peppers’ signature sound. And while it’s always great for bands to experiment and try new things (and perhaps go through new members), sometimes it just doesn’t work.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the '90s.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Sound Familiar?

“John the Fisherman,” “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver,” “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver”

Who Are They?

Musical connoisseurs of cheese, pudding, and pork. (Mmm. Steamy.)

If that made no sense to you, you are obviously not a Primus fan. And you also need some schoolin’.

Primus (or Primate, as they were known back in 1984) was a little project started by bassist Les Claypool, guitarist Todd Huth, and a drum machine. Citing artistic differences, the drum machine split and was replaced by Vince “Perm” Parker, and later Tim “Curveball” Wright. After about 187593432 other drummers joined and left the band within a span of about two years, Tim “Herb” Alexander got comfortable behind the kit. Then Todd left and Larry “Ler” LaLonde stepped in to complete what most fans claim to be the ideal Primus lineup.

Claypool and company’s first album was actually a live recording from two Berkeley concerts called Suck On This, released in 1989. Their first studio album was 1990’s Frizzle Fry. It may have been the super rad vibes coming from Frizzle Fry, or the fact that they were touring with the one and only Jane’s Addiction, that got Interscope Records mighty interested in Primus. Whatever the reason, the boys signed to the big bad major label and released 1991’s follow-up Sailing the Seas of Cheese. (And yes, every Primus album has a completely ridiculous name.)

Seas of Cheese singles “Jerry Was a Race Car Driver” and “Tommy the Cat” got Primus noticed pretty quickly. They toured with the likes of Rush, U2, Anthrax, and Public Enemy, and even made a cameo in Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey. Whoa, dude! Excellent!

Pork Soda, released in 1993, didn’t fare as well. Perhaps the always delightful themes of murder, suicide, and alienation rubbed audiences the wrong way, or they were just scared away by the video for “Mr. Krinkle.” (Watch it. The pig getup will haunt your dreams).

Regardless of the minimal success of Pork Soda, Primus ended up headlining 1993’s Lollapalooza tour and also made an appearance at Woodstock ’94 (or Mudstock, as many have lovingly dubbed it). They were pelted with mud during their set (who wasn’t?), and Les made the infamous comment (as you can hear in the video), “You know, when you throw things up onstage, it’s a sign of small and insignificant genitalia.” Truer words were never spoken.

But Primus’ bizarre talent wasn’t professionally recognized until 1995’s Tales from the Punchbowl. The album’s first single, “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” earned the band a Grammy nod for Best Hard Rock Performance (they lost to Pearl Jam), and became their most successful single to date. (And the video is probably one of the best music videos of the ‘90s. Check it out below.)

As with most bands, Claypool and company didn’t take well to their newfound fame, and since “Wynona” was being played to death, Les disowned it. If you happen to see Primus on their new tour, don’t expect to hear the tune.

Tim Alexander left the band in 1996, probably due to playing “Wynona” about a million times. He was replaced by Bryan “Brain” Mantia, and just in time. Two nobodies named Trey Parker and Matt Stone approached Les and the gang to compose a theme song for this little cartoon called South Park. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?

After 1997’s The Brown Album and 1999’s Antipop (which was littered with guest musicians like James Hetfield and Tom Morello), Primus went on an indefinite hiatus in 2001.

Where Are They Now?

Back together (with another yet another new drummer!) and still cranking out songs about the strangest things (this time salmon and squirrels).

During the hiatus, Les got into the jam band scene with projects Oysterhead and Colonel Claypool’s Fearless Flying Frog Brigade. (The latter is probably the single greatest band name in the history of music.)

Tim released two albums with the band Laundry, and also performed with Blue Man Group and A Perfect Circle. Bryan and Larry joined forces to produce two experimental records and tried unsuccessfully to open a recording studio.

Primus reunited with Tim in 2003 to record a 5-track EP, which was released alongside the epic music video collection/live DVD Animals Should Not Try to Act Like People. The boys commenced the “reunion” tour, playfully dubbed the Tour de Fromage, to back the DVD package. They took another break, then toured again in 2006.

Tim became disenchanted with Primus yet again and was replaced with current drummer Jay Lane. Primus announced a new tour in 2010 (which I attended!), but there was still no news of new material surfacing any time soon.

Then, by some great miracle, a new album was announced to be in the works in March 2010. On September 12, 2011, Green Naugahyde was born.

But Why Primus?

That new album I just mentioned? It’s their first new album in 12 years. In case you haven’t noticed, that’s kind of a big deal. Also, it’s super fantastic. Read my review (in which I fangirl over Les Claypool’s superb bass skills).

What Does Sam Think?

PRIMUS SUCKS. In other words, they’re radtastic. Saying “Primus sucks” is kind of a pet term fans use when proclaiming their love for them. But if you say it in a friendly conversation with Les Claypool, he will punch you in the face. Why? Because like “Wynona’s Big Brown Beaver,” he is sick to death of hearing it.

But I digress. Primus is a great band simply because there are no other bands like them. If you heard them on the radio, there would be no doubt in your mind that it was Primus.

But because they’re on their own plane of existence, they tend to alienate some audiences (probably intentionally). You either like Primus, or you don’t. Simple as that. I think the “weird-out” factor is the idea of a band based around a bass player, rather than a vocalist or guitarist. It’s pretty obvious that Les is the mastermind behind Primus (but Larry and just about every drummer are just as talented). Upon first listen, the bass smacks you in the face. That’s just how the band works. And Les Claypool plays a mean bass (he was denied a position in Metallica because he was just too good, or so the legend goes).

If I had to describe the band’s sound, I’d probably go with “thrash funk pig rock.” Yeah, that sounds about right. It’s dirty, but doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Still confused? Don’t sweat it. Listening is the best alternative to my inane ramblings. Take in a few songs, or an entire album (Tales from the Punchbowl is my personal favorite). You’ll either be pleasantly surprised, or completely disgusted. Or perhaps a nice mixture of both.

--Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.