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.

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