So yeah, I’m just throwing that image up there to start this off and get it out of the way, because this is probably one the defining images of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They’re four white dudes playing a synthesis of two versions of black music (funk and rap), they play songs about getting girls and partying hard, and they have the inherent ability to rarely act their age. And yet, to the shock of music critics and fans alike, they’re one of the biggest rock bands on the planet with over 80 million albums sold, six Grammys to their name and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So with a gimmick that’s fit for bratty teens and goofy twenty-somethings, how have the Chili Peppers managed to release 11 studio albums (said album, The Getaway, hits shelves Friday) and endure through the mutating sinkhole that is rock music?
The Chili Peppers have been around for over 30 years and, despite the ever changing sounds of popular music, have always sounded like the Chili Peppers. When they first burst out onto Los Angeles in the early ’80s, the band saw the past, present and future of music: the past of punk, the present of funk, and the future of rap. With that, Anthony Kiedis and Flea decided to throw all three genres in the pot and stir until it exploded. In the midst of hair metal and bright synthesized pop, the band promptly stuck their tongues out at the world and cranked up their amps. You can hear the unbridled arrogance of the boys on their first two albums (Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1984 and Freaky Styley in 1985), bouncing around and head-banging on tracks like “The Brothers Cup,” “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes,” and “Get Up and Jump.” The blitzkrieg assault of Flea’s slap bass was something akin to punk or metal, but he could also hold smooth grooves on “Hollywood,” Yertle the Turtle,” and their surprisingly heartfelt cover of “If You Want Me to Stay.” The band was almost the perfect young L.A. band: mixing funk, punk and rap made them just cool enough for young people, nothing too pretentious but something that had heart to it.
Was it going to last? Probably not, until they dropped 1987’s Uplift Mofo Party Plan. The sound was sharper, the songs hit harder and the band seemed to finally want to claim a sound all their own. “Fight Like a Brave,” “Backwoods,” “Walkin’ On Down the Road,” and their cover of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” had an extra kick to it, like the band was trying to prove something. That cause seemed lost when founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died on June 25, 1988. But then, the band started to crystalize and realize their full potential. Thanks to the addition of two new members, guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith, the band wanted more than to get lost in the drugs and the parties. 1989’s Mother’s Milk may be their last record with punk firmly in all the songs, and they don’t waste a second on their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” “Knock Me Down,” “Taste the Pain,” and “Nobody Weird Like Me.” Smith and Frusciante weren’t just playing from energy, these two had the talent and ambition for making crafted tunes instead of blunt force.
Two years later came the breakthrough of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and the band went for the jugular. “Suck My Kiss,” “The Power of Equality,” “Give It Away,” “Naked in the Rain,” and “The Greeting Song,” have the classic aggression, but the band sounded more focused than ever before. They didn’t sound like scrappy punks, they sounded like a force to be reckoned with. Rick Rubin’s production didn’t hurt, as he allowed the band to experiment with their new members. Frusciante’s guitar playing was just Hendrix-like enough to play around with grooves on “Mellowship Slinky In B Minor,” “The Righteous & The Wicked,” and the album’s slithering title track.
There’s also the moments where the band starts showing some heart. “Breaking the Girl” and “Under the Bridge” have been played to death for sure, but they’re almost the perfect ballads for the Chili’s to play. The first is an acoustic floor stomper about two abandoned kids falling in love. The other is about Kiedis laying his soul out because his sobriety made him feel like a stranger in his own band. The partying punks of L.A. realized they could be musicians, even storytellers for a brief moment. Maybe they could make more than just sex songs and fierce rebellion with psychedelia. Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the moment where the Chili Peppers wanted more for themselves and the world wanted more for them. 1991 was the year just before grunge exploded and pop music seemed confused on what it wanted (Metallica, Michael Jackson, Garth Brooks, and Vanilla Ice topped the album charts that year). Even as another one of rock’s greatest bands (a scrappy trio from Seattle) was about to break, rock had the Peppers in its back pocket keeping things alive.
Then there were drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Frusciante started taking heroin again, hated fame, and quit the band in 1992. Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro (the role model of healthy lifestyles) replaced him. Kiedis relapsed hard, so he figured the best thing to do would write about the dark hatred he had for his vices. With that, narcotics, Navarro, and the new desire for psychedelic jamming, the world got One Hot Minute, the most difficult album in their discography to digest. It’s an undeniably chaotic wall of freaky sound that’s twelve minutes shorter than Blood Sugar Sex Magik and yet feels longer. “Warped,” “Coffee Shop,” “Deep Kick,” “Walkabout,” and the title track overstay their welcome despite promising starts. The power of Smith and Flea’s backbeat is still there and Navarro shows why he got the gig (i.e. he can shred). The biggest problem is the band trying to merge their past (funky-punks) with their present (heavy psychedelia) and it doesn’t entirely work. Just when the band starts to get into a groove, Navarro flies in with a water-pipe and wah-wah pedal to throw the whole thing off. It works in some spots like “Aeroplane,” “Falling Into Grace,” and “One Big Mob,” but it’s the sound of the band trying too hard and seemingly lost in their own sound.
So just as he did ten years prior, John Frusciante saved the Chili Peppers by sobering up and wanting to write guitar hooks. That mixed with Kiedis’ continued introspective lyrics about California, suicide, lust, sex and drugs resulted in 1999’s Californication, the most commercial record the band made. Despite being the most hook-friendly album in the band’s canon at the time, the Chili’s sounded like a tight unit again on “Around the World,” “Parallel Universe,” “This Velvet Glove,” “Scar Tissue,” “Get On Top” and the title track. Everyone sounds like they’re having fun and wanting to play off of each other. More so, Frusciante feels much more in-sync with the band than just being their experimental secret weapon.
That trend kept going into 2002’s By the Way, the mellowest of all Chili Peppers records. Sure there’s some of that wacky energy on the album, like the title track “Can’t Stop,” “Throw Away Your Television,” and “Minor Thing,” but By The Way shows the Peppers trying to age gracefully. “The Zephyr Song,” “This Is the Place,” and “Midnight,” may be the most comfortable the band have ever sounded with themselves. There’s clearly a switch to focus on melodies and the balance between Frusciante’s soaring guitar and Kiedis’ softer vocals.
The Chili Peppers clearly wanted to see how the energy and the elegance would mash together, and thus was their 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium. Two discs feature a mesh of the melodic rock like “Slow Cheetah,” “Hey,” “Strip My Mind,” and “Animal Bar,” and the funk rock of “Dani California,” “Turn It Again,” “Charlie,” and “Torture Me.” While it’s fair to call Stadium Arcadium overstuffed (half of the songs on disc 2 are total sleepers), it shows the band fully-evolved as songwriters musicians exploring their potential. Basically, it’s the most the Chili Peppers could ever do as a band. Kiedis is trying to talk about adulthood and broken relationships while still being one of the peppiest frontmen in rock. Flea seems much more comfortable going for rhythm then all out slap-bass assault. Frusicante remains the x factor, building epic solos and catchy guitar riffs for the band to circle around. Despite so many songs on the album, it feels incredibly natural to the band.
So where do the Chili Peppers stand now? It’s fair to say that they’re in their in another experimental phase. After Frusciante’s second departure in 2009, the Peppers brought in guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. As they did with Navarro and Frusciante before, they built an entirely new sound around their latest guitarist. Klinghoffer is spastic and thrives off of unpredictability. With that came I’m With You in 2011, something much more interesting on repeatedly listens. With Klinghoffer’s presence, Flea and Smith left more open space in their rhythm for Klinghoffer to shake up songs like “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” “Monarchy of Roses,” and “Factory of Faith.” There’s still the middle age melodies of the band, but given in a more off-beat style like “Police Station,” and “Goodbye Hooray.” It seems as if the band has hit their peak and, instead of cruising on their legacy status, are doing as much to add variety to their sound while still being the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
So what do 11 albums and numerous concerts without wearing shirts add up to? A band that’s great to grow up to. The Red Hot Chili Peppers will always be a band for young people, they thrive on spastic energy and singing about good times. But young people should stick with them, follow their career from the 80s onward. Teens will love stuff like “Fight Like a Brave,” twentysomethings can cruise to “Scar Tissue” or “The Zephyr Song,” and when you’re all grown up then stuff like “Hey” and “Snow” will be right up your alley. Even when most stuff on rock radio is stale as hell, it’s hard not to be even a touch interested in “Dark Necessities”, the first single from the new album The Getaway. The Red Hot Chili Peppers aren’t meant for almighty rock greatness, but that was never the point. When alternative gets too pretentious and modern rock borders on dad rock, the Chili Peppers are the band to turn on. Rarely boring, mostly fun, and believing rock should be as free and enjoyable as they are.