The Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Red Hot Chili Peppers emerged in the mid-1980s as one of the trailblazing bands in the world of alternative rock and spearheaded the wave of groups that fused hard rock and thrash with 1970s funk. Though this heady musical brew earned them a loyal underground following, the band didn’t begin to reach mass audiences until videos from their 1989 album Mother’s Milk began to appear regularly on MTV. The Peppers’ hard-edged style wasn’t the only thing standing between them and mainstream success, however; the tumultuous offstage lives of the band members generated a great deal of controversy as well.
The band’s frenetic tempos, churning guitar chords, and onstage mania—they quickly became notorious for appearing at performances wearing nothing but tubesocks over their genitals—owe a great deal to the punk movement of the late seventies and early eighties. On the other hand, the slapping bass and funky drums that grace much of their material come out of the band’s devotion to funk and soul, especially the various projects of George Clinton, the father of what became
Band formed c. 1983; members include Anthony Kiedis (born c. 1963 in Michigan), vocals; Flea (born Michael Balzary c. 1962 in Melbourne, Australia), bass; Hillel Slovak (born c. 1963, died of a heroin overdose in 1988), guitar; Jack Sherman, guitar; Jack Irons, drums; John Frusciante (born c. 1970 in Los Angeles), guitar; Chad Smith (born c. 1963 in Detroit, Michigan), drums.
Addresses: Record company —Warner Bros. Records Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505-9090.
known as “P. Funk.” Clinton’s bands, most notably Parliament and Funkadelic, fused psychedelic rock and dance music in the early seventies and exercised a huge influence on the next generation of rock musicians. According to guitarist John Frusciante, “The truest, heaviest metal is on early Funkadelic records.” Clinton’s style no doubt influenced the band’s self-description as a “hardcore, bone-crunching, mayhem, psychedelic sex-funk band from heaven.”
The band that would become the Red Hot Chili Peppers began in the early 1980s. Singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Michael Balzary, who calls himself Flea, were classmates at Hollywood’s Fairfax High School. Kiedis, a child of divorced parents, had moved from his mother’s home in Michigan to live with his father, actor Blackie Dammett, in Los Angeles. Kiedis did some film acting in his teens, playing Sylvester Stallone’s son in the 1978 movie F.I.S.T. Flea was born in Melbourne, Australia, and arrived in the United States in 1967, moving to L.A. in 1972. He was a trumpet prodigy in his childhood, but grew up to play bass for the punk band Fear. “I only had one bass lesson,” he told Guitar Player’s Joe Gore. “The teacher gave me an Eagles song … but I just wasn’t into it, so I decided to figure things out on my own.” Flea added that he played in a band with the Peppers’ first two guitarists, Jack Sherman and Hillel Slovak. “Actually,” he confided, “it was Hillel who taught me how to play bass.”
The Peppers’ earliest incarnation appeared at a Hollywood club in 1984. Kiedis and Flea joined up with Slovak and drummer Jack Irons for an impromptu jam. The quartet called itself Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem; when asked to return for a second performance, they adopted the name The Red Hot Chili Peppers, which Kiedis claims to have seen on “a psychedelic bush in the Hollywood Hills that had band names on it.”
The band’s debut for EMI, 1984’s The Red Hot Chili Peppers, broadened the band’s cult appeal. The record, according to Interview ’s Dimitri Ehrlich, “established the Peppers as prophets of a type of music whose time was about to come: not rock that you could dance to, but rock that you must dance to.” In addition to rave-ups like “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” and “Mommy Where’s Daddy,” the LP featured the first in a series of distinctive cover versions of classic songs, a funk-rap rendition of Hank Williams’s country standard “Why Don’t You Love Me.” Neither Slovak nor Irons played on the first album, but Slovak returned for their 1985 follow-up Freaky Styley, produced by none other than the band’s idol George Clinton. Freaky continued in the vein of the first album, featuring a cover of funk master Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” and emphasizing the band’s lewd side a bit more with such numbers as “Sex Rap” and “Catholic School Girls Rule.” In fact, the group’s crowing about sex would get louder with each record, just as their onstage exhibitionism and aggressiveness with female fans would cause band members trouble.
Irons took over drum duties on the Peppers’ next effort, 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. Though it yielded no hits, this record featured a number of solid funky originals and a rap version of folkrocker Bob Dylan’s sixties hit “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The album also contained the group’s most directly sexual—some would say very sexist—song so far, “Party on Your Pussy,” the title of which did not appear on the record sleeve. The Red Hot Chili Peppers remained a cult band, and reviews like the following from Stereo Review didn’t help: “I want to like an album as aggressively bad as ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.’ But I just can’t. The Red Hot Chili Peppers do everything in their power to chafe, outrage, and sicken, cranking out with truly dizzying energy a goulash of electrified funk, chest-thumping rap, and vaguely suggestive nonsense lyrics.” The reviewer concluded that this was “an album that recreates the sensation of being seventeen and drunk on cheap wine.” Whether the Peppers would consider this a negative sensation was unclear. The group released The Abbey Road E.P., a mini-collection of earlier favorites, in 1988. The cover parodied the classic Abbey Road album by The Beatles, only the Peppers appeared dressed only in their tube socks. This record, too, failed to generate major sales.
In 1988 tragedy struck the band: Slovak died of a heroin overdose. Up until this point the band had been cavalier about its drug use, but Slovak’s death changed everything. For a time it looked as if the band would fall apart completely. Irons was devastated by the loss of Slovak; he left and eventually joined the band Eleven. Kiedis and Flea decided to carry on. At first they recruited former Funkadelic guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight and drummer D. H. Peligro from the San Francisco punk band Dead Kennedys, but the chemistry didn’t work. Finally Frusciante, a guitar player in his late teens influenced equally by funk and hard rock, left his band Thelonius Monster to play with the Peppers. The group auditioned a number of drummers, settling finally on Detroit native Chad Smith, whom Kiedis described in Interview as “a molten core of sheer power.”
The new Red Hot Chili Peppers released the album Mother’s Milk in 1989. The original songs were a mix of more serious tunes like “Knock Me Down,” inspired by Slovak’s death, and “Johnny Kick a Hole in the Sky,” which continued the band’s use of Native American themes, as well as straight-out sex songs like “Stone Cold Bush” and “Sexy Mexican Maid.” The band broke through commercially, however, with its cover of funk and soul legend Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” The video began to appear regularly on MTV, and suddenly the band had the national visibility it had sought all along. The band scored again with the videos for “Knock Me Down” and “Taste the Pain,” and Mother’s Milk quickly reached half a million sales. Guitar Player remarked, “The current edition of Red Hot Chili Peppers may be the most intense yet.”
In 1990 the band moved into a Hollywood Hills mansion to begin recording its next album. Its contract with EMI had run out, and Warner Bros, signed them. Producer Rick Rubin suggested the move to the mansion, and though the band claimed that the house had a few ghosts, they had no complaints. Flea had married and his wife Loesha and daughter Clara shared the mansion’s festive atmosphere. The band wasn’t free of controversy, however. Kiedis was convicted of exposing himself at a performance in 1989 and had to pay a substantial fine. In March, during an MTV broadcast, Flea and Smith grabbed a female fan and spanked her. They narrowly escaped prison sentences for battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit an unnatural act. Slovak’s death had affected the band members’ behavior in some ways, however; they swore off hard drugs and began to talk a lot about spiritual values in their music. “It’s a matter of unity,” Flea told Guitar Player, “of four guys listening to each other and playing together.” According to Frusciante, “What this band is about is helping your brothers.”
This new sense of unity found its way into the Peppers’ 1991 release, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which was written, recorded, and produced in their mansion. As Flea disclosed in a Warner Bros. press package, “The whole house was really just a big, warm, beautiful, peaceful place. Not for one minute did we feel any negative energy. Even living together, which could really create tension, turned out perfectly.” The album catapulted them as close to mainstream as they have ever been, hitting music stores at the same time the Peppers kicked off an extensive United States tour. Suddenly, it was impossible to tune into alternative and even some classic rock radio stations without hearing the funky new hit “Give it Away” playing at least several times a day. With generally enthusiastic critical reaction and no less than passionate endorsement from fans—veteran and newly initiated—Blood Sugar Sex Magik has secured the Peppers’ place in music’s big time.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers (contains “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes,” “Mommy Where’s Daddy,” and “Why Don’t You Love Me”), EMI, 1984.
Freaky Styley (contains “If You Want Me to Stay,” “Sex Rap,” and “Catholic School Girls Rule”), EMI, 1985.
The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (contains “Party on Your Pussy” and “Subterranean Homesick Blues”), EMI, 1987.
The Abbey Road E.P., EMI, 1988.
Mother’s Milk (contains “Knock Me Down,” “Johnny Kick a Hole in the Sky,” “Stone Cold Bush,” “Sexy Mexican Maid,” “Higher Ground,” and “Taste the Pain”), EMI, 1989.
Taste the Pain, EMI, 1989.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik (contains “Give It Away” and “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”), Warner Bros., 1991.
Guitar Player, December 1989; April 1990.
Interview, August 1991.
People, April 16, 1990.
Rolling Stone, May 17, 1990.
Spin, October 1991.
Stereo Review, February 1988.
Additional information obtained from a Warner Bros, press release on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, 1991.
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