A bass player named Flea is the group’s most stable member. But, despite all their drug-related traumas and personnel turnover, Red Hot Chili Peppers endure, still heating up the airwaves with their distinctive take on funk music.
They started in the early '80s in L.A., calling themselves Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem (and you thought their current name was long!) – Anthony Kiedis singing, Flea (born Michael Balzary) on bass, drummer Jack Irons, and guitarist Hillel Slovak.
Slovak was a question mark from the get-go. By the time the band was ready to cut its first album in 1984, he had already quit. The divorce didn’t last long, but it did mean Jack Sherman played guitar on Red Hot Chili Peppers.
The musicians ended up being very disappointed in the work of producer Andy Gill, who they thought calmed down their sound too much. Kiedis has claimed that “Police Helicopter” best demonstrates what the band thought they were about. There’s a raw freedom about this track – punk funk, if you will -- that apparently is close to the vision they had for themselves. Kind of odd, then, that they didn’t return to this level of wildness on subsequent albums with different producers.
The second album, Freaky Styley (1985), is the last to feature Cliff Martinez on drums. And they didn’t mess around when choosing a new producer: they went with funkmaster George Clinton. To prove their bona fides, they released a cover of “If You Want Me To Stay,” by Sly & the Family Stone, as one of the singles.
But even more telling is the funk track they wrote themselves, “The Brothers Cup.” Those bassy, twanging guitar licks sound pretty authentic.
During the tour for Freaky Styley, Kiedis got so heavily into drugs that the band fired him temporarily with the understanding that he could come back after rehab. He was back in time to record The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, released in 1987. The original drummer, Jack Irons, came back too.
An interesting cut is the frantic cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Flea’s bass bounces like fallout from a fusion bomb. The tempo and urgency of Kiedis’ declamation gives the lyrics a rap vibe.
Unfortunately, drugs were still an issue. Kiedis started using again, and guitarist Slovak died of a heroin overdose after the album’s tour. Deeply distressed by the situation, Irons then left the band. Chad Smith was brought in on drums, and he’s still with them today. An even bigger change was the addition of John Frusciante on guitar, pulling the band’s style a bit more toward a focus on melody.
While making Mother’s Milk (1989), Frusciante and producer Michael Beinhorn reportedly bashed heads over the latter’s heavy-handed overdubbing.
With a lyrical guitarist, it made sense to cover some Jimi Hendrix, father of the singing ax. Only one of those Hendrix tracks made it onto the album, but two additional live Hendrix songs were included on a 2003 special edition. Here’s one of them, “Castles Made of Sand.” Between Kiedis’ subdued delivery and the sound balance, this really is all about the guitar:
Although Mother’s Milk was a commercial success, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik sold even better. In fact, Frusciante was so overwhelmed by the rock-star experience that he quit the band in the middle of the tour for this album. Once they’d found another guitarist (Dave Navarro, who was only with them briefly), they released One Hot Minute in 1995.
Their sales power dipped for this one, but it contains some intriguing songs. Kiedis was once again fighting addiction and losing. The painful, twisting harmonies of “Falling into Grace” is a good example from the album – experimental, relatively low key, self-referential. The African-influenced chanting at 2:38 is especially noteworthy.
Navarro left. The band basically split up. But the Chili Peppers weren’t bested yet. They leapt back to the top in 1999 with Californication, their biggest-selling album, aided by the return of Frusciante’s singing guitar. (You need a spread sheet to keep track of this stuff.) They followed it in 2002 with the more modestly successful By the Way.
“Minor Thing” is an up-tempo, pop-tinged tune – classic ʼ90s West Coast rock -- with some soulful guitar riffs and bone-rattling drumming by Smith, particularly in the extended instrumental coda.
The Chili Pepper’s first number-one album was Stadium Arcadium (2006). Its five singles include the smash “Dani California” (at least as famous for its clever video mimicking famous bands of pop music history as for the song itself). It was another five years before they hit the studio again.
Josh Klinghoffer officially joined as guitarist for the 2011 album Look Around. Flea has claimed this is an album about life and death, and credits J.S. Bach and experimental electronica for influencing his sound at the time.
“Even You, Brutus” could be described as early Dylan meets early hip hop – finally a tribute to the style of the original “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” a song they’d taken so far afield 14 years before.
The band’s most recent album, The Getaway (2016), had a rougher birth than usual. Flea broke his arm severely, which delayed the start of recording after they’d already written a lot of songs. Then they split with longtime producer Rick Rubin and brought in Danger Mouse (Brian Burton), known for his work with CeeLo Green, Gnarls Barkley, and The Black Keys. Once Flea was back in the saddle, the new producer made them scrap all their pre-existing material and start fresh.
While The Getaway had no hit singles, diehard fans appreciated its offerings, including the mysteriously named “This Ticonderoga.” (As one YouTube commenter put it, “It’s either about the fort or the pencil company.”) While the title’s meaning remains obscure, the song seems to be a philosophical look back at decades of rock-star existence: “We are all just soldiers in this battlefield of life / One thing that’s for certain is my burning appetite…”
The Chili Peppers are touring during 2019, with good old originals Kiedis and Flea, returning guitarist Klingoffer, and longtime drummer Smith. The funk, you might say, is far from finished.