In 1992, about a year after I moved to Cincinnati, my brother came down and dropped off a tape. I listened to it during a trip to Gatlinburg, TN. It blew my mind. This band didn’t know what decade they were in. There was seventies funk, modern rap with punk overtones, and throwbacks to psychedelia. And of course, one song was already in heavy rotation on MTV, a gritty, monochrome video version of Salvador Dali on acid set to “Give It Away.”
Oh, my friends, it was the 1990’s for me. The eighties, with their hair metal and synthesizer pop, were dead. Rock had found its mojo again. And the Red Hot Chili Peppers were hosing down the airwaves with that mojo.
The Chilis had been around for a while. I remember hanging out at Medina’s Round Records (two of whose managers I dated. Sweet for an audiophile like me, especially when that netted me floor seats at the 87 Clapton show) and actually being exposed to them a few years earlier. A radically different version of the band had broken through with Mother’s Milk, one of the first albums I’d ever heard where rap was done over rock on purpose. And it sounded natural. I got to hear Mother’s Milk on my twice weekly visits to Round Records. Had I not been on a progressive rock kick at the time, I would have snatched it up then.
The band then consisted of core members Flea on bass and Anthony Keidis on vocal. As detailed in his autobiography Scar Tissue, Keidis came into the band with a history. Son of actor and dope dealer to the rock stars Blackie Dammett, godson of Sonny Bono, Keidis had, by age 15, seen more and done more than Mick and Keith had by 22. He and schoolmate Flea had, by 1988, they had reunited with another schoolmate, Hillel Slovak. Together with drummer Jack Irons (more recently of Pearl Jam), the Peppers broke out of LA with a certain “fuck you” attitude that would not be denied. It didn’t hurt that their early work was produced by George Clinton.
But Slovak wasted away from drug use, and Keidis nearly died by the time Mother’s Milk was recorded. They were in an ever-shifting line-up by then, but the band’s core sound was already in place. Eventually, they hired Chad Smith to take over on drums, and with him, they found a member grounded in reality. The Chili Peppers are not the Chili Peppers without him (and really, only Jack Irons could sit behind that kit if Smith ever leaves.) Chad Smith gets what Flea and Keidis are up to, but it’s also a job to him. He shows up, pours everything he has into his performance, but he leaves it on the stage.
But it was John Frusciante who helped solidify the sound. He came aboard with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which catapulted the band to stardom. Frusciante’s guitar was reminiscent of Slovak’s. It’s that aggressive, high-pitched wail you hear in “Give It Away” and “Suck My Kiss.”
Frusciante left the band in the early nineties, unable to cope with fame. Unlike Keidis, who could manage his drug habits better with each subsequent trip to rehab, Frusciante found himself overwhelmed with no idea how to get clean. The band recruited Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro. Keidis describes him as one of the warmest, most generous guys in rock. Like Keidis and Frusciante, he had some bad habits. Like Keidis, he was able to come back from it to regroup with Jane’s Addiction and form The Panic Channel.
But the Peppers wanted Frusciante back. They were able to guide him into rehab, which for Keidis was becoming less and less of a necessity (one trip was triggered by an ER doctor who neglected to tell Keidis a painkiller was opium-based.), and near the end of the nineties, he returned to the fold to do Californication. Meanwhile, Flea had become something of an elder statesman of rock, founding a music academy in LA and working with several charitable trusts.
Their later music is more thoughtful, with Keidis singing instead of rapping. Some of the songs are dark (“Other Side,” “Dani California”) while others recall the sense of fun and defiance of their early (“Around the World”). Frusciante left again in 2010, this time to go solo. In his place, the band recruited Frusciante’s protege and second guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. In 2012, they were inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joined by Frusciante and Jack Irons, with a moving tribute by Flea to Hillel Slovak. They’d come a long way from the band who had to steal food to survive and got around LA in, among other things, a battered old Studebaker.