When you think of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers there’s one very famous image that springs to mind. I’m going to attempt to get through this entire article without mentioning it. If you don’t know what I’m talking about then I implore you not to Google it; it will be burnt onto your retinas for weeks.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are a unique American band; with a sound rooted in rock they also frequently fuse funk, psychedelia and punk rock. They’re one of those bands that make going to see them live truly worthwhile; whilst many bands give a show where every track they play is identical to the album version, the Chilis improvise wildly, and no performance is ever the same twice.
So you can see there’s a lot to talk about other than the socks (trust me, don’t look - you’ll thank me for it) let’s go back to the beginning: LA in 1983.
The band formed whilst still at high school, with the original line-up consisting of Anthony Kiedis on vocals, bassist Flea (obviously that’s not his real name – Michael Balzary became Mike B the Flea, who became simply Flea. And why not?), Hillel Slovak on lead guitar and Jack Irons on the drums. The two latter members were also in another group at the time, so the first live performance under the moniker The Flow was meant to be their only one. It was a largely unrehearsed show in front of about 30 people at the Rhythm Lounge in Los Angeles; their spirited display impressed and they were given the opportunity to return the next week.
The name The Flow was dropped for the name we now know well, which was much more befitting of this exciting new band. Their out-there performances continued in differing venues around the city for a couple of months, before they attracted the attention of music label EMI and a record contract was signed in 1984. Slovak and Irons’ primary band What Is This? had also been recently signed to MCA, and the pair took the decision to leave the Chilis behind to pursue fame with them. And I bet they haven’t regretted that for a single moment, eh boys?
Determined to keep the Chilis going, the remaining duo of Flea and Kiedis asked Flea’s friend Cliff Martinez to take over the role of drummer, before a set of auditions discovered Jack Sherman’s guitar talent. The new line-up was ready to record their first album. However, this was being produced by Andy Gill, and whilst Flea has stated publicly that Gill’s band, the UK’s Gang of Four, was hugely influential on the Chilis, there was no love lost between producer and band during this time. Kiedis and Flea weren’t happy with the ‘radio-friendly’ sound that Gill was steering them towards, feeling that he was only interested in the album being a financial success at the sake of the band’s musical credibility. The album, called eponymously The Red Hot Chili Peppers, was released in August 1984 and sold approximately 300,000 copies, but the band weren’t happy with its polished sound. Despite this, college radio and MTV gave the tracks plenty of airplay, and a sure and steady fan base grew.
An added note of tension began to appear between Sherman and Kiedis on the subsequent tour, which resulted in Sherman being kicked out. Slovak (oh, so you’ve realised now that What Is This? might not be the way to go have you?) returned to the Chilis. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee George Clinton took the reins for their second album, which gave the guarantee that 1985’s Freaky Styley would be infused with funk, amongst a swirling of other styles. Unfortunately the album didn’t fare much better than the last, although the Chilis were much more satisfied with the overall result this time round.
No good band story would be complete without some musical tension, and the Chilis were no exception. Choosing a producer for an album based on their consumption of illegal substances was never going to give them the smoothest ride, but in 1986 they recruited Keith Levine to take charge of the third record for precisely that reason. His first ‘oh so slick’ decision (taken along with Slovak) was to put money aside from EMI’s album budget for drugs, which didn’t sit quite so easily with the others. Martinez’ lack of enthusiasm for this project got him fired, with – guess who? Jack irons – returning to the band. Wonder if Flea or Kiedis ever did that thing where you cough and speak at the same time? ‘Cough-told-you-we-were-better-cough…’
The mix of drugs and music was taking its toll on both Slovak and Kiedis, with the latter taking time out (read: got told to leave) to turn things around. LA Weekly awarded the Chilis ‘Band of the Year’ which gave him the incentive to attend rehab successfully, before returning to the city and recording their third album. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was released in 1987 with Michael Beinhorn producing; the song writing came fast, and whilst the funky feel from Freaky Styley was present again, the tracks leant far more towards punk rock this time round.
The band was excited about this recording (hitting number 148 on the Billboard Chart may not sound impressive but in comparison to the first two albums it was), and Kiedis decided that more drugs were a fitting celebration, putting paid to his weeks of sobriety. The situation wasn’t much sunnier for Slovak, whose own addiction led to his death in 1988. Irons chose to leave the Chilis soon after, telling the others that he couldn’t be surrounded by dying friends.
So again the remaining Chilis were left looking for new members, and new guitarist DeWayne McKnight, and drummer D.H Peligro were recruited, both of who were already known to Kiedis and Flea. With a fresh start beckoning, Kiedis decided to get clean again. This was a success; the new line-up wasn’t. Three days into a tour, McKnight was sent packing after a distinct lack of chemistry with the other members. He didn’t take it too well, and muttered threats about torching Kiedis’ house were made. Diddums.
John Frusciante was next to step up, guitar in hand. He was immediately immersed in writing the next album and touring, but you didn’t think that was it, did you? This time it was Peligro’s turn to succumb to the perils of drugs, and was the next band member to leave. It wasn’t a decision taken lightly, with both Kiedis and Flea finding it an incredibly tough thing to do. Peligro should thank them however; leaving the band prompted him to start his own journey to getting clean.
Chad Smith (it’s ok, you can get to know this one – he stays) auditioned for the Chilis in November ’88, and he fitted the drummer-shaped gap that needed filling with ease; immediately inspiring the band forward to their next album, Mother’s Milk (yep, you’ve heard of that one, haven’t you?).
This one was the start of it all - reaching number 52 on the Billboard in August 1989, and going gold in 1990 (later going platinum). It was also the first of their records to sell over 500,000 copies.
Moving to Warner Bros. Records, hooking up with producer Rick Rubin (co-founder of Def Jam Records) and moving their recording studio to Harry Houdini’s mansion proved to be the right mix for creating their most famous album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, with first single Give It Away (oh you know, the one that goes ‘Give it away, give it away, give it away now’…yes, that one.) winning a Grammy in 1992 and going to number one on the Modern Rock chart. Under the Bridge hit number two on the Billboard Hot 100 (you didn’t think All Saints actually wrote this genius song did you? No, that’s right – they murdered it instead) and Breaking the Girl and Suck My Kiss also helped propel the band to superstardom. The album sold 15 million copies, and is always featured on ‘greatest album’ lists.
All going well then? Well, it’s been a while; don’t you think it’s time for somebody to leave? Frusciante didn’t react well to the sudden rush of success (apparently he joined the band hoping to remain in relative obscurity…) and, ooh, what a surprise; he also had a bit of a drug problem. He left the band in May 1992. I haven’t got the energy to go into detail about all the comings and goings in the next few months so I’ll just quickly mention some names….Zander Schloss (rehearsed a few times but didn’t fit in), Arik Marshall (played Lollapalooza, appeared in a few videos and the band’s appearance on the Simpsons, and performed at the 1992 MTV VMAs - where they won three awards - and the Grammies), Jesse Tobias (see Schloss) and Dave Navarro (Jane’s Addiction , silly beard). Phew. Let’s take a breather for a minute, although please don’t get too fond of Navarro either.
The next few years comprised tours, festival headliners and opening for the Stones. Navarro’s musical background was at odds to the rest of the Chilis however, and together with Kiedis’ drug relapse (due to Valium being used during a dental treatment) and lyrics referring to break-ups and death, this produced a much darker sound on their next album, One Hot Minute. Whilst no way as popular as Blood Sugar….it still sold eight million copies.
Never a band on an easy ride, the next few years proved no different. After a run of tours in both Europe and the US Flea was exhausted, Kiedis suffering another relapse after painkillers were prescribed following a motorbike accident, and Navarro had drug problems too and left in April 1998. Flea had kept in contact with Frusciante since he left, and after helping him through rehab persuaded him to rejoin the Chilis. Keep up.
With Frusciante things began to turn around, and seventh album Californication saw a return to the melodic guitars and bass-driven funk, producing three further Modern Rock number ones in the shape of Scar Tissue, Otherside and Californication. This album also featured on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Artistic differences between Flea and Frusciante made creating album number eight, By The Way a tougher experience, and despite their wrangle being between producing a funk record (Flea) or a 1980s pop/new wave/hardcore sound (Frusciante) what actually resulted was 2002’s far more melodic collection of ballads with singles including Universally Speaking and The Zephyr Song. An eighteen-month tour, a full-length concert DVD and a live album from their massive three-night gig in Hyde Park kept them busy after this.
November 2003 saw the release of a Greatest Hits album, with Grammy winning Stadium Arcadium following in 2006 and reaching the top of the charts in both the US and the UK. Singles Tell Me Baby and Snow (Hey Oh) hit number one. During the world tour that accompanied the album Josh Klinghoffer (last guitarist, I promise) played alongside them, before replacing Frusciante when he left to make a go of his solo career. The album I’m With You was the first with Klinghoffer as the official Chili’s lead guitarist.
I’m With You took the number one slot in 18 countries after its release in 2011 - although this didn’t include the US – and the band toured extensively starting in 2011, and continuing into 2013. Actor and comedian Chris Rock inducted the Chilis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April 2012.
So there you have it. Obviously a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers can’t be captured in only a couple of thousand words, and the nature of the band’s well-documented problems over the years would not be suitable for dissection here – but it gives you a flavour of the ups and downs on their journey to becoming one of the most charismatic and visually interesting bands on the planet. Just don’t think about the socks.