Few bands have had as many second acts as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Or third, fourth or fifth acts, for that matter. The group put together in Los Angeles in 1983 by high-school friends Anthony Kiedis and Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary have followed a wayward path that has taken them from Hollywood funk-rock brats to unlikely rock elder statesmen.
It’s been far from plain sailing. Even ignoring the turnover of band members (eight guitarists and four drummers to date), they’ve nearly been derailed more than once by drug addiction. Kiedis was fired briefly from his own band in 1987 due to a severe heroin problem, while guitarist John Frusciante’s original four-year stint saw him transformed from wide-eyed musical prodigy into crack-addled recluse holed up in the Chateau Marmont Hotel, painting pictures in his own blood. Both, though, fared better than founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died of an overdose in June 1988, just as the band were about to make their international breakthrough.
But they’re a tougher proposition than the uber-frat-boy image suggests, and the soap operas of the past three decades have distracted from the band’s musical achievements. Their initial mix of California punk rock, funk, British post-punk and white-dude rap almost single-handedly sparked the late-80s funk rock explosion.
If the death of Slovak was a personal tragedy, it jolted the band into focus professionally. 1989’s Mother’s Milk and 1991’s sprawling Blood Sugar Sex Magik delivered on the promise they’d been threatening. The latter, especially, was a huge commercial success, propelled by the unstoppable one-two of hit singles Give It Away and Under The Bridge. But Frusciante quit during the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour, throwing the Chilis into an extended period of chaos, which would be resolved only by the return of the errant guitarist for 1999’s Californication.
The past decade has seen the band settling into a middle-aged groove that combines their seemingly inexhaustible energy with the wisdom and experimentation of age. Even Frusciante’s second departure, in 2009, hasn’t slowed them down. More than 30 years after they formed, the Chili Peppers sit alongside the Beach Boys, The Doors, the Eagles, Van Halen and Guns N’ Roses in the pantheon of classic LA bands.
Essential - Red Hot Chili Peppers’ classic albums
On their first three albums, the Chili Peppers staked out their territory as LA’s foremost party animals. This, their fourth, marked the point where they started to grow up – and step up.
Written and recorded in the shadow of Hillel Slovak’s death, it’s the sound of a band dealing with grief the only way they know how: by having a party. But where the restless funk and prepaid energy remain on Good Time Boys and their cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground, the blissful pop-rock fizz of Knock Me Down barely disguises Kiedis’s anguish at the death of his friend.
The Chilis have always been the LA-est of LA bands, and Californication is their most LA album – and all the more brilliant for it. With the band revitalised by the return of John Frusciante, this is as vibrant, sprawling and complex as the city that spawned them.
They don’t so much ditch the funk rock of the past as hone it to something mature and intelligent. Around The World and Parallel Universe ramp up the energy, but it’s the slower songs – Scar Tissue, Otherside and the title track – that show a more thoughtful, measured side that would point the way to the Chili Peppers’ future.
Superior - Red Hot Chili Peppers’ reputation-cementing albums
Despite Kiedis’s worsening smack habit, the band’s third album was their beefiest and most cohesive yet. Credit must partly go producer Michael Beinhorn, who helped focus the Chilis on being a rock band.
The Beastie Boys-esque Fight Like A Brave is the Chilis’ first great rap-rock anthem, and Behind The Sun tamps down the macho chest-beating in favour of blissful psychedelia, though the less said about the crass Special Secret Song Inside (aka Party On Your Pussy) the better. This was the true starting point for the Chili Peppers as we know them.
Enter producer/guru/star-maker Rick Rubin, whose work on the Chilis’ fifth album helped turn them into the megastars they’d always been in their heads. Recorded in a supposedly haunted mansion once owned by Harry Houdini, Blood Sugar Sex Magik exists where the spiritual meets the carnal.
Give It Away, Suck My Kiss and Sir Psycho Sexy take their livewire funk rock to its logical conclusion, but it’s Kiedis’s tender junkie’s mea culpa Under The Bridge that stands as the album’s outstanding moment.
The Chilis’ sole double album, and their most under-appreciated record. Written off by many at the time as a bloated self-indulgence, in truth it’s anything but.
Stadium-sized opener Dani California has a chorus as big as the LA Basin, and there’s a gem at every turn, whether it’s the lilting Snow or the Krautrock-inspired Animal Bar. The whole thing is a showcase for Frusciante, whose protean guitar heroics amount to a passive takeover of the band. The only true stinker amid its 28 tracks is the lead-footed funk of Hump De Bump.
If Californication was the sound of the Chili Peppers coming back swinging, then this follow-up found them breathing easily once more. The cock-waving machismo of old is largely put on the back‑burner in favour of a more mellow, clear-eyed approach. But what the album lacked in punch it more than made up for in texture, with the rolling title track, Zephyr and the lilting ska of On Mercury broadening their palette even further. By The Way proved that Californication was no career-saving fluke, and showed the Chilis had finally reached adulthood. And it suited them.
Good - Red Hot Chili Peppers' albums worth exploring
As the glam-metal era dawned, the youthful Chili Peppers were a Sunset Strip anomaly next to the likes of Ratt and Mötley Crüe, and their sheer otherness was only exaggerated by their debut album.
Producer Andy Gill of British post-punk linchpins Gang Of Four fluffed the job of capturing the band’s energy. But while the resultant sound – drily funky and strangely flat – is only intermittently recognisable as the Chilis, you can still see the foundations of what they would become. All the pieces were there – they just needed rearranging.
The Chilis’ second album found the pendulum swinging to the other extreme. The producer this time was George Clinton, the flamboyant powerhouse behind funk legends Parliament. Whatever magic dust Clinton sprinkled on the band worked: they never sounded so naturally funky before or since.
It also marked the return of guitarist Hillel Slovak, who had quit the band before the first album. Slovak’s effortlessly slippery guitar on standout tracks Jungle Man and Catholic School Girls is as important to the Chili Peppers’ sound as Flea’s bass acrobatics or Kiedis’s yap-rapping.
John Frusciante’s second, less traumatic departure, in 2009, provided an opportunity for the Chili Peppers to hit the reset button after Stadium Arcadium’s epic blowout. The result was the most experimental, eclectic album of their career.
With former touring guitarist Josh Klinghoffer successfully channelling Frusciante’s liquid genius, you can barely hear the joins on the likes of Monarchy Of Roses and The Adventures Of Raindance Maggie, while the plaintive Brendan’s Death Song pays heartfelt tribute to former mentor Brendan Mullen in a way that would have been unthinkable 20 years earlier.
Aka One Tepid Hour. On paper, bringing in former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro looked intriguing – a meeting of two LA alt.rock giants. In reality it was a non-event, with both parties warily circling each other to the point where any potential sparks of excitement were extinguished.
Warped pops and fizzes like a psychedelic firecracker, and My Friends is a decent enough rerun of the kind of laid-back vibe they’d perfected with Under The Bridge, but the rest is a tired mess that suggested the Chili Peppers were a spent force. Within a few years, Navarro was out and Frusciante was back.