"We were on live TV in front of millions of people. And it was torture": What happened when John Frusciante sabotaged the Red Hot Chili Peppers on Saturday Night Live

Anthony Kiedis and John Frusciante onstage at SNL
(Image credit: YouTube/NBC)

"Once again, the Red Hot Chili Peppers!" 

It's February 22, 1992, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are on the promotional trail for the previous year's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band's fifth album and the one that will catapult them towards superstardom. Today's stop is Studio 8H at 30 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, for a filming of Saturday Night Live. The excitable hosts are Roseanne and Tom Arnold.

Chili Peppers' guitarist John Frusciante is not happy. His relationship with singer Anthony Kiedis has deteriorated, he keeps his distance from the other band members on set, and at the climax of the band's opening number, Stone Cold Bush, he receives a kick from the singer's flailing boot. Deliberate? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Song two is Under The Bridge. Frusciante plays the intro, but it doesn't sound right. The notes are a dissonant jumble. The cadence appears to slow and quicken. It's woozy, almost discombobulating. And when the moment arrives for Kiedis to start singing, Frusciante looks his frontman in the eye for the first time, and holds his gaze for a brief moment. Is he cueing up the vocal? Or is it an act of defiance? Fuck you, man. Follow this. Maybe. Maybe not.

In his autobiography Scar Tissue, Kiedis's recalls his confusion. "I've since heard that John was on heroin during this show," he writes, "but he may as well have been on another planet, because he started playing some shit I'd never heard before. I had no idea what song he was playing or what key he was in. He looked like he was in a different world. 

"To this day, John denies he was playing off-key. According to him, he was experimenting the way he would have if we'd been rehearsing the tune. Well we weren't, we were on live TV in front of millions of people. And it was torture. 

"I felt like I was getting stabbed in the back and hung out to dry in front of all of America while this guy was off in a corner in the shadow, playing some dissonant out-of-tune experiment. I thought he was doing that on purpose, just to fuck with me.”

By the end, Frusciante has cranked up the volume and is howling into his mic. And as the song finishes, Kiedis stares long and hard at his guitarist. It's not difficult to sense the animosity, even if the footage isn't as high-res as it would be today.

Despite all this, the Saturday Night Live version of Under The Bridge has become a favourite for many. Some see Frusciante's performance as performance art. Some see it a demonstration of the guitarist's extraordinary talent, in that deliberately screwing up his own part yet retaining enough form for the rest of the band to play theirs would be more difficult than playing it straight. And some see Frusciante's playing as a harrowing manifestation of the pain he was going through.   

Frusciante would leave the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the first time later that year, announcing his decision to quit one day into the band’s Japanese tour in May. After a final show at Omiya Sonic City Hall in Saitama, he would fly home. 

Thankfully, it was not the end of the story.  

Fraser Lewry

Online Editor at Louder/Classic Rock magazine since 2014. 38 years in music industry, online for 25. Also bylines for: Metal Hammer, Prog Magazine, The Word Magazine, The Guardian, The New Statesman, Saga, Music365. Former Head of Music at Xfm Radio, A&R at Fiction Records, early blogger, ex-roadie, published author. Once appeared in a Cure video dressed as a cowboy, and thinks any situation can be improved by the introduction of cats. Favourite Serbian trumpeter: Dejan Petrović.