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Red Hot Chili Peppers: By The Way - Album Of The Week Club review

John Frusciante returns and the Red Hot Chili Peppers hand over the reins. The result? Doo-wop harmonies, less funk, and critical acclaim

Red Hot Chili Peppers - By The Way
(Image: © Warner Bros)
Red Hot Chili Peppers: By The Way

Red Hot Chili Peppers - By The Way

(Image credit: Warner Bros)

By The Way
Universally Speaking
This Is The Place
Dosed
Don't Forget Me
The Zephyr Song
Can't Stop
I Could Die For You
Midnight
Throw Away Your Television
Cabron
Tear
On Mercury
Minor Thing
Warm Tape
Venice Queen

If 1999’s Californication was The Red Hot Chili Peppers' album that catapulted them to superstardom, 2002’s John Frusciante-driven By The Way may have been their most interesting. 

The cock-waving machismo of old was 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 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. 

Title track By The Way is, arguably, the battleground on which the creative tension between bassist Flea and guitarist Frusciante at the heart of the album played out. While Frusciante wanted to introduce gentler textures and more involved songwriting, Flea remained committed to the punk-funk sound that had previously dominated. On Can’t Stop, both styles clashed brutally and the results were a a wild success.

"In the past, particularly when we were writing Blood Sugar Sex Magik," said Frusciante, "I’d be writing to fit into the style of what the Chili Peppers – the band that Anthony and Jack (Irons, former RHCP drummer) and Hillel (Slovak, former RHCP guitarist) and Flea created - were like, but now I don’t feel the need to make our music sound like the Chili Peppers, I don’t feel the need to fit within the blueprint laid down by the early albums. 

"More often that not now songs come from jams, and then Flea and I have what we call a ‘face off’ where we each try to write a part that’ll be right for that song. One of us goes into the alley by the studio to write and the other stays inside and then we compare the two, and we did that on pretty much every song on the record."

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in July 2002

  • Heathen Chemistry - Oasis
  • Steady as She Goes - Voodoo Glow Skulls
  • Worship and Tribute - Glassjaw
  • At the River's Edge: Live in St. Louis - Styx
  • Hard Candy - Counting Crows
  • A Jackknife to a Swan - The Mighty Mighty Bosstones
  • Busted Stuff - Dave Matthews Band
  • Dreamland - Robert Plant
  • Highly Evolved - The Vines
  • Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots - The Flaming Lips
  • Welcome to Blue Island - Enuff Z'nuff
  • Bermuda Triangle - Buckethead
  • Concrete - Fear Factory
  • Reanimation - Linkin Park
  • The Rising - Bruce Springsteen
  • To Serve Man - Cattle Decapitation

What they said...

"Only time will tell if By the Way will be as influential as 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik or as timeless as some of the other albums to which it is being compared: The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. But, without reservation, it can be said By the Way is certainly the most absorbing rock album of 2002, if not the best." (PopMatters

"By The Way is, by and large, very good. By god is it ever long (it’s 16 tracks), but on the whole it showcases enough of what makes the Chili Peppers a very good rock group – chief among these are John Frusciante’s excellent, inventive guitar playing, and the fact that it is with tremendous conviction that Anthony Kiedis belts out even the most ridiculous words." (NME)

"Spit-shine production, passionless instrumentation, (extremely) laid back grooves and laughably awful lyrics all conspire to do this once explosive band in. The reckless spirit of recordings past is surgically removed (or Pro Tools-ed out) for Top 40 consumption. What the band strived for on the conceptualised Californication, now smacks of superficiality and shows the band in a creative free fall." (Stylus Magazine)

What you said...

Mike Canoe: Before this week, I would have told you that By The Way was my favourite album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it was a casual favourite. There's no way I could have named all 16 songs. Or thought that it mattered.

At some point when I wasn't really paying attention, Anthony Kiedis became a really good singer. I think there were certainly flashes in the past like Soul To Squeeze or Scar Tissue, but he is consistently great here. It's also the first album where I don't wince at any of his lyrics. The whole band plays at an exponentially better level than ever before and the songs are really well written too. And, damn, those vocal harmonies.

As many others have written, this album is long. The Chili Peppers were one of the bands most likely to use (abuse?) extended CD running times to their fullest and generally go past an hour. With that in mind, I started re-listening this week from about the halfway point (I Could Die For You) to the end and then going back to listen to the more familiar first half. The end result is a whole new batch of favourite songs to complement the ones I already knew and loved.

Tear is an insanely gorgeous ballad with vocal harmonies like a choir of angels - and a trumpet solo by Flea! Windy, whooshing Midnight is another ballad, albeit bittersweet. Different flavours of post-punk abound from the itchy and angular Throw Away Your Television, to the moody beauty of Minor Thing, to the synth and drums of Warm Tape. Cabron, with its acoustic guitar and Latin music influence, and the harmonica-driven On Mercury display a band flexing, "Yeah, we can play that too." The album closes with the hauntingly beautiful eulogy, Venice Queen.

Whew! OK, back to the front.

The first half still amazes too. The title track is still perfection: a breakneck bonkers rocker lightened by a lullaby-like chorus. Can't Stop is still a hip hop post-punk bop. The agony and regret of addiction still burn on This Is The Place and the searingly bleak, Don't Forget Me. Fortunately, there's Universally Speaking' and The Zephyr Song for balance. And Dosed is yet another gorgeous ballad.

For me, By The Way is an hour and change of exquisite melancholy tempered with hints of cautious optimism. And like many great club picks, it had me going back and listening to the whole band's discography; rediscovering, reevaluating, re-enjoying. I'm glad I got back in touch with them.

Uli Hassinger: I wasn't a big fan of the early funky Peppers. They had some great songs, but I always found it hard to listen to an entire album. When they released What Hits!? I thought I would be done with the Peppers because every good song was on it. Then came Californication and the new Peppers were like lightning strikes. To me it's still their masterpiece. Exceptional record.

Switching over to this album I have to say that I don't share the opinion of this album being a stretch. The album is exciting from the first to the last song, no filler, great songwriting and production all over, full of different styles and effects. In most parts the album is very soothing, relaxing and chilling. You may compare it in this regard to The Strokes. But it has still some funky burners like By The Way and Can't Stop

By The Way is like a blend of a Californication and a Mothers Milk song. Tear, with its cool keys, sticks out as well. Sometimes you can hear some Brit-Rock elements as well. All musicians did a great job, but Frusciante is the one who put the stamp on it with his fabulous guitar and keyboard playing. I like the entire album and it works best if you listen to it altogether (nothing for the streaming generation). My score is 8/10.

Carl Black: I'm always so disappointed with the next new Red Hot Chili Peppers albums. I checked out after Blood Sugar Sex Magik. After listening to this album I don't think I've made a mistake. This is the band that used to make me wanna fuck ,fight and dance. After listening to this album all I want to do is scratch my balls, walk away and sit down. 

So average it's unbelievable. The music is like dad rock. There's only a couple of songs that really arouse my interest, those songs are Midnight and Throw Away Your Television, but even then it doesn't really register or move the needle. Such a shame after these guys produce such brilliant music, after partying on your pussy, after being good time boys, after sucking kisses. My glass eye weeps a salty tear of sorrow.

Gary Claydon: I tried really hard to like The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Really hard. Their air of off-the-wall sexentricity and willingness to embrace the grimier side of life, even when cruising firmly in the mainstream, made me want to think they were brilliant. But I never did. To tell the truth, I always thought they were one trick ponies, rinse and repeat funk-rap-alt.rock-hip-hop. So why didn't By The Way grab me either? The Chilli's Black Album, a move to the sunnier, more laid-back side of the street, it's pretty, well, dull. Frusciante's guitar work (another reason I've always wanted to like them) weaves some nicely melodic lines through proceedings and Kiedis shows how well he can actually sing but, overall, By The Way doesn't do it for me despite the excellent title track and the ridiculously catchy Can't Stop.

Plus, it doesn't help that it's longer than a Ted Nugent between-song rant.

Chris Downie: In what is another interesting (i.e. polarising) album choice, many listeners will inevitably find themselves casting minds back to when the album was first released and subsequently recalling the plethora of different opinions that were espoused at the time, before racking brains in an attempt to define whether said opinions were over- or under-cooked.

From this listener's standpoint, after the underrated One Hot Minute, this band - along with the Foo Fighters, most ironically - became the very kind of bland, mediocre inoffensive radio rock that the grunge revolution so valiantly fought against. If the saturation of Californication wasn't bad enough, the title track herein was a continuation of said mediocrity and there is little that the passage of time has done to alter this feeling about the entire album.

While they will always be lauded as a key component in the history of alt-rock, through classics like Mother's Milk and Blood Sugar... , their latter-day efforts are simply over-hyped radio fodder; rock music for people who don't actually like rock music. 3/10.

Joseph Biron: I was a RHCP fan from Mother’s Milk era, having seen them in a small club at that time and loved their energy, audacious, unique style and vibe. I lost track of them in the 90s through early 00s, really only hearing the radio plays. 

A couple of years ago I dug into their most recent album, The Getaway, and fell in love with them again, which launched a back catalog review. When I landed on By the Way I was stunned. What a mature, exciting, melancholy, satisfying masterpiece this album is. Every band member is at their peak creativity and musicianship, and you can really hear that. 

These are not kiddie songs, they are for thinking adults that also want to rock and sometimes chill out. Songs like Dosed and The Zephyr Song haunt me with their melodies for days after a fresh listen. This album is in my shortlist to take with me to a desert retirement island. Pure bliss.

Philip Qvist: Plenty of good songs on it but, like many of their albums, it is just too long - this one is 64 mins long. Remove four of the less memorable songs and you can reduce the length to a more manageable 50 mins.

John Frusciante steals the show with his musicianship, the title track and The Zephyr Song are great songs - so it isn't a total lost cause, but it is just too long. 7/10 for me... but with a hint of "if only" attached to that score.

Adam McCann: This was a huge disappointment for me. It was probably a turning point in my love for the band. I remember hearing The Zephyr Song/Can't Stop/Warm Tape/Cabron for the first time and thinking, "what the hell happened to this band?" Even worse when you'd see trendy townie types walking around saying how great Zephyr is.

Iain Macaulay: I love the Chilli’s. I’ve seen them a number of times over the years and they’ve always been good fun live. And the atmosphere at the gigs has always been energetic. I love Uplift, Mothers Milk, Blood Sugar and Californication. Even One Hot Minute, which is maybe not their best, has some redeeming features for me. It’s different, darker, but it still rocks. It also has Dave Navarro on it. What could go wrong?

But this album... and this is the album we’re talking about, not the preceding ones, well... to me It’s like the musical equivalent of a slow Sunday drive on a summers afternoon. It’s too soft, too lazy, too reflective and too long. And by the time it’s finished I just want to sleep. I don’t like long aimless Sunday drives. Give me something to excite me.

Maybe it’s due to the retuning Frusciante being given the steering wheel and having a lot of unused ideas and avenues he wanted to explore from this solo experiments that he thought would work for the band, I don’t know. Kiedis has said it’s the best time he’s had recording which is fantastic considering the shit they have gone through over the years but it translated into being the last album I bought by them.

Maybe they have become off their time. Maybe I moved on. Or maybe they lost their mojo, I don’t know what it is that broke the love affair with them but I just didn’t get into this album the way I did when I heard Uplift for the first time. And sadly that goes for the three subsequent albums too.

However, on a positive note, there is no denying By The Way and Can’t Stop are great songs, and I will never stop listening to those first seven albums. For the songs and the memories. But two good songs on an album doesn’t make a classic album for me I’m afraid, no matter how much I love the band.

Greg Schwepe: So, for me, this is where I just lost interest in the band. Like air going out of a balloon. I listened to the first three tracks of this one and stopped. Guess I’m not being fair since I didn’t listen to the entire album all the way through. But I give it a 4 out of 10. And maybe my review is more about the band than this particular album. And in scanning some of the other comments so far, I see a few others may have had the same adventure with these funky Californians.

I had purchased each of their releases in succession as soon as they came out back in the 90s. After they came to the public’s eye (and less of a cult band) with Mother’s Milk, I was really into them and each successive album. Heck, I even really liked One Hot Minute, one of only three people to do so! And I even saw the band on the Californication tour. Incredible show, and when I saw Chad Smith and Flea firsthand I realised how good of a tandem they really were.

And as I said, after that I just lost interest in the band’s new material. Period. That’s happened to me with other bands too. Really into them, buy everything to a certain point, then drop them! Weird. And then I have some bands that might continue to put out so-so albums late in their career and I would still buy everything they put out. Go figure.

While I couldn’t get all the way through this one, I did start to revisit some of the stuff I liked and hadn’t listened to in a while. So, thanks for the selection for this one. I didn’t care for this album but it brought me back to the band once again. Now, where’s my tube sock to wear while listening?

John Davidson: This album sees the Chilis dial back the skate punk funk almost completely to produce a melodic and thoughtful set of songs that reflects, perhaps, their changing circumstances.

I've never been a fan of funk/rock and it's telling that this is the only album of theirs that I own.

I suspect it is the album that non fans are most likely to gravitate to. Chili’s fans may be rightly appalled as I suspect this is the equivalent of a Metallica fan finding out someone only owns Load or ReLoad.

Of the album itself there are two clear stand outs.

By the Way and The Zephyr Song are fantastic songs that any band would be delighted to have produced and they have the sort of cross-over appeal that secured them a spot on my playlist for when guests are around who don't like heavy rock

About 2/3 of the album is pretty strong, even if it doesn’t set the pulse racing, there are some memorable melodies and interesting guitar licks. For example This Is The Place has a great groove and Dosed has a gentle, singable melody.

Don't Forget Me, on the other hand, sounds like an early Chilli's song played at 33rpm instead of 45. The slower place doesn’t bring enough power to make up for the lack of velocity before it staggers towards a finish.

Can’t Stop is closest to being a ‘proper’ slab of funky, bass-slapping fun but still has the melodic overtones of the rest of the album as well.

Of the rest, they mostly blend into one except for Throw Away Your Television, which has a great beat and good guitars but is hampered by the repetitive lyrics and Cabron, which is a bit throwaway but has a latin beat that sets the fingers and feet a tapping.

Overall the album suffers the curse of the CD generation and feels over-long at 68 minutes. You could easily trim 20-25 minutes worth of ‘b’ sides off this and if it was a vinyl album of old they probably would have.

A solid 6 for the two or three stand outs . Oddly if it had been more focussed it might have been a 7 or 8 but it just goes on too long and I lost interest before the end.

Marco LG: Jack Frusciante è uscito dal gruppo (“Jack Frusciante has left the band”) is the title of an Italian movie from 1996, based on a book of the same title published in 1994. Make no mistake, the authors used Jack to avoid legal issues, but the title clearly refers to John Frusciante leaving Red Hot Chili Peppers. The movie is a coming of age story, all characters are between nineteen and twenty years old. I was born in 1974, so when the book hit the shelves I just turned 20 and by the time the movie came out I was merely 22. It’s a story about my generation. Given I am a metal (and rock) fan, it’s a story about me.

In actual fact I never saw the movie nor read the book, but their very existence shows how deeply the cultural background of my generation has been influenced by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, together with Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine and possibly a couple of others. These are more than just rock bands, they are global cultural phenomena. As such, despite never having listened to an entire album before, to say I was familiar only with the hits would be an understatement.

The 1990s were a difficult period for me musically. I remained firmly with my ears in heavy metal, but I developed an instinctive rejection for everything I heard on the radio or television. This included everything remotely linked to Grunge, most of Nu Metal and, case in point, a lot of hard rock. The sound of By The Way triggers that instinctive rejection so much that I have to force myself to keep listening, and this reaction, coupled with the objectively long timing of the album, make for a pretty uncomfortable experience.

Once I managed to pass the rejection phase of the first couple of spins, however, By The Way was a surprisingly easy listen for me. The main reason why I think is this album actually came out in 2002, so when I was exposed to this music, willingly or otherwise, I was ten years older than the first time I heard the Red Hot Chili Peppers. My memories linked to songs like By The Way or Can’t Stop are of a time of massive change in my life: I had just “left home” and moved to Milan and was about to move to the UK for what I thought was going to be three years. I was teaching at the Politecnico, I was (almost) a grown up!

Overall, there is no escape: the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been part of my life for more than thirty years now, and unlike Nirvana or Alice in Chains my instinctive rejection for their music is more a pose than a real thing. Listening to By The Way confirmed it rather nicely, conjuring memories of good times in my life without making me wanna revisit any Sepultura, Death or Cynic album for balance. I will score this a 7 for the nostalgia effect, overlooking its obvious shortcomings, chiefly among them the excessive length and the slightly poppy atmosphere of many songs.

Kevin Miller: Just another post to say I completely agree that Flea, while phenomenal, gets too much credit and Frusciante doesn’t get enough. I love the Chili records with him. And I’m a bassist. This isn’t a perfect record, it’s too long and could easily survive at 60 minutes without Midnight, Throw Away, and Warm Tape, but it has some real gems and John really shines.

Brett Deighton: I don’t think I realised how much I love this album. OK it doesn’t make me want to jump around in nothing but a sock, but it does reveal more layers with repeated listening. I love the harmonies, the use of keys and strings and John Frusciante’s style. I do agree with those that suggested it might be a few songs too long, but I’m still going to be scoring this one highly.

Cameron Gillespie: This is one of those albums that I could almost review off the bat!

It took me a long time to look deeper into the Chilli's than just the surface level classics, and every song since without fail has been either a banger or has been easy listening, the kind of songs you don't have an opinion (what I like to call leave it or take it songs).

This album has three of their biggest hits, By The Way, The Zephyr Song, and Can't Stop, that alone puts it above an average album.

The rest of the album for me is generally easy listening / take it or leave it, with a few exceptions, such as This Is The Place and Dosed which are both songs I particularly enjoy, and both I believe about drugs / addiction.

Overall I'd rate this album 9/10.

Mike Fildes: A masterclass from Frusciante, every track shows off something different from his bag of tricks, but the whole bands on fire, brilliant songwriting writing, great playing, awesome harmonies, every track is a winner.

A big step up in quality from Californication, for me it's up there with Mother's Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik. 9/10.

Michael Porter: My son and I have very similar musical tastes but not when it comes to RHCP. He loves them and out of respect for him I’ve given this yet another spin to see if I could understand what all the fuss is about.

Unfortunately I could listen to this album a thousand times and still not get it. I have the greatest respect for all musicians as I cannot play a note. In the case of RCHP though I find the cod rap grating, the rhythms repetitive. The good thing is their sound is instantly recognisable and therefore it takes very little time to hit the skip button.

I have listened to the whole album one more time and suspect it will be the last time

Jacob Tannehill: Very interesting album. These guys continued their second life as a sober melodic rock band. This album by all means doesn’t top Californication, but there are some great tracks on this.

The songs I absolutely love on this album are ones that that totally don’t sound like them.

Tear: super soulful tune highlighted by an electric piano.

The Zephyr Song: trippy. One my favuorite John Frusciante songs.

Cabron: very cool upbeat song that sounds nothing like they ever did.

The two songs that sound like classic Chili Peppers: By The Way is a classic rocker, Can’t Stop has that classic funk! My only gripe is that there are about four songs too many on here. Could have been a shorter album. Very diverse. 

If you never got the Red Hot Chili Peppers or never liked them, then this album isn’t going to change your mind.

Alex Hayes: For a period of at least a couple of years in the early 1990s, my inner circle of mates had become so collectively enamoured by the Red Hot Chili Peppers that things became a little bit difficult for me for a while.

The Chili's energetic brand of funk-rock, non-stop slap bass, well documented issues with drug abuse (which, sadly, claimed the life of founder member guitarist Hillel Slovak), and unique 'socks on cocks' imagery really did strike a chord amongst my friends. Personally, I wasn't sold on the band though, and so found myself a bit of an outsider on the issue.

When Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released in September 1991, they raved about it for months on end. To such an extent that I found myself in the odd situation of being sick of an album that I'd never even listened to properly.

My personal indifference was partly fuelled by contrariness, but was also driven by my, then fervent, obsession with extreme metal. 'Why isn't Sepultura's Arise getting the same level of attention?' I may possibly have asked myself, 'Jesus, they just don't have a clue between them'. You get the drift.

Some time later that decade, just after the release of the Californication album, I found myself reappraising the band and their merits. By this stage, I'd come to view them in a far more positive light. In a dour music scene, dominated by the likes of Korn and all those Pearl Jam wannabes, suddenly the Red Hot Chili Peppers made a lot more sense.

There was both an earthiness and earnestness to their music that I'd missed all those years earlier. I became quite the fan, long after those same mates had all moved on to other things (none of them ended up rock 'lifers' like me, for their sins).

Thing is though, there has always been one element of the band's chemistry that I've valued far above everything else, namely, guitarist John Frusciante. A phenomenal musician and writer, Frusciante's musicality and input are so essential to the Chili's sound that my appreciation levels for the band are pretty much dependent on him being in it. Twice now Frusciante has left the group, only to later return, and both times I've found myself far less interested in their output.

I've never heard either of the Josh Klinghoffer albums, and can either take or leave 1995's One Hot Minute with Dave Navarro. Which brings me to 2002's superb, Frusciante-dominated, By The Way album.

As both guitarist and chief composer, Frusciante is 'in excelsis' on this album. In the main, it sees the Chilis ease off on the funk rock for a change, in favour of expansive, lushly orchestrated, and frequently gorgeous, pop songs, very Beach Boys and Beatles influenced in nature.

Beautifully layered and textured, the (no less than 16) songs on offer here also frequently benefit from warm, 'doo-wop' style backing vocals that enrich the atmosphere enormously. It may not be an album rooted in funk, but it still oozes its own distinctive, cool, Californian aura. And, by God, those amazing codas.

So many times on By The Way, a song will be ambling along nicely enough, before suddenly switching gears and ascending to new heights of creativity. Minor Thing is one such track that benefits immensely from that, and then there's Venice Queen. On the closing stages of the album's final track and crowning glory, Frusciante weaves some harmonic guitar lines into the mix that are so sublime they almost achieve a form of perfect musical alchemy. Outstanding stuff.

By The Way is a product of the CD age, so, of course, it does have some problems. Good as it is, it's still nigh on 70 minutes long, and there's a touch of the old 'loudness war' style compression in the mix. It also brings back memories of what were dark times for me musically. I struggled to fit in with what passed for the rock and metal scene in the years that straddled both sides of the millennium, and this is music that reminds me of feeling a bit lost, inspiration-wise. That's my problem though, not the Chilis.

I could go on all day, so will wrap things up at this point. By The Way is a wonderfully inventive and endlessly rich listening experience, made possible thanks to the crucial input of an outstanding modern day musician in John Frusciante, without whom...

I'll leave it there.

Final Score: 6.44⁄10 (118 votes cast, with a total score of 760)

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