An Essential Guide to Red Hot Chili Peppers
Published Aug 10, 2018A massively successful Los Angeles rock band, founded in the early '80s and celebrated for their catchy radio anthems, sex-obsessed machismo and drug-fuelled hedonism. That describes Red Hot Chili Peppers, but it also describes Poison — and Mötley Crüe, and countless other bands who have long since gone the way of the dinosaurs.
So how have RHCP remained one of the world's most successful arena rock bands while so many others have been lost to history? It's partly because of the enduring strength of their songs, but it's also thanks to the way they've managed to evolve in the face of adversity: they've weathered deaths, drug addictions and seemingly countless lineup changes, each time emerging as strong as ever.
Frontman Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea are now in their mid-50s, and despite so many years of wild behaviour, they haven't lost their goofy, youthful vigour.
With a 35-year history and numerous different career phases, there's a lot to dig into, so we're breaking down the best (and worst) of the band's storied career in our Essential Guide. If you're interested in Red Hot Chili Peppers, this is where to start.
5. Stadium Arcadium (2006)
Show me a Red Hot Chili Peppers album and I'll show you an album that's too long. As a CD-era band, they have a habit of overstuffing even their best albums with filler — all of their albums since the '90s have been longer than 50 minutes, and most have been over an hour. Stadium Arcadium takes that tendency to the extreme, with 28 tracks and more than two hours of music, much of which is decidedly inessential.
Then again, maybe it's unfair to dwell on Stadium Arcadium's flaws too much, since it also contains some of their best-ever songs. This is the last album to feature classic-era guitarist John Frusciante, and he shows off his chops with his flashiest solos and lots of catchy hooks.
Everyone's heard the opening single "Dani California," but even stronger highlights include the psych ballad "Slow Cheetah," the grandiose "Wet Sand" and the sunburnt rocker "Especially in Michigan." Of course, you'll have to wade through at least as many misses as hits, but RHCP make this easy by front-loading nearly all of the good stuff on the first disc.
4. Freaky Styley (1985)
Produced by George Clinton of Parliament-Funkadelic, Freaky Styley is the purest expression of the Chili Peppers' early funk period. The rhythm section is mixed high, the vocals are mixed low, and the songs rarely follow traditional verse-chorus structures, highlighting grooves rather than hooks. In lieu of any recognizable hits, the whole thing breezes by as a collage of bass slapping and staccato horn melodies. It's almost as if Clinton was using the band as a way to channel the wild, psychedelic brand of funk he had been championing since the '70s. This is RHCP's Maggot Brain.
Freaky Styley was a big upgrade after 1984's lifeless The Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was recorded with interim guitarist Jack Sherman and was a disappointment to the band members. Founding guitarist Hillel Slovak had returned for Freaky Styley, and the album has none of the macho hard rock influences of the band's late '80s output, nor any of the gigantic choruses that followed in the '90s. Rather, Freaky Styley is an unaffected and under-appreciated oddment in the band's catalogue.
3. Californication (1999)
Californication was a rebirth for a band at the close of a fraught decade. John Frusciante had spiralled into heroin addiction and nearly died before finally getting clean, while his bandmates had released the commercially and critically disappointing One Hot Minute in 1995. With Californication, they were finally back: singles like "Scar Tissue" and "Around the World" were ubiquitous hits, and the band seemed creatively and spiritually reinvigorated.
Frusciante's playing here is ultra-minimal: his riffs on "Californication" and "Otherside" are so basic that a beginner-level guitarist could pick them up, but their simplicity is beautifully tasteful. Throw in lyrics that explore drug addiction and the dark side of Hollywood, and Californication is a surprisingly soulful album from a band often known for their nonsensical frat-boy anthems. During this era, Kiedis had secretly relapsed on heroin while Flea was reportedly battling depression following a breakup, and this darkness seeps into the songs.
It's worth pointing out that Californication has infamously terrible sound quality. A victim of the "loudness war," its mastering is so loud that it distorts and robs the songs of some of their dynamics. Pick up the 2012 vinyl reissue for better sound quality.
2. By the Way (2002)
Back in the early 2000s, "pop" seemed like a dirty word — NSYNC even went so far as to write a hit song called "Pop" about the genre's negative connotations. Considering the way rockist fans turned up their noses at the mere mention of pop, it was a bold move for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to embrace poppy sounds as wholeheartedly as they did on By the Way.
Funk and rap are almost entirely absent — the single "Can't Stop" is the most notable exception — replaced instead with easygoing bass lines, surf-inspired guitar leads and a few twinkling keyboards. The choruses are absolutely towering: the lush "Midnight" is bolstered by opulent orchestral strings, "Tear" is the sweetest example of Frusciante's honeyed vocal harmonies, and "The Zephyr Song" is as breezy as the wind that inspired its title.
Kiedis has never been a technically talented singer, but By the Way is his most confident and tuneful performance. Whether playfully spitting vocoded nonsense on the title track, conjuring up dark drama on "Don't Forget Me," or crooning in an unexpectedly high register on the bittersweet "Dosed," he's on top form. Throw in a heavy dose of Beach Boys harmonies from Frusciante, and this album is pure summer.
1. Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
For most listeners in 2018, Blood Sugar Sex Magik might as well be Red Hot Chili Peppers' debut album. After a string of '80s albums that offered lots of bravado, but not much songwriting depth, this was a massive leap forward that exploded the band to the top tier of the mainstream.
The irony, of course, is that by the time RHCP made Blood Sugar, they had already been a band for close to a decade. They had already released four albums, lost six former band members, and their founding guitarist (and close high school friend) had died of a heroin overdose. All of those experiences culminated in Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which wraps up all of their hurt and horniness into one sprawling 17-song opus.
Recorded at an allegedly haunted mansion in Hollywood, where three of the members lived during the session, Blood Sugar was the first time that RHCP had kept a consistent lineup for two consecutive albums. Frusciante, who was barely in his 20s, was settling into his role as guitarist and pushing the band into melodic, pop-friendly directions. Every song is filled with subtle sonic treats: there's the Hendrix-indebted guitar accents of "Under the Bridge," the Mellotron strings of the funk epic "Sir Psycho Sexy," and the unexpected junkyard percussion breakdown in "Breaking the Girl." Or, if subtly isn't your thing, just get a load of the giant-sized drum fills and tongue-rolling refrains of "Give It Away."
After all of the upheaval of RHCP's early years, it would be nice if this album represented a happy ending (or at least a new beginning), but that's not the case. Its enormous commercial success caused Frusciante to spiral into heroin addiction and quit the band, and they never quite captured the same world-beating brilliance that they did here. For this one moment, they were able to set all of their issues aside and make a masterpiece.
What to Avoid
The Red Hot Chili Peppers (1984) is really only worth listening to for the curiosity factor of hearing the band's debut album, since its funk is sterile and lifeless compared to other albums. The demo versions of the same songs that appear on the 1994 outtakes compilation Out in L.A. are much better.
As for the newer albums, 2011's I'm With You suffered from a lack of memorable hooks. It was the first LP with Josh Klinghoffer, and the departed John Frusciante's pop sensibilities are sorely missed.
As for the band's DVDs, skip 2001's Off the Map. This concert film was recorded during the Californication tour, and it suffers from austere visuals and a weak vocal performance from Kiedis. He sounds much stronger on 2003's Live from Slane Castle, which also has better lighting and camera work.
After the albums listed above, check out 1989's Mother's Milk and 1995's divisive One Hot Minute, which are flawed yet interesting albums. Both of them contain macho hard rock riffs that awkwardly clash with RHCP's funk and pop inclinations. Still, there are clear highlights: "Knock Me Down" and "Higher Ground" from the former, "Aeroplane" and "My Friends" from the latter. Plus, the Mother's Milk instrumental "Pretty Little Ditty" is a must-listen — mostly because it's fun to hear Crazy Town's "Butterfly" sample in its original context.
Also check out 2016's The Getaway. Recorded with Danger Mouse (their first album without producer Rick Rubin since the '80s), it takes the Peppers' sound in a slick, synth-flecked direction and is by far the strongest effort from current axe-slinger Josh Kinghoffer.
For fans of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the behind-the-scenes documentary Funky Monks is a must-see. Shot in moody black and white, it's full of interesting glimpses into the sessions: everyone banging on bits of metal during the bridge of "Breaking the Girl," Frusciante nonchalantly overdubbing the beautiful guitar solo of "Mellowship Slinky in B Major," and drummer Chad Smith playing the wistful arpeggios of "Rock Bottom" by KISS on piano while everyone packs up the studio.
As for side-projects, John Frusciante has released ten solo albums plus a few collaborations, and he also made two acid house albums under the name Trickfinger. The bedroom synth-folk record To Record Only Water for Ten Days (2001) is a standout, and other highlights are the pop opus Shadows Collide with People (2004) and the downcast The Will to Death (2004).
Flea has been involved in a couple of high-profile projects in recent years: he plays with Damon Albarn in the psych-funk combo Rocket Juice and the Moon, and he's in Thom Yorke's art-rock side band Atoms for Peace. Neither band's output has much of a "wow" factor, but it's intriguing to hear Flea's playing in a new context.
Speaking of Flea, he and former RHCP guitarist Dave Navarro both played on Alanis Morissette's world-conquering smash "You Oughta Know." Everyone's heard the song a million times, but you'll listen with new ears when you know who's manning the guitar and bass.