A Californian fusion of fun, funk and sex retains its signature heat
By Michael Shilling
Special to MSN Music
When they first appeared on the music scene in the mid-'80s, acting like psychedelic fraternity clowns, few would have predicted that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would scale the top of the rock peak and warrant entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But on a unique combination of melodic speed-blues bravado, surfer sex appeal, bass-slapping pop hookery and the bare-chested tongue-wagging riff-rap charisma of singer Anthony Kiedis, this quartet from the darkest funk jungles of Los Angeles have more than earned their right to stand with the other inductees on April 14.
Though the Chili Peppers have had a lot of members on the periphery, the core of the group -- singer Kiedis and bassist Michael Balzary, or "Flea," as he is commonly known -- has been consistent throughout. The two met at Fairfax High School in West Hollywood, and in the early '80s began playing music with friends Hillel Slovak on guitar and Jack Irons on drums. Though the band certainly tipped their musical hat to punk rock, they were integral in forming a music scene that ran to some degree as an antidote to the L.A. punk scene of the time, sharing stages and artistic kinship with bands such as Fishbone and Jane's Addiction.
After signing with EMI, the band released their self-titled debut in 1984 to little fanfare, but on their next album, the George Clinton-produced "Freaky Styley" from 1985, the Chili Peppers began to attract national attention. It was hard to tell if they were a funk band that played rock or a rock band that played funk, but it was mesmerizing either way. The band toured relentlessly and became known for their wild, scantily clad stage shows -- in particular a certain phallocentric use of the tube sock -- as well as a ceaseless party-hearty ethos that resulted in significant problems with controlled substances. By the time their third album came out, 1987's utterly magnificent "The Uplift Mofo Party Plan," both Kiedis and Slovak were battling heroin addiction. It was a battle that Slovak, sadly, lost, passing away on June 25, 1988, from an overdose.
Because Slovak was such an integral part of the band, his death put the Chili Peppers' future in doubt. Traumatized by the tragedy, drummer Irons quit, and Kiedis went into full retreat, so devastated that he was unable to even attend Slovak's funeral. Ultimately, he and Flea decided to continue on, enlisting drummer Chad Smith and guitar player/prodigy John Frusciante, who was all of 19 upon becoming a Chili Pepper. The band's first effort, 1989's "Mother's Milk," made significant inroads on the pop charts with their cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground." However, it was in 1991, with their next offering, the Rick Rubin-produced "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," that the band achieved mass popularity -- in America alone the record has sold over 7 million copies. The track list is full of such classics as "Suck My Kiss," "Give It Away" and the totemic "Under the Bridge," a song well-known for its video of Kiedis running in slow motion at the camera, looking as buff as the nearest Versace model. And yes, it's also a great song.
Despite the band's success, the lineup took another hit when Frusciante left in the middle of the world tour to support "BSSM." Into the void stepped Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction, who was integral in the shift to a darker sound on 1995's "One Hot Minute." Though the album sold over 8 million copies worldwide, personal differences led to Navarro's departure in 1998. The band was then able to convince Frusciante to rejoin, and the result was "Californication."
The band's creative and commercial high-water mark, "Californication" demonstrated a true leap forward for the band. The record combined their "putting the 'fun' back in funk" vibe with an emotional maturity, lyrical complexity and streamlined pop-rock song structure. The record sold 14 million copies worldwide, spurred by such tracks as "Scar Tissue," "Californication" and "Otherside," all of which are modern rock radio staples. Basically, if you're a teenager in the 21st century, you know "Californication" the way that teens of the 1970s knew "Led Zeppelin IV" and teens in the '80s knew Guns N' Roses' "Appetite for Destruction." On the strength of the record, the Chili Peppers then spent the aughts as arena rock standard-bearers, releasing two more albums, 2002's "By the Way" and 2006's aptly titled "Stadium Arcadium." Recently, they've had a change of guitar players once again, as Frusciante again left the band in 2009. Josh Klinghoffer, who was initially brought in 2007 as a second guitar player for touring, became an official member of the band that year. He made his studio debut on "I'm With You," which came out in 2011.
When Klinghoffer takes the stage with the rest of the Chili Peppers, which for the night will include former members such as Frusciante and drummer Irons, he'll be the youngest inductee into the Hall of Fame at 32. This seems fitting, because no band is as eternally youthful as the Chili Peppers. Kiedis, Flea and Smith may be well into their 40s, but they still rock with an energy that rockers half their age find hard to match.
Michael Shilling is a recovering rock musician and the author of "Rock Bottom," a novel. He lives in Seattle, where he is a teacher, writer and editor.