‘R’ is for Red Hot Chili Peppers

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It’s been a long time coming, but here is another instalment of the series no-one has been asking about – my CD A to Z a.k.a. My CD Alphabetical Marathon. Why now? Well frankly I’m getting a bit bored of just writing about movies and the odd book I have read and what better way to spice this blog up than to write a post about the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Spotify hasn’t quite killed off my desire to purchase CDs. For example, I bought the new Manic Street Preachers album a few days ago. But the CDs these days have to be ones that I know are worth the expense or that are in a series I am committed to. In the case of The Ultra Vivid Lament it was the latter, as I don’t think it’s that good an album tbh. My two Billy Eilish CDs thankfully fall into the first category.

I was a little surprised to see that there was a Red Hot Chili Peppers album on Spotify that I didn’t have on CD – having owned all their others at one point in time (as you will gather from this post, I traded in some of their albums I didn’t enjoy). The Getaway released in 2016 is now on my wish list on Amazon, and I’ve only listened to the popular track ‘Dark Necessities’ to make it more fun when I hopefully do get it for my birthday or Christmas.

I don’t listen to RHCP as much as I used to. At the height of my fandom, back in the early 1990s, Blood Sugar Sex Magik was on my hi-fi all the time. I think reading Scar Tissue by lead singer Anthony Kiedis while on holiday in 2015 made me think a bit less of the man – never meet your heroes they say – I’d maybe add to that – never read biographies of your heroes. He diminished dramatically in stature under my worshipful gaze as I turned each page and tarnished my view of RHCP’s music for some time. I’m kind of over it now, and I never stopped loving his voice, so it’s time to write this post.

I’ll go through the albums as they are arranged chronologically in my CD collection, but it’s not the order in which I bought them. There are gaps because I bought some of their earlier albums after I bought Blood Sugar Sex Magik and didn’t really like them all that much, so got rid of them, and filled other gaps in the continuity some years after others albums were released. So the albums Red Hot Chili Peppers, Freaky Styley, and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan don’t feature here – most of that stuff was painful to my ears.

I joined the party with Blood Sugar Sex Magik and then bought Mother’s Milk after loving dancing to ‘Higher Ground’ at the indie nights I used to attend while I was a student. I also bought a giant poster to adorn my bedroom wall because I liked the (apparently reluctant) model’s hair and the semi-naked aesthetic of the artwork. I don’t have the CD anymore so I guess I liked the poster more than the actual music. I still think it’s one of the most iconic album covers of that time.

So Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991) is where it all really began for me and rather predictably because of the hit single ‘Under the Bridge’ but ‘Give It Away’, ‘Suck My Kiss’ and ‘The Righteous & The Wicked’ are also favourites. In fact there’s hardly a track I don’t enjoy on this album – it’s such a cohesive collection of quality tunes. ‘Give It Away’ was another indie club favourite for me, guaranteed to get me on the dancefloor especially if, as usually happened, the DJ followed it by ‘Higher Ground’ or a Rage Against the Machine track.

Their sound was unique at the time (I guess in some ways it still is) with Flea’s funky basslines, the half rapped/half sung vocals and some great guitar riffs and air-guitar inducing lead guitar gymnastics too, and this album felt far more honed and well-produced compared to albums from the likes of Green Day, Nirvana and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin who I was listening to a lot at the time. They also seemed to be a lot more fun than the ever so serious RATM or indeed Nirvana.

There rap element, the swearing and the sexuality of the lyrics on the album combined with the funky riffs totally worked for me because I was also listening to The Beastie Boys, Prince and Faith No More at the time and RHCP seemed to have worked some black magic in combining all my favourite things into one hugely attractive package – they certainly were ‘Funky Monks’ for a randy young student finding his feet with the opposite sex. it’s a wonder I had time to also listen to Depeche Mode.

One Hot Minute (1995) was a retrospective purchase and I have to admit not an album I’ve spent many hours listening to compared to the others listed here. Lead guitarist John Frusciante left the band after BSSM and Dave Navarro joined as the new guitarist and I guess you can hear the difference in the grungier sounding music.

‘My Friends’ is perhaps the best track on the album, but does tend to get skipped when I’m listening to their greatest hits album. ‘Shallow Be Thy Game’ is quite a powerful track but for some reason sounds a little dated these days as does the rather similar sounding ‘Coffee Shop’ with its Iggy Pop reference. There’s something almost like There Might be Giants or Presidents of the United States of America about the sound of most tracks.

I can’t remember if Californication (1999) was also a retrospective purchase, but I like to think I got it the same year it came out. Californication saw the return of John Frusciante as lead guitarist and ‘Around the World’ seems to announce his return, and I love the silly lyrics at around 2:45 where it sounds like Kiedis was lost for words. ‘Parallel Universe’ is an absolute corker, with great rock vocals and epitomises the band’s ability to write driving rock tunes with a relentless momentum, and then ‘Scar Tissue’ is a seemingly light pop song but the lyrics reveal a typically nuanced love story with a dark undertone.

It’s a no-brainer to say that the title track is the outstanding song on this album and one of RHCP’s finest. Is it going too far to call it a lyrical masterpiece? Love singing along to it with Siggy in the car. It didn’t do great in the UK charts (number one in the U.S.) but I love it along with the similar sounding ‘Otherside’ which for some inexplicable reason didn’t even get into the Top 40 in the UK.

By The Way (2002) was a retrospective purchase and the title track, which got to number 2 in the UK singles charts, is one of my favourite songs by any band, not just by RHCP. It often gets an immediate replay if I am listening to it in my car. It’s three and half minutes of pure joy for me and I love to sing along to it. ‘Universally Speaking’ has an almost ‘Chain Reaction’ Motown-ish vibe to it and is another track that doesn’t rely on the funky/rap vibe that we became accustomed to expect from RHCP, and goes almost into a full orchestral arrangement toward the end. It certainly shows that RHCP were as versatile as they were volatile musicians.

We’re all the way up to the hippyish ‘The Zephyr Song’ before there’s any hint of rapping from Kiedis and the focus is more on the harmonies and lilting lyrics. This is very much an album of proper songs without that improvisational feel (which is neither a good or bad thing) until suddenly the guitar riff and the drumming builds and we get the brilliant ‘Can’t Stop’ which feels more like a track off BSSM while still juxtaposed with the harmonious chorus. Then we get more lyrical American rock including a kind of Latin America vibed Beatles-esque track ‘Cabron’ and perhaps Doors influenced ‘Venice Queen’.

By The Way has much more mature sound for RHCP. I can’t remember all the line up changes between albums but I guess some of the sound in each album is very dependant on the lead guitarist. Frusciante wrote most of the album’s melodies, backing vocal arrangements, guitar progressions and bass lines, so in this case it wasn’t just a line up change that changed their sound.

Greatest Hits and Videos (2003) is what prompted me to investigate the back catalogue and make some overdue purchases and is a great non-chronologically ordered romp through their hits. There are also two new tracks on the album in the form of ‘Save the Population’ and ‘Fortune Faded’. I think ‘Fortune Faded’ is a really nice track, and the album is a mainstay in my CD wallet for my car on long journeys.

Stadium Arcadium (2006) was a double album I originally had digitally (back in the days of iTunes) but then subsequently purchased, so I could listen to it in my car. ‘Dani California’, which got to number 2 in the UK charts, is a great opening track and a tune I enjoyed trying to get right on Guitar Hero. The infectiously catchy single ‘Snow (Hey Ho)’ is also a great track and long-time RHCP collaborator Rick Ruben has done his usually great job of production on the album. There’s some nicely crafted tracks with some great guitar riffs on the two-disk album (including the melancholy sounding title track which verges on prog rock at times) but part of me does wonder if they might’ve just been better at picking the best tracks for an all-killer no-filler 80-minute single disc album.

The other two singles, from disc 2, ‘Desecration Smile’ and ‘Tell Me Baby’ show two sides of RHCP – the first is not easy on the ear with some challenging vocals and a rather drippy vibe like ‘Breaking the Girl’ but then ‘Tell Me Baby’ is more hip-hoppy and happy with a funky bassline snappy rhythm guitar and a simple chorus more akin to ‘Hump de Bump’. I don’t think I’ve sat through the whole two discs since I bought the album but as I am dipping in and out of it now for the purposes of reminding me what it was all about, I have to say I’m enjoying it a lot. Maybe there is genuinely more than 80 minutes of good vibes here that justify the two-disc format and I guess it’s just the slower tracks like ‘If’ I have a problem with.

‘Readymade’ is worth noting as having quite an old skool RHCP sound with a driving guitar, lilting choruses and then some kick-ass tomfoolery on the lead guitar at around the 2:45 mark followed by some nice percussion and then back into the chorus and riffs combo. I can imagine having a bloody good dance to this and ‘Storm in a Teacup’ in an indie club back in the 90s, if those tracks had been around 16 years earlier.

I’m With You (2011) has another distinctive cover – a fly on a pill – designed by Damien Hirst and had a fresher feeling to the songs that took me some time to adjust to. Rick Ruben did production again and there’s a new guitarist in the form of the young Josh Adam Klinghoffer who helped out on tours and was a friend of departing guitarist John Frusciante (who I read then rejoined the band in 2020). Musical chairs or what? The stand out track in my opinion is ‘The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie’ which I actually thought was called ‘Hey Now’, here’s a video:

The more I listen to this track the more I love it, and the whole album is a real grower. ‘Monarchy of Roses’, with its kind of disco bassline and distorted vocal segments, and ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ with it’s kind of celebratory cha-cha-cha party vibe and kind lyrics, are really strong bookends to a collection of oftentimes quite minimalist (by RHCP standards) and generally happy sounding tracks. The declamatory dis-track ‘Even You Brutus?’ has a kind of Mary J Blige vibe to it in places and a great ‘and “Stevie says…” call back all the way back to 1989 and is as usual a great storytelling song from Kiedis.

Not bad for a band that’s been together in one form or another since 1984. Sure they perhaps didn’t get going properly until 1991, but what a great collection of albums even without the four 1980s CDs. Anthony Kiedis you are forgiven for all your previous misdemeanours. I’m looking forward to listening The Getaway soon.

Image adapted from photos by Danilo Alvesd and Erik Karits on Unsplash

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