The Red Hot Chili Peppers merged the sounds and sensibilities of punk, funk and hip-hop to become an iconic and hugely popular group. Their music and lifestyles reflect the Southern California milieu in which they were born. They have been a band given to extremes, from thrashy, funky noise and personal excess to sunnier music and healthier living.
They formed in Los Angeles in 1983 as a foursome with Anthony Kiedis, Michael "Flea" Balzary, Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons. The last two left before the recording of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' self-titled 1984 debut and were replaced by drummer Cliff Martinez and guitarist Jack Sherman. Slovak returned for Freaky Styley (produced by George Clinton), and Irons rejoined for 1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. After Slovak's 1988 death by heroin overdose, guitarist John Frusciante was recruited, and drummer Chad Smith replaced Irons.
This was the lineup that recorded the classic albums Mother's Milk (1989), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), Californication (1999), By the Way (2002) and Stadium Arcadium (2006). Frusciante took a hiatus from 1993-1997 and left for good in 2009, replaced by Josh Klinghoffer, who'd been the band's auxiliary tour guitarist. The group's 10th studio album, I'm With You, was released in 2011.
Here, the Rock Hall suggests 10 essential Red Hot Chili Peppers songs.
The lead track on the Red Hot Chili Peppers' self-titled 1984 debut, produced by Gang of Four's Andrew Gill, "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes" exemplified the quirky, funk-rock sound the boys from Southern California had been cultivating. Anthony Kiedis' esoteric lyrics about gallivanting through Hollywood "on a paisley dragon" and the map for a strange trip – Well, I'm gonna ride a sabertooth horse / Through the Hollywood hills / The farther west, the farther out – were delivered in a jumpy, rap-inspired cadence that meshed perfectly with the slap bass funk of Flea, and the percussive flair of Cliff Martinez and jagged guitar parts of Jack Sherman – the latter two's only appearance on a RHCP album. The song was also the foundation for the group's first music video.
From its controversial title and subject matter (The good book says we must suppress / The good book says we must confess / But who cares what the good book says / Cause now she's taking off her dress) to its fast tempo, "Catholic School Girls Rule" embraced the punk sound more closely associated with the Red Hot Chili Peppers' California peers, such as Black Flag and Dead Kennedys, though delivered under a blanket of undeniable funk. The latter element came with the input of producer George Clinton, the maestro of P-funk, who brought a loose, free jam feel to much of 1985's Freaky Styley. It would be the only album he'd work with the Chili Peppers on as producer.
"Fight Like A Brave" launched 1987's Uplift Mofo Party Plan with an explosive funk-metal-rap hybrid and was the song that really introduced the band to college radio listeners across the country. Hillel Slovak, who'd masterfully tuned in to a funk groove on Freaky Styley's jams, dialed up the distortion adding metal riffs to the mix. Kiedis' rap vocals kicked in and out amid the steady churn of bassist Flea and drummer Jack Irons. Despite the metallic overtones, "Fight Like A Brave" had an imminently hummable, anthemic chorus. The lyrics and title were a reference to Kiedis' battle with heroin addiction – a battle bandmate Slovak would succumb to less than a year later, overdosing on the drug.
Similar to AC/DC's triumphant comeback Back In Black following the death of lead singer Bon Scott, the Chili Peppers' Mother's Milk, released in 1989, was a landmark recording in the band's career, made all the more impressive given the addition of new drummer Chad Smith after Irons quit, unable to cope with the loss of Slovak (though Smith did not appear on the actual recording), and guitarist John Frusciante. "Taste The Pain" helped prove not only that the band's core of Kiedis and Flea could still guide the group with a new ensemble, but also that the band were capable of bridging the gap between the all-out party atmospherics that were their hallmark and a more somber delivery. Flea's expressive, popping lead bass runs and trumpet solo figure prominently alongside Kiedis' unique delivery, which carried a previously unheard emotional sting. Meanwhile, Frusciante's effortless phrasing proved a capable replacement for the irreplaceable Slovak.
As the title suggests, the lyrics from the first single to be released off 1992's best-selling Blood Sugar Sex Magik finds Kiedis primarily espousing the virtues of altruism (Greedy little people in a sea of distress / Keep your more to receive your less / Unimpressed by material excess / Love is free, love me say, 'hell yes') and referencing people such as Bob Marley in a rapid-fire staccato diction that gave the song its most memorable aspect. Flea and Chad Smith supply the track's heady rhythmic brew of bass and drums, respectively, while Frusciante added the right amount of spunky solo work and funk-cum-hard rock riffs to register a distinct presence. The song's resonant textures found a stunning visual complement in a music video that gained extensive MTV airplay.
Although largely cast as the cheerful court jesters, entertaining with an innovative melding of funk and rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' experiences with addiction and loss meant its members – particularly vocalist Kiedis – had plenty of demons to exorcise. With its stripped, down-tempo feel, a lyrical guitar intro and Kiedis' sensitive, autobiographical account of darker days in Los Angeles, "Under The Bridge" was a poignant portrait that diverted from the Chili Peppers' typical sonic palette. Amid the rise of alternative rock – and the tragic losses the 90s era saw as a result of heroin addiction – "Under The Bridge" peaked at Number Two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the summer of 1992 – the highest charting song of the band's career.
The first single released off the band's 1999 Californication album produced by Rick Rubin, "Scar Tissue" featured Frusciante back on guitar after a brief hiatus during the Chili Peppers' recording of One Hot Minute with guitarist Dave Navarro. The song was indicative of the the more melody-driven, pop-oriented sound the band were affecting – a far cry from the loose funk jams of their earliest recordings. Rubin's comparatively barebones production, removing many of the effects of earlier album cuts, lent itself to the recording's low-key undulations, with Frusciante's steely solos providing powerful nuance. The song spent 16 weeks at Number One on Billboard's Alternative Songs chart.
The title track to the Chili Peppers' 1999 release, this somber, minor key track illustrated Kiedis' greater depth as a songwriter, with a commentary on his home state's roll in marketing a homogenized, counterfeit culture (It's understood that Hollywood sells Californication) that spoke of plastic surgery (Pay your surgeon very well / To break the signs of aging), pornography (First born unicorn / hard core, soft porn), progress (Space may be the final frontier / But it's made in a Hollywood basement) and referenced Kurt Cobain and David Bowie (And Cobain can you hear the spheres / Singing songs off Station to Station). Although it presented a more mature side of the Chili Peppers' songwriting coin, musically, it was still a shiny, smooth groove that reflected the group's more familiar framework.
"By The Way," the title track of the Chili Peppers' eighth studio album, offered a return to the frenetic funk-rock bombast of previous efforts with the more melodious sensibilities of later works. The song opens with Frusciante strumming a simple New Wave-esque chord progression as Kiedis sings – not raps. After that, "By The Way" seamlessly weaves Flea's sizzling bass runs and Smith's tight drumming with Frusciante's scratchy, palm-muted guitar riffs and Kiedis sped-up narrative, dipping back and forth between such bursts and variations on the intro melody. The brilliant dynamic has made it a staple of live sets.
Among the highlights of 2006's 28-song, Grammy Award–winning double-album Stadium Arcadium, "Snow (Hey Oh)" followed the more introspective lyricism (Come to decide that the things that I tried / Were in my life just to get high on / When I sit alone come get a little known / But I need more than myself this time), and softer, layered musical textures and tones of By The Way. Driven largely by Frusciante's speedily picked lead riff, the track's soaring chorus and outro passage have made it a fan favorite.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum curatorial director Howard Kramer discusses Hillel Slovak's electric guitar, which he played as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
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