Michael Balzary aka Flea (bass; born October 16, 1962), John Frusciante (guitar; born March 5, 1970), Jack Irons (drums; born July 18, 1962), Anthony Kiedis (vocals; born November 1, 1962), Josh Klinghoffer (guitar; born October 3, 1979), Cliff Martinez (drums; born February 5, 1954), Hillel Slovak (guitar; born April 13, 1962, died June 25, 1988), Chad Smith (drums; born October 25, 1962)
The Red Hot Chili Peppers created a synthesis of punk, funk, rock and rap to become one of the most popular and inventive groups of modern times. They have sold more than 60 million albums worldwide, and five of their albums have been certified multiplatinum in the U.S. They created two of the defining albums of the Nineties, Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication, and one of the most ambitious releases of the past decade, the double-disc Stadium Arcadium.
Their eclectic music has ranged from thrashy punk-funk to Hendrix-laced neopsychedelic rock to tuneful, ruminative California pop. “For all us to agree on a piece of music’s validity,” noted bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary, “that piece of music must cover all the blood types, all the seasons and all four corners of the globe.” The Red Hot Chili Peppers also rank high among rock’s most electrifying live acts, described by Flea as “a whirlwind of spontaneous anarchy, locked in with a cosmic hardcore soul groove.”
Their live shows possess an energizing physicality that is liberating to both band and audience. “I take a total beating,” vocalist Anthony Kiedis told writer Steve Roeser. “It’s the sign of a good show. When you come off bleeding with bones poking out of you, you know that you put on a good show.”
The group’s principal subject, to which lyricist Kiedis has often returned, was the state of California. Much like the Beach Boys and the Eagles before them, they obsessed over the virtues and vices of life in the Golden State. Their musical outlook has always reflected the Southern California milieu, appealing to the hard-partying skateboard and slacker subcultures while also reaching those looking for sunnier, more spiritually uplifting grooves. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have experienced triumph and tragedy in their 30-year history, scaling the heights of popularity while confronting drug addiction and the death of a founding member along the way.
The roots of the Red Hot Chili Peppers extend back to 1977, when guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons formed a KISS-inspired hard-rock band named Anthym with friends at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Flea became their bass player in 1979, while another high-school chum, Anthony Kiedis, would adopt the role of emcee. As their musical sophistication grew, Anthym evolved into What Is This?, an exploratory New Wave group serving as vehicle for Slovak and Irons.
Meanwhile, the departed Kiedis and Flea moved on to college, jobs and other projects. However, when they set some of Kiedis’ words to Flea’s music, the pair laid the groundwork for Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1983. They needed bandmates and asked Slovak and Irons to join them, which they did while still maintaining What Is This? For their first gig, at a club on L.A.’s Sunset Strip, they used the name Tony Flow & the Miraculous Majestic Masters of Mayhem, an indication of their offbeat humor.
Settling on the name Red Hot Chili Peppers, they built a following on the L.A. club circuit. They became known for the gimmick of performing nude, save for strategically placed tube socks. (After getting popular, they’d generally save the sock stunt for encores.) The Red Hot Chili Peppers were signed to EMI Records, but Slovak and Irons did not appear on the group’s self-titled 1984 debut, opting to focus on What Is This?. Guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez replaced them on The Red Hot Chili Peppers, which was produced by Andrew Gill (from Britain’s Gang of Four). The album, whose most memorable song was “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes,” failed to make Billboard’s Top 200.
Slovak was back in the lineup for Freaky Styley, produced by Parliament-Funkadelic mastermind George Clinton. Its more overt punk-funk hybrid better captured the band’s witty, forceful style, but the album still failed to chart. Drummer Irons rejoined for 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which would turn out to be the only Red Hot Chili Peppers album to feature the founding foursome of Kiedis, Flea, Slovak and Irons. Cut with producer Michael Beinhorn, it was an early pinnacle, capturing the band’s raucous high spirits and groundbreaking style. Yet The Uplift Mofo Party Plan peaked at only Number 148, and the uncategorizable Red Hot Chili Peppers struggled to gain a foothold at a time when synthesized New Wave dance music still ruled. The group received a crushing blow when guitarist Slovak died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in June 1988. Kiedis and Flea decided to continue, though drummer Irons left the band for good. Guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith were selected as replacements.
The role of guitarist has been the least stable in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ career, but during two tenures Frusciante achieved the most longevity and success. The foursome of Kiedis, Flea, Frusciante and Smith recorded the classic albums Mother’s Milk (1989), Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991), Californication (1999), By the Way (2002) and Stadium Arcadium (2006). In 1992, they broke through to a mass audience with “Under the Bridge,” an ode to California with plainspoken lyrics about drug addiction that became their first Top 10 hit. They would later make the Top 10 again with “Scar Tissue” (1999) and “Dani California” (2006). This definitive lineup also acquired a reputation as one of rock’s premier live acts.
After Frusciante’s recruitment, the Red Hot Chili Peppers recorded Mother’s Milk, with Beinhorn returning as producer. The album consolidated their strengths as a punk-funk powerhouse and included their rousing cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Among the last tracks recorded by Hillel Slovak, it was included as a tribute to his memory and link to the revised lineup. Mother’s Milk reached Number 52, by far their best-selling and highest-charting album to date, and the first to go gold. Moreover, it laid the groundwork for their breakthrough album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For this and subsequent releases, the Red Hot Chili Peppers teamed with producer Rick Rubin, who’d previously worked with the Beastie Boys, Danzig, Public Enemy, Run-D.M.C. and Slayer.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fifth album and first for Warner Bros., to which the group signed after its contract with EMI expired. At Rubin’s suggestion, the band moved into the producer’s mansion turned recording studio in Los Angeles during sessions for Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Living and working at “The Mansion” promoted maximum creativity and unity, and enough material was cut to fill two CDs. At the label’s insistence, they edited it down to a single CD, albeit a long one with 18 songs – which would’ve made it a double album in the vinyl era. The hit single was “Under the Bridge” (Number Two), but “Give It Away,” “Breaking the Girl” and “Suck My Kiss” became popular modern-rock radio tracks.
Adjusting to their sudden popularity proved particularly difficult for guitarist Frusciante, who was the youngest band member by nearly eight years. Conflicted about success and grappling with drug addiction, he asked to leave during a 1992 tour of Japan. The remaining dates were canceled, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers searched for a replacement. Arik Marshall served as interim guitarist for the group’s headlining spot on the Lollapalooza ’92 tour, and Jesse Tobias (of Mother Tongue) was briefly a member. Dave Navarro, formerly of Jane’s Addiction, officially became their new guitarist, making his public debut at the Woodstock ’94 festival. However, his tenure was relatively short-lived, as he appeared only one album, 1995’s One Hot Minute, which was released four years after Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It proved to be one of their more difficult projects, as the musical chemistry with Navarro never quite gelled. In addition, Kiedis was dealing with physical injuries and resurgent drug issues during its making. In the band members’ own words, it was a “darker” and “sadder” album. Two of its songs, “Tearjerker” and “Transcending,” were written about the recently deceased Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, respectively. Even with its moodier vibe and difficult gestation, the album yielded the Red Hot Chili Peppers classics “Aeroplane,” “My Friends” and “Warped.”
Meanwhile, Frusciante’s drug habit had become so debilitating that he lost most of what he owned and very nearly died. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were foundering in their own way in his absence. The troubled group performed only one show in 1997 – and even that was cut short. Navarro left the band by mutual consent in April 1998. With encouragement from his former bandmates, Frusciante entered drug rehab and was offered back his role as guitarist. The reconstituted Red Hot Chili Peppers thereupon entered the most stable period of their career, enduring without another personnel change from 1998 to 2008. The first product of their reunion was Californication (1999), a highly creative endeavor that Kiedis considered the band’s best work. Generally more melodic, philosophical and song-oriented, the 15-song album yielded a bounty of singles, including “Scar Tissue” (Number Nine), “Otherside” (Number 14), “Californication” (Number 69) and the popular modern-rock tracks “Around the World,” “Road Trippin’” and “Parallel Universe.”
In the summer of 1999, the Red Hot Chili Peppers embarked on a two-year world tour to support Californication. This included a notorious closing performance at the violence-marred Woodstock ’99 festival, during which their highly charged encore of Jimi Hendrix’s “Fire” (with a naked Flea covered only by his bass guitar) ignited an already incendiary situation.
The group started working on By the Way soon after the end of the Californication Tour. Released in July 2002, the album was noticeably light on the extroverted rap-funk that had established the group. Peaking at Number Two – making it the band's highest-charting album to date – By the Way yielded four singles: “The Zephyr Song,” “Can’t Stop,” “Universally Speaking” and the title track. Another marathon tour outing, lasting more than a year, followed its release, culminating in huge shows at Ireland’s Slane Castle and London’s Hyde Park.
Stadium Arcadium became the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ magnum opus and first Number One album, entering the Billboard chart in the top position on its release in May 2006. Once again there was a wealth of material – enough for what they initially conceived would be three albums released at half-year intervals. Instead, they issued a mammoth 28-track double CD, with leftovers parceled out as B sides. Truly, it was a Herculean achievement that cemented the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ stature as the hardest-working and most ambitious band in popular music. The album won the group five more Grammys. Another world tour followed, for which guitarist Klinghoffer – a friend and collaborator of Frusciante’s – joined as an auxiliary tour guitarist.
After a decade of ceaseless touring and recording, Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers for a second time. In this case, his departure was amicable, as he felt he’d accomplished everything he could with the band and wanted to devote his creative energies to his solo career. Having toured with the band, Josh Klinghoffer stayed on as Frusciante’s replacement. He appears on I’m With You, the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s 10th studio album, released in 2011.
Without question the Red Hot Chili Peppers are a band of survivors, having hit many bumps but never missed a beat. “I think without a genuine love for each other, we would have dried up a long time ago as a band,” Kiedis remarked of the band’s longevity. “There have been tragedies and incredibly inspirational experiences along the way, but the one thread that has been consistent has been the desire to create something honest, soulful and powerful.”