By 1991, the self-titled debut album by the Red Hot Chili Peppers was seven years old, and it sounded it. The ascent of the group, though promising and peppered (pun intended) with great tunes, was hampered by modish production skills by producers who failed to harness their increasingly popular and fantastic live shows, and quickly dated. It’s now 25 years since the release of ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, and it still sounds as fresh, invigorating and relevant as it did back then.
I was 12-years-old when ‘BSSM’ dropped, and it changed my life. I’d been impressed by their 1990 concert film, Psychedelic Sexfunk Live From Heaven, which my mate David eagerly badgered me into submission with, pulling out his VHS copy every time we convened, and enjoyed their current album, ‘Mother’s Milk’, enough to let him make me a copy on cassette. But the profound effect of ‘BSSM’, which arrived at the most impressionable time of my life, when music was beginning to become my religion, opened so many new doors for me, invoking an insatiable appetite for learning and discovering new sounds through the scholastic guidance of these four semi-nude heroes.
This wasn’t easy in the pre-Internet age, especially given the group were still relatively unknown in the UK, but I devoured every morsel I found of them in print, plastering my walls with posters and carefully cut-out pictures and quotes, until my bedroom was as completely overwhelmed by the Chilis as I was. It was a love affair that consumed my teenage years, with ‘BSSM’ as the inexorable soundtrack of that time, and even now I still hear memories in every groove. In 2016, as I joyously slide back into the grip of adulation thanks to the resplendent effort that was the group’s 11th album, ‘The Getaway’, I’m absorbed again in the Chilis’ entire canon, from which ‘BSSM’ stands, for me as well the band, as the ignition of an electrifying new order. From that moment on, things would never be the same for any of us.
The ’80s were an uphill struggle for Anthony Kiedis and Flea: each successive album had seen a different line-up for the group (a steady rotation of drummers and guitarists) and progressively more sales, and finally, just as they felt comfortable in the company of original school friends and band founders Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons (on guitar and drums, respectively) for 1987’s ‘Uplift Mofo Party Plan’, a year after the album’s release, Slovak fell victim to the heroin addictions that plagued him and Kiedis. With Irons leaving to grieve, the duo, intent on continuing, had no choice but to recruit new blood.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Fight Like A Brave’ (1987)
John Frusciante was just 18 and a dedicated fan of the Chili Peppers when they recruited him as a guitarist in 1988, hired just months before Chad Smith was installed as drummer – despite his appearance at the audition threatening otherwise.
“I come from the Midwest and I looked very different than these guys,” Chad told Clash in 2010. “I had long hair and a bandana, and I wore cut-off Metallica T-shirts, and they looked at me like, ‘This is the kinda guy that walks down Sunset Strip with Poison and Mötley Crüe. This is not a guy that would be in our band’. But, to give them all the credit in the world, once we sat down to play, that all went out the window; it was all about the music. So we connected right away. It was like a bomb went off in that little room in Hully Gully. I remember Flea – everything was fast and hard back then, and we just pushed each other. John broke a string, (laughs) and changed it faster than I’d ever seen anyone change a string in my life! And the jam didn’t stop! It was just crazy. But really exciting for me. I’d never played with anyone with energy like that. But at the time, it was like, ‘What kind of haircut do you have?’ and ‘What kind of tattoos?’ These guys were very interested in that aesthetic, and so that was the rub, but musically we hit it off right away, and then it was a natural progression of time before we all felt we were equal in this band.”
With little time to waste, ‘Mother’s Milk’ was dispatched; though clearly a move towards the direction of the mainstream (MTV supplying heavy rotation for the singles ‘Knock Me Down’ – a tribute to Hillel – and ‘Higher Ground’, the group’s Stevie Wonder cover), more than anything it was the foundations of a creative relationship that was really about to come to fruition, and henceforth define the ‘classic’ formation of the group.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Knock Me Down’ (1989)
By the time it came to write its follow-up, the bond between the four was firm and fruitful. “We were really a band by then,” Chad confirms. “We had been together, travelled together, played lots of concerts… We really felt we were doing something new and exciting. It was just a really fun time. It came so easy, and there was so much music.”
“Right now,” Flea said in 1990, “I think creatively we’re better than ever. We’re really strong and powerful. There’s a serious spark in this band right now. It’s a beautiful thing. We are more creatively fluent that we’ve ever been, and I think that our next record is going to be something else.”
The choice of producer for this record would be a critical decision given a history of personality clashes in the studio (with the exception of working with longtime hero and Funkadelic founder George Clinton on 1985’s ‘Freaky Styley’), which most recently found Frusciante and producer Michael Beinhorn at loggerheads over his guitar sound on ‘Mother’s Milk’, feeling his integrity was being compromised by Beinhorn’s unyielding insistence of steering the album in a heavy rock direction. Though quite capable of rocking out, the Chili Peppers drew from a vast palette of influences – from funk and soul and blues and hip-hop, as well as classic rock – and therefore needed someone who understood that the key to their sound would be found in the incorporation of all these disparate roots.
As founder of Def Jam Records, Rick Rubin was a producer that effortlessly and effectively straddled a broad spectrum of tastes, as competent with Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and Run-D.M.C. as he was with Slayer, The Cult and Danzig. His own predilection for musical amalgamation was most notably fulfilled in the pioneering fusion of rap and rock that saw the pairing of Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith revitalise the latter’s career with an innovative reworking of their ‘Walk This Way’ hit. Having long been aware and a fan of the Chili Peppers – especially their shared musicianship – Rubin was keen to work with them, while the band themselves appreciated not only Rubin’s esteemed discography to date, but his instinctive working methods that suggested he could be the conducive and considerate conductor they were looking for. “If Baron von Münchhausen had ejaculated the four of us, being the Red Hot Chili Peppers, onto a chess board,” Anthony Kiedis would say during the recording of ‘BSSM’, “I think Rick Rubin would be the perfect chess player for that particular board.”
Though the songs themselves had been written during recent tours, Rick and the band gathered for preliminary sessions to focus the ideas for what would be destined for the next album; the impact of Rubin’s constructive role was immediately apparent in Flea’s economy of notes – playing for the song, rather than flaunting his four-string dexterity – and the growing confidence and advancing capabilities of Frusciante. “John really found himself as a musician during that era,” Kiedis told Clash. “He was always this kind of uncontained storm of intelligence and talent and desire. No one worked more hours in the day at practising their instrument and learning about music than John, but he was kind of undefined during ‘Mother’s Milk’, and I think that experience of working with a producer who wanted him to be a certain way, that wasn’t necessarily who he felt he was, drove him even deeper into wanting to express the true nature of his music. And I think that sort of blossomed deeply in ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, where he just found his voice as a guitar player and a singer; he let it show.”
The band decamped with Rubin to a mansion in the Hollywood hills, which was turned into a giant live-in studio. Reportedly haunted, it’s also supposed to have housed The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix; a perfect setting, therefore, to channel the gods and create music in. “Where we recorded really relieved a lot of the tension that usually happens when you do a record,” Flea admitted in 1991. “When we recorded in this house we were also living together, which made for a really relaxed environment, and that was the key to the album. The key to being a great band or a great musician is to be able to relax enough so you can be aware of what’s going on around you and it can flow through you and you can pick up all the energy.”
It was in this familial atmosphere that the songs for ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ were put to tape. Footage from the sessions, filmed by Flea’s brother-in-law, was eventually released as a short film (or “cockumentary,” as Kiedis once quipped) called Funky Monks. It reveals, in black and white, the evident camaraderie of the quartet (and crew), the individual contributions of each member to different tracks, their listening habits (including Led Zeppelin and The Velvet Underground) and the inner thoughts of each Pepper, courtesy of intimate interviews, which reveal their feelings throughout the whole creative process. “We’re making an amazing, ground-breaking, revolutionary, beautiful, artistically-heightened, incredible record,” John enthuses to camera, his positivity reflected by all throughout.
For over 30 days, the band ensconced themselves in the studio (with Chad opting to commute from home), putting together the songs that would fill the album. The 17 tracks that made the cut, borne from closeness and friendship, and enhanced by recent and relentless touring, convey every facet of the Chili Peppers’ musical and personal characters.
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THE POWER OF EQUALITY
On April 29th 1992, Los Angeles exploded with civil unrest, as inhabitants took to the streets in a riot triggered by the shocking injustice of four white police officers being acquitted for the brutal beating of an unarmed driver, Rodney King. The city raged in a state of emergency for six days, with 54 fatalities and thousands injured, as disbelief and mistrust of police and their systematic violation of civil liberties against black citizens mounted – the assault was filmed and the evidence clear and damning.
The Chili Peppers could not have missed the footage, which was widely broadcast after the incident in March 1991, during the making of ‘BSSM’. They would have been well aware of the significance of this document and its implications, and may have hoped that, rather than sparking a deadly storm, it would help to defuse the already simmering tensions and urban conflict in their beloved hometown.
‘The Power Of Equality’ reflects the anger that was palpable in the smog-filled air of LA, as Kiedis rails against racism, oppression and media-fueled fear in a colourblind call-to-arms.
Rather than matching the intensity of Anthony’s venom, the musical backdrop is more restrained; its taut groove and Frusciante’s unrelenting licks are controlled fury, with spiky stop-starts adding to the tension.
Noting not just the precarious climate of LA, where seething tempers “mix like sticks of dynamite,” but America’s obvious racial problems as a whole, Kiedis implores for the nation to consider a more conciliatory perspective: “American equality has always been sour / An attitude I would like to devour / My name is Peace this is my hour / Can I get just a little bit of power?”
He unleashes against the Ku Klux Klan, and then against the media, who’d propagate the burning issue of highlighting black problems as a blight on white America: “I don’t buy supremacy / Media chief you menace me / The people you say cause all the crime / Wake up, motherfucker, and smell the slime”.
By name-checking Public Enemy in the third verse (“I’ve got tapes / I’ve got CDs / I’ve got my Public Enemy”), Kiedis not only demonstrates that his listening habits are as liberal as his political views, but he subtly aligns his message with the biting social commentary that the rap outlaws delivered so astutely and powerfully in songs such as ‘911 Is A Joke’ and ‘Fight The Power’.
The government doesn’t get off lightly either, as Anthony recycles what was previously a 17-second mini-rap called ‘Politician’ that appeared as a B-side to ‘Higher Ground’ in the third verse: “Not another motherfuckin’ politician / Doing nothing but something for his own ambition”.
As the song winds down, Anthony switches from singing to a spoken diatribe, his tone deep and solemn. His final words, repeated three times to emphasise his incredulity, ask: “Whatever happened to humanity?”
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IF YOU HAVE TO ASK
Coming as light relief after the album’s impassioned opener, the scratchy strut of ‘If You Have To Ask’ echoes the Chili’s abiding admiration for New Orleans funk group The Meters.
Frusciante’s tight licks match Chad’s nimble drumming, where light ghost notes snap and pop between sharp snare hits. Flea, meanwhile, rolls and slides with a plunging bassline that remains the anchor as the musicians embark on the album’s first fiery solo, courtesy of John.
At first providing succinct yet searing riffs, John steps it up by unleashing his inner Hendrix – feedback and all – letting rip with a perfect flurry of wails and cries that rightly warrants applause from those watching him in the studio.
Speaking in 2007, John said that, for the most part, while recording ‘BSSM’, he aimed to capture everything in just one take. “With a couple of exceptions,” he said, “I knew exactly what I was going to do. I think at that time I’m just completely improvising, and every solo has a real spontaneous, even haphazard feel to it.”
Last year, I discovered with orgasmic delight that someone had uploaded to YouTube the individual master tracks of Flea, Chad and John for the entire ‘BSSM’ album, and spent hours listening to them in isolation to absolutely savour the intricate elements of each. I’ll link to specific points of each throughout this piece, but for now, check out John’s masterful solo stripped of its backing here. (It’s also worth checking out Chad’s for this song too; as a drummer, those ghost notes – especially that one at 2:42 – are a total thrill.)
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BREAKING THE GIRL
From caustic electric sounds to graceful acoustic chords; the opening moments of ‘Breaking The Girl’ introduce not only the first of the album’s more sensitive moments, but also that of the group’s – the Rubin-influenced dynamics assured the Chilis that they were brave enough to tackle ballads, having only attempted so once previously (‘Behind The Sun’ from ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’).
The instrumentation is warm, with a tangible late-’60s vibe; the rich tapestry of Flea’s looping bass line weaving through John’s fervent strumming and the sweet ring of a Mellotron (provided by engineer Brendan O’Brien) recalls Led Zep at their pastoral best, while Chad’s rolling toms owe a huge debt to Mitch Mitchell’s playing on Hendrix’ ‘Manic Depression’.
To reinforce the guitar’s rhythmic stabs in the bridge, the group brought into the house a range of metallic objects – from trashcans to hub caps – to conduct an orchestra of percussion with their layers of banging and bashing.
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‘Breaking The Girl’ percussion parts
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Meanwhile, Anthony Kiedis is baring his tortured soul to confront the culpability he felt for severing a recent volatile relationship. He had first met model Carmen Hawk in Japan in early-1990 before they continued to see each other in LA. “I adored her… she was the most sexual person I had ever found myself in love with,” Kiedis admitted in his 2005 autobiography, Scar Tissue.
Their affair, he goes on to recount, became a tumultuous one. “She was off her rocker. I got her to go to therapy so she didn’t kill herself… I kept trying unsuccessfully to end the relationship, but after I bought my house, she simply would not leave. She locked herself in the bathroom with a knife. She had gone in there to cut her wrists. And I had to knock down the door to get to her… I finally bought her a plane ticket so she could go model in Italy, and that was the end of our relationship.”
Anthony accepts his own flaws as a playboy, whose wandering eyes would add fuel to Carmen’s already-raging fire, but suggests he’s perhaps been conditioned by the example set to him as a youth by his notorious father, who exposed Anthony to sex at an early age through the free love on display with his own regular turnaround of paramours in the early-’70s. “Raised by my dad / Girl of the day,” he sings. “He was my man / That was the way”.
“She was one of my favourite of his girlfriends,” said Anthony’s father, the actor Blackie Dammett, in his own autobiography, “but the relationship ended in fast-moving wildfire. Anthony may not have been as bad as me, but he wasn’t exactly monogamous. Carmen contested the breakup and fought it in the court of broken hearts, ‘Breaking the Girl’ chronicled the emotional pathology…”
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Having aired his penitence for causing distress through infidelity, Anthony’s conscience is now clear, and ‘Funky Monks’ is a proud, parading manifesto of a man openly seizing any opportunity to satisfy his sexual desires, as the third verse verifies:
“Every man has certain needs / Talkin’ ’bout them dirty deeds / To these needs I must concede / Livin’ by my lowly creed.”
Hoping to avert a repeat of past mistakes, he buffers any future liaisons by offering an advance warning of his potential shortcomings: “Woman please know that I’m good / Know that I did all I could,” he appeals, “But yes it’s true the likelihood / Of being great is not so good.”
“There are no monks in my band,” he attests, upholding the Chili Peppers’ carnal reputations that plagued the band in the early-’90s, and, like little devils on his shoulders egging him on to another conquest, Flea and John offer a rationalization for his on-tour behavior, reminding him “You are on the road” in perfect falsetto ahead of every chorus.
Frusciante’s stinging blues riff – as primal as Anthony’s urges – is the main drive behind the song, until Flea’s plucky picking serves as the teasing foreplay to another savage guitar solo. The playful swagger of the song’s closing minute is pure post-coital bravado.
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SUCK MY KISS
As the flirtatious funk of the previous track gently fades, we are little prepared for the aggressive onslaught of ‘Suck My Kiss’. Its muscular riffage explodes from the off and is domineering in its attitude and powerful delivery.
Flea and John are brutally tight in a dual attack of the song’s virulent hook, as Chad’s right foot pounds in perfect unison. Anthony is positively imperious in his quest to press the flesh, suggesting his skills as a lover are not for the faint of heart: “Oh baby, think you can / Be my girl I’ll be your man”.
Though explicit in his animal zeal, Anthony – and indeed the rest of the group – has always categorically denied being predatory in his advances, instead celebrating companionship as a beautiful and intense collision of energies. The fact that his lyrics are so prolifically sexual is, he says, purely the by-product of the instinctive spirit that compels him from within the music his bandmates make.
“The correlation between hardcore funk music and sexuality is so undeniable that to write about it and to sing about it seemed like the most natural thing in the world,” he told Rolling Stone in 1994. “So we did it, and we still do it. The fact that things are so different today because of the dangerous nature of sexual activity doesn’t mean you have to cut out your sexuality. You just have to be more careful and more thoughtful.”
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I COULD HAVE LIED
“I was in a short-lived relationship with a girl and I had fallen so head-over-heels for her,” Anthony told me, as I interviewed him and Chad for the Chilis’ 2010 Clash cover story. “I went to visit her one night and she had just left me a note saying, ‘I’ve moved back to England. I won’t be seeing you again.’ I was literally standing there on a rare rainy night in Los Angeles just beside myself, and for some reason I called John. I was like, ‘John, you’re not going to believe this: she left to go back to England and she didn’t even say goodbye.’ And he’s like, ‘Get over here right now! We’re writing about this right now!’”
“And so I went up to his funny little house in Hollywood Hills… I was writing lyrics on the way over to his house, and he just sat me down on his dirty smoke-filled carpet with some tacky little four-track recorder that he had, and we put together ‘I Could Have Lied’.”
The girl in question was Sinead O’Connor (who later denied ever having been in a relationship with Kiedis), and the song she inspired was an incredibly tender and intimate acoustic confessional.
John’s gentle and lamenting fingerpicking dominates the first minute, until Chad and Flea enter with similarly stark playing – the song’s sorrow is palpable in their delicate restraint.
Brokenhearted and in despair, Anthony consoles himself with the fact that he remained true to himself throughout their time together. “I could never change just what I feel / My face will never show what is not real,” he reasons, later adding that he was also completely genuine with his lover: “The things I said to you were true.”
But, of course, it seems that, in this case, perhaps the truth was best left unsaid; maybe things could have been different had Anthony not been so earnest in his emotions, as he eventually realises: “I could have lied / I was such a fool… I showed her and I told her / How she struck me / But I’m fucked up now.”
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MELLOWSHIP SLINKY IN B MAJOR
By now, we’ve already established the close, supersensory cohesion between the three musicians, but in every precise punch thrown simultaneously by John, Flea and Chad in this song’s intro, the effect of their unity is felt in every deft blow. They are effortlessly potent – their unspoken bond communicated through familiarity and perceptive playing.
When the song settles into its groove, it’s the rhythm section that provide the propulsion; Flea is front and centre with a gutsy P-funk bassline that pops and stutters, while, once again, Chad entwines his every whack to create an impellent dual-engine force. John keeps it mostly light and percussive throughout, offering either plucky pulled notes or a shimmering funk lick in the verses, before breaking into another mellifluous double-tracked solo…
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John Frusciante records guitar solo for ‘Mellowship Slinky In B Major’
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Matching his friends’ rhythmic flights, Kiedis’ own flow is measured, wrapping vowels and consonants around their spry backing, where dexterous wordplay is given more consideration than any lyrical depth, other than a jubilant insight into “just a few of his favourite things,” as he lists a selection of loves that would make Maria blush.
Receiving namechecks or subtle hat-tips in the verses are Mike Tyson, the LA Lakers, artist Robert Williams (whose painting ‘Appetite For Destruction’ was used as the cover of Guns ‘N’ Roses’ album of the same name), Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains, Mark Twain, Truman Capote (paired to rhyme with a reference to ‘True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes’, a track from the Chilis’ debut album), Charles Bukowski (impressively used in a couplet to rhyme with “house key”), Robert de Niro, Billie Holiday, and Count Basie.
Oh, and confusingly, it’s not in B-Major; it’s actually in D-Minor.
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THE RIGHTEOUS AND THE WICKED
Where ‘The Power Of Equality’ was Anthony’s plea to protect mankind from each other, ‘The Righteous And The Wicked’ sees his socially-conscious sights set upon the condition of the planet, and Man’s continued path of self-destruction that’ll eventually be all our undoing.
He’s incensed by the savagery and futility of war, and is literally pleading for an end to ineffectual hostilities: “Hear me when I’m calling you / From my knees.”
Then, in the third verse, he turns to the effects of pollution and the endless ravaging of the environment (a topic earlier raised in the aforementioned ‘Behind The Sun’, and ‘Green Heaven’ on their debut), imagining “Holy Mother Earth / Crying into space / Tears on her pretty face / For she has been raped”. Pointing his finger at those who recklessly devastate, poison and infest the world, thus ruining and tarnishing it for future generations, he suggests the only solution could be total genocide: “Killing your future blood / Fill her with disease / Global abortion please / That is what she needs.”
“Where did we go wrong?” he ends, addressing the humanitarian spirit of Marvin Gaye, who raised similar issues 20 years previously in songs such as ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ and ‘What’s Going On’, yet witnessed insufficient reactions since.
Flea’s robust five-string bass is once again the underlying catalyst for the song’s momentum, which is suitably forceful and insistent. He and John square up at 2:32 to duplicate a succession of stinging riffs that climaxes with the piercing ring of Frusciante’s controlled feedback.
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GIVE IT AWAY
The genesis for arguably the Chilis’ most infectious tune stretches back to sessions at the group’s rehearsal space, The Alley, in North Hollywood, as Anthony revealed to me in 2010:
“I do remember being in The Alley and being in a jam, and Flea busting into the ‘Give It Away’ bassline for the very first time ever, and making a very strong mental note like, ‘Motherfucker, you are not going to forget that bassline: that is our new record, right there.’ And then I started sort of scat singing over it and singing the words “Give it away,” because I had written that down in my notebook earlier in the week – I was like, ‘Oh, this sounds like those words I wrote in my notebook.’ And then we both ran up to each other, after the jam, like, ‘I liked what you were doing!’ ‘No, I liked what YOU were doing!’ ‘No, I really liked what YOU were doing!’ So we were like, ‘Oh, let’s keep doing that’, and thus was the birth of ‘Give It Away’.”
Flea’s loose, elastic bass runs plunge up and down the guitar neck, commanding the song’s free and animated flavour, spreading the infectious funk beyond his bandmates and into the listener’s own charged bloodstream. Check it out in isolation.
“That thing was done in about 15 minutes,” Chad says of the song’s composition. “It really was; I mean, other than the verse lyrics. (Laughs) The music and the “Give it away” part… Because that’s all it is: it’s in A the whole time, and then the two solos in E, and then that’s it.”
“The verse lyrics I literally wrote as I was walking up to the microphone in the recording studio,” Anthony confirms, the spontaneity apparent in his instinctive, romping raps.
He compels the listener to share his contagious convictions (“What I’ve got you’ve gotta give it to your mama… What I’ve got you’ve got to get it put it in you”), and the loose-lipped declaration of the title’s selflessness in the chorus reinforces the message, which is clearer defined in the fourth verse.
Inspired by a former girlfriend’s gift of a cherished leather jacket – her altruistic attitude held a belief that the more she gave away, the more she would later receive – Anthony equates the disregard of earthly possessions with the gratification of sexual liberation: “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.”
There are shout-outs to the holistic teachings of Sly Stone and Bob Marley, and, in the line “There’s a river born to be a giver,” Anthony purportedly refers to actor River Phoenix, a close friend of the band. In 1993, Flea would bear witness to Phoenix’ tragic death, and pen the song ‘Transcending’ (from ‘One Hot Minute’, 1995) in tribute.
Chad plays it straight against Flea’s molten licks, his open hi-hat and crashing cymbals providing the airy yet insistent bedrock groove alongside a persistent Jew’s harp (courtesy of friend, Pete Weiss). John is clean and considered in the verses and chorus, while two backwards solos lend the song an ethereal edge. There’s a deceptive breakdown towards the end that serves to usher in the song’s hard-rocking finale; John’s ragged chops lifted lovingly yet brazenly from Black Sabbath’s ‘Sweet Leaf’.
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BLOOD SUGAR SEX MAGIK
Part of the magic of the four-headed beast that is the Red Hot Chili Peppers is their exceptional ability to communicate as a whole through their songs. No doubt heightened by their close proximity for the making of this album, their alliance allows them to concisely express a shared emotion through both the lyrics and music. So, considering John and Anthony’s mutual libidinous tendencies, their coalition on a song so flagrant in its lust could only ever produce a track as tangibly salacious as ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’.
Another song touched by Kiedis’ intense physical relationship with Carmen Hawk, it finds him growling seductively in the verses, extolling the potent sanctity of ecstasy and lovemaking. “Every woman has a piece of Aphrodite / Copulate to create a state of sexual light / Kissing her virginity / My affinity / I mingle with the gods / I mingle with divinity.”
It’s explicit and alluring – everything rock and roll should be – but in his uncensored celebrations of the flesh, Anthony is often cast as a sex obsessive, as if this somehow devalues his art. His passion has manifest itself throughout the Chilis’ catalogue – most notably in tracks like ‘Sex Rap’ and ‘Party On Your Pussy’ – and is usually more celebratory than provocative or titillating, but as a single facet of his creative motivation, it’s not, he’s at pains to point out, what defines him.
“Journalists, fans, and other miscellaneous knuckleheads have often accused me and my lyrics of being overly preoccupied with sex,” he bemoaned to Details magazine in 1992. “To me, sex is an essential and obviously natural topic to express in one’s chosen form of art. To deny this expression is an act of self-repression. Those who look and listen more closely will find that there are a multitude of topics addressed in the lyrics, music, and attitude of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But do not expect the sexual freckles of my art to fade away, because as long as my dick is hard, so too will be the life that I lead and the music that I play.”
Matching his wanton ardor kiss for kiss, John, Flea and Chad inject equal might in their musical magnetism, concocting a primal and raw score that’s at once threatening yet arousing; that stinging, serrated effect on Frusciante’s guitar emphasizing the animalistic devouring that Kiedis promises.
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UNDER THE BRIDGE
The tender admissions that became ‘Under The Bridge’ were never written with the intention of being recorded by the Chili Peppers; Anthony’s distressed ruminations were a private study of the solitude and despair he found himself immersed in during the period of sobriety, prompted by the death of Hillel, that curtailed his own persistent drug habit, and was considered too candid for public consumption.
Finding the poem in Anthony’s notebook, Rick Rubin urged him to develop it with the group, insisting he introduce it to the very people that were partly responsible for his feelings of isolation.
Abstaining completely from anything that might prove a temptation, Anthony withheld a “militant” stance about his friends refraining from indulging in his company and, given Flea and John’s closeness was enhanced by their predilection for getting stoned together, Anthony felt himself almost being ostracized from his most immediate group of friends. “One day I showed up to rehearsal,” Anthony recalled in Scar Tissue, “and Flea and John were blazing on pot and in a ‘Let’s ignore Anthony’ state of mind, and I experienced this melancholy sense of loss that John was no longer in my world. I could tell from the way he was looking at me that we weren’t really friends anymore, other than the fact that we were in a band together and respected each other on that level.”
Dejected and downcast, Anthony drove home from that rehearsal with his mind reeling through other relationships that were broken or ruined by his addiction, with one particular regret deepening his misery; that he’d neglected and taken for granted the keen affections of ex-girlfriend, Ione Skye. “[I] had this beautiful angel of a girl who was willing of give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with fucking gangsters shooting speedballs under a bridge.”
“What I was referring to in the song,” he would reveal in Funky Monks, “was a point in my life about five years ago. All I had was this connection named Mario, who was Mexican mafia, ex-convict. And one particular afternoon, it was very hot in the middle of the summer, and I’d been up for days, and he and I found what we’d been looking for. We went to this bridge that was downtown in the middle of Los Angeles in this ghetto, this freeway bridge, and a little passageway you had to go through to get under the bridge, and only certain members of this Mexican gang were allowed to go in there. And we lied just so we could get in there and do what we wanted to do… And that’s always stuck in my brain as a low point in my life.”
Wallowing in this alienation, he sought solace in the comfort and company he found in Los Angeles, personifying the city to render it his best – and only – friend. “Even if I was a loner in my own band, at least I still felt the presence of the city I lived in,” he wrote, acknowledging these sentiments impeccably in the first verse: “Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner / Sometimes I feel like my only friend / Is the city I live in / The City of Angels / Lonely as I am / Together we cry.”
More than just a harrowing flashback, by recognising his rock bottom, Anthony turns ‘Under The Bridge’ into a determined statement of resolve to never again sink to depths of depravity that would endanger not only his own life, but affect the lives of his loved ones. “I don’t ever want to feel / Like I did that day,” he affirms.
Once presented to John, the guitarist attempted to apply a heartening major-chord sequence to counter and juxtapose the somber tone of the lyrics. The resulting intro, now considered a classic piece of guitar work in its own right, was inspired by David Bowie’s ‘Andy Warhol’, while the song’s pensive E-major-7th that rings off each verse was ripped off, quite appropriately, from ‘Rip Off’, by T-Rex. Here’s John revealing his sources:
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John Frusciante on the guitar inspirations for ‘Under The Bridge’
Throughout ‘Under The Bridge’, each musician is respectful of the song’s introspective nature; Flea is understated yet warm and rounded, while Chad’s rimshots are gentle yet insistent. As the song reaches its climax, a choir – John’s mum and her friends – echo the chilling refrain, “Under the bridge downtown / Is where I drew some blood,” their heavenly sound punctuating Anthony’s spiritual awakening and suggesting salvation is close at hand.
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NAKED IN THE RAIN
An adventurer at heart, Anthony Kiedis appears to relish any opportunity to retreat back to nature, seeking divine inspiration when he’s surfing the open seas, or travelling to the furthest, most exotic reaches of the Earth.
“I love warm, clean, lush places, like Hawaii, the Caribbean, Central America and South America,” he told me in 2003. “That’s where I gravitate towards, but I’m equally as interested in going to places like Mongolia, Alaska or China… I just like seeing what’s out there. There’s so much, SO much, and I’ll never be able to see it all. It’s kind of frustrating to know that in this lifetime I won’t quite get to sample the whole picture.”
Exploring new cultures also means leaving familiar ones behind, albeit temporarily, and, in ‘Naked In The Rain’, it’s evident that Anthony often feels the need to escape the city he’s just spent the last four minutes eulogizing.
As attested in ‘The Power Of Equality’ and ‘The Righteous And The Wicked’, Kiedis has a low threshold for hateful or selfish people, and, when it all gets a bit too much, he’d much rather be in the compassionate and unprejudiced company of the animal kingdom; “Going to the jungle where the elephants roam / Got to get away / Got to make it my home,” he appeals.
Though he clearly wants to relinquish his responsibilities, there’s a sense that, through no fault of his own, he can’t quite disconnect; of course, there are the communication issues – “Doctor Doolittle, what’s your secret?” he beseeches, “Give it to me, Doctor / Don’t keep it” – but, the inevitability of real life hangs over his idyllic indulgences: “Naked in the river skinny dipping my way / In the waterfall I just wanna play,” though a romantic notion, does sound like a resigned realisation that paradise can’t be permanent.
For a song so rooted in utopian fantasy, it has quite an uncomprising bassline, which remains the most prominent stimulus throughout. Arriving after Chad’s imperious intro, which also retains its authority for the duration, Flea bounces mercilessly from low dips to high slaps, his choruses poised and measured. A strutting bass solo signals a breakdown after the second chorus, and even though John lets rip a barbed solo in the closing minute, it’s the underpinning bass – frenetic yet stoic – that so purposefully pushes the song to its crashing climax.
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APACHE ROSE PEACOCK
Our story takes place deep down in The Big Easy, a city where the good times freely roll, and even Anthony Kiedis – a man not easily surprised – is about to be dumbstruck on the streets of New Orleans.
Imbued with the spirit of Louisiana, the Chilis once more take a leaf out of The Meters’ book (dropping two direct references to them within the song itself), where the guitars are as fresh as this morning’s gumbo and the bass is swampy like the bayou. John and Flea are lithe and supple, pulling tight for the verses, and help set the scene for Anthony’s startling encounter.
Despite the neon lunacy of Bourbon Street (I’ve been there; trust me, it’s fun, but flashy) and the characters he’s witnessed (“Lunatics on pogo sticks / Another southern fried freak on a crucifix”), the city is still a wonderland for Kiedis to retreat to: “Yes, my favourite place to be / Is not a land called Honah Lee,” he states, referring to Puff The Magic Dragon’s own mystical land, “Mentally or physically / I want to be in New Orleans.”
And so, what happened to stun our resilient hero? What caused his eyes to pop out, his dick to get hard, and his jaw to drop? Well, a girl, obviously, as he explains:
“I saw a bird walking down the block / Her name Apache Rose Peacock / I could not speak I was in shock / I told my knees to please not knock.”
Their affair blossoms in the French Quarter, her affection making him “feel so cosy,” before heading out in his car down the boulevard, where “she was soft and I was hard,” and through the colourful nightlife (“Voodoo gurus casting their spells / Cockatoo drag queens shaking their bells”) to flirt and frolic into the early hours, “flowing like a flame all through the night”.
A love letter to the city as much as it is to Anthony’s fleeting dalliance (Flea pays tribute to New Orleans’ favourite son, picking up the trumpet to channel Louis Armstrong), the song – often overlooked among the album’s heavy hitters – stands out with its lissome stride as a competently cool cut and, if memory serves me well, it’s even been singled out by Kiedis as his favourite track on the album. (I couldn’t find evidence of this online; if anyone can supply a link, hit me up on Twitter.)
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THE GREETING SONG
Though I can’t fully corroborate Anthony’s high regard for ‘Apache Rose Peacock’, in our 2010 interview, he made crystal clear his feelings for ‘The Greeting Song’: “Oh, my least favourite song on the record,” he sneered.
“We must have played that every day for two weeks, probably,” Chad picked up, laughing. “It was the first thing we had [for the record]. Whenever there was like a low on an idea what to do, Flea or John would bust out that groove, and we would laugh and laugh. We just thought it was the funniest piece of music for the longest time.”
Why then, I asked, did they include the song on the album if nobody liked it?
“No, I think I’m the only one who doesn’t like it,” Anthony insisted.
“Yeah, I think I know why you don’t like it,” Chad replied, “but I have memories of playing ‘The Greeting Song’ in various stages of musicality, but thinking it was really funny.”
Sonically, ‘The Greeting Song’ is one of the toughest, most thrusting, tracks on ‘BSSM’, and it’s easy to see how the breakneck pace (bringing to mind Zep’s ‘Achilles’ Last Stand’) kept the musicians returning to its fold. John’s guitar, fuzzy but relatively clean, rages with dexterity, and is matched in its ferocity by Flea’s heavy, plundering chops. Chad, too, plays it hard and steady, his bass pedal thundering tirelessly like a locomotive.
An unrelenting powerhouse, then. But the song’s score is not where Anthony’s contempt lies; as he would clarify in his autobiography, there remains a detachment to the lyrics, written to order at the request of the Rick Rubin. Having discussed the themes behind ‘The Power Of Equality’ together, Rick told Anthony that he “wasn’t into sociopolitical lyrics”. “I like songs about girls and cars and stuff like that,” Rubin told him.
“Girls and cars? I can’t write about girls and cars. That’s already been done. I want to write about some weird shit that no one’s been writing about,” Anthony protested.
But, in an attempt to appease the producer, Anthony penned an ode to the pleasures available behind a windscreen. “Drivin’ around I’ve got my baby and my top down,” he begins, defining the sunny California dream, and the notion that driving a fancy convertible will get you laid (Anthony’s girl “Throwin’ me down in the backseat”). The motif runs out of steam (or gas) after the confessional line “My Chevrolet rollin’ to another play day” suggests Anthony’s got more than one pit stop planned, which perhaps supports the impression that his heart wasn’t in its composition.
“To this day I hate that song,” he confirms in Scar Tissue. “I hate the lyrics, I hate the vocals. It was a lively rock tune in the Led Zep tradition, but I never found my place in it. Ironically, years later, General Motors [owners of Chevrolet] called us up and wanted to create an advertising campaign for Chevy by printing the words [to ‘The Greeting Song’] on a blank page. I couldn’t let them do it; I didn’t believe in those lyrics.”
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MY LOVELY MAN
To say the impact of original guitarist Hillel Slovak’s death on the Chili Peppers was devastating is an understatement to say the least. Most immediately, it made the surviving members question their futures together as a band.
“It was the most atrocious thing I’ve ever encountered. I was very close to Hillel and I loved him very much,” Anthony said in a 1990 interview. “He was one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever shared my life with and then, [snaps his fingers] in one instance he was gone. No one expected it and a totally mind-boggling sadness just overcame everybody. For about a month or so no one even considered the band. What we went through was a very private, twisted grief session. Jack Irons, our drummer, quit the band, ‘cos that was the only way he could deal with it and Flea and I were faced with the decision as to whether to carry on with it at all. Being the only two consistent members, we have a really strong friendship and we both felt that music was the most powerful thing in our life and that the Red Hot Chili Peppers was the ideal vehicle for what we still wanted to do. Hillel’s death made our focus a lot more acute. It really gave us a slap in the face, reminding us that while we’re alive we’re gonna make good with life.”
“The death of Hillel is the saddest thing that could ever happen,” Flea said in another interview that year. “I really miss him, us growing up together. I loved him very much… No one can predict the future. We might become junkies overnight, but now things are really good and there’s a lot of life in this band.”
In continuing with the group, Flea was forced to confront the ghosts of his musical bond with Hillel – it was Slovak who taught him how to play bass as teenagers – and forge a new partnership with his replacement. Into this fray arrived Frusciante, himself an avid disciple of Slovak’s musicality, who’d endure his own torment when facing the predicament of having to fill the gaping void of an irreplaceable soul while confronting the inherent challenge of carving his own musical identity.
“At first it was a real strain for me to attempt to step into Hillel Slovak’s shoes, but I began to discover my own path after I started identifying more with the simplicity of his playing – originally I was thinking of being more busy than him,” John is quoted as saying in the official 2010 tome, The Red Hot Chili Peppers: An Oral/Visual History. “By removing the pressure of trying to do something impressive, I started to get more original. I wanted to play like a band member instead of showing off.”
The loss of Hillel was clearly profound, and Anthony’s grief was bound to manifest in song; ‘Knock Me Down’, an imagined cry for help amid the destructive force of addiction, was composed in the aftermath of his death, and began a string of songs that would remember and honour their once-impervious friendship – most recently exemplified in ‘Feasting On The Flowers’ from ‘The Getaway’, which attempts to “understand what happens to the young life of a person when they’re experimenting with altered states, and how we kind of lose ourselves to the point of no return like that,” Anthony revealed to me in June 2016.
‘My Lovely Man’ was more personal and direct than ‘Knock Me Down’. Essentially a one-way conversation between Anthony and his recently departed co-conspirator, it recalls the private jokes that characterised the Chilis’ early, goofy behavior (“I used to shout across the room to you / And you’d come dancing like a fool”), and holds on to the hope that they may one day misbehave together again (“Memory so sad and sweet / I’ll see you soon / Save me a seat”).
“You know, ‘My Lovely Man’ is about my love for Hillel and the fact that eventually I will find him,” he confirmed to Rolling Stone in ’92. “It’s kind of like when I die, I am counting on him to save me a seat. And whenever I sing that song, Hillel is completely in my world.”
The heartache is painfully tangible; Anthony is a broken man – “No one can ever fill the hole you left,” he laments in the chorus, and try as he might to recreate memories of better times, he realises it’s in vain: “I listen to Roberta Flack / But I know you won’t come back.”
Having established a singular style and prominently exposed its every perspective across this album so far, in ‘My Lovely Man’, John retains his agile disposition – alternating between the piercing wails of the verses and the sprightly funk of the choruses – but, given that this is a paean to his fallen predecessor, his shrill distortion and prodigious freestyling in the transcendent solo is surely a conscious allusion to the masterful genius of Jimi Hendrix, so revered – and emulated – by Hillel.
In mirroring the guitar and bass riff in the verses, and emboldened by Chad’s unwavering reinforcement, the band are united in their grief, and indelibly linked by their allegiance to salute Slovak in the only way he would have wanted: by rocking out hard.
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SIR PSYCHO SEXY
– – –
Though only the penultimate track on ‘BSSM’, ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ is unquestionably its climax; formidable yet luring, primitive yet majestic, obscene yet sensuous, it condenses into eight minutes the very essence of ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ as a complete snapshot of four virile and venturesome twenty-something companions in the heady summer of 1991 in LA.
A chronicle of sexual encounters as recited by our libidinous narrator – Anthony reimagines himself as Sir Psycho Sexy, a fictional historical philanderer and “freak of nature” – each recounted with lewd detail, it’s anything but subtle.
His story begins at the very dawn of human existence, and, understandably with only one woman around, he already has the horn. We find him “Deep inside the Garden of Eden / Standin’ there with my hard-on bleeding,” but the forbidden fruit that’s alluring him is not the kind that hangs from a tree. “There’s a devil in my dick and some demons in my semen,” he lusts, compelled by his loins but aware of the implications: “Good God, no that would be treason.”
His temptress, Eve, entices him with a “creamy beaver / Hotter than a fever,” before receiving the tantalizing skills of Sir Psycho’s own slippery serpent: “I take it away for a minute just to please her / And then I give it back a little bit deeper.”
Fast-forwarding a few thousand years, the third verse brings us more up-to-date, where Sir Psycho recounts his treatment by a policewoman after a routine pullover. Having straddled his vehicle, he’s duly subjected to her over-zealous frisking, where her wandering hands insinuate she’s looking for more than just his driving license, and he naturally follows her provocative lead: “Was she pretty? / Boy, I’m telling you / She stuck my butt with her big black stick / I said, ‘What’s up? Now suck my dick.”
The music comes crashing to a sudden halt towards the end of that line, emphasizing the last three words with striking effect, and heightening the sense of danger implied with attempting to corrupt an officer of the law. She’s receptive to his next move, though (“She whimpered just a little when she felt my hand / On her crotch so very warm / I could feel her getting wet through her uniform”), and so lets him prop her up on her patrol car to be “swatted…like no SWAT team can.”
There’s a sense of remorse or missed opportunity as he pledges his love to a “pretty punk rock mamma,” imploring her to be with him again, and blessing her curves that “bend with subtle splendor,” which all becomes rather more poignant when, in the final verse, he seems to be contemplating death. After a long life lived committed to physical contentment, he nears the end hoping to continue his propensity for perversity in the afterlife: “If I should die before I waked / Allow me, Lord, to rock out naked.”
Then, in his final moments, he’s visited by a bullwhip-toting girl, whose distinct talents first sends him off in ecstasy (“blowing my ass right off the map”), before defying death to instead continue pursuing more earthly pleasures: “Ooh, I think I’ll stay for a while,” he grins.
Underscoring this prurient parable is a stirring symphony that shifts through a number of movements, each instilled with patent sexuality. It begins with the verse motif; the drums are firm and persistent, each whack of the snare representing every deft thrust of Sir Psycho’s hips, while his enviable endurance is reflected in Flea’s repeated bass figures (the bassline’s boldness was accentuated when sampled for Ice Cube’s militant ‘U Ain’t Gonna Take My Life’). The guitar, at first humanistic and primal as John teasingly cajoles his wah-wah pedal, becomes more strident with assured, trebly licks. The wah-wah returns for the first chorus, the rushing sound of his hands scraping the guitar neck are as impure and nasty as Sir Psycho’s intentions.
Between the third and fourth verses (and prefaced by an introductory “Shiiiit” that would no doubt impress Senator Clay Davis) is a bridge that is at once lovely but wicked; contrasting a chirping xylophone and John’s angelic “la la las” is a grinding guitar tone that is just absolutely filthy. Scaled back for the bridge between the fourth and final verses, its restraint is no less stimulating.
Frusciante’s efforts to infuse his playing with the same explicit overtones being shared by Kiedis succeed in the sheer expressiveness of his sonic interpretation, which he took very seriously during the song’s creation, as he would reveal – a bit too graphically, maybe – in Funky Monks: “When we were playing the song ‘Sir Psycho’, the main thought that I was concentrating on in my head was that there was this really beautiful girl there in the studio, and I was thinking, ‘If Anthony doesn’t fuck tonight, then I’m not doing my job as a guitar player’, because this is the sexiest song that I’ve ever heard in my life. And, a lot of the times, I will get an erection when I’m working on something or writing or playing guitar, and I’ll just go masturbate – or, sometimes I’ll try to hold back, because I’ll see the orgasm as something that will be detrimental to my strength creatively. So, sometimes I’ll see that erection as being my enemy.”
In place of a celestial choir welcoming him to Heaven, with Sir Psycho’s avowed renewal of life comes an equally beautiful sound: the exquisite two-minute instrumental coda – referred to in Funky Monks as “the Beatle ending,” perhaps due to its melodic grace and that harmonious Mellotron – is simply the most magical passage on the whole album. The descending chordal pattern is secured by Flea’s respectful notes and Chad’s ringing ride cymbal, allowing John to ripple through delicate flurries around his strings, evoking the elegant touch of Hendrix on his ‘Little Wing’.
As the song fades, we can savour the respite of its beautiful and hypnotic stream – the first real opportunity for meditation since the album began, over an hour ago – and realise that, even at their most explicit, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are truly capable of conveying a sense of the sublime. It’s conceivable that the two are so entwined that it’s impossible to have one without the other. “The correlation between sound and sex is undeniable if you let it be,” Anthony suggests in Funky Monks. “I think most any healthy young man playing music, if he felt like it, could let the sexuality come through. It’s just that we have no lid on that aspect of our music, and we’re not afraid to be completely honest with our sexuality – we don’t try to hide it – and so it just sort of manifests itself in a natural way.”
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THEY’RE RED HOT
– – –
‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ marked the last time the Red Hot Chili Peppers would include a cover version on one of their studio albums. Whether this was because they tired of the tradition, which dated back to their debut, or were just too prolific to worry about filler is unknown, but, by 1991, their tactical selection of material to tackle had proven an intriguing insight into the band’s deep well of inspiration.
The inclusion of Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me’ was an incongruous choice for their otherwise punky debut, but their brassy interpretation was worlds away from the country legend’s 1950 original. ‘Freaky Styley’ was better served with the fittingly funky ‘If You Want Me To Stay’, which stayed relatively faithful to Sly And The Family Stone’s 1973 original, and their personalized version of The Meters’ ‘Africa’, which was redubbed ‘Hollywood’. On ‘Uplift Mofo Party Plan’ they took on Bob Dylan, turning his iconic, ramshackle ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ into something, well, slicker. ‘Mother’s Milk’, of course, famously revisited Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’ as well as offering their blistering take of ‘Fire’ by Jimi Hendrix.
And so, having ably demonstrated their proficiencies in country, funk, folk and classic rock, it was to the blues they looked for ‘BSSM’, raiding the catalogue of Mississippi-born king of the Delta blues, Robert Johnson, for an appropriately titled finale for their latest album. (They would also record The Stooges’ ‘Search And Destroy’ during ‘BSSM’ sessions, which would later be used as a B-side to ‘Under The Bridge’, and consider Hendrix’ ‘Castles Made Of Sand’ and ‘Little Miss Lover’ for inclusion, too.)
Taking their cue from his ragtime rhythm – itself an anomaly compared to the 12-bar method he’d favour – the Chilis exaggerated the perky original with a ripping rendition, recorded live at 2am on a grassy hillside in the grounds of their mansion studio, with ambient sound from passing cars and the surrounding wildlife.
Its recording is captured in Funky Monks: Flea and John are seated, rocking intently, the former keeping warm in a big coat, the latter clamping a lit cigarette in his jaw. Chad is freestyling on the drums, playing with his bare hands instead of sticks (like John Bonham was prone to do when performing ‘Moby Dick’), while Anthony is trying to keep up with himself, navigating the song’s tongue-twisting lyrics with the help of a notepad. “I think our version is almost as freaky by today’s standards as Johnson’s version was by his,” Frusciante told Guitar Player in 1991.
The song is ostensibly about a roving vendor of tamales (a Mexican snack of filled dough steamed in a corn husk), though one would assume, since double meanings were so prevalent in blues music, where singers would smuggle vulgar connotations in through more acceptable and respectable imagery, that the delicacy this girl was peddling (“She got two for a nickel / Got four for a dime / Would sell you more / But they ain’t none of mine”), though doubtless “red hot,” was not corn-based.
Over in less than a minute, ‘They’re Red Hot’ feels like a suitably extemporaneous end to an album guided largely by instinct, whether creative or animal, but whether or not it merits its place in the tracklisting – especially having to directly follow the glorious ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ outro – is a contentious point. However, it is what it is, and as the last, ephemeral contact after 16 indomitable blows, it’s a cheeky goodbye kiss after the hottest fuck of your life.
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‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ was released on September 24th 1991. That same month, Primal Scream’s ‘Screamadelica’ and Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ also arrived. The former, fueled by rave culture, mirrored the UK’s embrace of rock’s crossover appeal, while the latter spearheaded America’s grunge revolution and the subsequent focus on all things ‘alternative’. Into these climates fell the Chili Peppers’ fifth album, whereby its crisp rhythms, brazen exuberance and carnal appeal found an instant audience, finally breaking them well and truly into the mainstream – especially so with the permeating popularity of ‘Under The Bridge’, released as a single in March 1992.
After almost a decade of slogging, the Chili Peppers were finally on top. ‘BSSM’ was an astonishing tour de force, its greatness felt even by its creators. “When we finished it, it was the greatest sense of accomplishment that we’ll probably ever know,” Anthony said, looking back in 1992. “We knew it was a watershed for us.”
They had trusted their instincts and dedicated themselves to translating into music in the most honest way possible the electric bond that fizzed between them. “We love each other very much,” John confirmed in ’91. “And it’s not the sort of thing that anything verbal can have anything to do with. This album is a representation of the four of us really loving each other, understanding each other both personally and musically.”
The reason ‘BSSM’ sounds so fresh today, as I insinuated in the first paragraph, is that it’s an impeccable encapsulation of live, natural sound, recorded in the moment, and therefore transcends the concept of time and transient fashions. Guitars were played with little to no effects, often plugged directly into the recording console, and Rick Rubin orchestrated the controls to allow the band to fully concentrate on harnessing their energy on tape. “The album had no verbal or intellectual goals,” John once explained. “We just woke up each morning and played what we felt best to play… making music in the same way that a flower grows. We were just in our own dimension. The rest of the world didn’t exist, and we were living in a world of unbridled imagination.”
The finished recordings benefit from a warm glow, unfelt in contemporary albums, and reminiscent of classic ’70s albums. “That has a fuck of a lot to do with Brenden O’Brien who was engineering and works with Rick on a lot of stuff,” Flea told Kerrang in 1991. “He’s a great engineer who’s not caught up in the technical aspects of recording so much that it interferes with the music. There’s nothing worse than getting psyched up to play something then having someone who has to twist knobs for an hour!”
Throughout ’91 and ’92, the album would prosper with each successive single release: ‘Give It Away’ was first, followed by ‘Under The Bridge’, ‘Breaking The Girl’, and ‘Suck My Kiss’. Collectively, the B-sides yielded further outtakes from the sessions – in addition to ‘Search And Destroy’, they included the combustible ‘Sikamikanico’, the tribal jam ‘Fela’s Cock’, and the iridescent splendor that is ‘Soul To Squeeze’ – a song so perfect and exquisite, cherished by me as an all-time favourite, that it deserves its own epic testimonial. (Don't tempt me!)
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Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Soul To Squeeze’ (1993)
Critically celebrated, globally adored, and welcomed by the cool crowd (the album’s artwork was designed by filmmaker Gus Van Sant, whom Flea met when he starred in his My Own Private Idaho alongside River Phoenix), the Chili Peppers were launched to superstar status, but being in that position didn’t sit well with the introverted John Frusciante.
“Musicians and artists tend to be these crazy, delicate, fucked-up freaks of nature, which I love, but they’re susceptible to snaps,” Anthony reflected in ’92. “John was so young when he joined the band, and then we started getting really popular – which is a strange thing, ‘cause the Peppers have always really been an underground commodity. Then the world starts embracing you, and it’s kind of a hard thing to deal with in some ways. All that recognition and attention, that’s not much fun especially if you’re like this timid weirdo like John was.”
Uncomfortable with the band’s exalted stature, and torn by the dichotomy of feeling super proud of his input to the music yet ashamed of having contributed to their graduation beyond the fringes of cult, John became noticeably disdainful of his enhanced lifestyle as the band embarked on the album’s tour. Craving privacy and the freedom to play music for music’s sake, he began to detach himself from the band members, and deliberately sabotage his guitar parts when made to recreate them on stage – most notably when he chose to improvise live in front of millions of TV viewers on Saturday Night Live, mutilating the now-iconic intro of ‘Under The Bridge’ into something off-key and unrecognisable even to Anthony, who’d rage at the guitarist backstage afterwards.
Halfway through a tour of the Far East in May ’92, and just before heading Down Under, John abruptly chose to leave the group. “I could tell by the look in his eye that he was really serious,” Kiedis told Rolling Stone. “He said: ‘I can’t stay in the band anymore. I’ve reached a state where I can’t do justice to what we’ve created, because of stress and fatigue. I can’t give what it takes to be in this band anymore.’”
Thus concluded another defining era of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The immediate aftermath for all concerned was a complicated and challenging few years, both professionally and personally. Anthony slipped back into bad habits, relapsing in 1994, while Flea, reeling from a recent divorce and the death of River Phoenix, was diagnosed with chronic fatigue. John’s demons drew him spiraling into the depths of serious drug abuse, losing himself in music and drifting further and further away from reality in a hermit-like existence. Encountering him at his gaunt and squalid worst, the New Times LA described Frusciante as “a skeleton covered in thin skin” – a depiction confirmed by footage from that time.
The Chili Peppers, meanwhile, had to continue and, after a revolving door of guitarists, settled on Dave Navarro from Jane’s Addiction, who’d stay just long enough to deliver the duly dark and oppressive ‘One Hot Minute’ – but all that’s a whole ’nother story.
Though Frusciante would recover and return to the band in 1999, staying for the multi-million-selling career zeniths ‘Californication’, ‘By The Way’ and ‘Stadium Arcadium’, ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ remained the benchmark to which they were all compared.
And as for me? Like I say, it changed my life. It gave purpose to my passion for music, casting scintillating light on my otherwise remote and pastoral surroundings, suggesting there was a whole new world of opportunities just waiting to be explored. From the Chili Peppers I developed an inquisitive mind and unquenchable thirst that demanded fresh revelations; they led me far beyond the gateway of their Hendrix and Stevie endorsements, deeper than the cosmic funk of Sly Stone and Parliament, into curious and new territories that expanded my horizons and enriched my record collection.
I yearned for Los Angeles; I imagined encounters on pilgrimages to the mythical locations they’d namedrop, and hoped one day I’d breathe the same air as them. (When I did finally make it to LA, on my first day, as our rental car snaked down the winding curves of Sunset Boulevard and eventually turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway, giving me my first real glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, I changed the radio channel and suddenly the opening bars of ‘Give It Away’ blasted through the speakers. It felt like fate. The Chilis were welcoming me to their home.)
I coveted Chad’s drumming prowess; I imbued all Flea’s talk of individuality; I grew my hair until it was as long as Anthony’s; I hoped to one day have enough facial hair to style my sideburns after John’s impressive chops (I’m still waiting). They were the dependable infrastructure I required at the most decisive juncture of my life, the soundtrack to my every formative milestone, and it’s them I credit – for better or worse – for the journey I’d undertake into adulthood, which led to a career devoted to music, the inception of Clash, and the discretion to spend my working days writing 12,000 words about my most treasured album.
Given my line of work and the daily influx of albums I’m required to keep abreast of, new favourites come and go, while moods and circumstances may dictate heavy rotation of certain other preferred picks that occupy my attention. Likewise, the Red Hot Chili Peppers themselves, as just another commodity in the competitive chart-bound market, can fall in and out of favour depending on the frivolity of the landscape. But, with a permanent place in my heart, I always find myself circling back to their reassuring sounds, and – particularly when they return with a new record, or when I’m requested to interview Anthony Kiedis live on the Chilis’ Facebook feed – will immerse myself fully and completely in a non-stop Chili Peppers marathon, alternating for weeks through their entire discography, remembering the radiant positivity and motivation they inspired in my 12-year-old self.
‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’ is a part of my DNA. You don’t like it? Suck my kiss.
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The Red Hot Chili Peppers tour the UK this December:
Monday 5 December – London The O2
Tuesday 6 December – London The O2
Thursday 8 December – Glasgow The SSE Hydro
Saturday 10 December – Birmingham Genting Arena
Sunday 11 December – Birmingham Genting Arena
Wednesday 14 December – Manchester Arena
Thursday 15 December – Manchester Arena
Sunday 18 December – London The O2
For full dates and ticket links, check their official site.
This long edit is an update of a 2010 print feature.