By Brian Ives
This weekend (September 24), the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ breakthrough album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, turns 25. Here, we take a look back at the album that took the L.A. funk group from the clubs and launched them into arenas; it was the album that made them legends.
“Man, the ‘basics’ love the Red Hot Chili Peppers!”
“Goddamnit, the Red Hot Chili Peppers pre-sale tickets are gone already?”
“The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the best P-Funk tribute band ever.”
Those are three random comments I’ve seen in my social timelines over the past few months. The first two are directly traceable to the massive success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik; the third was disproven by that same album.
Yesterday (September 23), tickets for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Madison Square Garden concert for February 15 of next year went on sale. Soon, they added a second date for February 17, and then a third, February 18. If you want to get tickets, you better move: Ticketmaster notes that there are “NOT MANY LEFT.”
So, yes: today, lots of “basics” or “normals” or “regular” people love the Red Hot Chili Peppers. That’s also the case with any massive artist, from Jay Z to Metallica, Beyonce to U2, Drake to Lady Gaga. It’s true for Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince, Led Zeppelin and the Beatles. Most artists don’t get to that level without having serious talent, tons of songs, and a vision. And that’s the case with the Chili Peppers as well.
In the ’80s, it would have been difficult to predict that the Red Hot Chili Peppers would ever be an arena act, much less an arena act thirty years into their career. As everyone knows, they were that hyper-energetic funk act that, yes, once played a show naked, save for the socks on their private parts.
They got a harsh dose of reality and grew up a little bit in 1988 when guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a drug overdose; soon, drummer Jack Irons left the band. Of course, bassist Flea and frontman Anthony Kiedis moved ahead, with drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. That lineup’s first album was 1989’s Mother’s Milk, which is not a classic, but it did set the stage for one.
Mother’s Milk had “Knock Me Down,” a tribute to Slovak, that showed a new maturity. It wasn’t quite an anti-drug song, it was deeper than that: it was a song about supporting someone struggling. Mother’s Milk also had their biggest hit so far: a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” which brought them more mainstream exposure than they’d ever had.
What did the new guys bring to the band? Smith was a guy who came from more of a straight-up classic rock background than Kiedis and Flea. He seemed to be a weird fit at first, but would be the perfect drummer for them once they ascended to arenas. He caught the funk pretty quickly.
Frusciante, however, was a musical prodigy who immediately raised the band’s game. Mother’s Milk was the introduction period for he and the Peppers. That relationship was in full bloom on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. In Funky Monks, the documentary detailing the making of the album, Frusciante says “We’re making an amazing, amazing, ground breaking, revolutionary, beautiful, artistically heightened, incredible record.” He doesn’t say this with hope in his voice; he says it with utter confidence. And he was right.
The last piece of the puzzle was producer Rick Rubin, who was most well known for hip-hop (LL Cool J, Run-DMC, the Beastie Boys) and metal (Slayer, Danzig). But the Chili Peppers’ mixture of funk, punk, and psychedelic rock seemed to be the perfect blend for him to refine. He worked with them not in a studio, but in an abandoned Hollywood mansion.
The first thing the public from these sessions was the epic “Give It Away,” which was released a few weeks before the album. It was one of the funkiest songs ever to hit modern rock radio; in fact, it topped the modern rock charts and was ubiquitous on MTV. It made them instant stars.
Hair metal was starting to circle the drain; alt-rock was about to explode, but so much of that sub-genere was so grim. “Give It Away” was different: it was rock that really kicked butt, it it was funky, and was fun. It was also very positive. The song, in fact, was so infectious that people may not have considered the meaning of the lyrics. As Kiedis details in his book Scar Tissue, it was influenced by his ex-girlfriend, punk rock singer Nina Hagen. Kiedis liked one of her jackets, and she gave it to him, even though it was her favorite. “It was such an epiphany that someone would want to give me her favorite thing,” he recalled. “That stuck with me forever. Every time I’d be thinking ‘I have to keep [something],’ I’d remember ‘No, you gotta give away instead.'” When an arena full of fans chant “Give It Away” along with the band, maybe some will think about that lyric, and bring that philosophy into their lives.
I bought the album the day it came out, and was amazed by its depth; it struck me how much their Hendrix influences were showing (even more so than on Mother’s Milk, which featured an actual Hendrix song, “Fire”). I was surprised that there were no less than three ballads on the album. In the past, they always seemed to be rushing through their songs. Now, they had lots of speeds and several different modes. “Suck My Kiss” probably could have been on other RHCP album, but not many other Blood Sugar Sex Magik songs could have. This was light years beyond what they’d done in the past.
“Give It Away” never seemed to go away; it was a massive hit. It was a long time before they followed up with a second single; I wondered if they’d be regarded as “one-hit wonders.” But in March of ’92 they released “Under the Bridge.”
Ballads were the turf of the very passé hair metal bands, but “Under the Bridge” was so soulful, so Hendrixian, and so heart-felt, it just worked. It was the crossover moment no one ever expected from them and went to number two on the pop charts. It’s here (among other places on the album) that they broke from simply being the Children of Dr. Funkenstein (aka “a P-Funk cover band” to quote my Facebook friend) and really became their own thing. Not that George Clinton couldn’t do slow, Hendrixy songs (if you haven’t heard Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” stop what you’re doing and click on that link to listen). But the Red Hot Chili Peppers had truly come into their own. And really, the best way to follow in George Clinton’s footsteps is to do your own thing; that’s what they were doing. It worked. The “basics” were now on board, but the band had hit the masses by staying true to themselves.
Record companies being record companies, another ballad would be the next single: the very unusual “Breaking the Girl.” A mostly acoustic song with heavy percussion and a flute that sounded like it was stolen from “Stairway to Heaven,” it saw the band getting both weird and introspective, with Kiedis looking back sadly on a failed relationship.
All three singles are stellar, but the album is classic from start to finish, with the album tracks having equal importance as the hits. I could easily reminisce over each and every song. But to me, the one that is most worth pointing out is the opener “The Power of Equality,” one of the greatest first tracks any album, ever (and for my money, better than “Smells Like Teen Spirit” from Nirvana’s Nevermind, released the same day). When Kiedis yelped, “I’ve got tapes/I’ve got CDs/I’ve got my Public Enemy/My lilly white a– is tickled pink/When I listen to the music that makes me think” I felt like he was talking to, and for, me.
And, sadly, other lyrics from the song sound like they could have been written about the era that we’re in right now: “Say what I want, do what I can/Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan/I don’t buy supremacy/Media chief, you menace me/The people you say cause all the crime/Wake up motherf—er and smell the slime/Blackest anger, whitest fear/Can you hear me, am I clear/My name is peace, this is my hour/Can I get just a little bit of power.”
The album was pretty deep and heavy. So I love that they ended on a goofy note with their cover of Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot.” As with earlier covers of Hank Williams and Bob Dylan, they took a bit of sacred Americana and had a great time with it. Life can break your heart; in the early ’90s, that seemed to be the message of many of the rock bands that were ascending to larger venues and MTV’s high rotation. And the Chili Peppers recognized that on Blood Sugar Sex Magik. But they also included joy and goofiness, which is also a part of life. To me, it was a necessary wink at the end of an album that detailed angst-worthy issues, both political and personal, but was reminder that having fun is an important part of life.
I’m hoping to go through all of those emotions at one of their shows in February. Anyone have an extra ticket?