Like many veteran bands who suddenly break on through to the mainstream side, the Red Hot Chili Peppers — depending on the observer’s perspective and principles — either scored when they were good and ready, or snatched the gold ring at a point when their initial inspiration had already burned away, and mediocrity became the Los Angeles quartet’s secret sauce for chart success. Ultimately, it comes down to whether one views a shift from credible and crazy punk funk — hard-hitting wiseguy party music heavy on the George Clinton downstroke — to sensitive wimpo ballads like “Under the Bridge” (the solemn wet willie that sent 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik into triple-platinum orbit) as progress or not.
At one time, the quartet led by singer Anthony Kiedis and monster bassist Flea (Michael Balzary) was the only notable blender regularly feeding in thrash, rap, funk and rock and spitting out a hybrid that has since become a common touchstone, and truly the fountain from which the rap-metal hybrid sprang. Highlighted by the enigmatic density of “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes,” The Red Hot Chili Peppers is a thoroughly entertaining mutation of George Clinton, Sly Stone, Kurtis Blow and Sonic Youth, an original blast of serious fun that didn’t find many takers in the racially retarded rock underground.
Founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, who had missed the Peppers’ debut LP during a stint with What Is This, returned to the fold in time for the second outing. Sagely engaging Clinton — a sympathetic soul, both musically and mentally — to produce, the Peppers made Freaky Styley more outrageous but easier to swallow as utilitarian dance-rock as well. A version of Sly Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay” shows they can play it straight; “Yertle the Turtle,” based on Dr. Seuss, proves their unhinged sensibilities remain in full force. Other bits of rhythmicized doggerel (“Catholic School Girls Rule,” “Thirty Dirty Birds,” “Blackeyed Blonde”) keep tongue in cheek and mind in the gutter. Freaky Styley is a ton of raunchy, funky fun.
Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” gets a weirdly re-tempoed electro-rap overhaul on The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, a busy, casual-sounding album that divides rock and funk down the middle. On some guitar-heavy tracks (“No Chump Love Sucker,” “Fight Like a Brave,” “Me and My Friends”), Flea’s popping bass is the only connection with the group’s characteristic sound; elsewhere, familiarly repetitive rhythm grooves reaffirm the Peppers’ primal commitment to butt-shaking. In “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band,” the self-described Fax City 4 issue their offbeat statement of (cross) purpose: “We represent the Hollywood kids…you just might slam dance.” Bonus warning to prudes everywhere: “Special Secret Song Inside” is better known as “Party on Your Pussy.”
Fans won’t need the four previously released album cuts that comprise the four-song Abbey Road 12-inch, but the nude tribute cover is positively priceless. Sock it to ’em, Peppers!
Sobered by Slovak’s fatal OD in June 1988, the Chili Peppers regrouped with guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith to make Mother’s Milk, a phenomenal whipping dedicated to their late guitarist and friend. The band’s relentless intensity, solid funk chops and angry loss compel the strong anti-drug messages of “Knock Me Down” and “Taste the Pain” (both reportedly wishful thinking for Kiedis, who is said to have first-hand knowledge of such problems) to meld with the wanton sexuality of “Sexy Mexican Maid” and such whimsy as a high- speed rap cheer for “Magic Johnson.” In the album’s best meeting of form and function, Flea’s mindfuck bass work slamdunks Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” A promising growth stock in the Chili Peppers’ portfolio, Mother’s Milk nurtured the band for bigger, if not necessarily better, things.
Most of the aforementioned songs and a stack more from the first four albums (plus “Show Me Your Soul,” the group’s contribution to the Pretty Woman score) fill What Hits!?, a useful if incomplete retrospective wanged together after the Chili Peppers left EMI. Through what must have been some impressive lawyering, the album includes “Under the Bridge,” a Top 5 hit from the band’s Warner Bros. debut.
Rick Rubin, whose career-launching interest in hip-hop had not been exercised in years, produced Blood Sugar Sex Magik, attempting to help the Peppers find a modern use for what were by then old-hat funk obsessions. No dice. Peppering his vocabulary with four- and twelve-letter words, Kiedis spends “The Power of Equality,” “If You Have to Ask,” “The Righteous & the Wicked” and “Sir Psycho Sexy” trying to rap without really trying to sound like a rapper (or demonstrating any of the self-conscious goofing that buoyed his early efforts in this direction); elsewhere, the sprawling album clings to syncopated beats as if wandering in a zombie fog. With the minor exception of “Give It Away” (which at least has a cogent vocal and airtight playing) and the hyped-up “The Greeting Song,” the material is shapeless and nearly useless. Kiedis stretches simple lyrical gimmicks across tuneless vamps that lack drive, destination and colorful scenery to watch along the way. Frusciante blares on his axe now and then to wake the band and keep it from drifting off the road, but even that doesn’t hasten the impatient waits for tracks to end. Amid all this tedium, the light pop digressions — “Breaking the Girl,” “Under the Bridge,” “I Could Have Lied” — provide a welcome respite, and stand out without actually having much to recommend them (like, for instance, a really good vocalist). Throughout, the Chili Peppers go through the motions with none of the early days’ raw energy or zany invention. For an otherwise unavailable taste of that era, Out in L.A. stacks up remixes, demos of lesser tracks from the first two albums, fragmentary outtakes that deserved to remain that way and crummy live renditions of Mofo’s “Special Secret Song Inside” (aka “Party on Your Pussy”), Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand” and a brief, rude jazz incident, “F.U.,” credited to Thelonious Monk. Of possible value to scholars of the band, Out in L.A. is way too uneven to be of serious concern to anyone else.
Frusciante left abruptly in ’92 and was succeeded by two other guitarists before the band finally settled on Dave Navarro, late of Jane’s Addiction and Deconstruction and clearly the most talented musician other than Flea ever to don the Chili Peppers’ light bulb. Taking a front seat in the studio and playing like a man possessed, Navarro binds, tilts the balance and essentially directs the sound of One Hot Minute, which was produced by Rubin as if the previous album had never happened. Exciting and busy where its predecessor was a lazy drag, One Hot Minute kicks a thick, hot rock tone and puts up songs that go at least one step beyond the minimum requirements of a tempo and a key. (Why some of them pointedly echo old songs — “One Big Mob” recalls “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” — is hard to imagine; it sure can’t be a cure for commercial insecurity.) In this tougher, richer context, restrained acoustic ballads and warm soul grooves no longer arrive with LOOK! DIFFERENT! sirens blaring, but rather slot into an organic whole where emotional compression and explosive power become symbiotic dynamic forces and make it all work in ways previously beyond the band’s grasp.
For all the musical integrity of One Hot Minute, words are its most notable element. Kiedis has his lyrical act together better than ever before, focusing in on drug addiction and death not as lurid headline disasters but as ambivalent and personal emotional dilemmas. “My tendency for dependency / Is offending me…I’m pretending see / To be strong and free / From my dependency,” he admits in “Warped,” acknowledging, in “Aeroplane,” that “I like pleasure spiked with pain” and remarking, in the dismal “My Friends,” “Imagine me taught by tragedy / Release is peace.” “Transcending” describes “friends near death” and muses you “never know when the gods will come and take you.” Amid all this angst, he grasps love (not sex for a change) and devotion as essence and salvation; “Falling Into Grace,” “Coffee Shop” and “Deep Kick” glow with hope and enthusiasm against the gloom. Taking angry potshots at the church (“Shallow Be Thy Game”), stardom’s lure (“Transcending,” about River Phoenix) and an unnamed “homophobic redneck dick” (“Pea”), the album offers much food for thought. Meanwhile, the music, despite its risk-taking ambition, never falters or fails to keep the jam moving on the good foot.