What Happened To The Red Hot Chili Peppers?

MTV Australia Video Music Awards 2007

If you are suffering from a massive hangover or some kind of generalized nausea but happen to be one of those people that can’t stick your finger down your throat and “push the button” so to speak, I have a perfect solution to your problem: The new single by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Abracadabralifornia.”

This release is seemingly being timed to coincide with Super Bowl Sunday, where the Chili Peppers are set to perform at the halftime show and complete their 30-year journey from weird, wacky, totally original funk-punk hybrid with socks on their cocks to sanitized, boring, AOR crap machine. It’s been a long, strange trip, and this song is the perfect end-zone spike to drive it home.

EXCEPT: A little Googling reveals that this song is actually a parody by comedian (and obvious genius) Jon Daly. But the fact that it’s so easy to believe that it came from the actual band — it’s note-perfect, right down to the totally crass website festooned with corporate sponsorship — is more than a little disturbing, and it raises the question: What the hell happened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

This band has fallen so far, I am almost ashamed to admit that I used to love them. I used to wear their t-shirt, I had their sticker on my car. I think I became aware of them around the same time as everyone else (my age) did: when their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground”; became an MTV single, and the video, featuring Flea slapping his bass in stuffed animal pants, was in heavy rotation, right around 1989. I picked up the Mother’s Milk album, and then bought their two albums previous to that one: 1987’s The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which I loved and played a million times; and 1985’s Freakey Styley, produced by Parliament-Funkadelic majordomo George Clinton in a conscious effort to play up the funk element of their sound. I didn’t love that one so much, which is weird because I love P-Funk and funk in general, but by then Clinton was a certified basehead and the record suffers from typically thin-sounding ’80s production (Uplift does too, but it has stronger material).

Prior to Mother’s Milk, the Chili Peppers were captained by guitarist Hillel Slovak, an energetic performer with a great sound who, with Flea, pretty much created the band’s unique sound. But he also had a heroin problem, OD’ed in 1988, and was replaced in the band by his biggest fan, 18-year-old John Frusciante, who played on Mother’s Milk and based his whole approach on Slovak’s.

What made the band unique, early on, was that it played loud, aggressive rock, but they hewed to the James Brown-George Clinton principle of “keeping it on the one” — emphasizing the first beat in every measure (as opposed to the second and fourth, like most rock music): ONE, two, three, four, ONE, two, three, four. This is the Prime Directive of funk music, and with an insanely gifted bassist like Flea way up in the mix and a guitarist whose primary influence was the very funky Jimi Hendrix (check out “Crosstown Traffic” or anything on the Band of Gypsys album for examples of keeping it on the one), the Chili Peppers blazed their own weird trail through Hollywood and beyond. Singer Vocalist Anthony Kiedis was not exactly a gifted crooner, but with a band playing nothing but uptempo funk-rock he didn’t have to be; he grafted some semi-convincing white-boy rapping onto the tunes, took off his shirt, and bing bam boom, the band is on MTV.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers really came into their own with the 1991 smash Blood Sugar Sex Magik, produced by Rick Rubin and recorded in a Hollywood mansion. Let me be clear: I loved this album. I still love this album. It sounds great in terms of production (unlike all their previous work) and Flea, Frusciante, and drummer Chad Smith are all at the top of their game. This is the record where Flea eased up on the slapping and worked backward from the song (as opposed to the other way around). Frusciante, in particular, is a beast on this thing. His guitar parts are inventive, interesting, original, melodic, and always funky.

Kiedis does what Kiedis does as well as Kiedis can do it on Blood Sugar, which is to say, well enough not to ruin what the other three are doing. Anyway, the record had a bunch of singles and two smash hits: the super-funky “Give It Away” and the heroin ballad “Under The Bridge.”

These two songs, the twin commercial peaks of their peak creative period, represented a fork in the road for the band. Continue with the funk-infused rock (or rock-infused funk?) of “Give It Away,” which was the culmination of their whole career in one song? Or chase the dragon of the “Under The Bridge,” which was unfamiliar territory, what with the slow tempo and the fact that it required Keidis to sing rather than just bark nonsense machoisms while jumping up and down?

It would be a minute before we got the answer. After a huge tour in 1992 (which I saw in Washington, D.C. with a couple of unknown openers called Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam both dramatically upstaging the headliner and their never-not-off-key singer vocalist) and headlining the second Lollapalooza, Frusciante quit the band, having developed a heroin addiction. This seemed like a death blow, but the Chili Peppers recovered quickly, enlisting Dave Navarro from the recently split Jane’s Addiction to take over.

On paper, this seemed like a great idea. Navarro’s work on the two Jane’s studio albums was dynamite (if wildly different in style from Frusciante and Slovak), and since he shared the Chili Peppers’ trademark aversion to covering his torso, he seemed a natural fit. But that’s not how it worked out. One Hot Minute took years to finish, because Kiedis, whose heroin problem began at the same time as Slovak’s, was relapsing and suffering from writer’s block. Also, it turned out that when you put an unfunky guitar player in a funk band, what comes out is not that funky. Most problematic, though, was the fact that Frusciante had been the band’s primary riffmaster and songwriter, translating Kiedis’ random phrases into verses and choruses, whereas, in Jane’s Addiction, all the riffs came from the bass player, not Navarro, so the Red Hot Chili Peppers suddenly found itself without any songwriters.

To be fair, I bought One Hot Minute the day it came out and listened to it about a million times (in part because I had just had all 500+ of my CDs stolen out of my car on a cross-country drive, so for several weeks it was one of the only two albums I owned). I liked a few of the songs a lot — it rocked a lot harder than anything they’d done before — but a lot of them are pretty terrible. They were so starved for material they included a tune called “Pea” that consisted of Flea singing incredibly stupid lyrics and playing unamplified bass all by himself.

It’s on the album’s fourth track, “My Friends,” that the band’s decision about that fork in the road becomes clear: they are going to ride the crappy crossover wave of “Under The Bridge” all the way into the beach. The song is a clear imitation of the soft introspection of the band’s biggest hit, lamenting the damage his continued drug problem was doing to his relationships, which would be fine if he didn’t insist on, you know, singing.

Because Anthony Kiedis cannot sing. Anyone who’s ever seen them live knows what I’m saying. That doesn’t have to be a problem if you work around it, and until “Under The Bridge” that’s exactly what they did. But around this time he seems to have decided to play to his mortal weakness.

But first they had to fire Dave Navarro and get a new guitar player, and as it happened, John Frusciante had just gotten out of rehab, so he rejoined the band and Blood Sugar fans like me rejoiced. The Chili Peppers are getting back to the funk! Rick Rubin is producing them again! Blood Sugar II is on the way!

That is not what happened. Californication, released in 1999, opens with a big raveup full of hooting and hollering and triplets and seems to announce that the Chili Peppers we all wanted to come back are back — and then a limp, totally unrelated quasi-funk riff takes over, and the crappy song “Around the World” unspools, followed by 14 blatant attempts to cross over to the pop charts again. Frusciante’s playing is great, but it’s in service of boring material on which — and the gravity of this problem cannot be overstated — Anthony Keidis insists on singing. It was their biggest commercial success to date — helped perhaps by all the people like me who bought it before we ever heard it expecting Blood Sugar II — so they learned all the wrong lessons, and have continued on this path to this day.

When you’re making a record, you get as many chances as you need to get your parts right, particularly if you’re a multiplatinum Warner Brothers recording artist. So think about this: even in the age of AutoTune and unlimited takes, all these Red Hot Chili Peppers songs where Anthony Kiedis is just barely singing in the right key and usually a little flat? Those vocals are the best takes out of fifty or a hundred tries. This dude just can’t sing. He’s effective on stage in terms of keeping the audience hyped and jumping up and down and swinging his hair around and so forth, but if there was ever a musician who should be lip-syncing, he’s the guy. And of course, the less said about his lyrics, the better — and, rhcp2014.com says more on this topic in a few fake verses that I could in a thousand words.

I skipped the next Chili Peppers record, By The Way, catching snatches of this or that new tune on the radio or around the way — just enough to know that I wasn’t missing anything. Like a chump, I bought the 2005 double album Stadium Arcadium, which, I mean, with a title like that, how could it be anything but terrible? Fool me once. Its musical high point turned out to be a flagrant lift of a Tom Petty song, bookended by 35 crap tunes about California, and drug addiction, and drug addiction in California, and drug-addicted women in California, each more boring and melancholy than the last — except when it’s unconvincingly trying to rock. If there have been more Chili Pepper albums since then, I am not aware of them, and that is not an accident.

I have no idea what they will do when they hit the 50-yard line on Sunday, but the fact that they are performing with Bruno Mars means at least there will be a singer on the stage, which makes it their most promising gig in years. It might even surpass Aerosmith’s 2001 travesty with N*SYNC and Britney Spears, which would be fitting, because Aerosmith is clearly their role model in terms of Learning To Suck. I have no idea whose idea this booking was, when there are so many other classic bands with tons of hits that are itching to take the gig. I’m guessing they figured no one will ever top Beyonce’s performance last year (which is true, and I say that as no big fan of Beyonce), so they might as well set the bar as low as possible for whoever gets the gig in 2015. If that was the plan, I doff my cap to you, unknown Super Bowl Halftime booker.

UPDATE: I stand by everything I said here about the Chili Peppers, who admittedly did nothing to embarrass themselves on Sunday (other than insist on going shirtless in 40-degree weather), but I regret being so dismissive of Bruno Mars, who I knew nothing at all about at the time of writing the above. His performance was really great, and if it had any misstep at all it was handing off to the Chili Peppers, who did a fine job playing “Give It Away” but kind of killed the considerable momentum of Mars’ set. Coming back with a ballad after the Chili Peppers finished was also not a great decision. I was very impressed with him overall though, and I should have done a little more due diligence before throwing shade his way.

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