There are few bands whose names are an apt descriptor of the sort of music they play. Red Hot Chili Peppers is one of them. For those of us who encountered their music in the 1980s, it was difficult not to get immediately infected by it, and get irreversibly hooked to the band. It was the era when the music scene was marked by the advent of MTV—music videos and footage of live performances of bands—and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ (RHCP) arresting videos helped immensely in that process of getting hooked.
I still vividly remember the 1989 video of the song Higher Ground, a song that urged you to get up and dance no matter if you had two left legs or your body was impervious to rhythm. In that video, Anthony Kiedis, the lead singer of the band, wears a black fedora and is bare-chested; lead guitarist John Frusciante has a psychedelic neon jacket and the video is quintessentially 1980s—kaleidoscopic special effects that can now seem primitive but were then quite unique. The band was bursting with high-power energy and dynamism with Kiedis, Frusciante and the bassist, Flea, bounding, leaping and bouncing as they played the catchy number.
Till RHCP burst upon the scene in Los Angeles, there were not too many acts that melded elements of the then prevailing genre of punk with funk and even dashes of the blues the way they did it. For many, the inflexion point of when they got hooked to RHCP’s music came in 1999 with their seventh studio album, Californication, and its title song. That album sold over 15 million copies worldwide—it was, of course, an era when people still bought albums—and the title song was de rigueur on everybody’s playlist, including the bars we used to frequent in Mumbai where I then lived. But my favourite representative RHCP number is a much earlier song, Under the Bridge, from their 1991 album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
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To me that song showcases RHCP’s singular sound: Frusciante’s lead and rhythm hybrid style of playing the guitar, which is influenced by rock’s greatest guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page but also by funk; Kiedis’ remarkable ability to use his not particularly melodic vocal attributes to make his grating voice seem appealing; Flea’s (birth name: Michael Peter Balzary) personalised way of slapping the bass funk style but also incorporating elements of psychedelic rock; and self-taught drummer Chad Smith’s ability to fuse influences of jazz greats such as Buddy Rich as well as rock’s greatest drummers such as Keith Moon and John Bonham.
If you’re listening to any of RHCP’s best albums, it’s easy to recognise their style. For me Flea’s bass lines and Frusciante’s lead riffs stand out but so does Kiedis’ trademark style of lengthening his vocal notes. As for the four albums of the band that I like best, three of them are Mother’s Milk from 1989 (that’s the one on which Higher Ground features); Blood Sugar Sex Magik from 1991; and Californication from 1991. I will come to the fourth in a few seconds. But, first two things.
The first is factual. In the 39 years since the band was formed, RHCP’s timeline has been tumultuous. Frusciante left the band twice. Drummers came and went. And drugs and other substance abuse took its toll on many band members. Then, not very long ago, the band’s seminal lineup coalesced once again. Frusciante is back in the band with Kiedis, Flea, and Chad Smith is on drums. What’s more, they released a new album in early April: Unlimited Love.
Then there’s the second thing. After a long sojourn away from India I was back in town and listening to the new album on my battered old stereo on repeat. My first-born with whom I was reunited after several years was visiting and we were catching up over a few beers when she asked with just a hint of tease: “Are you going to write about Red Hot Chili Peppers? Aren’t they a bit mainstream for you?”
Well, yes. From fun-loving rule-breakers of the 1980s (RHCP have often performed live naked except for socks covering their you-know-whats), they are now venerable gentlemen. Frusciante is 52, Flea and Kiedis are 59, and Smith is 60. Some younger people—and it infuriates people like me—have even begun calling their music “dad rock”. Never mind that. Because Unlimited Love has found its place among the four RHCP albums that I like most.
On Malcolm Gladwell’s highly recommended podcast, Broken Record, the legendary producer, Rick Rubin, who has produced Unlimited Love as well as most of the band’s best albums, has a couple of episodes where he chats with Frusciante and Kiedis. It is essential listening for any fan of the band and a great supplement to the new album. The discussion between Rubin and the two band members is riveting and offers so many nuggets from their history that many don’t know but it also offers a background to how Frusciante who had left the band for 16 years came back again and how RHCP recreated their unique sound when they were at the peak of their career from scratch.
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Unlimited Love is a long album—17 songs; 73 minutes—and it is the return of the sound that we first fell for when we heard RHCP for the first time. Interestingly, Kiedis’ vocals seem to have improved; and Frusciante and Flea have not lost their touch. In fact, they sound more mature. Frusciante’s dalliance with electronics when he was on hiatus seems to have made his guitar sound even more evolved and hybridised, and Flea, well, what can I say, sounds as good as he ever was. Red Hot Chili Peppers, I am happy to report, are still smoking hot.
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