Few bands that emerged from the 80s are as original as the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Their unique sound fuses funk, punk, rap and heavy metal and is delivered with electrifying energy.
Their career and joint history is a raw tapestry spanning over twenty years. It began in a Los Angeles high school in 1983 when Anthony Kiedis, Michael “Flea” Balzary and Hillel Slovak became fast friends. Kiedis’ focus at the time was on acting and poetry, two disciplines that would evolve into a unique vocal style. Micheel Balzary, known as Flea, was a budding jazz musician and a transplant from Australia via New York. And Hillel Slovak was a serious guitarist whose path to LA began in Israel.
At the time, Slovak played in the band “What is This?” He turned Balzary on to rock music and encouraged him to learn the bass guitar. The two then enticed Kiedis to focus his linguistic talents on music, a move which would evolve into one of the most notable rap / spoken word styles in music. The threesome set up a one time gig with drummer Jack Irons, an LA native and bandmate of Slovak’s. At a Fairfax High School alumni show the foursome appeared as “Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem.” The energized performance led to a record deal with EMI that year.
Slovak and Irons were obligated to their original band so Kiedis and Balzary forged ahead as the “Red Hot Chili Peppers” with replacement drummer Cliff Martinez and guitarist Jack Sherman. Their self titled debut album didn’t see much commercial success and neither did the supporting tour. Chronic disagreements led to Sherman’s departure from the band and Slovak’s return.
Slovak’s heavy blues and funk guitar style drove the band’s second album, Freaky Styley produced by P-Funk legend George Clinton. It wasn’t the album that broke the band into mainstream music but it received buzz on college radio. Shortly after Freaky Styley was released, drummer Cliff Martinez decided to leave the band and original member Jack Irons returned.
In 1987, the band was in its original form as its third release The Uplift Mofo Party Plan broke into the Billboard Top 200. The band toured in support of the album but the tour was racked by problems related to drug abuse. Slovak, Kiedis and Balzary all experienced severe addictions at various times throughout the bands history but during the 1987 tour, Slovak relapsed into heroin use which caused erratic behavior and sloppy performances. Shortly after the end of the tour, Hillel Slovak was found dead of an overdose on June 27, 1988. The devastating news prompted drummer Jack Irons to leave the band saying “he didn’t want to be in a band where all his friends were dying.” The Uplift Mofo Party album would be the only album with the four high school friends and original members.
After Slovak’s death and Irons departure, Kiedis and Balzary once again replaced the band’s drummer and guitarist. Drummer D.H. Peligro from the Dead Kennedys and former P-Funk guitarist DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight stood in temporarily as the band regrouped.
In 1989 the album Mother’s Milk was released giving the band its first top modern rock hit “Knock Me Down”, a tribute ballad to Hillel Slovak. By this time the band had experienced yet another lineup change with new drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante. Frusciante had idolized Slovak’s guitar playing and was a prodigious talent in his own right. He brought a deep melodic sound heavily influenced by Slovak’s style that complemented the groove heavy bass provided by Balzary.
The next year, in 1990, the band found a new creative home with Warner Brothers Records, leaving EMI. With EMI, the band hired legendary producer Rick Rubin and moved into a rented villa in California that had once been owned by Harry Houdini and was supposedly where the Beatles first experienced LSD. With the exception of drummer Chad Smith, the band lived and worked in the house in total creative isolation.
The “villa experiment” took form in the band’s breakthrough album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, released in 1991. The album sold incredibly well spinning off the band’s first #1 hit “Give it Away” which won a Grammy in 1992 for “Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal.” The album reached as high as #3 on the Billboard Top 200 and sold seven million copies in the United States alone. Critical acclaim came also as Rolling Stone magazine listed Blood Sugar Sex Magik as #310 on the list of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
The band’s success was bittersweet. The acclaim and attention proved overwhelming for guitarist Frusciante who, of all band members, had the most severe struggle with drug addiction. Frusciante left the band abruptly in 1992 while on tour to support Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Although the loss of Frusciante’s melodic guitar struck deeply on several levels, the music played on. After two short-lived replacements, the Peppers invited former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro to join the band in 1993.
Navarro’s style increased the hard rock and psychedelic influences on the band’s sound. In 1995, they released One Hot Minute with the familiar funk, punk and jazz of previous albums fused with Navarro’s guitar. The album was a commercial success reaching double platinum in the United States and selling five million copies worldwide. Despite the commercial momentum, Navarro just didn’t seem to fit creatively and parted with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1998 after only four years.
After a deep depression and life-threatening heroin addiction, guitarist John Frusciante emerged to rejoin the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1998. Frusciante was living clean after a stint in rehab but the depths of his addiction were evident. He had been on the verge of death, a living skeleton and the fragility of his life was still apparent.
Although Kiedis had sobered up for five years after the loss of his friend Hillel Slovak to heroin in 1988, he was still struggling with his own addictions upon Frusciante’s return to the band. In Chili Pepper style, the band funneled their experiences into what would be their next massive success. Californication was released in 1999 to critical acclaim. It peaked at #3 and endeared the band with another Grammy for “Scar Tissue” – a track inspired by the perilous shared addictions of the band and a celebration of survival.
In 2000, Kiedis cleaned up for good and has been sober since, Frusciante as well. Since regaining creative momentum with Californication, the band has released three more albums including their latest Stadium Arcadium, a 28 track double album released this year. Released in May, Stadium Arcadium debuted at #1 on the US charts and sold a half million copies in the first two weeks.
Through it all the Red Hot Chili Peppers have maintained commercial and critical success. In a career spanning 23 years they have produced nine studio albums together which have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide. Together, they hold the record for most #1 Modern Rock hits. The band members are as prolific on their own as they are together, each consistently venturing onto new creative paths including solo albums, collaborative side projects and acting gigs.
In August, the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Anthony Kiedis, Michael “Flea” Balzary, Chad Smith and John Frusciante) are set to play Lollapalooza Music Festival with a infectious energy that just won’t quit. Born in friendship, forged by struggle and still original, they are the Red Hot Chili Peppers.