In Defense of the Red Hot Chili Peppers

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So the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album is out, and if anyone under 30 or so is excited, we’d be surprised. But we understand — for most of the 2000s, the band have been purveying nondescript Cali soft rock, and these days, it’s far more fashionable to hate on the Chili Peppers than to admit you like them. But it wasn’t always thus, y’know. And we’re of the opinion that these days, they’re a band whose legacy is both under-rated and often unfairly maligned. So, in the latest of a semi-regular series, we step up to the plate with a mixtape of ten Red Hot Chili Peppers songs that are entirely worthy of a place on your iPod.

“Get Up and Jump” (1984)

Rarely have the Chili Peppers been described as ahead of their time, but their self-titled first record was exactly that. The idea of mixing the manic energy of punk with funk-influenced basslines and hip hop vocal stylings mightn’t have been theirs alone, but Red Hot Chili Peppers pre-dated Aerosmith and Run-DMC’s watershed wall-smashing “Walk This Way” by two years, and as such it represented a pretty early example of what would be a key musical trend in the ’80s. The album itself was disappointing — founding guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons didn’t play on it due to other band commitments, and the production was ropey — but the ideas behind it were fresh and exciting. And “Get Up and Jump” — the second song the band ever wrote — remains a killer party tune that Flavorpill isn’t averse to dropping into a DJ set, if only to give the lyric “Say what… you got a pumpkin in your pants?” another public airing.

“Hollywood” (1985)

The band’s second album Freaky Styley was produced by George Clinton, and while the idea of locking four drug-hoovering young Californians in a studio with perhaps the biggest narcotic fiend in history doesn’t exactly sound like the recipe for a focused record, the results were surprisingly good — after all, the band’s love of funk was deep and enduring, and they were doubtless ecstatic at the chance to work with a genuine legend. Clinton’s influence was felt in the straight-up funk feel of the album, and directly in this belting live version of the band’s cover of The Meters’ song “Africa,” on which he provides guest vocals. A different version of the same song featured on the album (it’s not on YouTube, curiously) along with a great version of Sly’s “If You Want Me to Stay.”

“Funky Crime” (1987)

The band’s sessions with Clinton also led to the genesis of this song, via a discussion about the racial politics of white bands playing “black” music. The song’s lyric was couched in the sort of exuberant funk that characterized all of The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, an album as party-centric as its title suggests, but the sentiment was both valid and laudable. “Don’t you know funk’s color blind?” asks Kiedis. Any of the bazillion white suburban kids who discovered Funkadelic and Sly Stone because of the Chili Peppers would surely agree.

“Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1987)

Dylan fans hate this, y’know. Bless them. We suspect the man himself, however, might appreciate both its spirit of youthful iconoclasm and its radical re-reading of his lyrics.

“Stone Cold Bush” (1989)

It’s sad that Hillel Slovak’s enviable guitar chops tend to be overshadowed by both the sad manner of his death and the talents of his replacement. But there’s no denying that while Slovak’s Hendrix-inspired psych rock stylings were great in their own right, his precocious successor became one of the best guitarists of his (or any) generation. Already a Chili Peppers obsessive and friend of Slovak, John Frusciante joined the band at 18 after the latter’s death, and like Suede’s Richard Oakes, he started by basically emulating his hero’s work. And what a job he did. While Frusciante’s life would eventually take him in strange and dark directions, the precocious young guitarist of Mothers Milk was something to behold, blazing with talent, exuberance and vitality. It’s really quite bittersweet looking back at this footage and thinking that, wherever his life takes him, the skinny kid with the cigarette and the rock star moves will never play quite like this again.

“Funky Monks” (1991)

Blood Sugar Sex Magik remains the band’s masterwork, and an album that found the Kiedis-Flea-Frusciante-Chad Smith line-up at its musical peak — Frusciante had moved from emulating Slovak’s work to developing his own signature style, while Flea had stopped trying to play faster than anyone else and instead focused on (relative) minimalism, and Smith’s piledriving drumming provided a rock solid base for his colleagues to express themselves. Sure, “Under the Bridge” got played to death, but there’s far more to this record than it and “Give It Away.” As an example, we give you “Funky Monks,” mainly because it features a) one of Frusciante’s best solos, b) some of Flea’s best bass playing, and c) an outro that can only be described as sumptuous.

“Apache Rose Peacock” (1991)

The band have been ill-served by the reputation they acquired as sock-wearing chest-beating alpha males over the years, for the reason that it’s never really reflected reality. As Kiedis told Rolling Stone in 1994, ” I don’t think our sexuality is belligerent; it’s more a free-flowing musical display… But I think that’s the way the public is. If something’s racy, they crave that, and they long to associate celebrities with those characteristics.” Admittedly, the band haven’t done themselves any favors at times — as Kiedis admitted ruefully in the same interview, “I learned … you can’t go around taking your dick out, because some people don’t like it” — but to this writer’s ears, at least, their songs about sex have always been more celebratory than predatory… something that seems increasingly rare in music as the years go by.

“Soul to Squeeze” (1992)

Originally hidden away on the b-side to “Under the Bridge” (along with a killer cover of Iggy’s “Search and Destroy”), this track eventually ended up on the Coneheads soundtrack. Its relatively downtempo nature was certainly a departure from the band’s previous singles (although not a total surprise for anyone who’d heard album tracks like “I Could Have Lied”), and it also features a Frusciante solo that presaged his work on “Scar Tissue” years later — at the time, however, it appeared that this would be the last Chili Peppers release to feature the guitarist, as he’d already left the band by the time of its release.

“Deep Kick” (1995)

With Kiedis largely non compos mentis for the recording of One Hot Minute, Flea turned his hand to lyric writing (and, with the solo bass-and-vocals track “Pea,” singing). The surprisingly tender and under-stated monologue at the start of this song, recalling his and Kiedis’ early days in Hollywood, suggests that it’s a shame he didn’t do so more often. The song borrowed a line from Butthole Surfers that became a de facto motto for the band’s early career, for better or worse: “It’s better to regret something you did than something you didn’t do.” Years on, the price had become all too clear.

“Scar Tissue” (1999)

The return of Frusciante, playing a broken guitar in the back of an open-topped car. Like “Under the Bridge,” this song was played to death, but if you can step away from having heard it once too often on FM radio and listen without prejudice, you might appreciate it for what it is — a bruised and rueful rejoinder to the world in general, punctuated by Frusciante’s elegiac slide solos. This song perhaps marked the beginning of the transition to the sound that permeates the band’s records — but they’ve rarely sounded better than they did here.