The Chili Peppers have nothing to lose but their socks.
I don’t have any idea what that means, of course. But then, I also can’t conceive of a Subway to Venus. Or a talking dolphin who speaks to me in symphony. Or a band that has lasted 20 years, but has rarely released a record with the same line-up as their previous effort. Or the strange combination of freaked-out sexaholic and pissed-off social critic that is Anthony Kiedis. And I never, never, have understood why the best bassist of my generation would want to be known only as Flea. But I love my Chili Peppers.
From their schoolboy days at Fairfax High through their revolving door thrash-funk late-‘80s foursome to the loss of guitarist Hillel Slovak to heroin and the subsequent gain of international superstardom, the ever-changing Red Hot Chili Peppers have defied definition. Starting out with the sound of an L.A. punk band, they recorded their solo effort with Andy Gill of the Gang of Four; for their next album, they relocated to Detroit and teamed up with Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton. The result was Freaky Styley, the California version of Hardcore Jollies. Next, they teamed up with a more “professional type producer”, Michael Beinhorn, whose radio sensibilities helped the Chili’s find the balance between aggression and soul that scored them their first MTV exposure. After producing two classic albums, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and Mother’s Milk, Beinhorn helped the Peppers rise to the crest of rock superstardom. It would be the enigmatic guru Ric Rubin who pushed them over the edge.
Standing naked on the cover ofRolling Stone, headlining at Woodstock, platinum album after platinum album were all in the future. Before all that happened—on the Warner Brothers label, mind you—the Red Hot Chili Peppers were just another L.A. band trying to make it big on EMI. The four albums they recorded for that label are now remastered, repackaged, and re-released thanks to Capitol. Thanks, indeed. For while you’re sitting around debating whether the Beach Boys, the Eagles, or Van Halen are the consummate California Band, I’ll be listening to my early RHCP discs.
Overflowing with energy, passion, libido, and outrageous music, this EMI quartet offers a perfect perspective for looking back on the early career of the Peppers. To begin with, the new, cleaned-up presentation of the sound makes Hillel’s guitar’s scream louder, Cliff/Jack/Chad’s drums thump stronger, and Flea’s bass pop right in your face. Old classics sound brand new: “Walking on Down the Road” is even funkier, “If You Want Me to Stay” has an even deeper groove, and “Punk Rock Classic” is all the more obnoxious. The sitar that makes “Behind the Sun” has a clearer ring; all the sonic pieces of “Magic Johnson” can finally be appreciated. Without any change in music or mix, the albums simply sound much better now than they did all those years ago.
For all the digital wizardry that gives the old Peppers new voice, the true gift of these reissues is the opportunity they provide to reflect on just how good this band was before any of us really knew it. Perhaps taking second place only to the Beastie Boys, the Chili Peppers boast with the best of them, and live up to every word. On Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Baby Appeal”, Anthony brags, “The Red Hots have baby appeal / They dig our funky spiel”, and I defy any two-year-old not to groove. By the release of “Good Time Boys” on Mother’s Milk, the band could rightfully claim—after calling out Fishbone, Thelonious Monster, and Firehose—“We’re the best of the West / And the West is ours”. In the department of eerie predictions, 1985’s Freaky Styley asks listener to forget about Wham!, the Gap Band, Duran Duran, Men at Work, Soft Cell, as well as the decade’s best soul duo, using the memorable couplet, “Never mind Hall and Oates / Those guys are a couple of goats”. Looking back—and laughing—it’s hard to believe the Chili Peppers recorded at the same time as Culture Club.
While Daryl, John, and Boy George have moved over to VH1, the Chili Peppers are still MTV staples. Their more recent albums still betray their strange brew of funk and punk, of standing up for what you believe and getting every girl to lie down. It is that last bit which makes these re-releases so damningly difficult. It is one thing to be in high school and sing along with “Sex Rap”, “Sexy Mexican Maid”, or the ridiculous “Catholic School Girls Rule”. It’s another matter entirely to keep up with frontman Anthony Kiedis’ libido or his stance on sexual politics. Remember, Anthony’s the one who rhymed “My love for the baby sucking on its thumb” with “My love for a fresh set of buns” on 1987’s “Love Trilogy” . And for those of us who’d like to think that the ever-present sex songs are just a bit of Red Hot humor, it’s hard to argue against the illicit implication of “Mommy, Where’s Daddy”. Furthermore, any sense of ironic distance that the band takes from it recorded sexual exploits is now shattered, as with these reissues the band has reverted the cleverly-coined “Special Secret Song Inside” (from Uplift Mofo Party Plan) back to its distinctive original title. (And, yes, you’ll have to look it up yourself.)
Balancing out the behaviors perhaps expected from grown men who perform but in socks is the social message that has been a part of the Chili Peppers from the very beginning. The opening track of their first album offers the environmental sermon that “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”. More meaningful, especially in today’s times, is another song from Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Green Heaven”; in updating “Masters of War”, the band funks up this lyric: “So support your police / Support your local wars / That’s the way / To open economic doors / Why do we do it / ‘Cause the President’s a whore / We assume the position / To sell the ammunition”. Excusing the imagery, Kiedis does have a point. Along with outrageous descriptions of rock star exploits, these social messages have become one of Kiedis’ trademarks. On Freaky Styley he sings of the “Battleship” three miles from the coast of Beirut. More vindictively, on that album’s “American Ghost Dance”, Anthony—notably of Native American extraction—croons, “Oh give me a home / Where the buffalo roam / And the death of a race is a game”. (This championing of his heritage continues through “Fight Like a Brave” on Uplift Mofo and on Mother’s Milk‘s closing track, “Johnny, Kick a Hole in the Sky”.) Suffice it to say that, for all of the positions he’s taken towards women, only Kiedis could pull off a rap version of civil rights worker Fannie Lou Hamer’s epitaph, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
The first four Red Hot Chili Pepper album are seemingly beyond all category, including those of what some might puritanically call “taste”. Part of that results from the continual line-up changes that plagued the quartet with seven members. (This is a quick history according to Flea’s liner notes: “Jack and Hillel left so we got two other guys. . . . Hillel was ready to come back to the fold . . . Cliff thought we were heading in too conventional a rock type of sound [so] Jackie I. came back to his brethren. . . . Jack Irons had quit a while after Hillel died.”) Beyond the myriad musicians, producers, and co-conspirators, much of the Chili Peppers’ remarkable range stems from their varied musical roots. On these four albums alone, they cover songs by artists as distinct as Hank Williams, the Meters, Dr. Seuss, the Last Poets, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, and Jimi Hendrix. And let’s not forget that the band’s been produced by members of the Gang of Four and P-Funk. Ultimately, however, it is the off-the-charts musicianship of Mssrs. Flea, Slovak, Martinez, Irons, Frusciante, and Smith that make the Chili Peppers so remarkable.
All of the band’s musical tastes are thrown against the backdrop of their beloved Los Angeles, later described by Anthony [quite famously] as “The City I Live In / The City of Angels”. Yet the Hollywood that the Chili’s were sadly bemoaning by the time of the jaded Californication was still a subject of celebration for the early band: they were “Out in L.A.” in Hollywood—their “Brotherland”—singing about “Magic Johnson”. All four of their early albums live up to the billing of a “Hollywood jam”; as they sang on “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band”, “We represent the Hollywood kids / Hollywood is where we live”.
You can read the liner notes, written by Flea himself, to hear more about the details and depictions of their teens-in-Hollywood days. But more interesting than the stories of cheap landladies and favorite diners are the little sidetracks which the bassist takes. Picture the band recording with George Clinton, as the master drawls inspiration into their headphones, “Yeah, git it! Dig Deep!” Imagine what Uplift Mofo Party Plan would have sounded like had Malcolm McLaren actually produced the Pepper’s third release in a “simple Chick Berry style rock and roll”. Meditate on the fact that the band almost didn’t accept monster drummer Chad Smith because his hair was too “heavy metal”. Although they add very little to any history of the band per se (witness the reconstruction of the paltry history Flea gives of the band’s many personnel changes), it’s amusing to read these old stories. However, that’s not to say that the liner notes are worth the price of admission.
These four Red Hot Chili Pepper albums are worth buying in remastered format because the albums are that good. Well, except for the first one. Red Hot Chili Peppers does have some good songs on it, but the album can hardly be called a classic. Nonetheless, this disc is the only one that benefits from the bonus tracks, as it contains an original demo with the first Peppers’ line-up of Kiedis, Flea, Slovak, and Irons. And while all five bonus cuts are otherwise available on the earlier collection Out in L.A., hearing them in the context of the final recordings makes one wish all the more that the original Chili Peppers had gotten it together for more than only Uplift Mofo Party Plan. Otherwise, the extra tracks added to the other albums fail to inspire: one hardly needs a 9-minute version of “Freaky Styley” or the 12-minute bland jam appended to Mother’s Milk entitled “Song That Made Us What We Are Today”. The demo instrumental versions of “Behind the Sun” and “Fight Like a Brave” are mediocre at best; the “long” versions of “Knock Me Down” and “Sexy Mexican Maid” prove that sometimes records execs are correct in having groups cut down overblown material. Not even the live Hendrix songs are all that impressive; in the context of the rest of the premiere album with guitarist John Frusciante—who has a style all his own—they almost seem unnecessary.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are self-proclaimed “Good Time Boys”. Before they made it big, they had fire in their belly, their music, and their loins. Twenty years ago, they made music, which stands the test of time. Never cerebral, often, childish and always funky, the Chili Peppers might be the guiltiest pleasure anyone who is not Anthony Kiedis ever knows. But, go ahead, listen, sing along (even to the dirty parts). Indulge yourself. You have nothing to lose but your sock.