How Red Hot Chili Peppers Became The Ultimate American Rock Band Of This Era


When the Red Hot Chili Peppers play “Give It Away” in 2022, it’s so easy to know where you are. You’re in your body, feeling all of your neurons and ligaments turning into the same elastic superball thing that they did the very first time you got smart, you did the powwow.

What is more complicated is to understand when you are. Those men on stage? They are not young. But they don’t look old either. And if you fully engage your body in their music, you might feel the same way. Anthony Kiedis wears a schoolboy haircut and a math teacher mustache, so when these give nows come out of his mouth, they’re like muscle cars speeding out of a car wash. Flea has the physique of a gym bro in his twenties and a face that belongs to a coin, and he still plays his bass like he’s electrocuted with his own greatness. Chad Smith keeps time in his paradoxically timeless, playful and unflappable, boing-boing, bam-bam way. And in the song’s final spasms of bliss, John Frusciante – dressed in baggy ’90s skater clothes – gives the music a lively twist, adding a descending sequence of feathery, colorful chords, like a peacock being pushed down the slide. of the playground. It’s like he’s heard Kiedis do his carpe diem rap for the umpteenth hundredth time – “There’s never been a better time than now!” — and decided to drive a fresh new wrinkle into the fabric of reality.

All music is made of time, but the Chili Peppers could say theirs is made of love. Don’t be afraid to wade through this metaphysical quicksand. You will hit rock bottom. On their excellent new album, “Unlimited Love” – ​​and live at Nationals Park in Washington on Thursday night – the band’s sincerity has become so fundamental that their cultural durability seems like a foregone conclusion. Frusciante, forever the band’s melodic core and spiritual nomad, is back in the mix after a 10-year absence, explaining in interviews that he was “born to be in the band”. This seems true, at least within the group, which as a unit strongly believes in the concept of fate. They talk about it all the time. They need a way to explain this inexplicable thing to themselves.

How do we explain it? The Red Hot Chili Peppers are the defining American rock band of our time – not quite right, but also undeniable. They rocked our collective consciousness some 30 years ago alongside the more austere noise of Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden, but as a band they stayed bigger for longer.

Yet their music continues to embody contradictions that are not easily reconciled: vitality and vulgarity, tears and testosterone, life force and death drive. After so many years of blundering around the trapdoor to the void, they’ve finally stopped themselves from falling through, and that feels like something to honor. We just can’t decide to do it by dancing or crying.

Go ahead and search the rock-and-roll history books for some kind of precedent. In the beginning, everyone was saying that “Under the Bridge” was the “Stairway to Heaven” of the 90s. Yeah right. But with “Californication” in 1999, the Chili Peppers began to sound more like the Doors, channeling California’s dark side into sumptuous melodies and blue-violet poetry. And in recent years they’ve become more like an echo of the Rolling Stones, borrowing funk the same way the Stones borrowed blues, living perilously for many years and surviving with a smile. By that logic, 2006’s “Stadium Arcadium” is their “Tattoo You” — not their last good album, but the last to feature songs that felt in tune with the times and unmissable.

When they performed the best of them on Thursday night, “Dani California,” the word “California” formed gradually and powerfully in Kiedis’ mouth, like a rising wave, evoking all hope and terror. crashing repeatedly on the shores of the Golden State, flooding the great American psyche with fragmented visions of our collective future. California remains a big, spooky idea in the space of a Red Hot Chili Peppers song, as well as a beautiful, large, and highly musical word. (Did Arnold Schwarzenegger become governor just because people liked to hear him say it?) Maybe the Chili Peppers have always been the dystopian Beach Boys.

Obviously, there is no single model for this group. From the time they formed in Los Angeles in 1983, their genealogy was everywhere. The band’s two main founders, Kiedis and Flea, adored the Ohio Players, Circle Jerks, Gang of Four and Grandmaster Flash, and they fused their tastes to create a dialect of hybrid neo-funk more vocal than hip-hop or hardcore punk. .

Listen to the first three Chili Peppers albums in quick succession, and your thoughts will rhyme for a week. Kiedis is a self-proclaimed control freak, which is the best and only way to understand his unrepentant rhymes – a tic that instantly became a permanent part of the band’s musical architecture. Her tongue has been in a race with Flea’s fingers ever since, and when your identity moves faster than your mouth, those forced rhymes must become something like stepping stones.

Or, if their music wasn’t moving at identical speeds, it was moving at punk speeds. During the sadly titular chorus of “Catholic School Girls Rule” from 1985’s “Freaky Styley,” they essentially bark the guitar riff from Black Flag’s “Thirsty and Miserable.” Nearly four decades later, “Catholic School Girls Rule” sounds both thirsty and miserable, but if punk was all about telling the truth, here’s music to tell the truth about your excitement.

It would be obscene to say that the Chili Peppers needed to experience tragedy to gain depth, but that’s how it happened. When founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988, the band regrouped with Frusciante and Smith and set about writing more introspective songs – an approach that eventually produced one of most vibrant rock albums ever recorded, 1991’s ‘Blood Sugar Sex’. Magic. Here the quartet had mastered two antithetical modes, balancing gonzo funk (“Give It Away”, “Suck My Kiss”) with a brutal ballad (“I Could Have Lied”, “Under the Bridge”) during which Frusciante regularly made his Stratocaster. cry in the name of Kiedis.

Then Frusciante left the band the following year, beginning his rocky relationship with the Chili Peppers, returning from the depths of addiction for an astonishing series of three albums – ‘Californication’, ‘By the Way’, ‘Stadium Arcadium’ – then after a decade away producing electronic music, making his second comeback on this year’s “Unlimited Love,” as well as the upcoming companion album, “Return of the Dream Canteen.” Every time Frusciante is in this band, he sounds like rock’s greatest breathing guitarist – born to be there (fate again) and hopefully born to stay there this time too.

And so these Chili Peppers remain instantly legible and deeply intricate, utterly visceral and bordering on mystical. In Kiedis’ 2004 quarantine memoir, “Scar Tissue” – its tales of misadventure and addiction make it probably the most salacious and tragic rock-and-roll story ever published – the frontman said this music was about of “dance, energy and sex”. Exactly. Jump into Flea’s 2019 memoir, ‘Acid for the Children’, and hear how he describes his path as “lifelong meditation on the concept of groove” and a search for an answer to “the question of how relates to all existence.” That’s exactly it too. (The book is also full of maxims you could spend your whole life trying to live by. Here’s one: “Anything that isn’t love is cowardice.” )

On stage now, the band is all love, all courage, so deep in their rhythm of life, so well hidden in the pocket. They play their fast songs a little faster and their slow songs a little slower, making every moment feel more real than real. During an extremely patient rendition of “Soul to Squeeze,” Frusciante spreads liquid melodies beneath his fingers, translating Jimi Hendrix’s explosive language into something smoother than molten bossa nova. Kiedis, surrounded by virtuosos, does not blink. Go ahead and have fun when he sings, “Doo-doo-doodle-dingle-zing-a-dong-bomp-ba-dee-ba-dah-ba-zumba-crunga-cong-gong-bad,” but don’t miss how he comes out of those nonsensical syllables as a sort of lesson in fearlessness.

A heavier lesson: As Flea, Frusciante, and Smith sneak into the locomotive, the Morse-coded riff of “Parallel Universe,” the video screen towering behind them flashes animated spots that appear to be Calabi-collectors. Yau – complex mathematical models of extra dimensions that are theoretically around us all the time. “Deep in a parallel universe,” Kiedis sings from the bottom of his lungs, “it’s getting harder and harder to tell which came first.”

Either he sings about anything or everything, including the possibility that he sings about a group mistakenly defined by its contrasts instead of its chords; a group that continues to create something crude and poetic, insatiable and wise; a band no longer at their highest heights, but certainly at their widest; the definitive band from a time when rock and roll may be dead and the chaos of life denies definition.


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