Red Hot Chili Peppers - Biography
By Brad Austin
Initially, their music sounded like what would one day be seen as a passing novelty, but somehow, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have enjoyed one of the longest careers in rock music with their unique funk/rock/rap hybrid. For over twenty years, the Chili Peppers have been granted many blessings, including five top five albums, twenty top ten singles, five Grammys, and countless sold-out shows. They have survived tragedies as well, including the drug-induced death of a founding member, the drug-induced almost-death of other members, a few near-break-ups (which had a lot to do with drug addictions), Woodstock '99, and Dave Navarro (who was addicted to drugs during his time with the Peppers). The band, a four-piece since its inception, has been home to over twelve different musicians over the years, but their current lineup has been going strong since 1999. And, while the Chili Peppers simply couldn't exist without the voice of Anthony Kiedis, or the innovative bass chops of Flea (both founding members), it's now almost as difficult to imagine them without the melodic, textured touch of guitarist John Frusciante or the deep, funky drum sound of Chad Smith. The band is currently on hiatus, but based on the chemistry they share on Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication, one has to assume its a hiatus they won't want to prolong.
Flea is not the real name of the Chili Peppers' bassist. He was born Michael Peter Balzary, a trumpet-playing transplant from Australia who, while attending Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, was virtually friendless until meeting Anthony Kiedis. His new friend turned him onto punk rock and introduced him to guitarist Hillel Slovak, who then introduced Balzary to the bass, which he taught him to play. The three friends continued to influence each other, with Balzary and Slovak urging Kiedis to turn his poetry into songs. With a fourth friend, drummer Jack Irons, they evolved into a band by 1983, designed for the purpose of playing one show, and nothing more. They called themselves Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, and the owner of the LA club they played liked them so much, he invited them back. After writing several more songs that bore a combined influence of LA punk outfits like X and Black Flag, and funk bands like Sly and the Family Stone, Tony Flow and the MMMM took to the LA club scene. They quickly built a reputation for being a stunning and energetic live band, and their live sound found its way to EMI, who signed them to a contract. They changed their name to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Balzary started going by the name of Flea, and the entire band started hitting the stage wearing nothing but one sock each, covering the one part of their bodies that they couldn't legally show to the audience.
Just as things were getting serious for the Chili Peppers, Slovak and Irons left to focus on their even-more-serious band, What Is This. That band had been the mainstay for the guitarist and drummer, and the Chili Peppers were only providing them with a flight of fancy. So it happened that Kiedis and Flea had a recording contract, a great live show, and a strong set of songs; everything a band could want, but no band. They quickly hired drummer Cliff Martinez and guitarist Jack Sherman, then recorded their self-titled debut (1984, EMI). For anyone who knew the Chili Peppers' live show, this album did not measure up, and the loss of Slovak and Irons could be easily felt. Sales were unimpressive, but the album really only served to help the Peppers, whose cult status was steadily increasing. Fortunately for Kiedis and Flea, What Is This fell apart by 1985, and Slovak returned to the Chili Peppers after some encouragement from Flea. Soon enough, Irons was back as well, and the band, fully reformed, set about recording their second album with a new producer, funk legend George Clinton. Where tensions arose out of the first album's recording due to Kiedis and Flea clashing with the producer, the relationship between Clinton and the band was healthy and comfortable. They were able to be themselves more on Freaky Styley (1985, EMI) and it showed, though they still didn't fully capture the fire of their live performances. Sales were only slightly better this time, but the band was only one album away from real success.
1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (EMI) was the first Chili Peppers album to break the charts, though it ranked modestly, at 148. Several of the album's songs are now fan favorites, including “Fight Like a Brave,” “Me and My Friends,” and the crowd-pleasing “Party on Your Pussy.” The group then put out the five-track The Abbey Road EP (1988, EMI), whose cover was a send-up of the Beatles' Abbey Road, featuring the Chili Peppers walking across the street wearing their trademark tube socks. Although the band has always had a sense of humor publicly, there wasn't much to laugh about within the band at that time. Kiedis and Slovak were both addicted to heroin, and a wedge was forming, particularly between Slovak and the rest of the band. Slovak was becoming more and more withdrawn, preferring to be alone with his addiction, displaying a listlessness when working with his band. He overdosed and died on June 25th, 1988. Kiedis reacted to the death strangely, equating it to a bad dream, and declining to go to the funeral. Irons was so shaken that he subsequently quit the band, leaving Flea and Kiedis alone, together, once more.
And again, the two friends stuck together, hiring one replacement from a funk band (Dewayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight from Parliament Funkadelic) and one from a punk band (D.H. Peligro of Dead Kennedys). The combination didn't stick, but Peligro did introduce Flea to John Frusciante, a guitar prodigy who happened to be well-acquainted with the Chili Peppers' repertoire. Following a few jam sessions, the band welcomed Frusciante in as their new guitarist. After Peligro was fired, the group auditioned Chad Smith, a drummer who was more influenced by rock than funk or punk. Although Kiedis was tentative about hiring him, the way he kept up with Flea (or perhaps more accurately, the way Flea kept up with Smith) during the audition was impressive, and Smith was hired. This new incarnation had an undeniable chemistry, and they recorded their most successful album up to that point, 1989's Mother's Milk (EMI). Despite the clash between Frusciante and producer Michael Beinhorn, the sessions were productive, and the album made a great leap in the charts from their previous peak, hitting number 52. They scored with the singles “Higher Ground” (a cover of the Stevie Wonder song), and “Knock Me Down,” a tribute to Slovak. The LP was gold-certified by the next year, and in terms of success for the Chili Peppers, that was just the beginning.
Rick Rubin turned down the band's offer to produce Mother's Milk, but now he was set to produce their follow-up. The band switched to Warner Bros and got to work. Rubin made the decision to move the band to an unconventional recording environment, and set them up in a mansion that he turned into a studio. The entire band, excluding Smith, stayed in that mansion throughout the entire recording process and went through the most intensely creative period they'd yet experienced as a group. Blood Sugar Sex Magik (Warner Bros) was released in September of 1991, immediately successful on the strength of number one modern rock single “Give it Away.” “Under the Bridge,” Kiedis' naked confession of drug addiction, followed as the next single and reached number two. “Give it Away” went on to win a Grammy in 1992 for Best Hard Rock Performance With Vocal. “Suck My Kiss” and “Breaking the Girl” were also successful singles, and the LP soon sold seven million copies in the US.
Frusciante was now suffering from heroin addiction and seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of Slovak. He quit the band during a tour in Japan in 1992. The band were more popular than ever at this point, and quickly replaced him with Arik Marshall. That summer, they headlined Lollapalooza II. All seemed to be well until it was time to record new material, at which point they realized that Marshall wouldn't work out. He was replaced with Jesse Tobias, who was then quickly superseded by Dave Navarro, fresh off the breakup of Jane's Addiction. They played Woodstock '94, and a new album would not surface for another two years. It was one of the band's more troubled times, as Kiedis was relapsing into heroin abuse, and Navarro wasn't exactly meshing with the rest of the band. 1995's One Hot Minute (Warner Bros) properly displays this turmoil, as it is a muddled affair, rife with mediocrity in some songs, and greatness in others. “Aeroplane” and the depressing “My Friends” were both big hits, and the album overcame its mixed reviews, selling five million copies internationally.
Navarro's rock star persona was one thing, but even his playing style couldn't be reconciled with those of Kiedis, Smith and Flea, and he was out of the band in early 1998. Frusciante, meanwhile, was rumored to be a hopeless case, slowly killing himself with drugs, but at least he was working at the same time. He released two albums by himself, 1995's Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt and 1997's Smiles From the Streets You Hold. But in truth, he had certainly been deteriorating physically, and drugs could have claimed his life had he not checked himself into rehab. Flea later visited him and asked him to rejoin the band, and the guitarist gratefully accepted. In 1999, the reunited Chili Peppers released Californication (Warner Bros), another big success, with five popular singles; “Around the World,” “Parallel Universe,” “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” and “Californication” all received copious amounts of airplay. Despite fire-setting riots that occurred during their set at Woodstock '99, the Chili Peppers were on a roll.
In 2002, they released By the Way (Warner Bros), an album that included an almost total absence of slap-bass from Flea, and the band earned props for focusing more on melody and songwriting than on making funky party songs. Stadium Arcadium (Warner Bros) followed in 2006, a double-LP that showcased all of the Chili Peppers' greatest strengths. There was some funk, some rock, and some pleasing pop melodies in the songs “Dani California,” “Tell Me Baby,” and “Snow (Hey Oh).” In 2011 the band released I'm With You.