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Red Hot Chili Peppers survive, thrive in spite of themselves

Over the course of nearly three decades, The Red Hot Chili Peppers have successfully expanded the parameters of funk, punk and hip-hop while fusing those forms into a wholly new amalgam. Yet, The Chilis’ journey has been a volatile one, plagued by death and drugs but driven by sheer tenacity.

By Lee Zimmerman

Over the course of nearly three decades, The Red Hot Chili Peppers have successfully expanded the parameters of funk, punk and hip-hop while fusing those forms into a wholly new amalgam. Exceptional musicians to a man, they belie their edgy insurgency with a certain virtuosity that’s made even the most hardened critic look on with admiration. Yet, The Chilis’ journey has been a volatile one, plagued by death and drugs but somehow driven by sheer tenacity.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Freaky Styley

Keeping track of the band’s early lineup becomes difficult without the proverbial score card. The original incarnation that coalesced in 1983 included singer Anthony Kiedis, guitarist Hillel Slovak, bassist Flea and drummer Jack Irons. The group was originally called Tony Flow & the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem — an unwieldy handle that the band’s members wisely changed to the Red Hot Chili Peppers once they realized their combination was potent enough to succeed. Despite the fact that Slovak and Irons already were performing with a band called What Is This?, The Chili Peppers’ early performances received enough of an enthusiastic reaction to persuade the duo to stick with their new venture, at least as far as a side project. A string of club appearances in the band’s native L.A. soon attracted the interest of various record labels, and in 1984, the Chili Peppers were offered a deal with Capitol/EMI. At this point, Slovak and Irons found their loyalties divided. What Is This? inked a contract with MCA, leading the duo to stick with their original outfit. Consequently, Flea and Kiedis recruited Flea’s friend, Cliff Martinez, to play drums and Jack Sherman to be their new guitarist.

Unfortunately the quartet’s eponymous debut was fraught with tension, not only between the band and producer Andy Gill, whose day job was with the Gang of Four, but also between Kiedis and Sherman. Sherman was fired soon after the sessions ended. After resigning his role in What Is This? Slovak was brought back into the Peppers’ fold.

The band’s sophomore set boasted a more sympathetic producer in George Clinton and a title — “Freaky Styley” — that reflected the chaotic recording sessions that resulted from the members’ rabid heroin use.

Red Hot Chili Peppers 1991

The addition of drummer Chad Smith (second from left) and guitarist John Frusciante (second from right), cemented the most successful lineup of the band. The band's first album with Warner Bros., "Blood Sugar Sex Magik," also brought its first Grammy. Photo courtesy Warner Bros.

In fact, the band’s drug habits went on to influence the choice of a producer for their third album, Public Image Ltd.’s Keith Levine, who shared a penchant for chemical indulgence. Rumor had it that the parties spent half their budget on heroin and cocaine. Not surprisingly, the atmosphere became so unnerving that the tension surrounding the band escalated even further. Martinez was jettisoned, and Irons came back in to replace him. Even so, Kiedis’ and Slovak’s increasing drug dependence began to take a toll.

Fortunately, the Chili Peppers persevered. Levine was fired, and Michael Beinhorn was brought in to replace him after the band’s first choice, Rick Rubin, announced he was unavailable. Even though Kiedis had opted for rehab, his old habits continued to haunt him.

The band’s third album, 1987’s “The Uplift Mofo Party Plan,” gained entry on the charts — albeit toward the bottom rung — and the band embarked on a triumphant tour in support of the new record.

The good times didn’t last long. On June 25, 1988, Slovak died of a drug overdose, which in turn threw the band’s existence into peril. Irons opted to leave the band and eventually ended up joining Pearl Jam, but Flea and Kiedis decided to soldier on and enlist other musicians to keep the brand alive.

Their first choice was to tap guitarist DeWayne McKnight, formerly of Parliament/Funkadelic and drummer D.H. Peligro of The Dead Kennedys. McKnight lasted only one recording session and three performances before he was sacked and replaced by guitarist John Frusciante. Peligro was fired a short time later, due to what was, by now, the familiar specter of drug dependence. After holding open auditions, the band chose Chad Smith as its new drummer, a choice that also helped to boost the band’s internal dynamic and ensure a certain cohesion. Consequently, the sessions for the Chili Peppers’ next album, “Mother’s Milk,” found the new lineup solidly in sync. Upon its Aug. 16, 1989, release, “Mother’s Milk” rocketed up the worldwide charts and became the group’s best-selling album to that point.

Red Hot Chili Pepperrs Blood Sugar Sex Majik

The success of “Mother’s Milk” continued with “Blood Sugar Sex Magik,” the group’s initial effort for Warner Bros. — which won the band after a major bidding war — and The Chili Peppers’ first collaboration with the long-sought producer Rick Rubin, who finally opted to sign on now that the band had expurgated the drug abusers in its midst.

Buoyed by the band’s new burst of energy and prolific prowess, Rubin decided it would be more productive to move the sessions to an old L.A. mansion that once belonged to magician Harry Houdini. “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” hit the stores in September 1991 and yielded the single “Give It Away,” which became one of the group’s signature songs and garnered the Peppers’ first Grammy the following year. The singles that followed – “Under the Bridge,” “Breaking the Girl” and “Suck My Kiss” — also did well, propelling the album to sales of 15 million copies and an eventual rank at No. 3 on the American album charts.

Red Hot Chili Peppers with Arik Marshall

After John Frusciante's initial departure from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Arik Marshall took on guitar duties. However, Marshall didn't last long with the band. Photo courtesy Warner Bros./GavinBowden.

Sadly, this harmony didn’t last long. Frusciante felt uncomfortable with the band’s newfound success and mass appeal status; he quit the band immediately prior to a date on the subsequent Japanese tour. The Chili Peppers then turned to guitarist Arik Marshall. He took part in a series of promotional videos and performed with the band at the MTV Video Music Awards in September 1992, where The Red Hot Chili Peppers received seven nominations, three of which translated into wins.

However, the game of musical chairs soon started up again. Marshall was fired for not fitting in with the band’s MO, and Jesse Tobias of the band Mother Tongue was tapped as his replacement. However, Tobias didn’t last long either, and Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction was subsequently brought on board.

As had become the norm in the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ trajectory, that lineup didn’t last long, either. Musical differences quickly became evident, and the familiar pall of drug abuse once again infested the band’s working relationship. The songwriting process, in particular, became stifled, and by the time the band’s next effort, “One Hot Minute,” made its appearance in September 1995, The Chili Peppers’ patented funk groove had swerved toward a darker, more metal-tinged approach. The song “Tearjerker” was inspired by the death of Kurt Cobain, while the track “Pea,” written and sung solo by Flea, dealt with the death of his friend, actor River Phoenix. “One Hot Minute” sold eight million units, and the songs “My Friends,” “Warped” and “Aeroplane” scaled the charts.

Yet, as was the band’s pattern, as soon as the outlook began to brighten, reality dealt the group a trio of harsh blows. Prior to the start of a planned U.S. tour, Smith broke his wrist, forcing the band to cancel the bulk of the shows scheduled for 1997. Flea, one of the band’s most stable members, grew frustrated and threatened to quit, while Kiedis had a motorcycle mishap, which, in turn, led to another drug relapse. Navarro, meanwhile, was in a drug haze of his own. The band considering breaking up, but ultimately, it was only Navarro who quit. Frusciante, now disconnected with everyone except Flea, had also struggled with addiction, but chose to go back into rehab. At Flea’s insistence, and prompted by the bassist’s threat to leave the band, Frusciante was invited to rejoin the group.

Red Hot Chili Peppers with Dave Navarro

The Red Hot Chili Peppers lineup that included Dave Navarro (second from left) did not last longer than "One Hot Minute." Warner Bros./Marina Chavez.

Despite Frusiante’s physical and mental scars suffered as a result of his addiction — not to mention the fact he had played only infrequently since his last stint with The Chili Peppers — the group was once again ready to retool. The result was 1999’s “Californication,” the album that would soon become the group’s most successful recording to date, thanks to sales totaling 15 million copies, yet another Grammy and six successful singles: “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” “Californication,” “Around the World,” “Road Trippin’,” and “Parallel Universe.”

A less-than-satisfactory set at Woodstock 1999 notwithstanding, The Red Hot Chili Peppers seemed ready to embrace the new millennium. The group was nominated for five MTV Video Music Awards in 2000 and won two, as well as the prestigious MTV Video Vanguard Award. The group also began prepping for its next album, titled “By The Way,” with Frusciante not only recovered from his mishaps but ready to take a lead role in the creative process.

Red Hot Chili Peppers Californication

However the album’s New Wave-ish direction alienated Flea, whose fondness for the funkier aspects of the group’s sound found him once again toying with the idea of quitting. The album ultimately ended up sounding far more subdued than any of the band’s earlier efforts, but “By The Way” still managed to spin off four singles and sell relatively well. Flea abandoned his plans to leave, and the band embarked on another massive world tour that spawned both a live DVD and an accompanying concert CD. By the time 2004 came to a close, the revitalized Chili Peppers were ranked as the No. 1 box-office draw in the world.

A greatest-hits disc featuring a pair of new songs was released in 2003, followed by an all-new double studio album, “Stadium Arcadium,” in 2006. Debuting at No. 1 in both the U.S. and the U.K., “Stadium Arcadium” boasted several more hit singles, including “Dani California,” the band’s fastest-selling record yet; “Tell Me Baby,” another successful chart-topper; and “Snow (Hey Oh),” which also reached No. 1. The album itself won five Grammys, and its success prompted the band to spend the better part of the next two years on the road, with a number of international festivals included in the itinerary.

Once the tour ended, The Chili Peppers took an extended hiatus that found each of the members involved in solo pursuits. Flea took music theory courses at the University of Southern California and partnered with Thom Yorke of Radiohead in the group Atoms for Peace. Frusciante released another solo album, “The Empyrean.” Chad Smith joined forces with Sammy Hagar, Joe Satriani and Michael Anthony to form the band Chickenfoot, and he also released a solo album, “Chad Smith’s Bombastic Meatbats.” And Kiedis was honored by MusiCares for his efforts toward helping other addicts with addition.

Yet, the band as a whole reconvened only once during 2008, appearing on an album by George Clinton, where the group covered the classic “Let the Good Times Roll.”

Red Hot Chili Peppers Stadium Arcadium

The Chili Peppers officially ended their hiatus in October 2009. Frusiante, having hit his stride, decided it was time to focus on his solo career, and he departed the group a second time. He was replaced by Josh Kinghoffer, who had previously served as the band’s second-string guitarist during the Peppers’ 2007 world tour.

Kinghoffer had a marked effect on the band’s next album, “I’m With You,” for which recording commenced in September 2010 and was completed in March 2011. This time around, the songs sounded far more structured and thought out, as opposed to the loose jams that had inspired the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ material before. While the album’s first single, “The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie,” managed to creep to the top of the charts, the album failed to hit the heights of the band’s previous offerings. Critical response was generally favorable, although some pundits were guarded in their critiques. Likewise, the second single, “Monarchy of Roses,” reaped only a lukewarm response, a decided comedown considering the strength of the group’s earlier outings.

A second setback transpired in early 2012, when the band was forced to postpone its U.S. tour (which has since been rescheduled) — due to foot injuries that Kiedis incurred during the band’s previous tour.

Happily though, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have persevered. They band reigns as one of the biggest in the world, having amassed numerous best-selling albums and a massive worldwide fan base. And to cap it all off, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ induction into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame — achieved after the band failed to make the final cut the two years previous — serves as vindication of the band’s special stature. After a remarkable 30 years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have the potential to heat things up even more.