Red Hot Chili Peppers: Pop Geniuses, or a Disgrace to Rock?
With the band's tenth album out next week, we battle over their legacy.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are terrible
The Red Hot Chili Peppers' journey from goof-offs to elder statesmen of rock has been a long and checkered one, and say what you want about them, they're a truly successful and influential band at this point. Which is unfortunate, because they are terrible. Their career can roughly be divided into two chunks: the chunk in which they gleefully pickpocketed funk music even as its corpse was still cooling, and their time as tattooed representatives of '90s alternativeness. Neither could be called artistically successful.
The band's first record sounds like Tom Tom Club and the Butthole Surfers jamming together, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's an echo-laden mess of thin production and Anthony Kiedis's obnoxious vocal mugging. (Oh, and there's slap bass. Did you know that? You will, because it's every RHCP fan's defense of the band's musical validity. "Dude, Flea!" I get it, he plays bass pretty well and bops around onstage. Cool.)
Listen: "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes"
RHCP spent three albums mining the same territory, which boils down to this: Funkadelic-plundering electric guitar, slap bass, and Keidis's rhythmic talking, which I will not dignify with the word "rap." Aside from some truly noxious sexual imagery ("There's a devil in my dick and some demons in my semen"), what blows me away listening to these records again for the first time since I was thirteen is how bad of a singer Keidis is: I mean, he wouldn't sound terrible singing around a campfire or at karaoke, but for an ostensible pro, his voice is limited and thin, and his habit of skipping from note to note sounds almost like yodeling at times.
As for Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which to many people remains the band's "definitive moment," it really boils down to one thing: John Frusciante. The admittedly talented Frusciante took Hillel Slovak's squalling metal-influenced guitar work and slimmed it down, leaving the Hendrix influence, but smoothing the band's overall sound in the process. But even in a beautiful guitar masterpiece like "Under the Bridge," you still have to content with Keidis's eighth-grade poetry.
Speaking of the lyrics, one of most distasteful things about RHCP is their frat-boy sexuality. This is on full display on Blood Sugar Sex Magik, from "Give It Away" to "Sir Psycho Sexy," the latter of which sounds like a Penthouse Forum letter collided with a dictionary of early '90s douchebag slang. (The former also features a jaw harp twanging away in the background, presumably in an attempt to make Kiedis's voice more musical by comparison.)
Listen: "Sir Psycho Sexy"
Absent for a while, Frusciante returned for Californication, the band's first album in four years. His heroin habit cost him his chops, but his guitar never weeped so gently as on "Scar Tissue" and the title track, unfortunately marred by some truly awful mp3-era mastering. Californication went platinum five times in the U.S. alone and saw RHCP remake themselves as a kindler, gentler (read: boring-er) band, a trend they would follow with the narcoleptic By The Way and the bloated mess of Stadium Arcadium.
RHCP took the over-amped sexuality of the Ohio Players and P-Funk and made it dumber, partially by stripping away George Clinton's political messages, partially by virtue of having a ponytailed pretty-boy write lyrics. Frusciante's presence elevated their work somewhat through the second act of their career, but now that he's gone, he doesn't seem like he was ever enough. — Alex Heigl
The Red Hot Chili Peppers are great
Slow down, there, man. Not everything has to be a rare, first-edition pressing of Trout Mask Replica. Surely at some point, you enjoyed listening to the radio and didn't obsessively analyze what made a band good, right? Red Hot Chili Peppers never revolutionized rock music — in fact, their biggest success came from retreating into the past — but who said they had to?
I'll grant the band's first records sound a bit dated at this point. But virtually everything in the late '80s had a crappy, tinny sound. SST Records always made bands sound like that: go listen to those early Dinosaur Jr. albums again, and then tell me you can judge a band by their production. The fact is that even then, RHCP wrote good songs. "Fight Like a Brave" is a great synthesis of the band's Funkadelic-inspired sing-song choruses and Zeppelin-like heavy stomp. And it doesn't really matter what Anthony Kiedis is rapping about, because you can't understand a damn thing he's saying.
Besides, when we really get into the heart of the band's discography, who's listening to Kiedis? I'm not — I'm listening to one of the best rhythm sections of the '90s. Poor Chad Smith is continually brought up because of his resemblance to Will Ferrell, but never because of his chops or the near-telepathic link he has with Flea. And yeah, Flea looks really, really goofy, but he's also probably the best rock bassist to be in a platinum-selling band since John Entwistle or Geddy Lee.
Listen: "Mellowship Slinky in B Major"
Also, Flea, Smith, and Kiedis were more of a songwriting force than you're giving them credit for. One Hot Minute, despite featuring Dave Navarro, contains several great cuts, like "Aeroplane," with its catchy bassline, while "My Friends" takes a folkier, more low-key approach, with some nice harmonies and an expansive chorus.
Besides, Californication is the band's real triumph, one that sees the melodic sensibilities of Blood Sugar Sex Magik joined to the rough edges of the band's earlier, more in-your-face work. Aside from the truckload of singles the album generated, "Porcelain" and "Road Trippin'" are far from "Sir Psycho Sexy," but they still sound like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It's rare that a band manages to mature artistically while maintaining their identity.
The rest of the discography is nothing to scoff at, either; By The Way benefits from Frusciante's positively angelic backing vocals and guitar layers, draping the album warmly. "Warm Tape" sounds like nothing the band had ever released before. And their range would only continue to expand with Stadium Arcadium.
Listen: "Warm Tape"
RHCP may not be a "cool" band, but in twenty-five years, they've made some great music. Maybe they're dumb, maybe they're regurgitating trends from decades past, but not every rock band has to be made up of avant-garde Ph. D. candidates. In fact, I sort of wish fewer of them were. — Dustin Bird