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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.
By Alex Heigl and Dustin Bird
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