Is this band good: Red Hot Chili Peppers
A regular feature where we—using scientific, circumstantial, and anecdotal evidence—determine once and for all whether a band is good
Welcome to “Is This Band Good?”, a semi-regular feature where I, with the help of a knowledgeable and accomplished musician, try to determine—quantitatively—if certain bands are actually good.
THE DEFENDANT: RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS
We all knew this was coming. From the very first moment the words “Is This Band Good?” left my fingertips, you’ve wondered when we were going to tackle Red Hot Chili Peppers, right? If not, you probably don’t live in Southern California.
There are tons of reasons to like or dislike the Chilis, but down here, they just hit differently. Like Sublime, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are just part of the atmosphere, exemplifying the sun-soaked excess and wild desperation of Southern California, and asking whether they’re good is almost like asking if air is good. You don’t have to live here to judge the band on its musical merit, but in LA and San Diego, your Red Hot Chili Opinion becomes your personality.
This makes it difficult to look at the band objectively. I guess this is true for any band that has been in the zeitgeist as long as RHCP. But try this: Imagine you’re an alien, you’ve just landed on Earth and hear this band’s music. It’s wild. It conveys an existence that’s the complete opposite of most human life. It’s the most not normal. And better yet, it’s hugely successful, both critically and financially. Just look at all their Grammys. Certainly, this group—what carbon-based lifeforms call the “Red Hot Chili Peppers”—must be the greatest band in history, perhaps even royalty of some sort.
But it’s taken a long time for the Peppers to become California Kings (no doubt the size of of every Chili Pepper’s mattress).
The band formed in the ‘80s and quickly earned a reputation for rampant drug use and bonkers live shows that fused funk, rap, and punk (kind of a proto nü metal). When they started putting out albums, they attracted the attention of some genuinely cool people: Gang of Four’s guitarist Andy Gill produced self-titled debut (even though his relationship with Anthony Kiedis quickly soured), and George Clinton produced the band’s second album Freaky Styley.
To get a sense of how wild and novel this band was at the time, look no further than their cameo in the 1986 film Tough Guys, about two old-timey gangsters who—after serving a very long prison term—are released, only to find modern society and music crrrraaazy.
In 1989, during the production of Mother’s Milk, founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose, and young Chili superfan John Frusciante stepped in to replace him. The band also picked up drummer Chad Smith, thereby solidifying what would be known as the quintessential iteration of the band.
With the help of producer/exploiter/povocateur/beard-haver, Rick Rubin, the Chilis (so many fun ways to refer to this band!) pretty much won the ‘90s by bookending the decade with two monster albums: Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication, with One Hot Minute in between them. Californication found the band trading funky anarchy for sensitivity and actual melodies, and that’s pretty much the gear they’ve been coasting in for the past 20 years. They’ve also started wearing shirts (occasionally), and I don’t know how/if that has affected their music, but it’s worth noting.
Forty years into their career, there’s no denying Red Hot Chili Peppers are arguably the biggest rock band in the world (maybe only second to Foo Fighters). They’ve persevered through tragedy, death, and drug addiction. They’re in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Their power is so complete that fans will get the band’s logo tattooed on their bodies, despite it looking like a butthole. And if you badmouth them whilst in LA, the cops will arrest you.
But, are they good?
Ryan Bradford: I’m the writer of this newsletter and a former Pepperhead.
Ryan Bradford: When I was young, I found the Red Hot Chili Peppers vaguely frightening. Blood Sugar Sex Magik might have been the first album I’d seen with an explicit content label on the cover, and that reason alone made me want to steer clear. Also, try being a wee Mormon lad and having an album with the word “sex” in the title. Not easy!
But cut to the summer of 1999. I was 14 years old, I had just graduated eighth grade and survived what I presumed to be the worst part of my life (I wasn’t wrong). I was stoked. New school, new me, I thought. My mom had also recently moved into a condo that had cable—a first for me. So when she was at work, I spent hours watching Total Request Live on MTV, which seemed to play on an endless loop. Seems like hell now.
Do I remember how many times I saw the video for “Scar Tissue” before Californication actually dropped? No. Did it matter? Double nope! Just like me, the Chili Peppers seemed to be in the process of reinvention. The songs were softer, more personal, and hinted at the sort of elementary melancholy that defines the life of a newly-turned teenager. Plus, Anthony Kiedis had bleached hair. Radical.
I bought Californication the day it came out, as well as a home hair-bleaching kit. I remember listening to track after track of Red Hot Chili Brilliance as the peroxide burned into my scalp. And because I wanted that newfound Kiedis-level of blonde, I let the bleach sit for another round of Californication—far longer than the packaging instructed. Afterwards, when the sun hit my head, even God Himself would’ve squinted.
I spent a lot of time that summer sitting by the pool at my dad’s condo, listening to Californication on repeat, trying to get tan.
New me, I thought.
Now, the idea of a 14-year-old Utah boy working on his tan seems like something out of either a Christopher Guest movie or a nightmare.
Later, when I was a senior in high school, my best friend Ryen Schlegel and I somehow found ourselves in a weight lifting class with a bunch of freshmen. Even though most of them were bigger than us, we had seniority and controlled what music played from the PA, and a lot of times it was Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Imagine two nerdy seniors bench-pressing the 40-lb bar while Anthony Kiedis yelled “SUCK MY KISS!”
Lifting weights and tanning. That pretty much sums up my RHCP experience. Truth be told, I bet those scenarios are not too far from how the Chili boys intended their music to be enjoyed.
Since moving to San Diego a decade ago, the ubiquity of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ music has turned my affection sour. It’s hard for me to listen to them now without cringing. And on really bad days, I wish harm upon their fans.
Shelby Wentz: Flea taught me how to play bass. Okay, maybe not literally—like he wasn’t shirtless in my one-bedroom apartment when I was 12 years old (totes innapropes) slapping out the bassline to “Higher Ground.” But he was the one-man inspo and only reference I had at the time on what a bass player was supposed to be like, from the sheltered perspective of a middle-schooler who had barely saved up enough money from babysitting to buy her first bass (cherry red Fender Jazz Squire on sale for $99 at Guitar Center). I thought Flea was a musical genius. I even painted a large, acrylic portrait of him that was equally awesome and terrible.
The year was 1998 and the song “Higher Ground” had been released almost a decade prior. When I heard it on the radio, it was the first time I’d ever heard bass sound that way, and I knew I wanted to learn it because, well, I thought it was SO COOL. I didn’t know what “slap bass” was, but after I dialed up my internet (literally) and found some info (likely using Ask Jeeves) I discovered what the thumpy, sproingy sound was called. I found a bass tabs website, and using a lined sheet of paper I carefully wrote down the tablature (we didn’t have a printer, and you weren’t going to catch me sneaking bass tab printouts at the school library). Then, for the final piece of my education (and in order for the tabs to make sense), I watched MTV until “Higher Ground” played and recorded it on a VHS tape so I could watch it over and over to understand the technique (being careful not to go over my mom’s Melrose Place episodes, God forbid).
Through this complicated pre-YouTube methodology, I learned how to play the bassline and felt like a total, utter, badass. I must have played it hundreds of times. Mind you, I didn’t own an amp (lolz, 6th grade amateur hour, amiright?), so it was the quietest rendition likely in existence. Guitar Center employees would rue the day they sold me that bass because any time we were in the neighborhood I’d ask my mom to stop by so I could plug into an amp in the bass room and slap the song out to the few dudes wondering what a middle schooler was doing there (being a total badass, DUH).
I listened to Blood Sex Sugar Magik over and over again to pick out the basslines I wanted to learn, then it was back to Ask Jeeves and my bass tabs notebook.
Ryan Bradford: Dear Chili Peppers fans, I’m just a little curious: what’s your favorite lyric? What’s the thing that you’d scribble on your school folder or make your put as your away message back in the AIM days? Is it, “Up to my ass in alligators / Let's get it on with the alligator haters”?
Or is it, “K-I-S-S-I-N-G / Chicka chicka dee / Do me like a banshee”?
Or perhaps it’s, “Hey oh / listen what I say oh / I got your hey oh / now listen what I say oh”?
Or maybe “Ding ding dong diggyding ding dong” for its elegant simplicity?
By no means am I the first person to bring the quality of the Chili Peppers’ lyrics into question, but it’s hard to wrap my mind around how the band evolved into stadium headliners and not a children’s novelty act (well, I mean, apart from the whole thing about playing live with socks on their dicks). When did we decide that, yes, we need an annoying frat boy yelling Fred Flintstone exclamations in our ear?
The point is, Red Hot Chili Peppers are a very dumb band.
But dumb doesn’t necessarily mean bad. There are tons of dumb bands that bulldoze their way into cultural relevance because they make fun music. KISS, Ramones, and Journey would fit this bill. I might even throw Black Sabbath in that category. Let people have their dumb bands, I say.
Admittedly, I had not known very much about Red Hot Chili Peppers’ early output before this deep dive, which I assume is heresy to true Pepperheads. I remember a fellow percussionist in our high school band—a worldly hippie fellow—lamenting the band’s sound after Californication came out. “They’re just not a funk band anymore,” he had said. But listening to the early stuff, I think that’s a good thing. It’s true that the debut, Freaky Styley and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan have a raw, unhinged energy that later albums lack. It’s certainly exciting at first, but once you get past the novelty, it gets real old real fast. Cherry Poppin’ Daddies were also exciting the first time I heard them, too.
There’s a lot to like about Blood Sugar Sex Magic, though. The whole album is on a level of raunchy hedonism that, up until then, only Prince could pull off, and that alone makes it a mostly enjoyable listen. If it weren’t for the oversaturation of “Give It Away,” and “Under the Bridge” on the radio, I might still like those songs, too.
I’ve already spoken a lot about Californication, which, despite all rational explanations, is an album I just can’t quit. I’m never going to put it on, but I won’t turn it off.
If there’s one RHCP album I’ll go to bat for, it’s One Hot Minute. I hesitate to apply the word “artistry” to anything Kiedis & Co have sweatily touched, but One Hot Minute has the sound of a band forced out of its comfort zone. It’s a compelling thing to hear a group who’s usually so full of themselves suddenly unsure of their identity. Replacing John Frusciante with Jane’s Addiction’s guitarist/poster-child-for-weird-goatees Dave Navarro sounds like it was a bad fit for everyone involved, but it resulted in a darker, more psychedelic, and harder album than the band would ever put out again.
The more I listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, the more I ask myself why I’ve spent the past 20 years disliking them so much.
But there are reasons.
For starters, the quality of Chili Peppers songs is all over the place. For every good one, there are about four terrible songs. Plus, the albums are way too long, and their pseudo-spiritual/equality/love schtick is like “Live, Laugh, Love” for sunburnt bros in baseball caps, and it’s bullshit, especially when you look at their misogynist behaviors (which I’ll get to in a sec).
Also, their sound has become so formulaic that comedian John Daly parodied it with a song called “Abracadabralifornia,” and it sounded so legit that Yahoo News thought it was a real RHCP song. (My favorite lyric: “I drink an Alabama slammer with your sexy-ass grandma / The Hulk turns green when the rays get gamma!”)
Let’s also not forget the time when Nick Cave absolutely demolished the band with this single quote, which now lives in my head rent-free: “I’m forever near a stereo saying, ‘What the fuck is this garbage? ‘ And the answer is always the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
But if you’re looking for an unobjective reason to hate the band, read this short essay by former music executive Julie Farman, who writes about being sexually assaulted by the Chili Peppers in the early ‘90s.
At first I thought they were joking. When I realized they weren’t, I ran from the storage room to my office, where I closed my door, sat down at my desk, and cried. I was humiliated and weirdly ashamed, and embarrassed that I was humiliated and weirdly ashamed. I thought I was a badass. Being a victim didn’t fit my self-perception.
When the Chili Peppers’ then-manager knocked on my door a few minutes later, I stopped crying and let him in. He offered an apology that sounded memorized; it was one he’d obviously offered many times before.
This sums up what I hate about the band so much: it’s not really the music, but the people who make it. There’s a desperate entitlement that fuels these good time boys. They want the world, but they want it handed to them; they want fame, just so long as they don't have to work too hard for it. They’re simultaneously cocky yet self-conscious (remember how much Flea dislikes Weird Al’s parody of “Give It Away”?).
In that sense, they’re perhaps the best representatives of Los Angeles, a city defined by meticulously curated stupidity. And yes, I think it is fair to take into account their numerous addictions (one of which, I assume, was an addiction to the shindig), when judging the band on past behavior, but when you’ve built your late-stage career on personal redemption, love, equality, blah blah blah—common themes on all albums since Californication—yet offer no acknowledgement to the lives you might have destroyed in your journey, that doesn’t make you artists. It makes you a bunch of pricks.
Shelby Wentz: I never liked Anthony Kiedis’s vocals or his Dr. Seuss-level approach to lyrics and rhyming. It wasn’t about the vocals for me—I was most interested in the basslines and John Frusciante’s guitar riffs. I even attempted (very briefly) to learn them on my brother’s guitar. Mothers Milk was released in 1989, so I don’t personally think of Hillel Sloval as the guitarist (RIP) because my introduction to RHCP was primarily through ‘91’s Blood Sex Sugar Magik and then, eight years later, Californication. Blood Sex Sugar Magik (can I just call this BSSM?) was sultry, raunchy, dirty, funky… everything a preteen should be impressed by. And boy, was I. The album was full of nasty innuendos, with lyrics like “suck my kiss” that allowed me to sing along without asking Jesus for forgiveness.
Californication was the last album I paid attention to. I was both surprised and disappointed. When it came out, I had so thoroughly consumed BSSM that the CD had scratches and holes. I was expecting the same raunchiness and Skeeze Factor of BSSM, and despite the cleverly sexualized album title, I was to be let down in that sense. Except for a few songs like “Scar Tissue” (“...to lick your heart and taste your health”) the songs focused on California (I think?) with vague, awful rhyming.
However, the basslines on “Around the World” had me shook. Flea really came through and inspired me...to listen to other bands. “Parallel Universe” taught me to appreciate the simplicity of a repetitive, consistent bassline that could still be the backbone of a song even if it wasn’t super flashy. As a newbie on bass, these kinds of lessons were essential, as I taught myself with zero budget, no teachers, and a hardly-running internet (often interrupted by our landline phone). The fact that I could figure out Flea’s basslines as a 12-year-old either means that he isn’t the world’s greatest bassist, or is a testament to my tireless dedication and youthful talent. At the risk of damaging my precious memory of these pre-teen powers and the reputation of my og bass idol, I’m going to say the latter.
Here’s the thing—I’ll never like Kiedis’s vocals or think what RHCP have accomplished musically comes anywhere NEAR the quality of my favorite musicians now. But I will always have an undeniable, irreversible, positive association when I think of Flea, and then as an afterthought (and in this order): Blood Sex Sugar Magik, John Frusciante, Chad Smith, and that shirtless guy singing “Horton Hears a Who in Californication Station’s Basement.”*
*this song doesn’t exist. Or is it a rare B-side?
Ryan Bradford: Oh my god, did I just talk myself into not hating Red Hot Chili Peppers?
Shelby Wentz: Red Hot Chili Peppers are like the kids menu chicken nuggets: generic yet satisfying, until you start ordering chicken biryani. Or they’re the gateway drug to...better drugs? These metaphors aren’t going anywhere, but discovering bands like Fugazi because Flea piqued my interest in late ‘80s/early ‘90s bassists did take me somewhere, and that was away from bands like RHCP and toward more post-hardcore and punk. THAT was the music I needed to survive my angst-ridden teenage years, when no funky bass riff in existence was strong enough to keep me tied to RHCP.
Yes, Red Hot Chili Peppers were a good band for me, from 1991-2000. But it’s a hard PASS from me now. Somewhere out there in San Diego, a “vintage” (that’s pre-2000, so shed a tear with me, my fellow Millennials) painting of Flea is gathering another layer of dust.
Sorry folks, you can’t escape the Red Hot Chili power, no matter how far you try to distance yourself from it. The members are most likely trash, but the music? Leaning toward “dumb but good” on this one.
AWKSD GUEST LIST SHOWS
The Guest List gives paying AWKSD subscribers the opportunity to see live music for free, because there’s no better phrase than “I’m on the list.”
Friday, November 5
Video Age, Shy Boys, Shindigs @ Soda Bar: Video Age is like a yacht rock version of Phoenix, and if that doesn’t sell you on them, then I don’t want to be your friend. Shy Boys play earnest and emotionally-affecting indie with a touch of neo soul. If this show was peanut butter, it’d be smooooth.
If you want to see this show, just reply to this email. First come, first served. And even if you think you’ve missed the window, it never hurts to ask.
THE WEEKLY GOODS
I could probably write a thesis paper on Danzig. Despite his reputation these days as a walking meme, the dude has stayed true to his uncompromising artistic vision for over 40 years (no matter how dumb that vision can be). In fact, Danzig might be the ideal candidate for “Is This Band Good?” A few years ago, I tried to channel this obsession into chapbook of poems about the Mr. Left Hand Black. I ended up writing about 60, and only about five of them turned out to be good. But lucky me, because literary site Hobart After Dark (HAD) was kind enough to publish them on Halloween! I hope you enjoy.
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As live music continues to emerge from its dormant COVID stage, it’s rad to see musicians busting out of their cocoons with cool, ambitious projects. One such beautiful butterfly is Plosivs—a San Diego supergroup featuring John Reis (Hot Snakes, Rocket From the Crypt), Rob Crow (Pinback, Goblin Cock) and one of my favorite—and most hard hitting—drummers, Atom Willard (Against Me!). Based on the combined CV, you’d expect Plosivs music to just pummel you, and while the first single, “Hit the Breaks,” is wild, there’s also a refined pop-sensibility running underneath the chaos. I can’t wait to hear more from them. Plosivs plays with AWKSD fave Shades McCool this Saturday at Quartyard.
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I’m not super familiar with Teenage Bottlerocket, but I’m familiar with them enough to know that I’d absolutely love them after spending a little more time with them. Fans of cool pop-punk like Lawrence Arms, Dillinger Four, and Off With Their Heads should not miss this show. I’m also stoked that this show is going down at Til-Two Club. It’s going to be sweaty and punk af.
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