In April of 1991 the Red Hot Chili Peppers, along with producer Rick Rubin, set up camp in the Laurel Canyon mansion believed – but never confirmed – to have been owned by Harry Houdini, to begin work on their fifth studio album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The album was released on September 24th, 1991, coinciding with the release of Nirvana’s breakthrough album Nevermind, and would bring the band international acclaim and lasting success. The album was highly influential in the development of the alternative rock, rap-rock, and nu-metal genres, and remains, to many, the zenith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers‘ lengthy career, with many of the band’s most beloved and well-known songs appearing on the record. However, the jarring shift from cult favorites to international superstars was not without its complications, and the all-encompassing reach of the band’s newfound celebrity status quickly began to take a toll on the musical and interpersonal relationships of its members, culminating in the infamous departure of John Frusciante the following year.
Like many classic albums before it, Blood Sugar Sex Magik harbored an atmosphere that permeated the entire record. Each song sounded like a distant – or not so distant – relative of its counterparts, owing to the distinct approach to performing and recording the band would take during the sessions for the album. The recording process was documented in the 1991 documentary Funky Monks – named for the fourth track of the album – which featured extended footage of the sessions as well as revealing interviews with the band members, capturing what appeared to be a time of great synergy for the group. The funk-rockers were arguably never more locked-in with one another than they were for the creation of this album, with three of the four members opting to reside within the mansion for the duration of the recording, strengthening the sense of comradery among the musicians.
The lone exception was drummer Chad Smith, who opted to make the commute to and from the sessions on his motorcycle each day in order to be at home with his wife, though it has long been speculated that rumors of a supernatural presence within the storied locale contributed to Smith’s decision not to remain there once sessions wrapped up, a theory which has been disputed by Smith. Guitarist John Frusciante makes mention in the Funky Monks documentary of ghosts on the property, although he is adamant that the spirits were not malevolent and did not mean the band any harm.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the band’s second album with Frusciante, and the first with producer Rick Rubin, with whom they would form a working relationship that would span to the present day. Rubin’s inclusion stemmed at least partially from the band’s dissatisfaction with Michael Beinhorn who had overseen production on the band’s previous effort, 1989’s Mother’s Milk, an album which found the band in the precarious position of developing their chemistry in the studio. Following the sudden death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak in 1988 and the subsequent departure of founding drummer Jack Irons – who would go on to join Pearl Jam – singer Anthony Kiedis and bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary found themselves with only half a band.
They soon auditioned and hired 18 year old guitarist John Frusciante, who had been conducting years of intense, independent study of music theory in his bedroom, but had little in the way of professional experience playing with a band. Though the guitarist was a keen enthusiast of the band prior to becoming a member, he had originally intended to audition for Frank Zappa, whose work he had studied extensively. Frusciante ultimately decided that joining the Red Hot Chili Peppers would allot him greater musical freedom than would Zappa’s stringently regulated musical undertakings, and that the personal restrictions of Zappa’s zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy could impede upon his own vision for his career as a rock musician.
In the months following the band’s acquisition of John Frusciante, they began auditioning drummers to fill Irons’ still-vacant spot. When Chad Smith auditioned, the band were initially put off by his overall presentation, likening his appearance more to that of a member of Guns N’ Roses than of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Any reticence was quickly jettisoned, however, when Smith’s immediate chemistry with Flea became apparent. Smith was brought into the fold, establishing the groundwork for the fast and heavy funk-rock sound which would become a hallmark of the group.
Sessions for Mother’s Milk commenced just months after the addition of Fruciante to the group, and mere weeks after Smith came on board. Consequently, the band were faced with the arduous task of feeling out one another as musicians while simultaneously attempting to record an inspired, well-executed album that was representative of their sound. Contributing to the duress of the process was the insistence of producer Michael Beinhorn that the album be a hit, or at the very least produce a hit single, an attitude which contributed to a restrictive working environment and drained the proceedings of any spontaneity. This approach to recording was counterintuitive to the way the Chili Peppers were used to doing things, as they generally relied more on musical interplay and overall feel throughout the process than structured technique and predetermined expectations.
Beinhorn’s vision for the album was particularly disconcerting to Frusciante who took great issue with the producer’s intrusion upon his creative approach. Perhaps the most significant point of contention regarding the sound of the record was Beinhorn’s insistence upon heavy, processed guitar tones which he felt would be more in line with what was happening in popular music at the time. Kiedis has since stated that Beinhorn’s aim was to capture more of a heavy metal guitar sound while the band’s taste lay more within the realm of funk and psychedelic textures. Pushing the band even further away from their desired sound was Beinhorn’s affinity for overdubbing guitar parts which directly contrasted with the band’s organic approach to recording.
Once the sessions for Mother’s Milk came to an end, the band parted ways with the producer and the two parties never worked together again. The band were adamant that work on their next record be conducted under the supervision of a producer who would encourage creative freedom during the recording process. They landed the ideal candidate in Rick Rubin, as well as a new record contract with Warner Bros. Their creative struggles had been resolved for a time, but the cracks were already beginning to show for 21 year old John Frusciante when the band entered the studio to record their follow-up LP.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik represented a notable stylistic shift for the Red Hot Chili Peppers as, unencumbered by the supervision of an overbearing producer, they were able to further explore the prominent melodicism that Frusciante brought to the band’s sound. While the hard-hitting funk and hyper-rhythmic elements of the band’s signature sound remained intact, Kiedis – who had previously, almost exclusively, implemented a rapping/shouting vocal technique – began exploring the capabilities of his singing voice despite long-standing reservations about his own vocal ability.
Prior to the sessions, Kiedis and Frusciante collaborated directly in the songwriting process, often visiting one another at home to work songs out. This led to a greater emphasis on ballads for the record, which was amplified by Kiedis’ newfound interest in the development of lyrical ideas for songs rather than his usual rhythmic, stream-of-consciousness approach in which lyrics were selected based on the sound and percussive quality of the words rather than their meaning. One example of a song which emerged from these collaborative writing sessions is “I Could Have Lied,” an acoustic-based torch song which sees Kiedis kicking himself for showing his hand, as it were, in his relationship.
In his autobiography, Scar Tissue, Kiedis disclosed that the song was written for singer/songwriter Sinead O’Connor, although there are varying claims from the two as to the capacity in which they were involved. Another introspective track, “Breaking the Girl,” explores one of Anthony’s more serious, albeit chaotic, relationships. Musically, the song makes use of an uncharacteristic 6/8 time signature propelled by Smith’s recurring flurries of tom fills.
The song marks an instance of the band expanding their instrumental palette in keeping with their newly evolved sound, and makes prominent use of the mellotron as well as the acoustic twelve-string guitar played by Frusciante who has noted the influence of Led Zeppelin’s more folk-oriented material on the track. The song’s outro is built upon an extended jam during which members of the band overdubbed multiple percussion parts played on refuse found in a junkyard. The band members continue to step outside their usual roles throughout the album, with Chad Smith taking a rare recess from the drums to play marimba on “Sir Psycho Sexy,” and Flea, who studied jazz as a child, contributing trumpet to “Apache Rose Peacock” and a descending piano riff to “Mellowship Slinky in B Major.” “Soul to Squeeze,” another stylistic departure for the band would not see inclusion on the album despite being recorded during the sessions, but would be released as a single in 1993 complete with a music video. Perhaps the greatest stylistic deviation on the record comes in the form of what many would consider to be the band’s signature song: “Under the Bridge.”
Kiedis started writing the song as a means of dealing with his own feelings of alienation brought about in part due to his newfound sobriety. In his aforementioned memoir, Kiedis noted a burgeoning connection between Flea and Frusciante at the time, a connection which was encouraged through the musicians’ mutual appreciation for marijuana. Aware that participation in these sessions could be detrimental to his sobriety, Kiedis often found himself as the odd man out, and these feelings were explored within the song’s lyrics. It was reportedly Rick Rubin who happened upon the lyrics in a notebook and implored a mortified Kiedis to include them on the album.
The singer was initially hesitant, not only because of the vulnerable nature of the lyrics, but also because he felt that the song would be too harsh a departure from the band’s established sound. The band decided to move forward with recording the song, but it was not decided until after the album’s release that the number would be released as a single. The decision was apparently made when a Warner Bros. representative attended one of the band’s shows to gauge the response of the crowd in order to assess which songs might best work as singles. When Kiedis missed his vocal cue for “Under the Bridge” and the crowd as a whole began singing the lyrics, the song was earmarked as the next single.
Elsewhere on the album the band expand upon their distinct brand of metallic funk with tracks like “Suck My Kiss,” “Give It Away,” and the title track. Many moments throughout the album see the band making use of their typical extended jams in the construction of outro sections. The interplay between Frusciante and Flea began to develop to a greater degree during the recording of the album, with Flea actively restraining his own playing to create space within the music, while Frusciante began to voluntarily embrace a heavier, more visceral lead guitar approach which may not have sounded out of place on the group’s precursory album Mother’s Milk. Lyrically Kiedis pulls from his usual bag of tricks, with innumerable references to sex peppered throughout, but he extends his reach as a songwriter by exploring his personal life and even making political references on tracks such as “The Power of Equality” and “The Righteous & the Wicked.” “My Lovely Man” is one many tributes Kiedis would pen over the years to his best friend and late-guitarist Hillel Slovak.
The most impersonal tune on the album came at the insistence of Rick Rubin who encouraged Kiedis to write a song about “girls and cars.” Kiedis complied, despite his reluctance, and the result was “The Greeting Song,” which Kiedis has since voiced his displeasure with. The final song on the album is also the only song featured not to be credited to the band. The group recorded the song, a cover of Delta blues pioneer Robert Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot,” outdoors in the wee hours of the morning, resulting in a sound quite different from what is heard through the preceding 16 tracks.
Following the record’s release the band hit the road with Pearl Jam, The Smashing Pumpkins, and later Nirvana. The Chili Peppers’ profile began to expand rapidly following the success of singles “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge,” much to the disdain of John Frusciante who had hoped for the band to remain a more moderate success and saw the type of commercial fortunes the band were experiencing as disingenuous and as betrayal to his own artistic integrity. As the tour progressed, Frusciante grew more discontented and began to retreat further into drug use as well as his own experimental material on which he would work during his downtime from responsibilities for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Tensions came to a head before a show in Tokyo which Frusciante reluctantly agreed to play but made clear would be his last with the band. Upon his departure Frusciante spent a number of years writing, painting, and recording solo material. The guitarist’s already habitual drug consumption escalated to near-fatal proportions during this time, rendering him unable or unwilling to engage in basic maintenance of his health and living situation. This stage of Frusciante’s life is documented in a 12-minute film titled Stuff directed by Johnny Depp and Gibby Haynes. While historically the mid-90s were the least productive time of Frusciante’s career as a musician, he did manage to release the avant-garde albums Niandra Lades and Usually Just a T-Shirt and Smile from the Streets You Hold during this time.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers had continued on, again holding auditions for a new guitarist and eventually settling on Dave Navarro of the recently disbanded Jane’s Addiction with whom they set out to write their sixth album. Progress was slow, with Navarro’s hard rock tendencies clashing against the melodic funk that characterized the band’s sound. Anthony Kiedis had slipped back into drug use which greatly hindered his contributions to the writing process, leaving Flea to do a bulk of the creative legwork in getting the album together. The resulting album, 1995’s One Hot Minute, was released to mixed reactions, with the consensus being that while it was a serviceable record, it ultimately paled in comparison to its predecessor. In 1998, the band and Navarro went their separate ways, leaving the group without a guitarist yet again.
Flea would soon reconnect with Frusciante, helping him to overcome his addiction and inviting him to rejoin the band, an invitation he was happy to accept. The Red Hot Chili Peppers would go on to experience a renaissance through the work of the reunited lineup, with albums like Californication, By the Way, and Stadium Arcadium perpetuating their popularity and becoming hallmark records in the band discography. Frusciante would again leave the band in 2009 to focus on solo material only to return once again in 2019.
Many would argue that the 1990s were the last true decade of greatness for rock music, with bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Rage Against the Machine restructuring the confines of what was possible within the genre. Red Hot Chili Peppers’ placement among these innovative acts is irrefutable, as the value of their contributions not only to the genre, but to popular music as a whole, particularly during this time, defy quantifying. Few records are endowed with the enduring flair of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and even fewer sound just as fresh decades later as they did on the day of their release. Some listeners prefer the unabashed, no-holds-barred funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ earlier material while decrying their later, more contemporary releases.
30 Years of Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021
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