By the recording of their third album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers had already navigated a career’s worth of inner-band turmoil. The album was a culmination of friendship, addiction, Hollywood life, departure and reunification. 1987’s Uplift Mofo Party Plan album was forged in fire as the purest distillation of the Red Hot Chili Peppers definitive sound, and the blueprint which would serve as the musical basis of all that would follow throughout the band’s expansive career.
Despite being their third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan would be the first and only record in the band’s discography to feature the original founding lineup of frontman Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael “Flea” Balzary, drummer Jack Irons, and guitarist Hillel Slovak.
Irons and Slovak – who had departed the band prior to the recording of its self-titled debut album – had initially been replaced by drummer Cliff Martinez and Jack Sherman, respectively. Despite playing on the first album and writing for much of the follow-up, it was decided that Sherman’s approach did not properly gel with that of the group, and he was consequently let go. As Kiedis described it in his autobiography, “[Jack] was technically proficient, hitting all the right notes in the right places [but] his playing didn’t have the same spirit as Hillel’s.”
Martinez stuck around long enough to record for the band’s second LP, Freaky Styley – an abstract, psychedelic funk affair produced by Parliament-Funkadelic legend George Clinton – but he too would ultimately be replaced by the musician he himself had been brought on to replace.
Slovak’s time away from the band would prove to be beneficial to the development of the group’s sound, as his original hard-rock leaning approach had become augmented with more melodic elements, and an aesthetic which Kiedis called ”weird, sultry, smooth, and fluid.” This added a much-needed dimension to the high-impact, primarily rhythmic presentation of the band’s music up to this point.
That isn’t to say that Uplift is devoid of the trademark, high-octane performances that put the Peppers on the map – far from it. The album, which one writer called “thrash funk” and Flea referred to as “the ‘rockingest’ record” the band had ever made, is an unabashedly unhinged celebration of the Chili Peppers’ mission statement to fly one’s freak flag proudly.
The forceful momentum retained in the deep pockets of swinging funk and groove rock is a truly impressive line for any group of musicians to be able to toe, particularly one at such an early stage in its musical development. Tracks like “Walkin’ on Down the Road,” “Backwoods,” and the loosely autobiographical “Organic Anti-Beat Box Band” refine the captivating, animated energy that would possess many a Hollywood misfit in the mid-to-late eighties, including a young guitar prodigy named John Frusciante – more on that later.
Kiedis – far and away the least musical member of the group, particularly at this junction – was also making great strides in his own songwriting during this time, despite having misgivings about his own place in the amalgam. Tracks like the hyper-melodic “Behind the Sun” – which Kiedis called “pure Hillel inspiration” – and “Love Trilogy” incorporated elements of reggae and saw the first sparks in the band’s writing to hint at the melodicism that would come to define their sound much later on.
Even the raunchy “Special Secret Song Inside” – the title of which had been changed at the behest of EMI Records, who otherwise threatened to shelf the record – exercised a melodic vocal approach, a departure from Kiedis’ typical rap-influenced vocal technique. This development came not only as a result of Slovak’s exploration of more melodic instrumental techniques but also from the installation of Michael Beinhorn in the producer’s chair for the project.
“I thought they needed a lot of arrangement help,” said Beinhorn, and he set about working to make the act more palatable. This included encouraging Kiedis to branch out more in his vocal technique to implement more outright singing, to which Kiedis was initially opposed. He recalls the development of “Behind the Sun,” a tune that fell outside the band’s usual stylistic leanings,
“[Beinhorn] worked a lot with me on the melody, knowing that it wasn’t my forte to get wrapped up in a pretty song.” Beinhorn put enough into the song to be awarded a writing credit, the only credit on the album to be awarded to a contributor outside the four core members, with the exception of “Walkin’ on Down the Road,” which was composed with Martinez rather than Irons, and the band’s reimagining of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” for which Bob Dylan was credited as the sole writer.
“Love trilogy” was another number that saw the band expanding their horizons musically. The track explored a variety of styles in its concise runtime, which didn’t even approach the three minute mark. “Love Trilogy’ became one of our all-time favorite songs,” Kiedis said of the track, “the music started off as a reggae thing, then it went into hard-core funk and ended up in speed metal.” Flea has also referenced the song as an early lyrical highlight for the band.
The Peppers’ time with George Clinton is revisited in the groove-laden and deceptively heavy “Funky Crime,” which speaks to categorization of artists based on assumed audience perception rather than stylistic execution, particularly as it pertains to radio airplay.
“No Chump Love Sucker” was written by Kiedis about a girlfriend of Slovak’s who had apparently left him for someone with more money and more drugs. The song expanded upon the members’ deep appreciation for punk rock music, an aesthetic with which Flea was particularly familiar, having developed his chops in the stylistic arena during his time playing with Los Angeles-based punk rock outfit FEAR.
“Skinny Sweaty Man” was another song inspired by Slovak, and a significant portion of “Me And My Friends” was also dedicated to the guitarist. The relationship between himself and Slovak was a recurring theme in Kiedis’ songwriting, and would be a topic he would continue to explore throughout the band’s discography, even and especially following Slovak’s passing in 1988.
Both Kiedis and Slovak were suffering from debilitating heroin addictions during the production of Uplift Mofo Party Plan, which significantly impeded that album’s development. “It wound up turning into a seven or eight-month ordeal of uncertainty and frustration,” Beinhorn said of the album’s recording. “That it even came out at all is a miracle considering the diverse personalities.”
Kiedis made multiple attempts to maintain sobriety during this period, though he ultimately would not be able to overcome his struggles with addiction until December 24, 2000.
Following a particularly tumultuous period, during which Kiedis could frequently be observed “literally asleep at rehearsal,” the other three members of the band opted to let him go. Devastated but also free from all responsibilities and commitments, Kiedis proceeded to resume his drug seeking. This resulted in his narrowly avoiding arrest, and ultimately returning to his childhood home in Michigan to get clean.
Upon achieving sobriety, Kiedis was asked to rejoin the band, and this inspired him to pen the lyrics to “Fight Like a Brave” on the plane ride back to Los Angeles. The lyrics detail the experience of confronting and overcoming addiction, though the singer admittedly would resume his drug use within two months of touching back down in Los Angeles.
Kiedis’ increased substance abuse would, to the surprise of his bandmates, have little bearing on his prolificity as a songwriter, as he continued to produce material consistently throughout these erratic periods. The band were musically in sync as well. Slovak is revealed to have written in his personal journal of the album during this time, “I’m so extremely proud of everybody’s work – it is at times genius.”
Indeed, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were breaking musical ground with The Uplift Mofo Party Plan and it would be difficult to overstate the significance of Slovak’s musical contributions to the proceedings.
From the tight, syncopated funk of “Special Secret Song Inside” – whose distinct feel would be implemented in later, Frusciante-era tracks such as “If You Have to Ask – to the soaring, emotive leads heard in the solo section of “Me And My Friends,” – which proudly assert Slovak’s love of Jimi Hendrix – the band where quite clearly on the verge of an immense musical breakthrough with their eccentric blend of styles and personalities.
The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was finally released in 1987 and the band’s profile was significantly increased as a result, albeit not to the degree it would later be with Mother’s Milk and its follow-up Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Kiedis and Slovak resumed their drug use following a successful tour for the album, and on June 25, 1988, Hillel Slovak tragically passed away as a result of his addiction.
The band would later recruit 18 year old guitarist John Frusciante who, like Slovak before him, would become an essential component to the Chili Peppers’ sound and would struggle with a similarly debilitating addiction to heroin.
Both Kiedis and Frusciante would ultimately conquer their addictions to carry on the iconic sound which has been perfected by the original members with The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. While expansion upon that signature sound would bring untold commercial fortune to the band, the 1987 blueprint remains indispensable as the sonic document which made it all possible.
Feature Photo: Christian Bertrand / Shutterstock.com
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Uplift Mofo Party Plan Album Review article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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