"Rob, top five musical crimes perpetuated by Stevie Wonder in the '80s and '90s. Go. Sub-question: is it in fact unfair to criticize a formerly great artist for his latter day sins, is it better to burn out or fade away?" - Barry, "High Fidelity"
Not Stevie Wonder, but some of his illegitimate progeny. Let's talk about the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
Once every year and a half or so, I tend to start listening to the Chili Peppers, as one influence or another tends to lead me to them naturally. I think last time it was that I was reading the Jane's Addiction book and there was a lot of intermingling and the L.A. scene and blah blah blah. Last night, I was talking to my friend Brent and when I offhandedly mentioned that I really liked their early stuff and thought it was really underrated, he mentioned that it might be becuase their later stuff is so overrated. Which is a pretty good point. Unfortunately, on paper, they're certinaly one of the better rock bands around these days, and it's only old coots like me who long for the days when they were less-than-first-rate. But more on that later.
Coming of age in the early '90s, it's easy to forget how weird these guys must have seemed in the mid-to-late '80s. Colorful, grit-teeth manic, hyperactive funk that was so fast it sounds like thrash. Seriously, I've tried this... play some of their early hardest stuff at a slower speed and it starts to sound like a tight funk jam. It's just that the energy level was SO intense it comes across as spring-loaded. The first three albums... man. Nobody but me likes the first one, and I don't even love it, but after the remastering job it got a few years ago, it's biggest crime is underwritten material and weak production by Andy Gill. Yeah, Gang Of Four Andy Gill. Freaky Styley is way better beacuse of the return of O.P. (original Pepper) guitarist Hillel Slovak (truly gifted weirdo) and the production talents of Mr. George "Funk Yo Ass Up" Clinton. The Uplift Mofo Party Plan is a bit of a step back, but not bad, and then Slovak succumbed to a nasty heroin addiction. The rest of the band recruits whiz-kid 18-year-old John Frusciante, gets a little more serious (in ambition, if not musically) and puts out their real bid for mainstream acceptance, Mother's Milk.
Surprisingly, it worked. They got huge, riding the wave of their cover of "Higher Ground" (see how this all ties in to Stevie?), and were finally big business. They geared up to make the biggest record of their career (arguably) and in 1991, they were everywhere... selling millions of records and scaring the CRAP out of my parents, who were sure that they were trying to corrupt the youth. Blood Sugar Sex Magik is a great album. Like, a really and truly great album. Even it's stupider parts add to the whole of it, toning down the day-glo excesses and punky thrash of the early years and amping up a much more realistic party vibe that feels like a trip through Hollywood.
So why do I think that they haven't done anything great since?
Before they followed it up, they lost Frusciante to a smack habit, and struggled to find a replacement for their next record. When it came out, as a big Jane's Addiction fan, I LOVED the presence of Dave Navarro, but One Hot Minute is a case of "the less said the better". When he left, I thought that they were done. And when Californication came out, it was a really nice return to form, despite the fact that it didn't sound like anything they'd done before. Frusciante was back, maybe better than ever in his tasteful playing, but there were plenty of ballads to keep the "Under The Bridge" fans happy. But even the harder songs were tempered with a lot more melody than in the past. Now, while this makes them a much better band (emphasis in that sentence is on "band", not "better"), it does make them feel a little more homogenous. I can't expect these people to be the same band they were 25 years ago, and I don't. However, the mingling of the two styles makes for some middle-of-the-road moments. I didn't buy By The Way, and I only gave a couple of listens to Stadium Arcadium.
So why don't I like them? Frusciante is a masterful guitarist in the true artistic sense (even if he is still a little crazy). He plays in a way that I can only use "jazz words" to describe - tasteful, exploratory, adventurous. But he still rocks. Flea is, despite my aversion to modern-day slap-bass (and the cult that this style has attracted), one of the great bassists of the past 40 years, and the under-mentioned Chad Smith hits his HARD exactly when he's supposed to. Maybe it's Kiedis' undercooked poetic prose I don't like, maybe the yelping rap and warbly croon he uses, but I can deal with those. The lyrics can be a bit sophomoric, but they're not bad.
I have a theory...
During their height, the Peppers were part of the alternative rock vanguard that changed pop culture, but unlike their grunge contemporaries and the alt-rock singer-songwriter contingent, they were unabashedly MEN. Shirtless men, who liked to perform wearing one sock each and sing nasty, filty songs about women who they did nasty, filthy things with. They were like a four-piece walking libido. Grunge was sexless and self-loathing, with maybe the exception of Soundgarden's Chris Cornell, and the R.E.M. crowd was too into sex as an idea. But the Chili Peppers were young, shirtless, played funk and rock (the two most debauched musical styles), and were there to sex you up. As a boy, that kind of thing left an impact, and while at the time I thought they were dirty verging on ridiculous, as an amateur pop-culture sociologist, it was kind of important for someone to represent the sexual side of a youth movement. All of this has happened before and will happen again. Early rock'n'roll had Elvis to offset Buddy Holly. Psychedelia had Jimi Hendrix to offset Donovan. Alt rock had the Chili Peppers to offset Nirvana.
After falling apart after '92 and being on life support until '98, they came back knowing that their biggest hit was the ballad "Under The Bridge". They made sure that the follow-up had a clone in "My Friends", and sure enough, their big comeback hit was a ballad - "Scar Tissue". They realized that they had to castrate themselves to stay successful. Or maybe they didn't realize, maybe it's just that a sexless Chili Peppers is what the public wanted. Do they know it? Maybe not. They're older, they've slowed down, and they're one of the biggest bands in the world since Californication, so they don't have that youthful sex drive anymore, and that's OK. But maybe they should have hung it up after that, or maybe they'll surprise me again.
None of it matters, of course, cause they'll sell millions of records and be huge stars forever. And good for them. They deserved it back when they made Freaky Styley.