Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Released September 24th, 2021 on Warner Bros Records
Produced by Rick Rubin
Peaked at #3 U.S., #5 U.K.
“Give It Away” (#73 U.S., #9 U.K.)
“Under The Bridge” (#2 U.S., #13 U.K.)
“Suck My Kiss” (#15 U.S. Alternative)
“Breaking The Girl” (#15 U.S. Mainstream Rock, #41 U.K.)
Recorded in the L.A. mansion where Harry Houdini once lived, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the moment that everything finally went right for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Formed in high school, the band quickly caught some ears in the L.A. underground and their first album was produced by Andy Gill of Gang of Four. It was too commercial-sounding and polished for their liking, so for their next album they went with funk legend George Clinton. Clinton was closer to what the band’s core sound was and they enjoyed the process, but that album, Freaky Styley, didn’t go anywhere and the tour behind it was subpar. Regardless, their label fronted them the cash to record demos for their third record and they spent half of it on hard drugs. By ‘they’, I mean singer/rapper/professional weirdo Anthony Kiedis and guitarist Hillel Slovak; by the recording of The Uplift Mofo Party Plan they were mired in heroin and were no longer pulling their weight. Rick Rubin had been tapped to produce the album but backed out when he realized how bad off Kiedis and Slovak were. To his credit, Kiedis tried to get better throughout the recording of the album. He managed fifty days of sobriety before falling off the wagon. Slovak, meanwhile, refused to admit he even had a problem.
Slovak died of an overdose after the tour behind Uplift Mofo finished. Kiedis, freaked right out, ran away from L.A. and didn’t attend his friend’s funeral. When he got back, the people around him convinced him to confront his shit and to visit Slovak’s grave; this was a huge factor in convincing him to clean up. His sobriety would last until 1994, and then restart again near the end of 2000, this time permanently. Drummer Jack Irons, who had considered Slovak a close friend, was devastated and has dealt with depression over the event ever since; he left the band and eventually became Pearl Jam’s drummer for a time in the 1990s.
They recruited a guitarist from Parliament/Funkadelic and the drummer from Dead Kennedys, but these were eventually replaced by John Frusciante and
Will Ferrell Chad Smith, respectively. Frusciante, who was just a kid at the time and a huge Chili Peppers fan, brought the same sort of Hendrix-loving soul to the band that Slovak had displayed, but with more of a fragile sensitivity and a grace that few guitarists of his generation have managed. Despite this, the producer for the band’s fourth album, 1989’s Mother’s Milk, insisted he play boneheaded metal riffs that stomped along the rest of the band’s muscular funk. The label wanted a hit, and what they got was an album that charted better than any previous Chili Peppers album but still didn’t have the cultural splash that everyone involved wanted. Turned off by the experience, the band left EMI and signed with Warner Bros. Finally, the band having gotten mostly healthy, Rick Rubin was again asked to produced and this time accepted.
It’s hard to say which of the above factors powered the massive breakthrough that was Blood Sugar Sex Magik. For the first time, all the disparate elements of the band came together into a glorious unification. Rubin ditched the metal riffs that marred Mother’s Milk and let the band go pretty much where they wanted to go; further, he helped them arrange some of the rhythms and melodies when they got stuck. Kiedis began to branch out lyrically; most of his stuff was still obsessed with sex and sexual innuendo, but he began writing about his addiction for the first time, including his feelings of helplessness and the thoughts of self-mutilation that came along with his despair. Flea set out to play less on the album, feeling that previous Chili Peppers songs had him being overactive. Frusciante was allowed to expand the guitar work, and among the requisite heavy funk riffs he embedded glass-brittle chords, stately sweeps, and some of the only guitar work out there that actually lives up to the phrase “post-Hendrixian.”
While “Give It Away” was a big hit, it was really the ballad “Under The Bridge” that brought them all together at the top. It’s not as though there weren’t other slow songs on the album; “Breaking The Girl” was a psychedelic head trip, after all, but “Under The Bridge” allowed them – especially Kiedis – to become vulnerable for a brief, shining moment. Written about the lowest point in his life, the lyrics clearly point to the protagonist copping and then using drugs ‘under a bridge downtown’ that some have claimed was the bridge over MacArthur Park. Others have disputed this; the point is that Kiedis was finally letting everyone else in on the problems he had faced as an addict, and his singing (and Frusciante’s masterful guitar work) emoted exactly how it felt to be alone, strung out, and grieving.
The album would break them globally and make them superstars. This scared off Frusciante, who fled the band in 1992 with his own heroin addiction hot on his heels; he would rejoin on the band’s 1999 comeback smash Californication. Most of the Nineties were a hard time for the band; their followup One Hot Minute wasn’t well-received by critics or the public, and the combination of Kiedis’ relapse and new guitarist Dave Navarro’s incompatibility sunk the album before it could be fairly evaluated. Their work in the 21st Century has been as commercially successful (and, at times, as critically successful) but their 1991 work remains the highwater mark, the well they continue to draw from again and again.