03/2003 Classic Rock (51)

News Item:

RED HOT CHILI PEPPERS and COLDPLAY are the first acts to be confirmed for this summer’s V2003 festivals in Stafford and Chelmsford.

 

Article/Review: Too much, too young

The pre-enormodome Chili Peppers were a zesty mix of punk, funk and (dangerously) junk. Their first four albums, now replete with alternative versions and rarities, are testament to the band’s energised, destructive muse.

Red Hot Chili Peppers `

The Red Hot Chili Peppers’

`Freaky Styley’

`The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’

`Mother’s Milk’

(Capitol/EMI)

TIMING IS EVERYTHING. AND WHAT BETTER time than now to re-release the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ first four albums? These remastered and augmented CDs arrive in a climate which has seen their latest album, ‘By The Way’, sell millions, and the band nominated for two Brit Awards. But how did it all start, and was the early stuff any good?

Current frontman Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea (aka Michael Balzary) were there from the get-go, and the Chilis Mk 1 line-up also included drummer Jack Irons and guitarist Hillel Slovak. They assembled in Hollywood, Los Angeles, in 1983 — a year sandwiched between the Grammy-grabbing success of ‘Toto IV’ and Eddie Van Halen’s era-defining guitar solo on ‘Jump’. The ‘The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ (*****), however, boils up a whole different kettle of riffs. This was a record made by a band pioneering a saucy blend of 70s P-Funk, rap, and Hendrix-influenced guitar rock. It was colourful. It was exuberant. It was also performed by men who liked to play gigs wearing just their underpants.

Oddly, contractual difficulties meant that members of Captain Beefheart’s band deputised for Slovak and Irons on that Peppers debut. What’s great about the re-release, though, is that it includes hissy-sounding-but-stoked demos which enable you to compare the ‘real’ Chilis line-up with the studio one. Check out Slovak’s ‘chicken scratch’ rhythm guitar on the demo of ‘Get Up And Jump’ — it’s that bit tighter, that little bit more taut than the original album version.

By 1985’s ‘Freakey Styley’ (*****) the Chilis (the ‘real’ one this time) were making mincemeat of the notion that white men can’t funk; though admittedly they had the help of Parliament’s George Clinton (producing) and one-time James Brown trumpeter Maceo Parker. ‘…Styley’ has astonishing vibrancy, Kiedis find his groove as a rapper on ‘The Brothers Cup’; tracks like ‘Catholic Schoolgirls Rule’ and ‘Sex Rap’, meanwhile, were the first Chilis tunes to really ignite the ‘sexy, or sexist?’ debate which still sticks to the band. Bonus tracks include the excellent ‘original long version’ of the title track.

On 1987’s ‘The Uplift Mofo Party Plan’ (*****) there was a slight shift of emphasis, with the band now turning up the knob marked ‘psychedelia’ (witness the sitar on ‘Behind The Sun’). The bonus tracks here, instrumental demos of ‘Behind The Sun’ and ‘Me And My Friends’, have some appeal as curios. A word with hindsight, though, about the original album version of the latter track. Its ‘Like freaks of a feather/We rock together’ lyric is a typical show of the Chilis’ solidarity — not for them the ego-charged stand-offs of your Blackmores and your Coverdales — and that ‘band of brothers’ approach has always given the Chilis’ music extra zing and zest.

Fate had no respect for their solidarity, however, and in June 1988 Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose, aged 25. Kiedis, shocked, also a user, relocated to a Mexican village to clean up; Irons quit the band, saw a psychiatrist, and later ended up playing drums with Pearl Jam. When the Chili Peppers reconvened for 1989’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ (*****), Chad Smith had replaced Irons, and the precociously gifted John Frusciante, then aged just 18, joined on guitar. Frusciante would add a heavier edge to the Chilis, and he was no slouch when it came to the funk, either. ‘Mother’s Milk’ is a more than decent record, but the new line-up were still finding their feet, and the shockwaves of Slovak’s death undoubtedly chipped at the band’s confidence as songwriters. Two of the record’s strongest tracks are cover versions: a super-kinetic Flea slap ‘n’ pull bassline leads a sussed take on Stevie Wonder’s ‘Higher Ground’, and Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’ — here cartoonish and much increased in tempo —sounds like it was recorded on speed with Red Bull chasers. The best of the original material on the record is imbued with a similar energy and sense of humour — witness Frusciante quoting the riff from Guns”Sweet Child 0′ Mine’ at the end of ‘Punk Rock Classic’.

The Chilis’ debut and ‘Freakey Styley’ were more consistent records, but as the ‘Mother’s Milk’ reissue includes four previously unreleased tracks (plus a great dub mix of ‘Higher Ground’), it may hold greater interest for Chilis completists. Also the album’s sweaty live versions of Hendrix’s ‘Crosstown Traffic’ and ‘Castles Made Of Sand’ offer a glimpse of the band’s early-ish gigs which was previously only available through bootleggers. You also get a longer version of ‘Knock Me Down’, and the succinct and frenetic instrumental ‘Salute To Kareem’ (listen closely and you’ll hear Frusciante’s nod at Black Sabbath’s ‘Iron Man’).

Four good-to-great reissues, then, and considered together they underline just what a breath of fresh air the young Chilis were. The next album in line was, of course, the Rick Rubin-produced, mega-selling, profile-escalating ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’, which would transport the Chilis to playing the enormodomes.

James Halbert

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