This article is essentially a re-write of a previously published article appearing in an edition of Metal Hammer from the 1990s at least
BLOOD ON THE TRACKS
In 1991, when the Red Hot Chili Peppers released ‘BLOODSUGARSEXMAGIK’, it propelled them to stardom and brought them to the brink of oblivion. Now CLASSIC ROCK reveals the true story behind that fateful album. Transfusion: PHILIP WILDING
At first, Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis didn’t know if he wanted his band to work with infamous producer Rick Rubin. Somehow he felt that the chemistry might not be right.
“We didn’t know if he would be able to blend in well, what with Slayer and the boiling goat heads of Danzig and all.” Kiedis admitted later, referring to Rubin’s previous work. “But he turned out to be a completely open-minded, free-flowing, comforting spirit. If Baron Von Munchausen were able to ejaculate the Red Hot Chili Peppers onto a chess board, Rick Rubin would be the perfect player for the game.”
Kiedis reservations were understandable. The tail end of 80s had hit the band hard, but had resulted in an upturn in their commercial fortunes. But that had been tempered by the death of founding member guitarist Hillel Slovak, from a heroin overdose. Slovak had almost been pushed out of the band early in 1988, as his health and playing were beginning to visibly deteriorate, and after a ramshackle Chilis show in Washington the band had decided to jettison the troubled guitarist. That decision was averted at the last minute when Angelo Moore, of the Chilis’ support band Fishbone, heard of the plan and talked Kiedis out of it, reasoning that Slovak needed his friends now more than ever. Kiedis relented, and Slovak travelled with the band to the UK – he rarely appeared for any of the interviews they did here; he was usually said to be ‘sleeping’. Four weeks after their return home, in June 1988, he was dead.
Naturally, Slovak’s death threw the band into disarray. Drummer and future Pearl Jam member Jack Irons quit, blaming the others for his friend’s death, while Kiedis went into self-imposed exile to a small Mexican village in an attempt to clean himself up. Anthony new that at one point in their recent history it had been hit or miss whether it would be he or Slovak who would check out first.
“I fucked up so bad in my mid – and early 20s on drugs. I had no choice but to change if I wanted to stay a productive, creative, happy and alive human being,” Kiedis recalls, now 37.
As recently as last year, through, he admitted that he still struggled with drug addiction.
“They fired me once, which was probably a good thing, because I had become some kind of sloth and I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t making rehearsals and I wasn’t writing. The guys tried to hire in some geek and it just didn’t fly, so when I’d kicked heroin they let me back in.”
By the time Kiedis had returned from Mexico to Los Angeles, bassist Michael ‘Flea’ Balzary’s then wife Loesha (her name is tattooed about his heart) had given birth to their daughter, Clara. Giddy with delight but also still stricken with grief, Flea and Kiedis set about rebuilding the band. In the interim, they accompanied a painfully shy 17-year-old guitarist named John Frusciante – a regular at their club shows in LA – audition for a local group called Thelonious Monster.
Even though he was offered the gig, Frusciante, now 30, was nervous about attending the audition on his own, so the pair went along with him to offer their support. But it was while sitting through his audition that Flea and Kiedis were first struck by the young guitarist’s natural flair and his ability to mimic Slovak’s style. They quickly decided to poach him for the Chili Peppers.
The lanky and flamboyant drummer Chad Smith, 37, came into the band later from a newspaper ad, impressing the other three members at his audition with frenzied drumming backed by a very local litany of filthy lyrics. They liked him immensely, and immediately asked him to join.
1989 would be the band’s breakthrough year. Their album ‘Mother’s Milk’ – featuring Slovak and Irons on a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s fire – broke them on MTV in the US with the highly charged videos for ‘Knock Me Down’ (an anti-drugs song dedicated to Hillel – and wildly ironic, considering members of the band were still using drugs themselves at the time) and a furious cover of Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground.
Unfortunately, the ensuing tour suffered from the band’s high-profile antics, with two disparate events linked together in the media’s glare, temporarily branding the band as sexist and hedonistic and finding them charged with and guilty of criminal behaviour. First, Kiedis was convicted of ‘indecent exposure and sexual battery’ following an incident after a concert at George Mason University in Virginia, where – as a prank – he dropped his pants in front of a female concertgoer.
The following year, during the taping of an MTV Spring Break special in Florida, Flea and Chad Smith jumped off stage, Flea grabbing a woman and carrying her on his shoulders while Smith spanked her. The two were charged, Flea was found guilty of ‘battery, disorderly conduct and solicitation to commit an unnatural and lascivious act’; Smith was found guilty of ‘battery’.
On a happier note, the album was fast outselling any of their previous releases; it would peak at Number 52 on the Billboard chart and they also managed a Top 30 hit in the UK with a track from the Pretty Woman soundtrack called ‘ Show Me Your Sou’. However, the band were still unhappy with the way their label, EMI, was handling them, and decided to jump ship before they began work on their next album.
“It would have been a disaster and a shame to have given this piece of music, of which we’re incredibly proud, to a record label like EMI,” Kiedis said at the time of the release of BloodSugarSexMagik in 1991, adding: “You look at Mo Ostin [Warner Brothers] as someone who signed Jimi Hendrix to Reprise, and then you look at Sal Lacotta from EMI who signed Roxette. You know there’s a slight difference in artistic integrity going on there.”
Surprisingly in the light of that statement, the band then chose to go with CBS, but opted out of the deal at the last minute to link up with Warner Brothers.
“We decided to go with CBS – which was pretty much a monetary decision – and at the last minute Mo Ostin called us up to congratulate us on the deal we’d made with CBS. At that point we hadn’t signed anything, but we’d had our photos taken with everyone at the label. But that call kind of revived us,” Kiedis recalls with a grin. “This guy from the label who didn’t get us, then congratulating us anyway. So we thought what a cool guy, stripped down to our skivvies and went swimming in his pool.”
Even thought Kiedis had expressed reservations about working with Rubin, the band had actually approached the producer with the idea of working on an album together back when Slovak was still alive.
“They were really in bad shape drug-wise,” Rubin later told Rolling Stone magazine. “I walked into the room thinking, ‘This is bad.’ I didn’t want to do it. Then when I met them for BloodSugar… they were like a different band, completely in control, ready to do something good.”
“We met Rick a few years ago when he first worked with the Beastie Boys,” was how Flea later remembered it. “We wanted to work with him back then, but things were strained in our band due to drugs and various other things. We didn’t hit it off and it was kind of a weird vibe… I remember Anthony thought he [Rubin] was Satan’s servant. They’re the best of friends now.”
Famously, Rubin found a mansion, built in 1917, out on Laurel Canyon Boulevard as the place to record the sessions that would make up ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’. Drenched in history, the mansion had played host to gangsters; Hendrix stayed there briefly; The Beatles hung out and partied there, and it’s even rumoured that they dropped their first acid together there. The band adored their surroundings at the mansion, although Smith refused to sleep there, preferring the 20-minute ride in on his Harley every morning. Some seven weeks there in almost total exile, discouraging interruptions from outsiders, and all the while taking comfort from the host of friendly spirits that they said haunted their temporary home and its wildly overgrown grounds. There’s a deep-red photo on the inner sleeve of the album where a translucent disc floats innocuously by as the band members playfully embraced one another, unaware of its presence. They insist that it’s one of the spirits, briefly caught in a series of exposures shot for the album artwork.
“There were ghosts everywhere. They came out on about four of the photos we took for an album cover session – these floating , nebulous shapes,” Kiedis recalls. “The pictures were taken with a red filter, and any time ectoplasm experts are attempting to photograph ghosts the always do it with infrared. The photographer, Gus Van Sant, did it and he wasn’t even trying to capture a ghost. It’s obvious to us that there’s a real world of spirits that people just aren’t tuned in to. We were accepting of the fact that we were living among them. We weren’t there to be obtrusive. We were there to make music and to coexist in what was more less their house than ours.”
While a wide-eyed Frusciante was a little more awed by his experiences with the paranormal during his stay at the house, as the guitarist once told RAW magazine: “I heard a female ghost there, that was the only time I had any sexual experience there. I was sleeping in the hall and I got really turned on by this female ghost who was getting fucked above me, so I jacked off. The rest of the time all my sexual energy went into my playing.”
The unorthodox surroundings and unconventional approach to recording inspired the band to new creative heights. Dismissing the norms and received wisdoms associated with making an album, they preformed parts under the high-domed ceiling of the ballroom, and occasionally jammed and recorded in the bedrooms or set up equipment in the hallways or wherever they felt that the vibe might right. The band had been warned early on that the building was incapable of giving them a good drum sound. They refuted the idea, and simply got past the problem by moving around until they found one. Jamming most of the songs live and then let Rubin put the pieces together.
In Funky Monks, the group’s long-form video of the making of the album (just re-released on DVD), it becomes apparent just how much their recording location had freed them up creatively. Flea at one point Flea plays along with ‘Mellowship Slinky In B Major’ and ‘Apache Rose Peacock’ on two tiny children’s pianos. Seated at the bottom of the main staircase, the band thrashed along on hubcaps and an empty milk churn for the jangling middle-eight of ‘Breaking The Girl’. Anything, it seems, went.
“The album had no verbal or intellectual goals,” Frusciante elaborated. “We just woke up each morning and played what we felt best to play… making music in the same way that a flower grows. We were just in our own dimension. The rest of the world didn’t exist [and] we were living in a world of unbridled imagination.”
The band recorded 25 songs, of which 22 were originals, and 17 made the final cut. One of these was infamous blues legend Robert Johnson’s ‘They’re Red Hot’, which was recorded outside at night, with the sound of cars speeding through the valley below as the band jammed the song playing on a Persian rug laid over the long grass. The session also yielded the elegant ‘Soul To Squeeze’, which, mystifyingly, never made the album but was released as a single in the US in 1993. The cover illustration by Henky Penky- let’s not forget this is the band who once used a live saxophonist called the Tree – drew heavily on the work of eccentric English artists Gilbert & George for inspiration, transforming the band’s entwined tongues into tattooed thorns.
The album itself reflected a more refined and mellow Chili Peppers, both musically and lyrically. ‘I Could Have Lied’ and ‘Breaking The Girl’ – with Frusciante’s chiming acoustic guitar – gave way to a less relentless band opening up to new ways of translating their groove. They were still capable of bombast and heavy funk, through, with the monstrous Give It Away coming out of a Flea-inspired jam that Kiedis was instantly smitten by. The grotesque caricature featured in ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’ had them barracked as sexist and irresponsible, but the lyric is so plainly cartoon-like and fantastical that any criticism seems misguided and reactionary.
‘My Lovely Man’ was a love letter that Kiedis sent to Hillel: ‘Well I’m crying/Now my lovely man/Yes I’m cryin’/Now and no one can/Ever fill the hole you left, my man/I’ll see you later/My lovely man, if I can…’ Recording his vocals for the song at night in a makeshift booth set up as window overlooking the wonderfully overrun grounds, with a square of candles lit along the walls at his feet.
But it was with ‘Under The Bridge’ [later to be deconstructed and demystified by All Saints) that the band struck creative and commercial gold. Kiedis took his enduring love of the band’s adopted home city, Los Angeles, personifying the city (‘I drive on her streets/Cause she’s my companion/I walk through her hills/’Cause she knows who I am’) and making it his starting point before reflecting on his downtime there as a heroin addict: at an ultimate low, Kiedis had been so eager to score that he bought drugs from gang members, and had to pretend to be dating his connection’s girlfriend so that they’d sell him heroin. He bluntly retold the story himself in the ‘Funky Monks’ video some years later.
“I was what you might call a hard-core junkie for many years, and during that point my life was a very sad time… I’ve been clean for three years now, but during that time I reached some ultimately low depths of incomprehensible demoralization; this incredibly deep sense of loneliness, of emptiness that you’re trying to fill up with whatever it is you can find. In my case it was drugs.
“One day I was driving back from rehearsals, and I got one of those bursts of loneliness and I just felt like I was all by myself. So I started singing to myself on the Hollywood freeway, and the entire song came through my head. When I got home I wrote it down.
“And what I was referring to in the song was a point in my life about five years ago. All I had was this connection named Mario, who was Mexican Mafia, ex-convict. And one particular afternoon, it was very hot in the middle of the summer, and I’d been up for days, and he and I found what we’d been looking for. We went to this bridge that was downtown in the middle of Los Angeles in this ghetto; this freeway bridge, and a little passageway you had to go through to get under the bridge, and only certain members of this Mexican gang were allowed to go in there. And we lied just so we could get in there and do what we wanted to do.
“And that’s always stuck in my brain as a low point in my life. When I talk in the song about being taken to the place I love, that’s here. That’s where I am now, the most sacred place, making sounds with my best friends.”
Acclaimed film director Gus Van Sant (who would later cast Flea in My Own Private Idaho and also brought songwriter Elliot Smith to the public’s attention after using his songs for the soundtrack to Good Will Hunting) shot the video for Under The Bridge when it was released as a single, and focused on Kiedis as he moved through the city. At one point he’s cruising along an LA freeway as the camera captures the streetlights of the city in long, strobing flames of light. His passenger in the car that night was the actor River Phoenix. He and fellow actor Keanu Reeves (with whom Kiedis appeared in Point Break) where long-time fans of the band. Years later, when Phoenix died outside the doors of the Viper Room club, it transpired that both Frusciante (Phoenix had appeared on his solo album) and Flea had been playing at the venue that night. Flea ended the evening travelling to the hospital in the back of the ambulance with the doomed actor.
But the heartache didn’t end there. On the band’s final day at the house, Frusciante, arms full of clothes and CD cases, remarked that he’s never felt so proud of anything he’s ever done in his life. Flea insisted that as long as the band could keep their love for the music and for one another, then there was no way they could ever fail.
It would eventually transpire that Frusciante had taken heroin for the first time almost as soon as the album sessions were completed. He had also decided that he wanted out of the band as soon as he’d finished the guitar parts for the album.
“After we were finished recording… I pretty much knew I wanted to leave. I’d had a really beautiful time recording it and I didn’t want to go out on tour; it seemed like the antithesis of everything I found beautiful about that album. The direction the band was going in was totally against what I was about.”
He stayed until the following summer, but then eventually quit, disenfranchised by the band’s ever-growing popularity. He announced his decision half-an-hour before the band was due on stage at a show in Japan, and less than one month before the band were due to go out and headline the touring Lollapalooza festival.
In the years between his eventual return for Californication, the Chilis recorded 1995’s well-received ‘One Hot Minute’ with former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. But it was Navarro who eventually suggested that the Chilis reunite with the distressed Frusciante. In 1996 the Los Angeles Times carried a harrowing account of Frusciante’s torrid lifestyle. A stick-thin junkie living on cans of high-calorie gunk normally consumed by the elderly and invalids. He almost died when it was discovered that his body was carrying only a twelfth of the blood it was supposed to contain, and what blood there was infected, making his system temporarily incapable of creating red blood cells.
Although Kiedis was at the time initially sceptical that the reunion could work, he now freely admits to being delighted by the results of an album that harks back to the glory days of ‘BloodSugarSexMagik’.
As he told Rolling Stone magazine: “You never get sick for no reason. And things turned out just the way they were supposed to. I don’t think we would have what we have right now if all that messed-up stuff hadn’t happened. We all know not to project how many years this is going to work. Right now, it’s working like crazy.”
`The Power Of Equality’
`If You Have To Ask’
`Breaking The Girl’
`Suck My Kiss’
‘I Could Have Lied’
`Mellowship Slinky In B Major’
`The Righteous & The Wicked’
‘Give It Away’
‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
‘Under The Bridge’
‘Naked In The Rain’
‘Apache Rose Peacock’
‘The Greeting Song’
‘My Lovely Man’
‘Sir Psycho Sexy’
‘They’re Red Hot’.
• The album was recorded on location at a Spanish villa-style mansion off Laurel Canyon Boulevard in California between May and June 1991. It was produced by Rick Rubin (Slayer, Beastie Boys, Run DMC, AC/DC, Mick Jagger, etc) and engineered by Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam/Stone Temple Pilots/Matthew Sweet/Rage Against The Machine). Strangely, O’Brien’s name is misspelled on the notes on the inner sleeve.
• Additional musicians: Pete Weiss – juice harp on ‘Give It Away’. Brendan O’Brien — Mellotron on ‘Breaking The Girl’ and ‘Sir Psycho Sexy’. Gail Frusciante and friends — choir vocals on ‘Under The Bridge’.
• The album is dedicated to fellow musician Mike Watt. Kiedis: “He’s (Mike Watt) the bass player for the Minutemen and Firehose. He’s a beautiful guy and a real source of inspiration. He’s more prolific than 10 whole bands put together and has the pure beautiful sense of making music for its own sake and nothing else.”
• `BloodSugarSexMagik’ would eventually feature in Rolling Stone’s ‘Essential Recordings Of The 90s’, reaching No. 58 in Spin magazine’s ’90 Greatest Albums of the 90s’ and also qualify for Q magazine’s ’90 Best Albums Of The 1990s’.
• In the US the album peaked at No. 3 in the Billboard charts. Singles-wise, ‘Give It Away’ reached No. 27, and then on its re-issue went up four places to No. 73. But it was only when it was released as a double ‘A’ side with ‘Under The Bridge’ that it managed to almost conquer the charts by peaking at No. 2. The follow up singles, ‘If You Have To Ask’ and ‘Breaking The Girl’ failed to reach the Top 100.
• It was the band’s first platinum-selling album in the US. Eventually staying on the Billboard chart for over a year. To date the album has sold in excess of six million copies worldwide.
• In the UK, the album reached No. 25, but overall the singles performed better. At its first attempt, ‘Under The Bridge’ (the lead single in the UK) reached No. 26, while it’s follow up, ‘Breaking The Girl’ levelled off at No. 41. `Give It Away’ went into the Top 10 but only just as it stalled at No. 9. While the re-issued ‘Under The Bridge’ managed to better its initial release by 13 places peaking at No. 13.
• The video for ‘Under The Bridge’ won the Best Breakthrough Video at the 1992 MTV Awards. MTV viewers would later vote the video No. 5 in the top 500 videos of all time.
• John Frusciante released two solo albums before he rejoined the Chili Peppers, most of which he’d written while he was still in the band. The first, ‘Niandra LaDes And Usually Just A T-Shirt’ (American, 1994) – parts of which were recorded around the same time as the `BloodSugarSexMagik’ sessions – initially sold around 15,000 copies. The second, ‘Smile From The Streets You Hold’ (Birdman, 1997) features some material the guitarist had written when he was 17 and about the join the Chili Peppers. Frusciante: “[They] are some of the best things I ever recorded… A lot of it was recorded at the same time we were recording `BloodSugar…’ so it was more of a way to balance out what I wasn’t doing in the band. Because that was just a small part of me. There was no limitations at all and since I’m not like an egomaniac show-off it was all right to just do whatever I wanted and do as much as I wanted to do…”
• Frusciante also holds tapes of jam sessions of a side project called the Three Amoebas featuring himself, and drummer Stephen Perkins (Jane’s Addiction, Porno For Pyros, Methods Of Mayhem) which he says he’d still like to release.
• With Frusciante gone, the band hired Arik Marshall (most recently seen Macy Gray) of the US band Marshall Law. His first show was in front of 60,000 people in San Francisco. After he left, 5,000 people turned up on the first day of auditions alone. Jesse Tobias got the job, but only briefly before Navarro finally agreed to join.
• When Frusciante himself finally rejoined, the band was so invigorated by i81rAurnithat they recorded the basic tracks for the ‘Californication’ album in just five days.