The hottest band in the world

Once, they were the Band Most Likely to Self-Destruct - strung out on drugs, creatively stalled, and touched by tragedy. Then they met a record producer with a gift for reinvention, and the rest, as they say, is rock 'n' roll history. With their scorching new album about to hit the shelves, and a summer stadium tour sold out, Andy Gill explains how the Red Hot Chili Peppers climbed out of the abyss to become the biggest rock group in the world
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The Independent Culture

In recent years, mountain-man lookalike record producer Rick Rubin has been justly fêted for his career-revival work with Johnny Cash, which effectively recontextualised the Man in Black for a non-country audience, and over the last few months - less justifiably - for attempting the same rescue act with Neil Diamond.

But impressive as these make-overs may be, neither was Rubin's most significant resuscitation. That honour goes to his work with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who, when he was drafted in to produce the first album of their new deal with Warner Brothers in 1991, were heading for oblivion; their energies dissipated by drugs, sundry calamities, and a career that seemed to be creatively stalled after four patchy albums for EMI. Within months, Rubin transformed both their sound and their prospects: boosted by the surprise hit "Under The Bridge", they sold twelve million copies of Blood Sugar Sex Magik.

Rubin's influence didn't end there. After guitarist John Frusciante left the band and the Chili Peppers entered into a less fruitful relationship with former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, the producer was required to repeat his magic a couple of albums later when the severely drug-ravaged Frusciante returned. The resulting album, Californication, went on to shift more than 15 million copies, hoisting the band to that rarefied plane where they could be considered contenders for the crown of Biggest Rock Band In The World. By 2004 there was no serious competition, as the Chili Peppers broke the record for largest average concert revenue, a whopping $17m for just three shows in London's Hyde Park. This month, they release the best record of their career so far, the double album Stadium Arcadium, which is virtually guaranteed to go straight to No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic - and probably every other territory in which it's released. Not bad going for a bunch of wildmen whose antics had, earlier in their career, secured them the dubious title of Band Most Likely To Self-Destruct.

Their first guitarist, Hillel Slovak, did just that, succumbing in June 1988 to heroin addiction. Slovak had, with singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary and drummer Jack Irons, been part of the original line-up who first met as students at Fairfax High School in Los Angeles. Inspired by punk and funk in roughly equal parts, their initial ambition was simply to emulate the local success of LA new-wave bands such as X, The Blasters and The Minutemen, and they started performing at LA punk clubs almost as soon as they had written their first song, "Out of the Way", with a bass riff cobbled together from a Defunkt track. Within months, with just five songs in their repertoire, they were signed to EMI and working on their self-titled debut with former Gang of Four guitarist Andy Gill (no relation) in the producer's chair.

Unfortunately, half the band were still under contract to another label, so a makeweight guitarist and drummer were quickly drafted in to work on the album. Unskilled at getting their opinions across, the Chili Peppers became frustrated when things didn't go their way. In an early demonstration of the questionable social skills that would become a feature of their career, they presented the producer with a turd in a pizza box. "There were so many situations where we thought we were funny and shocking," Flea later admitted to Mojo, "but we were just obnoxious."

In contrast to the current state of label/artist relations, in those days record companies were still prepared to stick with an act even if their first release didn't hit the jackpot. When the Chili Peppers were asked who they would like as producer of their next album, they made an imaginative leap and opted for P-Funk overlord George Clinton, who in turn augmented their sound with a brass section featuring the celebrated James Brown hornmen Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. The resulting Freaky Styley (1985) was a more focused, purposeful expression of the band's core values of sex, funk, sex, dope, sex and good times, with maybe a little bit of sex added for good measure, along with covers of Sly Stone's "If You Want Me to Stay" and The Meters' "Africa". And although they readily acknowledged the more dysfunctional aspects of Clinton's personality, Kiedis later recalled his being a powerful catalyst for the band - "so smart and creative and loving and non-judgmental".

Always one of the more physical and body-conscious of performing acts, with Kiedis prancing gymnastically and Flea given to leaping around in just his underpants, in 1988 they made one of rock's definitive statements of untrammelled sexual potency when they were photographed for the cover of their Abbey Road EP. In a pastiche of The Beatles' classic zebra-crossing cover, the band were not just barefoot but utterly bare-arsed, their modesty salvaged only by socks dangling from their private parts. The same flimsy outfits would be adopted for live shows - "Rock out with your cock out," they called it. As a stunt, it cemented their position as inheritors of Iggy Pop's sexually-charged performance art, but it would come back to haunt them time and again, saddling the band with a reputation as risqué sexual predators unable to hold their baser urges in check. Indeed, by 1989's Mother's Milk, they would be singing about being "hell bent on inventing a new species" by having sex with dolphins - given their reputation, this was not beyond the bounds of possibility.

The writs were not long in coming. A female student at George Mason University in Virginia alleged that after a 1989 show, Kiedis had pulled down his pants and thrust his penis in her face, demanding oral sex. The case dragged on for several years. Meanwhile, in 1990, Flea and new drummer Chad Smith were each fined $1,000 and costs, and ordered to donate $5,000 to a rape crisis centre in Daytona Beach, Florida, after the band's performance at an MTV spring-break party there had spiralled out of control. Flea, it transpired, had - "playfully", no doubt - thrown a 20-year-old female fan over his shoulder. Smith then attempted to remove her bikini bottoms, before Flea restrained and spanked her while yelling obscenities. The two offenders, who pleaded guilty, were also required to write letters of apology to their victim. Had they then been the mega-rich superstars they subsequently became, one cannot imagine them getting off quite so lightly, or cheaply.

Hillel Slovak's death in the wake of 1988's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan threw the band into a temporary tailspin. More than just a fellow band member, he had been Flea and Kiedis' best friend since school. Kiedis, himself deep into a heroin habit of his own, embarked on an uncontrollable binge lasting a month, convinced he was next for the exit door, before suddenly sobering up. Later, he and Flea would realise how, under the pressures of age and drug abuse, Slovak had gradually developed a melancholic personality which they had neither the wit to recognise nor the experience to remedy. It was nothing they could have prevented, but that didn't stop Jack Irons blaming the band for Slovak's demise and leaving the group for good.

Irons' replacement, Chad Smith, was singularly unimpressed by the Chili Peppers' reputation - like most of those who had heard of the band, he thought of them primarily as "the guys with the socks on their dicks" - and was anyway more into the basic musical diet he shared with most young white kids from Detroit - Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. That much, at least, was readily apparent from his appearance, particularly his mullet. When they asked whether he would shave it off, he told them: "Fuck you, you go shave yours!" His refusal struck the right note of punkish insouciance with the band. "A month later I was having my picture taken with a sock on my dick, so it was, 'I guess I'm in the band'."

Former P-Funk guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight was briefly recruited as Slovak's replacement, but a permanent contender was found when Flea saw an 18-year-old guitar prodigy and Chili Peppers fanauditioning for his friend's band Thelonious Monster.

By the time he was 16, John Frusciante had mastered all of Frank Zappa's guitar solos - some of the trickiest licks in rock - and had even auditioned for Zappa's band, a sobering experience that drew him up short. "I was sitting there thinking, do you want to be a rock star and write your own songs and draw all the girls," he told Mojo magazine, "or do you want to be in Frank Zappa's band, where you'll be told what to do all the time, not allowed to take drugs, and it's kind of a square band so there's not going to be a lot of girls at the shows?" It wasn't a tough call. When the Chili Peppers came calling the following year, he jumped at the chance.

Slovak's were hard shoes to fill. He had developed a distinctive jazz-tinged style all his own - George Clinton later recalled the way the guitarist would run through a solo twice, the first pass being "really slick and jazzy, just to impress you, and then he'd play it real fast, with a punk edge" - but Frusciante amazed his new bandmates by having memorised and perfected every one of the late guitarist's parts. And not just Slovak's, either. For Mother's Milk, he essayed a super-fast version of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" and a rock cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" which, thanks to heavy rotation on MTV, helped hoist the album to a mid-50s chart placing. Still operating at the point where breakneck post-punk thrash meets Seventies funk and garbled raps, it was a fairly indigestible conglomerate. But, extracted as a single, the track "Knock Me Down" finally secured the band their first Top 10 hit, just as their contract with EMI was drawing to a close.

Enter Rick Rubin. The grey-bearded eminence had in effect invented the rock/rap sound with his Def Jam productions for LL Cool J and The Beastie Boys, and was thus the perfect choice to produce the Chili Peppers as they moved to Warners. "The band had gotten to a point where they were really ready to do what it took to make a great record," Rubin later recalled. "It had a lot to do with them getting sober and taking the craft of it much more seriously." Watching the band at the Greek Theatre in LA, Rubin was impressed by how much they had improved, but felt they had the potential to tackle something more ambitious. As the band worked on new material, they found a new confidence. Flea later claimed it was the first time they weren't intimidated by the prospect of recording.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the resulting album, is the pivotal work in the Chili Peppers' story. The significant factors in their subsequent globe-girdling success are all traceable to these sessions: Frusciante's broad range of guitar modes; Kiedis' sudden access to a mellifluous singing voice after years of brittle, declamatory rapping; the band's vocal harmonies; and corralling all of these together, Rubin's subtle guidance. Under his watchful eye, they managed to come up with the definitive punk-funk jam, the show-stopping "Give It Away". But it was Rubin's discovery of "Under the Bridge" in one of Kiedis' notebooks, and his suggestion that the frontman sing it straight, that transformed the band's fortunes. A poignant ballad about Kiedis' love for LA - in particular, the place where the singer used to meet his heroin dealer - it would eventually reach No 2 on the singles chart, an unusually high position for a drug song in such puritan times.

Their triumph, though, proved too much for Frusciante. Like Kurt Cobain, he viewed commercial success as anathema to his punk ideals, and as the album hit the top three, he announced he was quitting the band. Once again, the Chili Peppers needed a replacement guitarist, and after brief spells with first Arik Marshall and then Jesse Tobias, they settled on former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who had initially exhibited some reluctance to join. "I expected them to be funky, wacky, funny, cute - all of the things that I don't have," he admitted. "Thankfully I was wrong."

Unlike the adoring Frusciante, Navarro had never owned a Chili Peppers album, but after a three-month break in Hawaii getting to know each other, they came up with the bulk of the songs that made up One Hot Minute. The band have since effectively disowned the album as an aberration, though there's still much to enjoy in the new range of guitar tones and textures introduced by Navarro: whether he's holding down the groove with clipped rhythm guitar, sprinkling a drizzle of delicate notes behind Kiedis' more sensitive moments, or trailing a long vocoder guitar-belch over a funk riff, his work is never less than intriguing, and often startling in its originality.

But there was a pall hanging over One Hot Minute that had little to do with the music. The succession of temporary guitarists had created an air of insecurity that Chad Smith would later compare to Spinal Tap - "except with us, it was the guitar player that kept exploding". Flea had been taken ill with chronic fatigue syndrome following the previous year's shows in Brazil, a condition exacerbated by his recent divorce. The death of River Phoenix, a close friend of the band, caused spirits to plummet further. He was memorialised in the track "Deep Kick", while another song, "My Friends", featured a downbeat account of distressed friends "standing on the brink of emptiness". A former heroin addict with a tendency to backslide, Kiedis opened the album with what was almost a rehab manifesto: "My tendency/ For dependency/ Is offending me".

Meanwhile, the departed Frusciante had also slipped into heroin addiction, becoming a filthy recluse. His disillusion with the whole rock-star syndrome had dragged his spirit to its darkest depths, from which only the most powerful drugs could lift him. "Everything that had previously brought me happiness caused me the hugest sadness," he told one journalist. "Music. Paintings. People. It was pure depression. [Heroin] caused these things to be beautiful again." Seven years after leaving the band he was at rock bottom, his arms badly scarred by track-marks, his teeth rotted away, his guitars all sold for dope. Convinced he was going to die, Frusciante tried a succession of self-medication cures, trying to replace the high of heroin with the pot, speed or coke. Eventually he went cold turkey. He told himself: "Let's see what happens in a year. If it still feels like the world is against you, you can go back on drugs and you can die."

It was a fortuitous moment, as Frusciante's return to something like normality coincided with the band's lowest ebb. Dissatisfied with One Hot Minute, they were on the verge of breaking up when Kiedis, at Flea's insistence, brought the guitarist round for a jam. "As soon as we started playing," Kiedis recalled later, "I felt like a part of my heart that hadn't been receiving oxygen for seven years was suddenly full of it. I knew then that nothing could go wrong." He was right. Before long, they were back in the studio with Rubin again. "There's such a powerful musical plug between John and Flea," reckoned the producer. "They have this psychic connection where they can walk in and both start playing in unison." The resulting Californication album went on to become the most popular release of their career.

Its success helped bring into focus the importance of a sense of place in the band's work. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Anthony Kiedis in particular, can be regarded as the inheritors of Jim Morrison and The Doors' mantle as lords of LA's soft, sleazy underbelly - and not just for the indulgent attitude towards sex and drugs that they share. There's a similar sense in their work of LA as the locus of Western corruption, and how alluring such rot can be; and of the brittle conjunction of perpetual sunshine and spiritual darkness that cloaks the city. .

The big difference between the Chili Peppers and The Doors, perhaps, is the change in LA's social fabric and attitudes, with the rise (and increasing extremity) of the porn industry, the ubiquity of hard drugs and the lingering aftermath of the Manson murders all staining a city Kiedis loves yet once described as "a stifling land of smog, violence and hate". All this is reflected in the band's lyrical ambivalence towards their hometown, simultaneously the site of their apotheosis and the pit filled with their demons. So while Kiedis may escape to his New Zealand ranch or take sabbaticals in the Far East, he must always return to his smog-choked city, where there's always the chance that things could turn extreme in the blink of an eye. Kiedis recently put it another way, saying that LA is so full of "mysticism and creative juice" that he could never leave. "It will always be my filthy, dirty, trashy, disgusting, poisonous home," he says, "because these streets speak to me."

Of course, there are more influences operating on the band than just geography. Psychologists would doubtless cite the musicians' troubled childhoods as significant factors, and they'd be right. Frusciante has hinted at an unhappy childhood, while Flea was raised in a violent, alcoholic household, so terrified of his junkie stepfather that by the age of 11 he was staying out nearly all night to avoid him. At the same age, Kiedis was arriving in LA with his father, a part-time actor and drug dealer whose lifestyle clearly informed his son's subsequent development.

Since Californication, the Chili Peppers have released two further albums and gone on to conquer every last nook and cranny of the globe. With 2002's By The Way, they broadened their musical range yet more. It's well on the way to emulating Californication's sales, while the new Stadium Arcadium is expected to challenge Saturday Night Fever as the highest-grossing double album of all time. The Chili Peppers' appeal has never been greater, and it would be hard to find a band regarded with more respect by its fans: Google their name, and you'll come up with almost as many sites dedicated to their guitar and bass tablature as ones trying to flog you tickets or CDs. Fans don't just want to hear them, they want to be them.

Being them, of course, is a risky business - though since Hillel Slovak's death they've managed not to lose another bandmate. Like Keith Richards, they seem to thrive on adversity and indulgence, surmounting pitfalls, problems and habits that would cripple less resilient bands - but, unlike the Stones, always bouncing back with ever-increasing album sales. For once, the well-worn Nietzschean cliché appears to be true: what doesn't kill them seems to make them stronger. And right now, there's no stronger force in pop.

Stadium Arcadium is released next Monday

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