Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sometimes in the Raw
The Chili Peppers were medium Hot back in 1990. Like “Pink Hot.” They’d been on EMI Records but that deal was over. So they put themselves out on the industry’s “Availables” menu, and record labels bid with gusto. Warner Bros. Records bid high, but were outbid by Sony/Epic, Warners’ biggest rival. At Warner, that loss made us feel a bit less Hot.
Warner’s head Mo Ostin phoned one of the Peppers, their singer-songwriter Anthony Kiedis, to congratulate the Peppers on their successful deal with Sony.
Kiedis was impressed by the call he got from the losing label’s Ostin. He told the Peppers about it, how Ostin, “the coolest, most real person we had met during all these negotiations had just personally called to encourage me to make a great record for a rival company. That was the kind of guy I’d want to be working for.”
Kiedis pursued his feeling, and soon dropped Sony in favor of Warners. Earlier EMI recordings were transferred to Warner, too.
Recording in Rick’s Mansion
Time to make a new record, for Warners now, had arrived. Mo Ostin had earlier mentioned a producer allied with Warner: Rick Rubin, who was not the kind of producer who ran sessions with a firm hand. He was more of a wise counselor in the booth, one with a beard, too.
Back in 1987, Rubin had turned down producing the Chili Peppers because of its members’ drug problems.
Now he felt better. Rubin suggested the album be recorded in a ten-bedroom studio home he owned in Laurel Canyon. The site had first been a mansion, rumored to have been owned by magician Harry Houdini, although the original buildings had burnt down in the late 1950s, and a new, medium mansion put up, this one with a recording studio.
But, Houdini or not, many musicians (Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles, David Bowie) who’d visited and recorded in the new mansion swore it was haunted. They heard voices, ghostly. They avoided the mansion’s bell tower.
But Rubin felt at home in the mansion’s studio. His beard grew fuller.
Of the four Chili Peppers, three even moved into rooms down their own hallways. Only Chad Smith, believing the place really was haunted, rode his motorcycle in each day. The other three Peppers felt warm vibes throughout the mansion.
Time to name the main Chili Peppers:
Flea (b. Michael Balzary) – bass
Chad Smith – drummer
Anthony Kiedis – lead vocalist
John Frusciante -- guitar
Writing the album went fast; living in separate wings of the mansion made collaborating easy for the two song-authors: Frusciante and Kiedis. Sketched out songs were then fleshed out by all four of the group, figuring how orchestrating the ensemble’s bass, guitar, percussion, and vocals.
If there was one theme for this first Warner album, it was s-e-x. Songs written for it included “Suck My Kiss,” “If You Have to Ask,” “Sir Psycho Sexy,” “Give It Away,” and the album’s title song (“clearly the best title,” opined Rubin) “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”
Blood sugar sucker fish in my dish
How many pieces do you wish?
Step into a heaven where I keep it on the soul side
Girl please me, be my soul bride
Every women has a piece of Aphrodite
Copulate to create a state of sexual light
Kissing her virginity, my affinity
I mingle with the Gods, I mingle with divinity
Blood sugar baby
Sex magik, sex magik
Another hit,“Breaking the Girl,” was about Kiedis’ frequent changes in “relationships.” He worried about being a womanizer, like his own father had been. Son Anthony had now known many girls, too, and later explained his depression over it: “As exciting and temporarily fulfilling as this constant influx of interesting and beautiful girls can be, at the end of the day, that shit is lonely and you’re left with nothing.”
Watch "Breaking the Girl”:
(The bridge in the middle of the song was performed on percussion stuff salvaged from a garbage dump.)
Raised by my dad
Girl of the day
He was my man
That was the way
She was the girl
Feeling the need
To make me her home
I don't know what when or why
The twilight of love had arrived
Twisting and turning
Your feelings are burning
You're breaking the girl
She meant you no harm
Think you're so clever
But now you must sever
You're breaking the girl
He loves no one else
Drugs, too, were an issue for each member of the group. “Under the Bridge” depicted a source of heroin and cocaine in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park. Home to gangs. Kiedis took on that bit of poetry. And soon, Frusciante got into heroin.
The album maintained the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ current tough-punk style. But less than before. Flea was no longer always slap-bass-ing. And Rubin cut back on “distortion” (though not on loudness). The sound of the Chili Peppers had grown strong and clear.
1991: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Out in September 24, 1991, BSSM went gold that November, and platinum in April, 1992. Since then, it’s gone seven times platinum in the U.S. alone (and twice that worldwide). It peaked at #3 in the Billboard 200. The album grew and grew, its music defining its era.
The first key to this success was airplay mania over “Give It Away.” It is still early Pepper, with funk guitar riffs and references to sex. Rick Rubin’s contribution is thought to be its “dry” guitar sound.
"Give It Away" now:
Following that, “Under the Bridge” was a follow up single hit, going #2 in Billboard’s Hot 100.
Sometimes I feel
Like I don’t have a partner
Sometimes I feel
Like my only friend Is the city I live in
The city of angels
Lonely as I am
Together we cry
I drive on her streets
‘Cause she’s my companion
I walk through her hills
‘Cause she knows who I am
She sees my good deeds
And she kisses me windy
I never worry
Now that is a lie …
Under the bridge downtown
Is where I drew some blood
Under the bridge downtown
I could not get enough
Under the bridge downtown
Forgot about my love
Under the bridge downtown
I gave my life away
Comings and Goings
In the next years, studio-recorded albums got tougher to make. They’d come out every four years, with slightly different members, based on “I’m out of here” happening for some reasons. Still the foursome we started with was nearly always there, often on stage, often shirtless.
Drummer Chad Smith was on stage straight from 1988 on. He wore a cap, nearly every moment. Over a quarter of a century as a Chili Pepper, he always remembered joining the band, thinking about that starting,1988 day: “Oh, cool, they have a record deal. Great! I’d love to be in a band that has a record deal. We started playing, and right away we just hit it off musically. We just jammed, which is what we still do.”
Guitarist John Frusciante had a major gap as an active Pepper: from 1992 to 1998. He’d been a heroin addict from 1992 to 1997. Then, to quit cold turkey, he went into rehab, even getting his teeth replaced and skin grafts to fix his ravaged arms. He took up yoga, even gave up sex. But when the Chili Peppers fired replacement guitarist Dave Navarro, Flea told Kiedis “the only way I could imagine carrying on is if we got John back in the band.
Flea met John to ask if he’d rejoin. Frusciante started crying, and told Flea nothing would make me happier in the world. He rejoined, helped the group record its next album Californication, and brought some healthy attitude to the group.
Flea (called Michael Balzary) was the Peppers’ bassist from beginning to end. He’d originally been in the same high school with Anthony Keidis and another Chili guitarist, Hillel Slovak, in a “before” band named Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem, but that got evolved to Red Hot Chili Peppers. During it all, Flea moved from slap bass to playing bass minimally, leaving room in the music.
Anthony Kiedis was the band’s vocalist, starting at its birth. He was a Hollywood kid, son of actor Blackie Dammett. His Godfather was Sonny Bono, and one of his babysitters had been Cher. In high school, Anthony met Flea in Driver’s Ed class. Both were social outcasts. One of their hobbies was jumping into swimming pools from tall buildings (Kiedis missed once big, off a five-story building, missing the water by five inches. Broken back.)
Kiedis has had dozens of women in his life, and created songs for some of them: “I Could Have Lied” for Sinead O’Connor. More…more…and for the mother of his son, Heather Christie, the song “She’s Only 18” in the Peppers’ 2006 album Stadium Arcadium.
A lot of drugs in his life, as his song “Under the Bridge” told about MacArthur Park in Los Angeles. Kiedis has written most of the Chili Peppers song lyrics. During these years, Kiedis had avoided rap, and embraced melodies. More than any other member, it is Kiedis who has held together the Chili Peppers.
1995 – One Hot Minute
Hot were the Peppers, but still stingy about releasing albums. It took four years for them to come up with their next: One Hot Minute. Song writing got tougher, with Frusciante in rehab and all.
Still, One Hot Minute sold eight million copies worldwide, and gave birth to the Chili Peppers’ third #1 single, “My Friends.”
“My Friends” ...
But the drive to sell the album was not so strong now. A promo tour attached to the album was cancelled. Kiedis got in a motorcycle accident leaving one arm in a sling (and more painkillers).
In 1997, the band played just one show all year – the Fuji Rock Festival, where they played only eight songs until a massive typhoon cut the show short.
Then, in 1998, Frusciante rejoined the band. Within a week, the original group was back together.
Kiedis recalled, “For me, that was the defining moment of what would become the next six years of our lives together. That was when I knew that this was the real deal, that the magic was about to happen again. Suddenly we could all hear, we could all listen, and instead of being caught up in our finite little balls of bullshit, we could all become players in that great universal orchestra again.”
1999 – Californication
After another four years, the Chili Peppers came forward with the group’s fast-selling, most popular album ever. It quickly sold over 15 million copies world wide. So far. Continuing in the Producer chair was Rick Rubin, who, now age 36, had let his hair farther down.
The feel in Californication was more restrained than previous albums. Less rap, more melody, altogether more just plain musical. Credit for this went in two directions: the return of Frusciante to the band, credited with less grating and more introspection than previous work; and Rick Rubin’s concentration on song structure, rather than just jams.
Californication was, however, still loud, due to Rubin’s concentration on high sound compression and distortion during its digital mastering. Rubin got critiqued for what got called his “Loudness War.” Which the New York Times claimed “Your ears aren’t given room to breathe.” But audiences responded to the mastering style.
Three #1 rock hits came from the 15 songs in the album.
“Scar Tissue” – The first single issued, and it features a melodic riff, as does its follow-up single, “Otherside.” And finally, the album’s title song.
See the video of “Californication,” here:
But despite some variety in the album, girls would continue to be a feature of its songs. The song “Emit Remmus” (which is “summer time” spelled backwards) was born from Keidis’ brief romance with Spice Girl Melanie C.
Flea in the Raw
Backing Californication’s release, the band once more set out on a world tour. Part One: The United States, climaxed by the close of Woodstock ’99. The Chili Peppers took the stage, and as often, were barely clothed. Flea had only one piece of clothing on: his guitar, which often covered his privates, but not always.
Fortunately, this performance was caught on camera, live.
If you dare, you can watch the nude Flea on stage...
In their set, the Red Hot Chili Peppers ended (as would the festival) by playing Jimi Hendrix’ “Fire” (as a favor to Hendrix’ sister) while, out in the mass audience, violence took off. Women were being raped. Nearby property was being destroyed. ATMs were looted. Bonfires in the fields roared out of control. Riot control squads fought back. The Red Hot Chili Peppers hit it, and quickly got off stage.
Woodstock 1999 was hardly the era of Peace and Love, but (as Kiedis put it) “of greed and cashing in.”
The next day after the mayhem, newspapers blamed the Chili Peppers for performing “Fire.”
But that stopped them not. The Peppers kept moving, off to new albums and bigger audiences. Worldwide crowds and Greatest Hits.
-- Stay Tuned