In #TheMusicThatMadeUs, senior journalist Lakshmi Govindrajan Javeri chronicles the impact that musicians and their art have on our lives, how they mould the industry by rewriting its rules and how they shape us into the people we become: their greatest legacies.
From the overcrowded spaces of mainstream rock (and its sub-genres) as well as alternative rock, the Red Hot Chili Peppers sound can be recognised instantly. Even though the almost 40-year-old band has dabbled with so many genres since their self-titled debut in 1984, there is something “magikal” about their sonic identity that cuts through the rest of the lot.
For a band that has been riddled with drug problems and many entries, exits, re-entries and exits of bands members, it is nothing short of a miracle that Anthony Kiedis and Flea have kept the outfit intact. Several genre influences and inspirations notwithstanding, the band has managed to carve such a distinct sonic persona that no change in lineup or heightened intoxication or even sobering up has managed to alter that. For in their every change is also present an inexplicable constant, something we can only attempt to decode. What then is that constant that sets the band apart from their contemporaries?
To start with, every band member has over time brought something indispensable to the table. Unlike a lot of rock bands that have turned into battlefields of egos, RHCP has had the sound vocals of Kiedis, rock solid drumming of Chad Smith, unmistakable basslines of Flea and guitarists like John Frusciante and Josh Klinghoffer who have understood their job description without attempting to overshine the rest.
In band parlance, RHCP are incredibly tight; meaning they function with precision as a quartet, playing every note and beat with perfect synchrony as Kiedis maintains a firm grip over his rap-rock-melodic singing, thus collectively exuding the vibe or attitude the band wishes to showcase.
Let’s be honest, in terms of vocal prowess Kiedis isn’t the strongest of the lost. But he nails his part with the rapping or the energy or the staccato, knowing when to unleash his inner range and when to show restraint and let the other instruments take the lead. This balance, coupled with the sheer vastness of their range and the self-assurance with which he sings, makes Kiedis the best man for the job. He can go from high octane rapping in Give it a Way to pensive and soothing in Scar Tissue, or attitude-driven in Suck My Kiss, making him the next generation Mick Jagger whose primary responsibility has always been to embody the feel of the band, of the song and of the moment.
In my opinion, Flea’s mastery over the bass has in many ways defined the band’s sound. Add to the mix the interplay between him, Kiedis and Frusciate/Klinghoffer and the way he locks in with Smith’s drumming, and we have Flea as the true custodian of the RHCP soundscape bringing soul to their inimitable funk-ness. There are so many examples of his bass prowess that every single one of their chartbusters has had either a bass solo or an important flourish that we can’t help noticing.
Some of my personal RHCP favourites have been so because there’s a Flea element that simply elevates the song. The bass is easy to notice in songs like The Adventures of Raindance Maggie, Dark Necessities or Naked in the Rain where the bass riffs are the basis of the songs. But in numbers like Soul to Squeeze or Snow (Hey Oh) where the vocals or the guitaring takes prominence, it is the bass subtleties that actually bring the songs together.
The guitar duties may have seen many changes but broadly speaking in the band’s context we study them as either the Frusciante era or the Klinghoffer era. Between the two Frusciante has been more pivotal in pinning the band’s sonic vibe between raw, aggressive risqué energy on one side and calm, melodic temperance on the other. Klinghoffer’s The Getaway, Dark Necessities, Pink As Floyd and even Encore allow him to bring his stamp of individualism without setting into the mould created by Frusciante.
Frusciante, on the other hand, has been instrumental in allowing the band to go beyond their early sound and move in various directions genre-wise. His work on albums like Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, By The Way and Stadium Arcadium among others, established RHCP as that funky force of nature that one must no longer ignore. For within these albums lie some of the band’s best songs like Under the Bridge, Scar Tissue, The Zephyr Song, Dani California and many of those mentioned earlier in the article. In so many ways these are the songs that we’ve come to instantaneously recognise and associate with the band.
Much like Ringo Starr, Chad Smith’s drumming although fantastic is also crucial to the experience of listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers because his chemistry with both Flea and Frusciante is the reason why you cannot help but jump — not dance, not groove, not mosh — as soon as you hear one of their upbeat tracks. Smith exercises superlative restraint even when he is head-bangingly playing the rhythmic parts, never overshadowing his bandmates while strongly holding his own; much like The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts.
That understanding that the band is bigger than the individual has contributed greatly to their overall songwriting and sound, with their devil-may-care attitude bringing in the early fans. The band may have sobered up over these decades, their music matured, and their stage performances more clothed but their unique ability to sound like themselves irrespective of their genre has made their work more timeless than they are given credit for.
Luckily for us, they continue to make music as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 11th album Unlimited Love released on Friday, 1 April, six years after The Getaway, and their first with John Frusciante since Stadium Arcadium in 2006.