Red Hot Chili Peppers And The Birth of "Alternative" Music

Molly Lambert on punk-funk, masculinity and how RHCP became America's rock band

"I must report that life is short." —Anthony Kiedis, "This Ticonderoga"

Red Hot Chili Peppers are the dumbest, sexiest band ever — the supreme interpreters of those twin California clichés, dumbness and sexiness, both of which they subvert and embody in equal measure. Their fourth album, 1989's platinum breakthrough Mother’s Milk, is where they first perfected the kind of music that sounds ideal in the acoustics of empty suburban swimming pools, spot-welding the expansive funk of 1970s soul to the spartan sounds of 1980s L.A. punk on their cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” Just as The Beach Boys became the sound of the burgeoning American surf culture decades earlier, the Chili Peppers spoke to the traditions of Southern California skater kids, using instruments rather than boards to schralp the gnarl. After that, they were the favorite band of every devoutly long-haired, Vans-wearing, stoned California skate rat (and every Midwestern punk that copped that pose). Nobody but major label record execs wanted a polished Peps; the crudeness was an integral part of the chemistry.

The Getaway is the Chili Peppers' 11th album, and their first without a Rick Rubin assist since they first connected on 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the blockbuster album for which the producer famously relocated the band to the haunted Hollywood mansion where it found its inner balladeers. Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the band's (Rick) rubicon into the land of being taken seriously, a place where no one necessarily expected the Peps to ever go. On The Getaway, they retrace that route. "California dreamin' is a Pettibon," Anthony Kiedis sings, nodding to the band's longtime infatuation with O.G. SoCal punks Black Flag and its house artist, Raymond Pettibon. You can hear Pettibon’s artistic style in the Peppers’ sound — pulpy and immediate, collapsing the boundaries between banality and brilliance. It's there in the way Kiedis’s lyrics can verge on dadaist, rapping choice words that sound good together, like a hesher Gertrude Stein.

The Peppers were one of the first bands to regularly appear on the Billboard chart that would become “Alternative” but began life as “Modern Rock” — a place for post-punk, electronic, and college rock that didn’t qualify for the other genre charts. Today, they hold the triple crown for most No. 1's, most weeks at No. 1, and most top 10 songs on that chart. After Nirvana led the charge of alt-nation from America’s fringes into its living rooms via MTV, the Alternative chart converged with the other rock charts. But in the late ’80s, when it began, it was a place for misfit bands who didn’t fit anywhere else, like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Sonic Youth — who, despite their wildly variant coastal images and sounds, were both acolytes of the same DIY scene, and fans of Raymond Pettibon.

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Red Hot Chili Peppers

Of all the dick-swinging bands in rock history, nobody ever made having a dick look more fun than Red Hot Chili Peppers did. They started doing their cock-sock bit at their Hollywood live shows in the early 1980s, and took it to progressively larger stages as their star rose. Previous rock gods were always uncomfortably restrained by extremely tight pants with a suggestive outline, but the Chili Peppers took Cock Rock to its logical outcome — free your dick and your mind will follow. They made having a dick seem like what I imagined it was like to have one. They knew they were being funny; they embraced the homoeroticism inherent in all-male bands, and they never seemed to take themselves too seriously. But they were clearly ambitious — no one gets to the top by accident — and blessed with just enough self-preserving instinct not to blow it all up.

If Nirvana and other bands from the Pacific Northwest recoiled from the lunkhead jocks they gained as fans when they became household names, the Chili Peppers, in true Southern California fashion, welcomed them. The bro dudes who slid into Peppers fandom on a vodka ice luge were greeted by the band with open arms. When Nirvana nearly got into fisticuffs backstage with Guns N’ Roses at the 1992 VMAs — the peak of the early decade's punks versus jocks cultural horn-locking — the Peppers were tunefully bridging the gap. In a time when selling out was a hotly contentious topic, the Peppers never seemed to wrestle with their mainstream acceptance. Perhaps it was because they didn’t really have to change to sell out: The world just shifted to a place where their freaky styley was gradually considered more of a normal-y styley.

The Peppers originally arrived alongside other Californian bass-heavy, fusion-minded bands like Faith No More, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, and Primus, covered in funk-punk afterbirth. The center-stage bass lines fell in tradition with California punks like Minutemen and Black Flag. Flea began as a jazz trumpeter — his first idols weren’t rock gods, but Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. The omnivorous breadth of their influences is what helped make the Peppers fascinating. Like Black Flag’s Greg Ginn before them, who saw no ideological conflict between his own band and The Grateful Dead, the Peppers defused all available genre binaries. Their core sound was a continuous stream of ampersands — punk & funk & soul & disco & rap & rock. If anything united their varied interests musically, it was the consistent focus on grooves and spontaneity.

But in lieu of going full party monster, the Chili Peppers’ evolution saw them embracing a heretofore undocumented softness. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but in retrospect the Peppers are consummate ’90s men. They subvert traditional masculine behavioral mores of stoicism in the one way men have always been allowed to — in song. The band strove to express aggression as a channel for ecstatic joy and deep sadness, rather than anger and violence. Androgyny doesn’t always recapitulate philogyny, but the ’90s Peppers never felt to me like brutes or jocks. Their constant near-nudity and sexualized male objectification of their videos and performances seemed a ward against homophobes. And I admired the nonstop athleticism of the band the way I admired surfers and skaters, as something I respected although it was totally alien to my own abilities.

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Red Hot Chili Peppers

The story goes that nobody could tame and control the young Peppers' manic energy — nobody could convert their raucous live show into an album equivalent, not even their hero and sometime producer George Clinton — until Rubin taught them how to meditate. The ultimate California power move is to link up with a spiritual mentor; Rubin and the Chili Peppers were a fated pairing, with his hatred of shoes and their hatred of shirts. He taught the band to vary the dynamic of its playing, to augment the freneticism with contemplativeness. “Give It Away” could be the most aggro song ever inspired by Buddhism — the song came about from a philosophical lecture about selflessness given to Kiedis by his ex-girlfriend Nina Hagen. (Reading Kiedis’s 2004 autobiography Scar Tissue a few years ago, I was struck by how often he described his early ex-girlfriends as mentors.) “Give It Away” was the moment of the band’s major triumph — an apex that hinted at an inevitable decline.

The Peps survived and thrived when other ’90s bands wilted and died. Their ability to transcend specific genres allowed them to survive the Great Grunge Genre Death Wave. When Alternative was being reshaped in the late ’90s and early 2000s into rap-rock, the Peppers found new status as its forefathers, with their focus on breaks and licks. Their chameleonic nature was an asset rather than a liability — there was no sound in which they couldn’t find something they liked. “Under the Bridge” is so tender that it’s now a regular on soft rock radio formats. But the bigger they got, the less of that underdog feeling was left to curb the suspicion that their macho Cali bro-ishness might be more in earnest than originally thought.

1999’s Californication cemented the Peppers as a rock legacy band, and in the grand tradition of rock legacy bands, they soon became a parodic, stale, wax museum version of themselves. Cartoonishness was always part of the Peppers’ aesthetic, but the band ventured into sheer self-caricature with Californication, followed by the slow enervation of 2002's By the Way, 2006's Stadium Arcadium, and 2011's I’m With You. These albums all contain ballads that recycle the most maudlin aspects of their “Under the Bridge” success without any new spin, and jams that are missing the renegade mania that they perfected on 1987's The Uplift Mofo Party Plan. By “Dani California,” they were already rehashing “Californication,” and the band seemed to be too big to care.

Having made one giant leap with Blood Sugar Sex Magik, maybe another leap was too much to expect. After Rubin stripped down and burnished the band’s sound once, he seemingly could do no more to redefine it, and the albums listed toward the kind of bloated stadium rock to which the band had originally seemed like a balloon-popping antidote.

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

1989 MTV Video Music Awards

In another sense, though, the fact that Red Hot Chili Peppers became the elder statesmen of American rock is their best goof yet. This summer, they will headline Lollapalooza for the third time in their career. At a moment when rock music is less important to popular culture than it has been since its birth, the Peppers have, once again, lasted beyond all expectations by refusing to be pigeonholed. On The Getaway, the band enlisted Danger Mouse to produce, and his hot-buttered-soul flourishes enhance without overwhelming its new songs. The band sounds revivified, awakened from a decade-long spell of phoning it in. The guiding references here seem to be Bobby Caldwell's "What You Won't Do for Love" and California low-rider funk classics that have been on rotation on Art Laboe’s radio show for decades — all of it peppered (sorry!) with familiar Kiedisms like "ayo, ayo, ayo, ayo, blacklight" and "Mexico, you are my neighbor.”

The band sounds looser than it has in recent years, and rather than chase nostalgia for its own peak ’90s sound, it approaches the ’70s funk and soul that inspired the group to make music in the first place. The album is rich with small surprises: the title track pings heartstrings with a female vocal from Anna Waronker, angelic-voiced frontwoman of ’90s cult band That Dog. First single "Dark Necessities" takes an unexpected turn into epic grandeur with its piano bridge. "The Longest Wave" is a stoned Spicoli surfer dream about the inevitable end of a relationship with a woman "under my skin and half my age" that sees Kiedis throwing around the words "sacrosanct" and "saxifrage." The album's lowest point is "Detroit," with its chorus, "I'm like Detroit, I'm crazy,” which hopefully Insane Clown Posse reads as shots fired.

Fans have speculated that some of The Getaway’s more emotional lyrics are about the end of Kiedis's three-year relationship with 22-year-old Australian model and actress Helena Vestergaard — which is super long for Kiedis, who as a rule lives the rock star cliché of forever dating young models. On "Go Robot," he sings about a girl who "looked like Alice Cooper," but the first thing I thought when I saw photos of Kiedis and Vestergaard together a couple years ago was that with her long, glossy brown hair she looked like a young Anthony Kiedis. Make of that what you will.

The Getaway finds the 53-year-old Kiedis contemplating the gap between his mental eternal youth and the realities of his aging body, or as he sings on “The Hunter,” “I still like to think I'm new / Time just gets its way / Strawberries left to decay." It's an RHCP "Cat's in the Cradle" about Kiedis's dual relationships with his 8-year-old son Everly Bear and his father John Kiedis, a.k.a. "Blackie Dammett" — who practiced the Jaid Barrymore style of parenting not uncommon in 1970s Hollywood. Dammett was a Sunset Strip hustler who sold drugs and played bit roles in Meatballs II and Starsky and Hutch. The elder Kiedis encouraged his son's experimentation with sex and drugs at an early age, and no doubt imprinted his own dreams of superstardom on his progeny. "The Hunter" is an acceptance of their complicated dynamic: "Even though you're crazy, you will never be a bother." The song is backed with a melancholy string section and marked the first time I ever compared Anthony Kiedis to Lee Hazlewood in my head, even though they've had the same mustache before.

In addition to evoking Hazlewood's lush ’70s psychedelic country-pop, there are other notable California styles at work here — Mamas and Papas sunshine pop, Dick Dale surf rock. Danger Mouse augments it with his particular specialty of orchestral soul à la Isaac Hayes. As a producer, the Mouse gives us a Chili Peppers who feel demonstrably older than the preserved-in-amber version of their 1999 selves they’ve been for the last 17 years. The album is light and effervescent, with a zen vibe that's more akin to Keanu than Pema. It aspires to be nothing more than a brief, beautiful blue wave for the listener to carve with their own sense memories, and succeeds as such. Chill waters run deep.