A band that rose from the ranks indie rock in the early 80s to superproducer-assisted megastardom, eventually becoming so big that every album they released was guaranteed to go platinum regardless of what it sounded like or even the given record-buying climate, going on enormous world tours and at times seeming like an unstoppable musical force, despite the fact that their music has sucked since before most of their fans hit puberty.
Think I’m talking about U2? Think again.
I’m talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers. While nobody was looking, RHCP fell into the position of being the biggest American rock band, and the closest U2 fascimile that we’ll have for a really long time. They're releasing yet another album on Aug. 29, serving as a further reminder that they are, in fact, some of our great nation's last musical titans.
In America, we value the following things: freedom, perseverance, coming from nothing and making yourself into something, drop-D guitar tunings, being rebellious while still making money, and being addicted to heroin just long enough so that you learn something from it. It’s no wonder, then, that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the biggest band we’ve got. They’re like musical cockroaches, standing tall while their contemporaries succumbed to various rock-star pressures and either breaking up (Jane’s Addiction), losing their mojo (Pearl Jam), or, tragically, dying (Nirvana, Sublime, a stack and a half of others).
It might be hard to remember, but the Red Hot Chili Peppers were once a pretty revolutionary group, a band whose sound could essentially be described as “Punkadelic.” Hell, they were so crazy about both the funk and the punk that they got George Clinton to produce one of their albums and had one of the Butthole surfers drum with them for a while. Additionally, the early inability of Peppers’ lead singer Anthony Kiedis to actually, y’know, sing led to his early shout-sqawk vocal style laying the foundations of rap-rock.
Influence on their peers? Got that, too.
During their heavy funk period, RHCP were dominated by the bass work of Flea; however, upon the death of guitarist Hillel Slovak and the band drafting John Frusciante as his replacement, the Peppers changed gears and became more guitar-centric. This is in part because Frusciante could play the shit out of the guitar, and partially because they enlisted Rick Rubin for their next album, when Rubin was leaving his days as a rap producer behind and becoming the go-to guy for completely reimagining a band’s sound. The resulting album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, took the good parts of the band’s old punk-funk sound and welded it to the neo-Los Angeles hard rock sound typified by such bands as Jane’s Addiction.
So intense was the Jane’s Addiction influence that Red Hot Chili Peppers eventually recruited Jane’s Dave Navarro after Frusciante quit (the first time), changed their sound again, and came out with One Hot Minute, an album nobody liked but everybody bought anyway. When they realized that it’s never a good look to share the same air as Dave Navarro, they re-upped on Frusciante and settled into this post-Sublime stadium funk rock they’ve been making going on fifteen years now.
Go head, switch your style up. If they hate, let ‘em hate, and watch the money pile up? Red Hot Chili Peppers basically made this their job.
And while U2 have had a bizarre relationship with Christianity throughout the years, Red Hot Chili Peppers have had a bizarre relationship with their guitar players. Despite having found their greatest success as a guitar band, RHCP seem to have an inability to hold on to one for more than an album or two. Their longest run was with Frusciante, who departed from the band in 2009 for reasons that are not entirely clear. Now, they’ve got an anonymous studio rat in Frusciante’s place, which seems like it would portend a return to a Flea-driven band, musically, but no. Their new single “The Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” sounds like it could have been one of the lesser tracks on Stadium Arcadium, their 2006 dud-filled double album.
Still, you can’t help but admire that Anthony Kiedis wears an OFF! hat during the “Maggie” video, despite singing a song that the dudes from OFF! would probably hate on every level, from ideology down to the music.
Speaking of that “Adventures Of Rain Dance Maggie” video, it finds them atop a rug-covered rooftop, almost painfully reenacting the Beatles’ final performance. In fact, more than anything else RHCP seems obsessed with positioning themselves in the canon of great rock music. If you recall their video for “Dani California” (still one of my favorite RHCP songs despite it turning up on Stadium Arcadium), the band assumed the guises of Elvis, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, P-Funk, Ziggy-era David Bowie, Sex Pistols, Misfits, Nirvana, and, um, Poison, ending the video as themselves. Despite the goofy Poison aside, the video made a larger point: that, at least in their own eyes, Red Hot Chili Peppers were the logical evolution of these amazingly great bands (and Poison). The Red Hot Chili Peppers are almost pathologically obsessed with the idea of being rock stars, to the point that they feel comfortable positioning themselves within that canon so that it makes it easier for everyone else to slot them in there, too.
But that’s just the thing. Red Hot Chili Peppersare the American U2, and there’s nothing we can say or do about it to change it. And really, who’s left to take their place? There’s the Kings Of Leon, who followed a similar arc to superstardom, but might very well plummet from the limelight due to a substance abuse stall-out at the top. Let’s hope Caleb Followill pulls an Anthony Kiedis and ditches the substance for Vipassana Meditation or some equally goofy celebrity cure-all. That basically leaves the Arcade Fire, who more than any other band sound like U2, but have yet to make a real dent on modern rock radio like the Chili Peppers have, and don’t seem all that interested in any sort of level of success beyond what they’ve already attained.
Simply put: if you are an American rock band, you’ve got to do two things to make it to the top: you have to want it bad, and you’ve got to survive. If you’re lucky, you’ll make it to the top like RHCP did. It’ll feel less like a coronation, and more like you’re the last man standing.