Before 1991, LA-rock band the Red Hot Chili Peppers had little going besides a harem of female fans and an uproarious stage presence. Then came Blood Sugar Sex Magik, which celebrated its 30th birthday this Friday, and everything changed for the Peppers.
Pre-1991 Red Hot Chili Peppers were known as a party band; notorious for taking the stage wearing only a sock wrapped around a certain phallic member. Their sex-centred lyrics were way too blatantly crude for radio play, but they carried too much electric funk to fit into the hair-metal or college rock category. Not for a lack of effort though, they undoubtedly shared a charged chemistry and their influences from Jimi Hendrix to Parliament-Funkadelic (George Clinton produced their second LP Freaky Styley) bled into their music. Coming off of their first gold record with 1989’s Mothers Milk; the Peppers were armed with a new lineup of Chad Smith on drums and John Frusciante on guitar after the untimely passing of guitarist Hillel Slovak due to a heroin overdose. When it came time for their next album, the Peppers looked to ultra-chill-guy Rick Rubin to man the helm as producer, who suggested they record the album in an unconventional setting where they could hunker down creatively. A Mansion in the Hollywood Hills where Harry Houdini used to live was selected, and the band chose to sleep and eat there during the duration of the recording, minus Smith who opted to ride his chopper to and from each day. The whole recording was captured by Gavin Bowden who turned the process into an hour-long documentary titled Funky Monks. After a month in isolation in a supposedly haunted rustic mansion, the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik was born.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was unlike anything the band had written at the time; a 17-track punk-funk journey with a couple of sentimental stops along the way. Screwball bassist Micheal Balzary (better known by his punk moniker Flea) had toned down his infamous slap bass technique, and the then 22-year old bedroom guitar prodigy Frusciante was given the spotlight to flex his fretboard muscles. The sex-centred lyrics are not altered in the slightest, with frontman Anthony Kiedis delivering sensual and provocative messages like on the tracks “Suck My Kiss” and “Sir Psycho Sexy” all in a funky rap delivery hot enough to the most uptight prude swoon. Amidst all the lust and funk Kiedis finds time to express a few matters of the heart. The track “Breaking the Girl” reveals a fear that his constant rotation of women in his life will have him ending up isolated without any real relationships. The band’s dynamic and unrelenting chemistry is best exemplified by the track “Give it Away”, where Frusciante’s dance across the guitar strings perfectly matches up with Kiedis’s arousing lyrics while Flea keeps everyone stimulated with a funky bassline. Frusciante’s guitar playing might’ve been the missing piece to the puzzle; his inventive melodies hold their own and then some amongst the rest of the group’s funk energy. like on the tracks “If you Have to Ask” and “Funky Monks” where he might begin with a 2 string pluck followed by a quick riff, but lays down a red hot solo in the middle of the track to keep listeners on their toes. As the album continues its unavoidable that about a quarter of the tracks could have stayed in the mansion, like the track “the Greeting Song’ which Kieids hates with a passion and only wrote at Rubins’s request for a song about “cars and girls”. Eventually, we come across the recognized crown jewel “Under the Bridge”; a ballad about the loneliness attached with a life filled with substance abuse. The album comes to a close with an ode to the late great Hillel Slovak with “My Lovely Man”, and finally closing the curtain with “They’re Red Hot” a cover of a Robert Johnson track of the same name recorded on the side of a mountain.
In the 21st century, it’s hard to imagine the Red Hot Chili Peppers ever had trouble finding mainstream success with earworms like “Californication” and “Under the Bridge” being constantly shuffled around on classic rock stations. However, those catchy choruses have ironically over-shadowed the undeniable artistic contribution that the Peppers gifted to the shifting music scene in the early 90s. When high-pitched hair bands squealing about girls, partying, and girls again long overstayed their welcome, something fresh, and more importantly real, was needed to fill the void. In came the flannel-obsessed grunge and alternative-rock scene (not to mention hip-hop) that entered the mainstream after brewing in the underground. Blood Sugar Sex Magik is the band’s most prominent contribution to that changing sound without a doubt. Whether it was the hands-off Rick Rubin producing approach, the passing of a founding bandmate, or the voluntary isolation the stars seemed to align. After years of struggling to find their sound, they finally got the recipe right and after 30 years it’s still as funky as ever.