This week we celebrate this cornerstone funk rock record which many see as Red Hot Chili Peppers’ finest hour.
I was 19 back in 1991, an age where music as much as at any time in my life defined who I was. I was also sharing a flat for a while with a guy who is still my closest male friend. We were both rock music fans, both drummers, and both pot-heads, so as you can imagine there were many late nights spent talking stoned bollocks and obsessing over music. And at that time one album more than any other seemed soundtrack our nocturnal sessions, and that album was Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
And indeed, if you were in your late teens and/or early 20’s in the early 90’s and mad about music (and pot) in the way that we were then there’s a pretty good chance this album was part of the soundtrack to your life too. It was one of those near-ubiquitous records that almost everyone seemed to own a copy of, not to mention the fact that it’s big singles “Breaking The Girl”, “Under The Bridge” and “Give It Away” were all over the radio and MTV.
Red Hot Chili Peppers had started out as an almost straight-up white funk act, even working with P-Funk legend George Clinton on their second album Freaky Styley. After original guitarist Hillel Slovak tragically died and drummer Jack Irons had subsequently departed following their third album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan they recruited a young fan called John Frusciante to replace Slovak, and after holding open auditions hired Chad Smith to fill the empty drum stool. The resultant record Mother’s Milk saw them add more melodic touches their mighty groove-laden sound, and also up the rock quotient with metal riffs and an altogether heavier sound. However, the band themselves ultimately felt dissatisfied with Mother’s Milk and the work of it’s producer Michael Beinhorn and for their next record wanted to move in a different direction.
Having changed record labels from EMI to Warner Brothers they decided to hire the one and only Rick Rubin, Def Jam co-founder and producer, who at that time had gained a stellar reputation both in the hip-hop and rock worlds producing the likes of Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Slayer, The Cult, Beastie Boys and many others. His style was big clean sounds, with an emphasis on the rhythm section, and lots of space for the elements of a track to breathe and this is exactly what he brought to Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
As for the band themselves, the addition of Frusciante as not just a guitarist but now also a key writer meant that whilst everything was still very funky and grooved like a beast, there was also much greater attention paid to actual songwriting and him and singer/lyricist Anthony Keidis worked together closely away from Smith and bassist Flea to write much of the basic material for the record which they would then work on as a whole band.
When recording was due to begin they moved, on Rubin’s suggestion, in to escapologist Harry Houdini’s former mansion in Los Angeles, living their for the 30 or so days of recording. This was all apart from Smith who felt the house was haunted and instead arrived on his motorbike every morning. The other band members took a bedroom each in one end of the house. Kiedis liked the acoustics in his room so much he ended up recording all of his vocals there, as well as finishing his often sexually-charged lyrics for the record inbetween. Frusciante painted in his room and worked on his guitar parts. In all, the band found the mansion to be the perfect place to work and create and the album took shape quickly and easily.
When it was finished, little could they have known that this was the record which would catapult them from being a well-respected alternative outfit in to major rock stars and stadium fillers. Whilst the band had retained the funk-rock sound from their previous album, the guitars this time were toned down, leaner, funkier. Tracks like “If You Have To Ask”, “Suck My Kiss”, and “Apache Rose Peacock” got the balance between the funk and the rock perfectly right, with lean, taut grooves that were muscular without getting in your face. Flea and Smith locked together perfectly, their playing open, syncopated and with plenty of space. Flea in particular had toned down his busy style, later commenting “I was trying to play simply on Blood Sugar Sex Magik because I had been playing too much prior to that, so I thought, ‘I’ve really got to chill out and play half as many notes’. When you play less, it’s more exciting—there’s more room for everything”.
Ultimately though, what set this record apart from RHCP’s previous efforts were the inclusion of three acoustic tracks which were a real departure for them. “Breaking The Girl” begins with Frusciante playing a Led Zeppelin-ish 12 string guitar riff and features dense percussion consisting of various bits of junkyard debris the band had found especially for the purpose, as well as a lyric from Kiedis detailing his inability to hold down a long-term relationship. “I Could Have Lied” is all about one of those relationships, a short-lived encounter with the singer Sinead O’Connor, and is a pretty yet heart-wrenching ballad.
And then finally there is the album’s, and maybe the band’s most famous track “Under The Bridge”, which deals with the singer’s long-term heroin addiction and the loneliness of an addict’s lifestyle, as well as his relationship with Los Angeles itself. “I felt an unspoken bond between me and my city” he would later note, adding “I’d spent so much time wandering through the streets of L.A. and hiking through the Hollywood Hills that I sensed there was a nonhuman entity, maybe the spirit of the hills and the city, who had me in her sights and was looking after me.” When it was released as a single it became the band’s first top 10 hit in the US, and charted highly all around the world, and was almost single-handedly responsible for elevating the band in to the big league.
Whilst RHCP have continued to release multi-million selling albums and cement their status as one of the world’s premier rock acts it’s arguable that they have never managed to top Blood Sugar Sex Magik. It stands as not only their definitive statement but as one of the key albums of it’s time, one which played a key part in popularising so-called ‘alternative’ music. It’s also probably the greatest funk-rock record ever made, striking the perfect balance between the two. Not only that but it’s a kick-ass record, and one which will forever make me feel like a teenager when I hear it…