BloodSugarSexMagik was the fifth album by Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that I had been a fan of a year before they released an actual album. It was this brief rap interlude on MTV, when they were at the New Music Seminar in New York City in 1984, that made me a fan.
Keep in mind that it was the oddity of white guys doing a goofy rap, and then the fact that they said they were funky. I love funk, but still had no idea what they sounded like at all. They were signed to EMI America but being 14 at the time, my only means of knowing what kind of impact they were making was the videos I may have seen on MTV. That’s when I saw the almighty “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”, and when the band jump out of the sand farm in the video, I was happy.
Truth be told, Anthony Kiedis did a lot of raps on a music video network that didn’t have a lot of raps, Run-DMC‘s “Walk This Way” being one of the few exceptions, so their exposure on the network was minimal. Yet if you read Spin magazine, they were obviously having a good time traveling throughout North America and eventually the world, so someone was listening. One could see their videos elsewhere, because “Catholic School Girls Rule” was nowhere to be found on MTV.
Despite doing an full album with George Clinton and actually making it to a third album (the belief was that if you were a band and could make it to a third album in one piece, you might have the potential to go further), Red Hot Chili Peppers were not massive. The release of Mother’s Milk on August 16, 1989 changed that forever, with a promotional campaign that was bigger than before, and constant MTV exposure, which was important in terms of getting their music to everyone at one time, when most radio stations across the U.S. would shy away from anything “alternative” or anything with a rap in it. It may have been 1989, but music fans had bought the Beastie Boys‘ Paul’s Boutique that summer, expecting Licensed To Ill Again only to get what they called “disco rap” (the term coming from the disco-era clothing the group wore in the “Hey Ladies” video). De La Soul came out with 3 Feet High And Rising, but because it wasn’t hardcore rap, they were called “alternative” or “the hippies of hip-hop”, only because of the fact that “Me, Myself & I” was getting rotation on the 20th anniversary of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, what some call “the end of the summer of love that lasted two years”. Red Hot Chili Peppers came out with “Knock Me Down” as the first single and video from the album, and they welcomed in the guys in Fishbone for the video. As a diehard Fishbone band, I was excited because maybe it meant that they too would finally break through. It would make sense since another California band, Faith No More, were getting a lot of attention with their third album, The Real Thing, the first with their new singer, Mike Patton. “From Out Of Nowhere” went into rotation, but it was “Epic”, with its verses being a rap, that brought them over the top. Also in the air were yet another California band, Jane’s Addiction, whose Nothing’s Shocking album had been out for a year and new fans were discovering how wild Perry Farrell and friends could take things in their music and in a live setting.
Once again, take a look at the four albums that were released between the summer of 1988 and summer of 1989:
Jane’s Addiction-Nothing’s Shocking
Faith No More-The Real Thing
Fishbone-Truth & Soul
Red Hot Chili Peppers-Mother’s Milk
These were albums that pulled me through a summer that could’ve ended better but didn’t. I was wrapping up my senior year in high school but knew that I wouldn’t be graduating with my class due to being short in credits. A lot of it was of my own doing, as I was fed up with the bullshit of my high school, and I wanted to move away but didn’t know how. I dealt with my situation, and while I had been a fan of a wide range of music at this point, these albums helped me expand my interests even more. They might be considered “college rock”, and maybe in a small way I was listening to them because I ended up not going to college as I wanted to, but they were groups in the magazines I read on a regular basis, I had the option and means of hearing them, nothing was going to hold me back. I was never under pressure in high school to fit in, in fact I was more like Enid in Ghost World in that I roamed in my own world, found my friendships dwindling down to a small handful, and waited for my bus to arrive. I used to show off my musical tastes by bringing in albums and placing them next to my desk in each period so people would know what I would be into. Yet if I was being ignored, no one could care less. Then, like now, I figured if I was going to be that goofy fat kid that people would want to poke and prod at, I’ll give them something to look at. Looking back, I think I had wanted some friends to carry me through my “golden years” of education and didn’t get it. I was a headbanger, but I wore a Public Enemy T-shirt in a school where Michael Jackson jheri curls and Sir Mix-A-Lot‘s “Posse On Broadway” were kings, so even P.E. were extreme and bizarre. Nonetheless, I was on my own and music was an outlet. I ventured forward.
Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of Stevie Wonder‘s “Higher Ground” is what broke the band, and you were not able to avoid them on MTV. Their infamous appearance on Club MTV, where all artists would normally lip-synch to their songs and the band ended up doing everything but comply while people danced to the song, remains an incredible moment, and that would help make them big time rock stars. With all this attention and accolades, it surprised everyone when the group announced they would be leaving EMI, the record label that helped make them reach an unknown level of success. Reports indicated that while they enjoyed the attention they were getting on their own terms, they did not like working on Mother’s Milk with producer Michael Beinhorn, who was insistent on coming up with a hit song for the group. RHCP were funksters who just wanted to jam, Beinhorn wanted to trim the fat from their jams and find a way for the group to produce concise, radio-friendly singles. The group did achieve this, but their time with Beinhorn was one of a number of reasons the group felt it was time to try a new home. The band wanted to explore new territories and a new label home, and after taking a breather, they shopped themselves around before they reached the plantation that was Warner Bros. Records. Little did the group know it would become their home for 20 years, four times longer than their stay at EMI.
When Rick Rubin came into the picture, he was no longer the Def Jam guy. He had wanted to do his own thing so upon leaving the Def Jam camp, he moved to Los Angeles and formed Def American Recordings. He wanted to remain “Def” (figuratively and literally) and that would bring him success when working with Danzig and The Black Crowes. Fans wanted to know if he would still keep his foot in the hip-hop door, and he did when he signed the Ghetto Boys, later changed to Geto Boys, and recorded and released an album that became (in my opinion) one of the best albums in hip-hop. Some fans were upset that Rubin “ruined” the Geto Boys’ music, especially since many of the songs were taken from their previous album, Grip It! On That Other Level, and fans were devoted to the rough, almost demo-like qualities of the songs, while these new versions were rough-yet-polished. Def American would achieve bigger hip-hop success when Sir Mix-A-Lot entered the picture, but that’s another story, another time.
When the union of Red Hot Chili Peppers and Rubin was set in stone, Rubin decided the best place to try something new would be to bring the band in what is known as The Mansion, a literal mansion that was converted into a recording studio. Artists could come in and literally feel at home, because it was a home. The studio is located in Laurel Canyon in California, an area that has become mythical for what represents Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Some of the mysteries of those who have lived and died there make Laurel Canyon what it is, and people are drawn to it because it is located in “the crossroads of fame and obscurity”, and perhaps the Red Hot Chili Peppers, seeing that metaphor as something that could easily apply to them, found the use of The Mansion perfect, and working with Rubin who understood the reality and myths of the area would be more than ideal.
Had there been the world wide web in 1991, I believe an album like BloodSugarSexMagik would brings fans in with blogs, photographs, live Twitter updates, and everything. Yet the reality of these recording sessions was that it was the band and Rubin, and no one else. If they wanted to bring in family during a down time, they could, and they did as shown on the documentary film they created to show the album’s recording sessions, Funky Monks. But for four months, their world remained in The Mansion and only the mansion, as they recorded, ate, bathed, sleeped, drank, and partied there 24 hours a day until the album was complete. That is, with the exception of drummer Chad Smith, who believed in the myth that the home was haunted and wanted nothing to do with the “heebee geebees”, so he would ride on his motorcycle on a daily basis to the mansion, and leave when the day was over. As for the rest of the band, being isolated of the world locked them as one, and the end result was something that was beautiful and brilliant.
What I wanted to hear was how different the group would be, knowing they were at a new label. Warner Bros. knew they were a successful band, which is why they were welcomed from EMI, so they and everyone was curious to see what they would bring to their new label. What they brought was an accumulation of everything the group had ever wanted to be, but pushed even further. They may have feared the possibility of being a pop group who could create hits, and Rubin probably told them to do it in a unique or different way, to at least give it a shot and see where it leads. No one ever expected RHCP to come up with a song like “Under The Bridge”, not from a man who used to sing songs about wanting to “party on your pussy” a few years earlier. No one ever expected for “Give It Away” to be a staple song for a generation of younger kids who would eventually discover a band of weirdos from… where? Seattle? What is that? What is a Nirvana?
MTV put the Red Hot Chili Peppers into rotation religiously, but music videos were nothing more than commercials for the full album, with the hope that the album would be a welcome mat for fans to see them in concert. What fans discovered was a band who showed a lot of musical and songwriting maturity, with help from a producer who allowed them to grow up without losing the fun, funk, or foolishness they were known for. Rubin could be credited as someone who helped them redirect their “itchy nut” energies towards something that could benefit all of them. This is what happened.
I was actually lucky to received a copy of BloodSugarSexMagik two months before the album’s proper release on September 24th. I had my own fanzine, and Warner Bros. gave me an advance tape of the album in full. In the summer of 1991, the album’s 17-song sequence was set in stone, but my copy featured every song separated from one another. The final album was a non-stop experience in that there were little to no gaps separating each track, with a few songs mixed right into the next. I immediately loved “The Power Of Equality”, as it was an ode to their old-yet-trusted funky ways, sounding like the perfect “welcome back” song for fans who first became aware of them with Mother’s Milk. “If You Have To Ask” reached back even further with its deep funky grooves as Kiedis dropped a rhyme in his laid back Los Angeles style. The song leads to the chorus with sweet vocal harmonies from Flea and John Frusciante, and for at least two songs it sounded like the group were still in top form. It was business as usual, but then came song #3.
I grew up admiring The Beatles and everything they represented as innovators of the recording studio as a true instrument, and that would help shine light on a lot of the creative ways artists in the mid to late 60’s were getting their music across. There are certain sounds, sound effects, and filters that are associated with a “psychedelic” sound and “Breaking The Girl” could be considered a bit Beatlesque, if not psychedelic. The kind of head games RHCP would sign about was more about the groin than mental games, but this was a move up for the group. The song begins in a 3/4 time measure with Flea playing his bassline while Frusciante played his acoustic guitar, and it isn’t until the 0:40 mark when the drums are pushed up into the mix. The song is obviously about a man wanting to deflower a woman, but done in a way that was without jokes or humor. People would later claim the song was about everything from rape to child molestation (since the song title refers to a “girl” and not a “woman”), but the song seemed to be a slight reflection of that late 60’s mentality of love being free and easy, while also being a song that absorbed the myths of the band’s Laurel Canyon surroundings. The highlight of the song is hearing the “breaking” of the girl, created with various percussive instruments pounding with rhythm, as if was a tribal experience, as if everyone in their community is united in a man “breaking” in the girl. Is it savage, is it cruel, or is it merely the circle of life? Or a folk life drum circle? Something that sounds so great and tribal becomes more humbling in the Funky Monks> documentary when it is shown that the sounds were nothing more than random pipes, cans, and hubcaps pounded by hammers. It’s a Wizard Of Oz moment when you discover the truth behind the curtain: does it take away from the myth you want to visualize, or does it just add to the “aura” of the song? For me, it’s the latter, seeing reality to create something that simply sounds cool even though the way they did it is quite simple. Upon hearing this song, I knew I had to hear the next 14.
The band go through a lot of unique levels of funk, rock, and pop to get to where they need to go, dwelling through “Funky Monks”, “Suck My Kiss”, “Mellowship Slinky in B Major”, and “The Righteous & the Wicked”. Calling out Bob Marley as a prophet in “Give It Away” did not validate the reggae singer, but singling him out as the song gained a lot of exposure let fans know that the group were never shy from citing their influences and music interests. The songs were programmed on the album in a way that was arguably like sexual endurance, knowing when to go deep when needed, understanding the role of foreplay and touching audio erogenous zones, and adjusting one’s techniques and speed. The group sound like they are in tune with one another and themselves, and the idea of Rubin as an overseer that would help them complete the journey can be considered as the album moves along and heads home.
“Sir Psycho Sexy” immediately brought to mind Parliament‘s “Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk” on their 1977 album Funkentelechy vs. The Placebo Syndrome. In the Parliament song, George Clinton and his crew explore the character of Sir Nose, a man who is “devoid of funk” and they want to shoot him with a “bop gun” because they feel those who instinctively know how to bop are becoming an endangered species. The song is done at a laid back pace throughout its 10-minute duration where casual fans may seem it’s poorly executed, but it’s about putting faith in the journey and trusting where the song will end up. With RHCP, it seems Sir Nose has, in theory, helped create the confident offspring known as Sir Psycho Sexy. Or at least helped inspire someone who was inspired by the P-Funk to become his own man, and in a way that’s a metaphor for what the band had become: offspring ready to leave home and become their own people, not just mere “children of the funk”. The song changes textures around the 4:00 mark, showing what they are about to do before locking themselves in at 5:37, when Kiedis says that perhaps he (they) will stay there for awhile. The band then get into a cool and laid back repetitive groove that shows hints of The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and the “Würm” section of Yes‘ “Starship Trooper”, and one then realizes that the young, itchy-nut boys, with the Mellotron-layer in the background, are ready to grow up and become something more.
But then again, they leave us with one last message showing fans that they’ll never forget who they are by doing a speedy and quick rendition of Robert Johnson‘s “They’re Red Hot”. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are ready to have some hot tamales because, yes, they’re red hot, and yes, she has them for sale. Is it food, is it sexual, is it complete foolishness? Truth is, it’s all of the above. While it wouldn’t be known until the Funky Monks documentary was released, the song was recorded outside of The Mansion recording studio late at night, and it’s a cool way to end an album that was not expected to be anything but “the band’s Warner Bros. debut”. For me, it was a solid album from start to finish and one that I felt was… well, maybe not perfect but I knew it would become my “instant classic”. I liked, no, I loved it because it wasn’t just Flea slapping his thumbs on his bass over and over, I loved that but I loved when his funk was laid back, but he was much more than the funk/punk guy. When he got into it in a jazzy fashion, he showed he was as effective being deliberately subtle and complex at the same time. Kiedis didn’t have to prove himself as being the cool white guy who loved rock, funk, and rap. Smith and Frusciante were new when they were on Mother’s Milk, but this album showed they were perfect for the group and hopefully stay with the band for years (Frusciante would eventually leave a few months after the making of this album, but would return years later).
As a whole, the album title could not have been a more perfect title for what the group represented. Blood was the bond, Sugar was the topping, Sex was the lure, and Magik was something that often times was created without their being knowledge or motive of it being created. Rubin was aware of how things could and should work, and thus was the hall monitor for all of the “happy accidents” that could happen in the locked confines of a mansion posing as a recording studio. The album would lead to incredible success for the band, but the sound and chemistry they created during May and June 1991 would not be duplicated. It was as if the group had given their all during that month and said “it’s all or nothing”, and when all was given, the end result was an album that in my opinion became the best thing they ever recorded.
As a fan of an album, I tend to want to hear more and find out what else they recorded. As it was the habit for bands for years, the Red Hot Chili Peppers would record songs that would be released as non-LP B-sides (the “B-side” being a term for the flip side of a single (known as the “A-side”, the potential hit that would often be merely something else to listen to. A lot of times artists would become more adventurous on their B-sides, or carry a unique path that was often times different from the focus of their proper albums, see Prince, Paul McCartney, R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Bruce Springsteen for incredible references). For RHCP, the band initially presented four more songs recorded during these sessions:
1. Search & Destroy (a Stooges cover)
2. Soul To Squeeze
4. Fela’s Cock
“Search & Destroy” probably received the most attention since it was found on “Give It Away”, and it would often be the gateway drug for new fans who had never heard of the band until now. Because of the success of “Give It Away”, a number of radio stations would also play “Search & Destroy” (plus, anything Iggy Pop-related is always a good thing.) “Soul To Squeeze” sounded as if it was unfinished, with Kiedis eventually doing a verse that sounds like him doing a reference vocal track and running out of things to say. The song was widely ignored because of this, but would gain attention when it was used for the Coneheads soundtrack two years later. RHCR were dormant and perhaps Warner Bros. Records felt that with no new music coming from the band, they needed to fill the market with something to keep attention towards the band active. The song, to me, sounds like fluke and yet when released as a single, the group would shoot a video for it and the song actually became a hit. I feel that the success of this song helped to shape the path the group would end up taking for the next 18 years. My thought is that “wow, their success is based on a garbage B-side that sounds unfinished, and yet the public likes this without even knowing this?” A lot of times, artists don’t care what path they end up going on, as long as it’s one that leads to more music and more activity. It may not have been my personal favorite, but it’s still part of the BloodSugarSexMagik experience.
The two other songs were released in a number of ways, depending on where you lived and what you chose to buy. “Sikamikaniko” should have been on BloodSugarSexMagik, but with the final album being just under 74 minutes (at a time when the limit of a compact disc was a few seconds short of the 74 minute mark), something had to be removed. The song combines an aggressive punch of funk and rock, with wicked bass runs from Flea, hard beats from Smith, and groovy riffs from Frusciante. Forget the fact that much of what Kiedis was saying was nonsense, but it was a fun and good nonsense that made the song work, like a lot of their EMI work.
“Fela’s Cock” was a instrumental done in honor of Fela Anikulapo-Kuti‘s penis. Flea had mentioned a few times in interviews (including a great article in Spin m,agazine) that he was a hardcore Fela fan, anyone who loves funk will eventually find himself going towards the music of Nigeria’s greatest musical export. This was also at a time when embracing the music of Kuti meant seriously searching, because his music could not be found anywhere, especially not in any normal record stores between the two coasts. If anything, it was a group who, like the Marley reference in “Give It Away”, were simply sharing another musical interest. It wouldn’t be until later in the decade, as the internet started to change the way people consumed and learned about music, that people like Fela and Lee “Scratch” Perry would gain attention outside of their core audiences. Both “Sikamikaniko” and “Fela’s Cock” could be found on the “Under The Bridge” CD single, while in Japan and Australia you could find it on the Suck My Kiss tour EP.
Right after I posted this article, I noticed that the most current digital version of the album features yet another track, a cover of Jimi Hendrix Experience‘s “Little Miss Lover”, available if you buy the album through Amazon, iTunes, and I’m sure other digital outlets. I had assumed the song was a random outtake from another time, but after taking a listen, it definitely has the same audio characteristics as the rest of the album.
The end result is 22 songs recorded during the BloodSugarSexMagik sessions, and along with the Funky Monks documentary, it’s a chance to experience the album from the inside out. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have never been big headed, or at least they have never presented themselves that way, and the Funky Monks showed the group to be humble and just good friends who loved music and good times. This album definitely represented their good times, and the good times of those who experienced this album when it was first released 20 years ago. I remained a fan with their follow up album four years later, One Hot Minute, even though the band felt that guitarist Dave Navarro changed their sound a bit to the point where some felt they left that core sound behind. One listen to BloodSugarSexMagik shows they were a group willing to take the risk of not only exploring, but jumping ship into a vast ocean of the unknown. In other words, they didn’t want to be locked in that punk/funk vibe forever. There is a generation who may have only heard the band from the sample of “Pretty Little Ditty” in Crazy Town‘s “Butterfly”, not even realizing that it is a Peppers song and not anyone in the video playing instruments. RHCP became known for playing and living hard, but when they allowed themselves to share a more delicate side, they were rewarded. The rewards probably lead them to wanting to repeat that formula in order to keep the attention and success, and I myself didn’t find anything I could hold onto anymore. The last RHCP album I cared for in full was One Hot Minute, and out of everything they’ve recorded in the last 15 years, I really enjoy “Can’t Stop”, and that’s partially due to Frusciante’s input in the song. I think years after the fact, it may be time to approach those older albums from a different perspective.
BloodSugarSexMagik was released when I was 20, looking at 21 a few weeks ago. It reminds me of my youth, and as I listen to the album today, I’m honored to be still around 20 years later. This doesn’t sound like old man music, even though a younger generation may think this is. I say listen and approach this from a different perspective. For those of you who were around to hear it the first time, but haven’t in years, listen again. If you consider yourself an RHCP fan but haven’t heard this for whatever reason, do so.
It would be too easy to say that this is their Abbey Road, their Sgt. Pepper, their Dark Side Of The Moon, their The Wall. This could be their Wesley Willis album for all that I know but for me, this will forever be a masterpiece, not bad for a band who will always be known for their “cocks on their cocks”. It seemed that in the spring of 1991, these guys finally decided to put on some pants. It may not have been washed for a month, but they had pants on nonetheless.
To Anthony Kiedis, Michael Balzary, John Frusciante, Chad Smith, Rick Rubin, engineer Brendan O’Brien, and everyone else involved in the making of that album, from Gus Van Zant (who snapped the photos of the tattoos on the cover) to the band’s assistant in the Funky Monks documentary who drove around watching their clothes and doing errands for them: mahalo nui loa. Eternal gratitude for this album.
In closing, I’m surprised Warner Bros. did not remaster this album this year as a deluxe edition, with all of the B-sides, remixes, and perhaps outtakes, alternate takes/mixes, and demos. If there are more songs from these recording sessions that remain “in the vaults”, I’d love a chance to hear them and write about them and these sessions someday. Let me explore the multi-tracks (with proper supervision of course). I’m at BooksMusica [at] gmail [dot] com if someone wants to contact me.
ADDITION (September 26, 2012)
While I posted the digital bonus track of “Little Miss Lover”, a year after I wrote this article, I’ve discovered another bonus track for the iTunes addition, yet another Jimi Hendrix cover, this time for “Castles Made Of Sand”. The band had always performed this over the years, and a live version had been released when they were signed to EMI. Here is the Rick Rubin-produced version from the BloodSugarSexMagik sessions.
As a journalist, I tend to play the role of someone that is trying to push a product for someone. We are sent press releases that are meant to be a guide of sorts to help the writer out. Some writers will use them religiously, to where their review tends to be a rewrite. If you read more than five reviews of the same product, you can often see certain “keywords” that are meant to be used as the sales pitch, written so that it will be effective in creating awareness of the product, and thus sales.
While I have written my share of press releases, I tend to ignore it from others. When I do reviews, I tend to read it after I’ve listened and done the review, as I don’t want someone else’s views becoming my own. When I have read a press release, I sometimes will refer or acknowledge this in the review, and highlight whether or not those words made an impression on me. Most of the time it doesn’t, but I’m not afraid to make fun of the press release if I feel it was written a bit half-assed.
I feel that music press releases are not only a means of marketing, but can often be a document of the way the record label wanted the public to perceive the album. Sometimes press releases are written well, with a bit of humor from its creator and occasionally from the artist involved. I tend to like the “marketing” aspect of things, which is why I’ve been interested in radio spots for albums and movies. I may not have been alive or too small to care, but it’s interesting to see and hear how something was marketed, and whether or not that sales pitch had an effect on its success, if at all.
What you’ll find below are scans of the original 8-page press release for BloodSugarSexMagik as sent out by Warner Bros. Records in early 1991. It touches on the mindset of the album, where the group came from and where they hoped to go with this then-new release. These press releases are usually promotional items made only available to the media in press kits, usually with a photo or two of the artist. Occasionally you can find them sold by those who collect music memorabilia, but the rise of eBay has made it possible to purchase press kits by meeting or beating the minimum bid. Since this album has been a personal favorite, I kept this press release. It’s interesting to note that the press release does express the humor the group have with one another and share, but still shows them to be humble. It is usually “the responsibility” of the media to help create the superhype, so consider this press release merely a guide for what others had to work on in order to describe the band and its music through radio, newspapers, magazines, television, and cable. These days, a big chunk of that buzz is created via social media, websites, and blogs, so you might consider this a documentation of a means of music promotion that once was. It most likely will not change your view of the album or its music in anyway, but if it adds a bit more perspective, excellent. Enjoy.