31 Years Ago: Red Hot Chili Peppers Release Their Self-Titled Debut
One of the oft-spoken “truths” in music circles is that earlier is better. Maybe people don’t use those exact words, but the bias is implicit in clichés like “I like their early stuff” and “their first album rocked, but the second one sucked.”
Some of this can be attributed to the old-timers establishing their bona fides as the bandwagon fills up, but often there is some quantifiable truth in play. Debut albums often capture a band that has honed their seven or eight best songs during several years of exhausting roadwork. This is the “get in the van” era, where the band are playing together, sleeping together, eating together and writing together. They enter the studio that first time a lean, mean, recording machine.
That was only half true of the Red Hot Chili Peppers as they entered Hollywood’s Eldorado Recording Studios in April 1984 to begin work on their self-titled debut. Fairfax High School buddies Anthony Kiedis and Michael Balzary (better known as "Flea") were there, but longtime friends and bandmates (and Fairfax High alumni) Jack Irons and Hillel Slovak were not. As the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the foursome were already legendary around L.A. for their live shows, but drummer Irons and guitarist Slovak decided prior to recording that they’d have better luck with their side project, What Is This?
The musicians were replaced with Cliff Martinez (drums) and Jack Sherman (guitar), who both were very capable musicians. Martinez’s playing on “Mommy Where’s Daddy,” for example is tasteful, funky, and perfectly behind the beat. And on the same track, Sherman lays down a good enough rhythm guitar riff for Flea to walk all over. He does, too. Even that early in his career, Flea was a monster bassist.
Other tracks don’t gel as well. Album opener “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” is a song that always killed live but fell flat on the album. That’s often blamed on Andy Gill’s production, but one can’t help but wonder how much better the track would have been recorded by the full RHCP lineup. Speaking of Gill, he’s long been the scapegoat in this tale. Some of that can be attributed to the animosity that existed between Flea and Kiedis and their producer, at least at the time. Gill recalled one of their many arguments for us back in November 2014:
We had a drum machine and I wanted them to kind of use it as a tempo to guide them so they didn’t speed up too much, and we had this argument. Anthony basically said it had no soul, so it was therefore wrong to use it. I was really digging in on it, you know. It doesn’t matter if it’s got a soul or not, it’s going to keep you in time… So the compromise was, Cliff Martinez, the drummer, was going to listen to it and put down a cowbell and they’d play to the cowbell, which had a soul, obviously.
Kiedis dedicated a little time to the relationship in his memoir, Scar Tissue: “For the first couple of days in the studio, everything seemed fine, but I soon realized that Andy was going for a sound that wasn’t us. By the end of the sessions, Flea and I would literally stomp out of the studio into the control room, crawl over the console VU meters and scream, ‘F--k you! We hate you!’” Flea’s commentary was less verbose but arguably more pointed. Allegedly, the bassist defecated into an empty pizza box and left it on said console as a gift for the producer.
Inevitably, the album’s greatest weakness isn’t the lineup, nor is it the producer or the fact that the drums sound like they were recorded in a tiled bathroom. The real culprit is evolution.
Whether we’re talking mammals, airplanes or talk show formats, when the evolutionary record is viewed sequentially, a clunky experiment or two pops up between the successful adaptations. The same is true for rap, which in 1984 was still very much in its infancy. We were only five years on from "Rapper's Delight" and Grandmaster Flash's "White Lines" was only a year old.
Kiedis' flow on the album is predictable, flat, boring and dated. It's a criticism that can only be made three decades down the road. At the time, it was fine enough -- it's just that the debut album features a style of rap that wasn't fit enough to survive.
In 1994, we finally got an answer to the question of what the album may have sounded like if recorded by the band's original lineup. The compilation Out in L.A. included original demos for several songs that appeared on the debut including -- you guessed it -- "Out in L.A."
Slovak was back in the fold for the band's next album, 1985's Freaky Styley, and Irons was back for album number three, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, released in 1987. The latter would be the only full album made by the original lineup -- Slovak died the following year from a heroin overdose, and Irons quit the band.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers may not hold up as well as some of the band's other work, but it's an important album. This is where it all begins, after all -- it's the little spark that ignited the rap-rock revolution.
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