Funky White Boys

The improbable rise of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have been around and thriving for 23 years now. It’s an improbable achievement, and not just because the group has managed against the odds to preserve the centerpiece of its live act: washboard abdominals. The sun-dazzled Southern California hedonism that the Chili Peppers’ songs chronicle has more than once threatened to sink the band. Founding guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988; Slovak’s replacement, John Frusciante, nearly killed himself the same way; and singer Anthony Kiedis has also battled drug addiction. The real surprise, though, has been the staying power of their signature style—that frathouse-macho bass-slapping funk-rock—which still feels definitively late-’80s-early-’90s, a relic of the first Bush administration and the second Lollapalooza tour.

Yet here we are in June 2006, and the Chili Peppers have just unleashed their biggest record to date. Two weeks ago, Stadium Arcadium, a sprawling 28-song double-CD collection, entered the Billboard charts at No. 1, where it remains. (The album is also atop the charts in the United Kingdom and across Europe.) The Chili Peppers are one of the world’s top-grossing live bands and have attained, in the third decade of their career, the near-universal esteem of critics, who recognize them as the skilled standard-bearers of commercial rock. How exactly did these perennially shirtless himbos—pioneers of the most wretched fashion statement in pop history, the tube-sock-sheathed penis—become respected elder statesmen, the most durable rock act this side of U2?

In part, they did it by accident. Kiedis has limited—almost nonexistent—vocal range, a fact that becomes frighteningly clear in concert when he attempts to croon the Chili Peppers’ biggest hit, the ballad “Under the Bridge.” His voice has slightly improved over the years—either that or pitch-correction technology has advanced—but for the most part, Kiedis has compensated for his inability to sing by not singing. On early albums like Freaky Styley (1985) and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987) Kiedis’ broad, surfer-dude rapping was a novel sound—crude and grating, but novel—and it proved far more popular than the styles of fellow travelers in the L.A. punk-funk scene, such as the ska-infatuated Fishbone. (Many of us have never forgiven the Chili Peppers for reaping the success that rightfully belonged to Fishbone, one of the truly great rock bands of the ‘80s.)

In fact, Kiedis’ terrible voice may be the best thing that ever happened to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. His shortcomings gave birth to a genre—rap-rock—and the band’s followers have based entire careers on songs like ” Good Time Boys” (1989). (We have only the Chili Peppers to blame for Limp Bizkit.) Some purists try to listen around Kiedis to the playing of Frusciante and Flea, the band’s superb bassist, arguing that the group is great in spite of its singer. But the Chili Peppers’ success is based on a musical template established to accommodate Kiedis’ limitations—rapped verses that crash into “sung” choruses, with guitars thrusting over a heavy funk groove. If Chili Peppers had started with a more gifted singer, they would likely have ended up as also-rans, not innovators: another bunch of talented white guys playing some funk.

The Chili Peppers remain most famous for their rowdy live show, and there, of course, Keidis is the focal point. His stage shtick is a postmodern collision of styles and gestures that probably could have come only out of Los Angeles: hard-core punk energy, hip-hop gesticulating, and headbanger poses with lank hair whipping above a glistening torso and baggy skateboarder’s shorts. It all coalesces into a familiar heroic frontman posture, the Sex God, and the ease and utter unselfconsciousness with which Kiedis plays that role goes a long way toward explaining how the Chili Peppers traveled from the cult fringes to their current exalted place. From the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to ‘80s hair metal, cock rock has always had a huge audience, and when the rock mainstream was conquered by desexed grunge in the ‘90s, the Chili Peppers carried the flag for groupie shagging, untrammeled debauchery, and other timeless themes. I wish they’d taken the idea of cock rock a little less literally, as Kiedis, Flea, and drummer Chad Smith * have all had disturbing scrapes with the law involving unseemly behavior with female fans. But there’s no doubting the sincerity of their sex-soaked songs—these guys are real hedonists, not posers—and there’s a kind of growth, I guess, in the progression from the 1987 anthem “Party on Your Pussy” to the “poetry” of new songs like “C’mon Girl” (“The cave within your mountainside/ Is deeper than it will be wide”) and “She’s Only 18” (“You got some glitter on your kitty in the discothèque/ I put my lovin’ in your oven”). And you thought romance was dead.

In other areas, the band’s growth is less dubious. Once, the Chili Peppers were capable only of composing riffs. But over the years they’ve become real songwriters, surprisingly reliable suppliers of rapturous melody. The most famous examples are the ballads—“Under the Bridge,” of course, and the gorgeous 1999 hit ” Scar Tissue“—and the sprawling current release is packed with gentler material: consolations, confessions, and melancholy tidings cooed, after a fashion, over folksy guitars. But the Chili Peppers have also learned to insert tunes into their grooves, as on their current Top 10 hit, the crackling midtempo rocker “Dani California.”

Credit for this transformation is usually given to Rick Rubin, the production wizard with the mountain-man beard whose association with the Chili Peppers began with their 1991 breakthrough Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Rubin’s knack for crisp, unfussy production is in evidence on the new record, but to cast Rubin as a savior-Svengali seems unfair, particularly in the case of musicians as lavishly gifted as these. Frusciante and Flea really are titans of their instruments—probably the most virtuoso players ever to have been associated with punk—and though Stadium Arcadium teems with mind-blowing solos, what really impresses over the album’s two-hour-plus sprawl is the musicians’ economy and restraint, how they play within songs, rather than trampling them with showboating. (Flea has evolved from a Bootsy Collins-wannabe string-slapper to a lyrical bassist in the Paul McCartney mode. But he still can play some mean funk.) At their best, the 2006 model Chili Peppers really are a force: There’s no platinum-selling rock band quite as taut, tuneful, and inventive.

One change that smacks of Rubin’s influence is the darkness that has crept into the Chili Peppers’ sun-strafed songs. Rubin has a history of bringing out the existentialist brooder in his collaborators, and if Kiedis hasn’t quite turned into Johnny Cash yet, he’s definitely gotten less glib in his approach to his favorite subject, Los Angeles, singing not just about the city’s white-sand beaches and shimmering surfaces but the rot beneath. (“Lilacs and contraband/ I’ve got Santa Monica in my hand,” Kiedis cries in “Warlocks,” one of the new album’s more ferocious numbers.) Still, if the Chili Peppers’ latest funk workouts are flecked with foreboding minor chords, they’re still great big dance songs, and good times are never far behind: The Chili Peppers are warier of the bacchanal these days, but they’re still the first to arrive and the last to leave. In a landscape cluttered with dour rockers—post-grunge mopers, emo mewlers, and ineffectual indie depressives—there’s charm in the Chili Peppers’ old fashioned belief that the point of rock is to make merry. All these years later, the uplift mofo party plan is still operative. Tube socks optional.

Correction, June 2, 2006: The article originally used the wrong last name for the drummer Chad Smith. (Return to the corrected sentence.)