26 Years Ago: Red Hot Chili Peppers Unleash ‘Blood Sugar Sex Magik’
After enjoying breakthrough success with Mother's Milk and keeping the same lineup intact, Red Hot Chili Peppers were poised for a breakout and it came in the form of the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. But while the band was on top of their game, behind the scenes storm clouds were brewing.
Before starting work on their new album, the band wanted to free themselves of their label EMI and sought other labels to buy out their deal. While initially dealing with Sony/Epic, a phone call from Mo Ostin eventually led the to Warner Bros. Once there, the group sought out producer Rick Rubin, feeling that he would be a good producer to oversee their next disc. Rubin invited them to record at the vacant mansion once owned by Harry Houdini secluded and situated in the hills of Hollywood. The band members moved in and the mansion was big enough that each member had their own room, which led to a creative environment where everyone could work at all hours of day and night. For just over a month, the band worked at the mansion with Rubin driving in daily to offer guidance and input during bumps in the road. Much of the period recording Blood Sugar Sex Magik was documented by Flea's brother-in-law in a film the band titled Funky Monks, which shared the name with a track on the album.
Though the environment was a creative one, behind the scenes there were issues within the band. A sober Anthony Kiedis often distanced himself from bassist Flea and guitarist John Frusciante, who were still living a more hedonistic lifestyle at that point. One song in particular evolved from the isolation Kiedis began to feel from his bandmates -- "Under the Bridge." The vocalist began to reflect on three years of sobriety during a drive home from a rehearsal. While in his depressed state, he reflected on the low point of his addiction. He recalled, "I had this beautiful angel of a girl [Ione Skye] who was willing to give me all of her love, and instead of embracing that, I was downtown with f---ing gangsters shooting speedballs under the bridge." Thinking back to this period and feeling a bit estranged from his bandmates, Kiedis penned "Under the Bridge" feeling that his home city of Los Angeles was the only one looking out for him.
Drugs weren't the only subject matter that found their way into Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The vocalist was also keen on the "sex" part of the title as well. He told Rolling Stone, "It seems like the perfect material for art, like death and every other fundamental aspect of existence. It's right up there with the biggies as far as I can tell. What kills me is that there are so many people getting into 'Under the Bridge' across America who have no idea what the Chili Peppers are like. Take a group of Kansas housewives who turn on the radio and say, 'Oh I like that sweet, sentimental song. Honey, would you go out and get me this record.' They get the record and there's 'Sir Psycho Sexy' and 'Power of Equality.' They're going to have their little world turned upside down."
As for the sound, the band found a perfect medium between some of the harder metal licks that surfaced during their Mother's Milk album and the punk meets funk style that populated their early work. Flea, meanwhile, altered his slap bass style, going for more standard bass lines. "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 more room for everything," Flea told Bass Player magazine.
On Sept. 24, 1991, Red Hot Chili Peppers released Blood Sugar Sex Magic, buoyed by a positive start for the single "Give It Away." The origins of the song came during a point where Frusciante and Flea were playing with a side project called H.A.T.E. that featured members of Fishbone. When that project fell apart, the pair brought the riff into jam sessions and Kiedis began singing the phrase "Give it away" over it. "I was so struck by Flea's bass part, which covered the whole length of the instrument's neck, that I jumped up, marched over to the mic, my new notebook in tow," recalled Kiedis. "I always had fragments of songs and ideas or even specific isolated phrases in mind." In this case, the "give it away" idea came from former girlfriend Nina Hagen who had imparted the idea of selflessness upon Kiedis. From there, he began to build the lyrical content for the track.
"Give It Away" began to take off at radio and exploded once the Stephane Sednaoui-directed video hit the MTV airwaves. The very stylish clip which found the band decked out in glitter while shot in black and white captured the eyes of viewers. The song would hit No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart and cracked the Billboard Hot 100. A year later, the track would win a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocals.
After the success of the upbeat "Give It Away," the Chili Peppers weren't sure which direction to go next. That would be decided during one of their shows. Warner Bros. sent reps to a performance to see what the audience was liking and during the performance of "Under the Bridge," Kiedis missed his opening cue. Much to his surprise, the audience began singing the song. While Kiedis felt bad about the incident, the mishap tipped off the audience favor for "Under the Bridge," which would not only hit No. 2 at Mainstream Rock and No. 6 at Modern Rock, but also peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even though they had major success, it did catch the band by surprise. Drummer Chad Smith stated, "It doesn't really have a hook. And not to take away from Anthony, but he's not the greatest singer in the world. It's just cool and soulful. It's not like the guy who wins all the awards -- Michael Bolton -- but maybe that's why it's so great." The song would also have a video that entered heavy rotation and the Gus Van Sant-directed clip would win Breakthrough Video and Viewer's Choice Best Video at the MTV VMAs.
As previously stated, the song came from Kiedis reflecting on his addiction. He recalled one incident in which he actually entered gang territory in Los Angeles to purchase drugs and pretended to be engaged to the sister of a gang member in order to get his fix. Kiedis has attempted to keep the location of said bridge under wraps over the years, but has admitted it was located in downtown Los Angeles.
While the Red Hot Chili Peppers were flying high from their first two hits off the album, the rise to fame did not sit well with John Frusciante. The band began having issues with the guitarist as he became less enthusiastic in his performances both onstage and on camera. By the spring of 2002, things started coming to a head. Kiedis recalled, "He began to lose all of the manic, happy-go-lucky, fun aspects of his personality. Even onstage, there was a more serious energy about him." Frusciante started going through a state of depression, disillusioned with the band's growing fame and dealing with a growing drug habit. There was a bizarre appearance on Saturday Night Live and things hit a crucial point when Frusciante balked at going onstage during a show in Japan. "I could tell by the look in his eye that he was serious," said Kiedis. "He said, 'I can't stay in the band anymore. I've reached a state where I can't do justice to what we've created, because of stress and fatigue. I can't give what it takes to be in this band anymore.'" The band recruited Arik Marshall to help them finish their touring but decided to go a different direction after the album support was complete.
Though they had two major hits and were dealing with the exit of Frusciante, the band wasn't done. The chaotic, funk infused "Suck My Kiss" was released to radio in the U.S. and was a physical single in Australia, arriving in May of 1992. It was followed in July by the melodic favorite "Breaking the Girl," a song penned by Anthony Kiedis about his constantly shifting relationships and the fear he was becoming a womanizer like his father. The final single, "If You Have to Ask," dropped in February 1993, but failed to gain much traction at radio.
By the time Red Hot Chili Peppers decided to move on, Blood Sugar Sex Magik had peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Top 200 Album Chart, was certified gold in just over two months, reaching platinum status by April 1992. At present, the album has been certified seven times platinum. And while there were some rocky moments that came with supporting the disc, there's no denying that the creative process remains a high point. Kiedis recalls, "We lived in this house for two months and never fought. We were just so happy to be making this record. And when we finished it, it was the greatest sense of accomplishment that we'll probably ever know. We knew it was a watershed for us."
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