It’s always a kind of marvel when a band manages to doff everything fans come to love them for, relentlessly pursue a new direction, sign to a more commercial label—and survive. For Red Hot Chili Peppers, that moment came at Californication. And it wasn’t without hinge. Parts of the album are a veritable “Greatest Hits,” with stupidly infectious earworms like “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside,” “Around the World,” and even the title track. This from a band who got their start rapping over poorly recorded funk mixes, who appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone in nothing but nothing. Californication saw the prodigal return of guitarist John Frusciante, who had departed from the band seven years prior. Fresh out of rehab from a heroin addiction, the chemistry that re-sparked between Kiedis and the guitarist was magical. Californication, despite its relative lack of hard-bopping funk, was a success. But the formula it established—producer Rick Rubin, Frusciante’s lush arrangements, Cello Studios, a singles-oriented album—was perfected in By The Way.
Riding on the shoulders of Californication’s sales—still the highest of any Peppers release—as well as the massive success of the accompanying tour, the band threw that weight into By The Way. Recorded partially at their old haunt, Cello Studios, they relocated to the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles, this was the Chili Peppers’ fourth album under the guiding hand (and beard) of Rubin—whose laissez-faire approach was essential to their artistic freedom. That’s not to say he didn’t have input—those who still criticized Californication’s abandonment of testosterone-fueled funk would not be sated by its follow-up. By The Way is almost entirely devoid of funk—and yet that’s unfair to say about nearly any Chili Peppers release; there are undeniable elements in the details of the album. Funk has always informed their records and, if it did fade out of sight, was always present at live shows where the band meshed the old with the new, even beginning each concert with an improvisational funk jam which segued into their opener.
Around this era, “By the Way” became that opener, its anthemic head feeding well into the slap-bass freakout—perfect to hype a crowd, or in the case of the album, a listener. Who at some point in their lives since hasn’t stood outside a venue and debated bursting into “By The Way?” Before “By The Way” loses resonance or the listener dwells too long, the insistent quarter-note drum work of “Universally Speaking” bursts through, likewise the ominous bass-tones of “This Is the Place” quickly replace the final image of it, and so on. By The Way’s binding is no chainlink—its seamless mesh.
If the word “clean” can be applied to the Chili Peppers, By The Way takes the cake. Kiedis and Frusciante had left their drug days firmly behind them. With an astonishing slowing of pace in favor of songmanship, melody shone through. They were what Frusciante called “English” songs, by which he meant the tradition of swelling, intricate arrangements a la The Beatles and The Beach Boys (the latter an admitted influence on the doo-wop harmonies of the album). The album was originally intended to be half “English,” half punk—but Rubin vetoed the latter, for lack of originality. Either would have marked a new direction for the band, and as it happened there are plenty of styles represented: The cosmic ska of “On Mercury,” the Latin ballad in “Cabron,” and of course the high-noon funk of “Throw Away Your Television.” Though the styles that did win out were not without quandary.
Like any great album, it was not a bloodless effort. With Frusciante back in the stirrups, the band’s chemistry altered considerably.
Flea felt that the guitarist was power mongering and not unjustifiably—it was Frusciante who wrote most of the bass, keyboard and backing-vocal parts for the album. Many critics later hailed his influence as the “X” factor the band needed. While Flea begged for at least a few funk numbers, John refused: “[I was] putting the band on a straight but narrow path forward, one that hardly looked back to the days of yore.” Flea later admitted he would have left the band following the album had it not been for the intervention of Kiedis, who forced the two to literally sit down and talk out their differences: “I felt like he didn’t give a fuck about what I wanted to do. I didn’t feel like it was my family anymore.”
The amount of control Frusciante took was not a subconscious decision. During negotiations he told Flea that he was aware of how much he was “hogging the overdubs,” and though he apologized, never backed off his reasons. Though a tad douchey, it’s probably for the better of the album and the band; By The Way is Frusciante at his artistic peak—look no further than “Don’t Forget Me,” a near perfect blend of guitar layering over strummed bass chords—on the chorus he’s screaming through his tubes, at a bubbling whisper on the verse and at times, seemingly all the right ones, absolutely silent.
Kiedis, maybe more than any singer in rock music, composes lyrics in the imperative: “Tell me what you wanna do,” “Use these sticks to make it in my nature.” Part of Kiedis’ evolution was the fusing of his sexual energy with mysticism. When he sang lines like “White heat is screaming in the jungle” or “make the snow fall up from underneath your feet” bannered microphone pressed to his face, sweat drenching his tattooed torso, there was a power to his presence that suggested he was on another plane. It helps that he has a superb ear for melody and could probably turn the dictionary into a Top 40 tune. The blistering pace of his signature croon incanting surrealist imagery pushed the Chili Peppers into new territory. Maybe it just felt good to be alive and clean. “Venice Queen,” the riveting, multi-movement conclusion to the album, was actually a ballad to his rehabilitation therapist Gloria Scott. Kiedis, who didn’t stop at buying his lifesaver a mansion in Venice Beach, coronated her musically after her death.
The mantric and tantric “Can’t Stop” is preeminent among them, a modern day “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” with its admonition and spitfire, its almost automatic imagery. The hard riff bumps the verse along to a sweet chorus, serving as opposite to “By The Way.” The Chili Peppers achieved their big sound through their instrumentation the same way The Who did—sweeping lead vocals, a bass player who can sound like a rhythm guitar and a hell of a lead guitarist who happens to sing.
Who knows why—but the bigger and more “mature” Red Hot Chili Peppers became, the more they were tasked with defending the image of a band whose lyric sheet once read, “I want to party on your pussy.”
They achieved it through raw attitude, melded now with an ear for poetry, “I’m an ocean, in your bedroom.” With By The Way you can feel the breath of the album, its dirty, yearning heart beating beneath every arrangement. There is a masterful use of space, harmony, layering and auxiliary instrumentation, the band employing everything from strings to Rhodes pianos, trumpets, to melodicas, all while maintaining a spirit of escapism, an immortality, an “Everyone knows/Anything goes,” attitude that is so befitting of the band.
This was a rock album. Beyond any shadow of a doubt, beyond any stone any critic could cast at it, beyond even the band’s own disillusioned fans, it entered legend. The potency of Frusciante’s biting arrangements, coupled with Kiedis turning his lyricism inward has set the gold standard for Chili Peppers albums since.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – By The Way Tracklist:
- “By The Way”
- “Universally Speaking”
- “This Is The Place”
- “Don’t Forget Me”
- “The Zephyr Song”
- “Can’t Stop”
- “I Could Die For You”
- “Throw Away Your Television”
- “On Mercury”
- “Minor Thing”
- “Warm Tape”
- “Venice Queen”