“A lot of the times I’ll get an erection when I’m working on something, when I’m playing on guitar, and I’ll just go masturbate,” said Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist John Frusciante. “Or sometimes I’ll try to hold back because I’ll see the orgasm as something that would be detrimental to my strength creatively.”
Frusciante explained his unique writing process in the hour-long documentary “Funky Monks.” The film captured candid moments like this as the Chili Peppers recorded the 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik.
Released the same day as Nirvana’s now-legendary Nevermind, the Chili Pepper’s fifth album would become the band’s most important.
Though the record was overshadowed by Cobain and company’s own breakout success, BSSM earned the eight-year-old band the mainstream recognition its four previous releases failed to capture.
Ultimately the album enjoyed 97 weeks on Billboard’s Top 200, peaked at No. 3, birthed five chart-topping singles and eventually sold 13 million copies. The double-platinum album also inspired a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody, which, according to Dave Grohl, is a sure sign a band has “made it.”
Yet, Blood Sugar Sex Magik is not remembered as the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ most successful album – eight years and two albums later Californication claimed that title by selling over 15 million copies – nor would it be the band’s most popular – Stadium Arcadium debuted at No. 1 in 28 countries in 2006.
So, what made Blood Sugar Sex Magik so special 20 years ago?
Much like the changing rock-music scene around them, 1991 found the band in a period of serious transition.
After the unfortunate heroin-soaked 1988 death of founding guitarist Hillel Slovak, which lead to the departure of drummer Jack Irons, singer Anthony Kiedis and trumpet-player-turned-bass-virtuoso Michael “Flea” Balzary worried the band would fall apart.
Enter hit-making producer Rick Rubin and two new band members: guitarist John Frusciante and drummer (and Will Ferrell-look-alike) Chad Smith.
Just months before Jane’s Addiction singer Perry Farrell premiered his Lollapalooza festival, the Chili Peppers hired Rubin, a veteran of the L.A. punk scene who produced top-selling hip-hop albums like LL Cool J’s Radio and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed To Ill. Having also worked with such varied artists as Slayer or the Bangles, Rubin took a broad approach to music and was credited by Rolling Stone at the time for helping round the rough edges of the band’s hyper-kinetic, funk-to-punk style.
Smith and Frusciante were brought on to revive the band after a host of musicians, including punk band Dead Kennedys’ former drummer D.H. Peligro, didn’t quite gel with the band’s style.
Under Rubin’s guidance the musicians were encouraged to temper their ferociously fast playing with a new focus on melody. Flea’s full-force fingering became a slinky pop-funk groove, the melodic backbone between Smith’s precise danceable rhythms and Frusciante’s soulful licks.
While ‘80s metal was devolving into a vacuous parody, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were learning to distill elements of jazz , punk and hip-hop down to a surprisingly radio-friendly mix.
This genre blending proved irresistible to a generation of music fans primed on crossover hits like Run-Dmc’s 1986 cover of Aerosmith’s “Walk this Way,” which made No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. A year later thrash masters Anthrax collaborated with Public Enemy on a cover of the rap group’s “Bring the Noise.” And earlier in the decade Blondie did its part with its 1981 No. 1 single “Rapture,” a catchy rap/pop hybrid.
Ten years later rap, hip-hop and R&B were dominating while sales of rock albums were struggling. Then “Smells like Teen Spirit” knocked the king of pop off his throne replacing Michael Jackson’s Dangerous at No. 1.
If a small-town power trio raised on abrasive punk music could redefine mainstream rock on their own terms, pop culture was definitely ready for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
“I remember being so excited because I felt like we had made our great record. I would put on the radio and keep listening to hear “Give It Away,” but I kept hearing this Nirvana song and was like, ‘God, that’s a great fucking song. But are they going to play ‘Give It Away?’ And then they turned out to be the greatest band in the world,” opined Flea in Spin Magazine’s 20th anniversary coverage of Nevermind.
Regardless of his jealously, Flea and the boys had in fact made their great record.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik‘s five singles got heavy rock-radio rotation. The genre-defying album became an anomaly for its younger audience, as it bridged a seemingly impassable musical divide between hip-hoppers, punk rockers and the top-40 crowd. Jocks and skaters finally had some musical common ground.
But, in true sex-drugs-and-rock-n-roll form, BSSM became the bane of god-fearing mothers everywhere.
But Kiedis liked it that way.
He told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke in 1992 that he had “this wonderful image of this lady washing dishes in her little home in Kansas with her little tape deck, popping this in and taking off her clothing, running into the backyard and getting loosened up a bit.”
Libertine sexuality had become a well-trodden path for Kiedis’ lyrics, but mainstream audiences responded most when he showed his flaws, as he did in BSSM‘s most successful single “Under the Bridge.”
That level of honesty didn’t come easy for the lascivious lyricist.
During one of their many visits, before production started, Rubin flipped through one of the singer’s notebooks and encouraged Kiedis to use an introspective poem as lyrics. Kiedis, worried about his bandmates’ potentially negative reaction, then reluctantly agreed to put it on the album. But the song, which chronicled Kiedis’ struggles with drug addiction and hitting bottom under a Los Angeles overpass, went platinum and reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 a year later.
Today one is hard pressed to find a person who can’t finish the line “Under the bridge downtown …”
If Frusciante’s disturbingly erotic quote was any indication, the record dripped with sexuality – check the cover art’s overt reference to cunnilingus – yet it was Kiedis’ ability to be introspective, culturally aware and vulnerable that helped distinguish this fresh version of the Chili Peppers.
Using his percussive, not-quite-rapping-not-quite-singing style, Kiedis easily mixed the irreverent with the relevant. Hell, the first track, “The Power of Equality,” found the often-shirtless frontman tapping into the rising racial tensions in America, especially in the band’s hometown of Los Angeles. Anyone remember Rodney King?
“Wake up, motherfucker/And smell the slime/Blackest anger/Whitest fear,” admonished Kiedis. Earlier in the song he bluntly stated “Death to the message of the Ku Klux Klan.”
But that’s as preachy as Kiedis got, and most of the album’s 17 tracks only flirted with sadness. Even “My Lovely Man,” the musical eulogy for Slovak, their recently deceased friend and guitarist, was a high-energy blues-meets-funk jam.
Mainstream success and reception, however, brought its share of problems. Citing a desire to avoid the fame they were rapidly earning, Frusciante quit the band for the first time midway through the 1992 tour. He quit again in 2009 after rejoining in 1998.
But after 20 years and numerous albums, awards and a rotating cast of musicians the Chili Peppers are still doing remarkably well.
Having weathered the storms of fame better than most of their contemporaries – Cobain became a rock martyr and Pearl Jam has played coy with mainstream attention since the release of “Jeremy” – the band is about to release its tenth studio album, I’m With You, at the end of September.
Rubin, who has produced every Chili Peppers’ album since BSSM, recently told the L.A. Times that, after a brief hiatus and now returning with longtime friend and new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, the band is “reinvigorated.”
Since its release, the band has surpassed its 1991 breakthrough album in just about every way, save for one: Blood Sugar Sex Magik holds the permanent distinction of introducing the Red Hot Chili Peppers to a worldwide audience, and introducing the world to a rock-and-roll phenomenon.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik Tracklist:
- “The Power of Equality”
- “If You Have to Ask”
- “Breaking the Girl”
- “Funky Monks”
- “Suck My Kiss”
- “I Could Have Lied”
- “Mellowship Slinky in B Major”
- “The Righteous & the Wicked”
- “Give It Away”
- “Blood Sugar Sex Magik”
- “Under the Bridge”
- “Naked in the Rain”
- “Apache Rose Peacock”
- “The Greeting Song”
- “My Lovely Man”
- “Sir Psycho Sexy”
- “They’re Red Hot”