Happy 20th Anniversary to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ seventh studio album Californication, originally released June 8, 1999.
It is a matter of human psychology that time appears to move faster the older we get. If you're reading this beyond the age of thirty, you’ll know this to be true. Younger audiences please be aware. Whenever a conversation about how this seems to be occurs, I always try and contribute what I call the Red Hot Chili Peppers Time Lapse Theory.
The anecdote goes something like this. In September 1991, L.A funk rockers Red Hot Chili Peppers released their now classic record Blood Sugar Sex Magik. This record was the band’s fifth and took them from a cult concern to international superstardom mainly thanks to the single releases of the mega anthem “Give It Away” and the beautiful rock ballad “Under The Bridge.” The band toured the record globally for years. The strain on the band was immense and the period ended with the band’s genius guitarist, John Frusciante, leaving to pursue a heroin addiction and an undercooked solo career.
In tatters but maintaining a united front (the Chilis’ had a knack for losing members), the band marched on, releasing a series of compilation records and live recordings, and in late 1995 eventually releasing another studio album titled One Hot Minute. Frusciante's replacement, former Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Narvarro offered the band a darker more metal edge to their funk rock sound. Though popular and offering another round of well-received singles (“Warped,” “Aeroplane”), One Hot Minute was not deemed a reputable follow-up to Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The record today is mostly discarded by fans and the bank alike. Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith later said of the record, “We don't really feel that connected to that record anymore.” And perhaps it’s clear to see why. Musically it was a departure, but on a personal level, Narvarro and the band’s vocalist, Anthony Kiedis, were heavily into drug use. The record affiliates itself with a dark moment in the band’s personal lives.
A pause of several years for reflection and recovery whilst personal issues were ironed out followed. And then in 1999 came Californication, the return of a now fully recovered and clean John Frusciante to the band fold, and a renewed sense of purpose and unity. Californication scored the Chili Peppers a bunch of worldwide hits and saw tours of massive arenas the world over. They were redeemed.
In 2002, the band released their eighth studio record By the Way, which is something of a masterpiece in my own opinion. The record continues the sunny vibes of Californication and adds Beach Boy style harmonies and even more introspective lyricism to the mix. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
In terms of artistry, musical direction, lyrical themes, and stylistics, the distance between Blood Sugar Sex Magik and Californication may as well be light years. The band were older and wiser for having experienced everything that had come within that decade. Even in terms of aesthetics, the band appears so very different from their 1991 funk-boy incarnation.
Sure enough, compare Blood Sugar Sex Magik’s more risque risqué songs such as “Apache Rose Peacock” and “Sir Psycho Sexy” with anything on Californication and you’ll see the appetite for the carnal has been replaced with a yearning for the spiritual, though there are examples such as the throwaway “Get on Top” and the perverse “Purple Stain” that hollaback to the band’s early primal urges but they don’t gel as well.
Californication spouts enough new-age pop-psychology in its lyrics to make even the most money-grabbing practitioner blush. The song “Californication” itself is a dark meditative reflection on the cheap and tacky underbelly of the sunny side of Hollywood lifestyles. Like Hole’s Celebrity Skin, released a year before, it lays waste to the idea that fame and fortune in Hollywood is a noble endeavor. But it does this in a series of couplets such as, “space may be the final frontier but it’s made in a Hollywood basement,” that capture the absurdity perfectly.
So here’s the crux: the distance in time between the two records is just under a decade. 1991 to 1999. This doesn’t seem a huge leap of time, but the artistic jump the band achieved during that period feels extraordinary. And here’s the other, quite extraordinary thing, the distance in time, as of writing, between Californication and now is twenty years (hence this anniversary article) and every day that time period is lengthening.
Yet, to my mind the band is perpetually stuck in this short artistic timeframe. I haven’t experienced enough post-Californication Red Hot Chili Peppers—with the exception of By the Way—enough to shake them out of what I perceive as a golden period. 1991 to 1999 will always remain the same distance and a brilliant example of an artistic evolution.
But I also feel that the Chili Peppers have hardly evolved from the point of Californication. To my mind they appear to be the same band now—at least in sound—as they were then. I know in some respects I’m wrong. Their current guitarist, Josh Klinghoffer, who has been with the band since 2007 (when Frusciante vacated again), has brought a whole new set of talents to the overall sound of the band. But without experiencing that youthful rush, I’m lost.
Back to the record for a moment. The evolution in sound was not met with overall praise from critics. In its review, NME joked, “Can we have our brain-dead, half-dressed funk-hop rock animals back now, please?” and in some respects the reaction to this can be explained. Because of the lack of albums to reveal the sonic/lyrical evolution, the Chili Peppers made big leaps that were not fully understood by critics or listeners. This is the Chili Peppers in the lost 1990s. A band that should have, much like they did in the 1980s, released a cluster of records that improved continuously on their sound in a more progressive sense. A band that should have dominated the landscape of rock and funk and MTV culture. Instead we only got one relatively mediocre record bookmarked by two brilliant, yet very different records.
For me and no doubt many others of my generation, the 1990s are an incredible stretch of time. I started the decade still in primary school, by the decade’s end I was legally drinking, I’d had numerous girlfriends, and I’d even had sex, I was staying out late, I was contemplating leaving home. My personality, my very identity was forged during this decade. It took many attempts and many failures to find the rudimentary person I would become in adulthood.
This is the way every generation, at least in the post-war era in which teenage responsibility was vanquished, feels about their youth. The Baby Boomers long for the idealism of the Sixties, Generation X has a deep fondness for the Reaganite Eighties and older millennials like myself long for the ‘90s. It will be the same for future generations I’m sure.
The era in which one finds themselves, in which one grows, will be ingrained as deeply affecting, and these chops and changes will feel like they happen within an eternity whilst experiencing it, but when time stretches away from those moments it all feels incredibly short. Anything after this blissful era is just surplus time. An article by Marc Wittmann in Psychology Today posits that, “It is probably true that life cannot be experienced with the same freshness we felt when we were much younger. That is what ‘experience’ means: losing the sense of novelty.”
As I get older I’m experiencing this loss of novelty and by all accounts so are the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Californication is the Chili Peppers as grown-ups. We would never experience them in any other way again.