Happy 30th Anniversary to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fourth studio album Mother’s Milk, originally released August 16, 1989.
Mother's Milk is a strong album on its own, one that's held up shockingly well over three decades. But what's interesting about it is the album it isn't, as much as the album it was.
Mother's Milk is the record that precedes 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Red Hot Chili Peppers' wildly successful breakthrough album, which topped the Billboard charts and went platinum many times over. Mother's Milk was also released just a year after the infamous Abbey Road E.P., a British compilation that was relatively easy to find in the United States. The cover, featuring the band crossing Abbey Road nude, except for their infamous genital socks, was for many, the prevailing mental image of the band: man-children still delighted by dick jokes.
It would be a gross exaggeration to call Mother's Milk a bridge from frat boy funk-rock into maturity, as the Chili Peppers, now closer to retirement age than drinking age, still rock the socks and run around like the world is one massive extension of the now-abandoned MTV beach house. But Mother's Milk does bridge the band's musical development, as it shifted from a fun-but-relatively-generic LA rap-metal band into more of a mainstream rock one, a much less serious R.E.M., with far more muscles and far less clothing.
The evolution was driven by guitarist John Frusciante joining the band for Mother's Milk. The teenage Frusciante was a rabid Chili Peppers fan who also happened to be a talented songwriter. It was a perfect storm of someone with no interest in changing the band's sound also working hard to improve and refine it. Frusciante's songwriting, and perhaps, just as importantly, vocal influence, would come into full bloom on Blood Sugar, but there are hints at his influence on the band's future on Mother's Milk.
Frusciante found himself with the Chili Peppers due to their tortured personnel history. The band began with guitarist Hillel Slovak, who left before their self-titled 1984 debut, to be replaced by Jack Sherman. Sherman left after that album and was replaced by the returning Slovak, who played on Freaky Styley (1985) and The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (1987), their next two albums. Slovak died of a drug overdose less than a year after the release of Uplift Mofo. Parliament-Funkadelic guitarist DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight was brought in to replace Slovak, with McKnight replaced by Frusciante before McKnight could record with the band.
Frusciante joined the band at a critical time. The 1989 music world was just a few flannel shirts away from a huge musical shift. Hair metal was on the way out and grunge was coming in. Frusciante sparred with Mother's Milk producer Michael Beinhorn over the guitar sounds on the album, with Frusciante wanting more of a Hendrix guitar vibe and Beinhorn looking for something much denser. In retrospect, Frusciante was right. The one thing that places Mother's Milk in the 1980s are the guitar tones, which are decidedly crunchy. Warrant's Cherry Pie came out a little less than a year after Mother's Milk and the two have surprisingly similar guitar sounds. The teenage Frusciante was much more sensitive to the changing musical tides, although Beinhorn would eventually embrace grunge, subsequently producing both Soundgarden and Hole.
"Knock Me Down" provides the clearest glimpse of the band's musical future. Generously billed as co-sung by lead singer Anthony Kiedis and Frusciante, it's essentially a Frusciante vocal. Frusciante doesn't have a traditionally pretty singing voice, but between his distinctive whine and urgent falsetto, it's ideal for sweetening Kiedis' vocals/raps. Kiedis is a dynamic frontman, so it's easy to miss Frusciante in the background, providing a vocal vulnerability for many of the band's biggest hits.
On "Knock Me Down," the vulnerability is the emotional centerpiece of the song, which is about striving for sobriety: "Don't be afraid to show your friends / That you're hurt inside, inside / Pain's part of life don't hide behind your false pride / It's a lie / Your lie." The music is the upbeat funk the Peppers were known for, but the lyrics, presumably about Slovak, but ostensibly about any of the band members who struggled with addiction, are stark. Where other bands of the time were glorifying drugs and partying, the Chili Peppers were candidly singing about the struggles of addiction and sobriety.
"Knock Me Down" is an incredible song when you consider that Mötley Crüe released "Kickstart My Heart," a humble-brag about surviving an overdose from an album, Dr. Feelgood, that's a tribute to a drug dealer, in the same year. The Chili Peppers were tapping in to more serious lyrics, while keeping the fun, partying edge within the underlying music.
"Sexy Mexican Maid" was the flip side of that formula: frivolous lyrics over more serious music. The song features the slow, sexy groove that would become perfected on Blood Sugar. Kiedis' vocals are softer, more sung than spoken. And while Frusciante's guitar might be layered, it sounds like just a single instrument, carrying the song, handling both rhythm and lead. And Flea, the band's legendary bass player, thrives in this format, similarly handling rhythm and lead from a lower-end perspective.
It seems funny to talk about the Chili Peppers for this long without talking about Flea, but he's simply such a great bass player, there's not too much to say. He plays the perfect bass line across the band’s albums and Mother's Milk is no different. "Pretty Little Ditty," an instrumental duet between Flea and Frusciante, features beautifully melodic playing by both artists, and foreshadows the cleaner tones the band would often feature on Blood Sugar.
Mother's Milk, of course, features lots of great, classic songs that don't indicate a new direction or growth for the band. Their cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground” is a funk rock classic. "Magic Johnson," their ode to the Lakers' beloved point guard is fun and silly. And "Stone Cold Bush" ("Her pipes are open wide / She blows more than my mind") keeps listeners from being worried the band has grown too much. The album also features a punk cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," featuring Slovak and founding drummer Jack Irons, who left the band after Slovak's death. It's a sweet nod to the past.
The nod looks even sweeter when you consider how much the band changed by its next album. Produced by Rick Rubin and with the band members now all used to each other, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, except for the constant of Kiedis' voice and Flea's distinctive bass, sounds like an almost completely different band from their first three studio albums. Mother's Milk is what makes sense of that transition.