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The Music That Made Me: The Red Hot Chilli Peppers

To start, I want you to know where I am. I am sitting, currently alone, at a beach in Barcelona. It is 20 degrees Celsius – Winter apparently – the sun is beating down on me, my freckles flourishing, and the sound of the waves is lulling me into a sun-drunk haze. A year abroad was a good idea.

Now, I need you to know that I am not really here. Under the sultry sun, the temptation to sink into the realm of possibility is too rich – my dreams are never stronger than in the daytime, and right now, they are summoning me. I am not at a beach in Barcelona. This is Venice Beach, California.

California is probably my favourite place on Earth. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is my favourite film. I worship at the altar of Joan Didion and Eve Babitz, and when I write I keep their gospels about the City of Angels close.

All of which is odd. I’ve never been to the United States, let alone California. I’ve never even really felt the urge to go.

I have certainly, and perhaps ashamedly, bought into California.

You see, in my mind, California stands free of time and place. While America seemingly lags behind in the race to the end of history, with its power becoming more subpar than super, California remains California. Quixotic; a land made by dreamers for dreamers, where waltzing out of a film set and into the Whiskey-a-Go-Go is a casual Wednesday, and stars line both the sky and the sidewalk.

Of course, I know that I have taken a golden paintbrush and glossed, with a very heavy hand, over the issues that have long plighted the state. 49% of all homeless people in the U.S. live in California. In 1967, Didion wrote of a five-year-old girl wearing white lipstick, high on acid; in 2022, nearly 7,000 Californians died from an opioid overdose. The Hollywood sign is there, witness to it all. It was once broken. Symbolically speaking, I’d say it still is. But as is the way with California, a little makeover and positive PR campaign changes everything.

And as you can see, I have certainly, and perhaps ashamedly, bought into California. But can you blame me? They promised me excess and opportunity, the warmth of the sun in an eternal summer. They know I haven’t been there and that I am unlikely to ever go – I am a prisoner in Plato’s Cave and they keep me entertained.

By ‘they’, I mean the movie stars and their romantic movie endings. I mean the pop stars and their untouchable charm. I mean the rockstars and their tales of wild abandonment. More specifically, I mean the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The Chilis were just there. A constant in my life and the soundtrack to it.

After all, when you think of California, the band is the next thing you think of. Sure, other bands have taken inspiration from the Golden State – The Doors, or rather Jim Morrison, knew L.A. Women, The Eagles understood the excess lying within the ‘Hotel California’ – but only the Chilis come close to encapsulating the state in all its grace and disgrace.

And so, I blame them for feeding me the delusions and dreams that turn La Barceloneta into Venice Beach.

But to pinpoint exactly when the Chilis first came into my consciousness is difficult. I didn’t necessarily discover them – they were, and are, my dad’s favourite band. He discovered them in the late 80s, when eighteen-year-old guitarist John Frusciante had just joined the band for the first time, and they had just released their fourth studio album Mothers Milk. The song ‘Knock Me Down’ is still his favourite.

But, for me, the Chilis were just there. A constant in my life and the soundtrack to it. Whether that was jumping around the living room with my little brother as the ‘Can’t Stop’ music video played or asking for the ‘video game’ song (‘Californication’) to be put on. On the first Halloween that I remember, I dressed up as a skeleton. Clearly, I was Flea in his 2003 Slane Castle outfit – my fake bass guitar should have been the giveaway. Stadium Arcadium would be playing on the drives home from my late-night swimming lessons. Even my dog sings along to ‘Scar Tissue’.

But that was all before I listened to the Chilis. Listening is a skill that our parents and grandparents practised; the act of listening to music was intentional. They rifled through record collections, the needle of the record player was methodically placed down upon an inky-black vinyl, the record span, and from start to finish, they listened. With our ability to stream an endless selection of songs from our digital libraries, we do not listen. Instead, we hear, we react, we forget.

One afternoon, however, when I was sixteen years old, I decided to act with intention, searching specifically for Stadium Arcadium, setting the CD player to track one, ‘Dani California,’ and for the first time in my life, I listened. Track one gave way to track two, ‘Snow,’ both teasing Hendrixian riffs. Track four, ‘Stadium Arcadium,’ was haunting, the graze of lovers’ lips in the moonlight. Track six, ‘She’s Only 18,’ was X-rated exaltation. Track 11, ‘Warlocks,’ thick and sticky treacle. Track 21, ‘If,’ the smell of rain on parched earth. Track 28, ‘Death of a Martian,’ the final in this double album, was almost pious.

I was experiencing what we call deja vu. Except I wasn’t just feeling that I had been here before, I knew that I had. Stadium Arcadium was my mum’s favourite Chilis record – I had heard those tracks countless times before. I was walking down a well-trodden path into the past, except it was not nostalgia keeping me company, but novelty.

In listening to Flea’s funky bass tango with Frusciante’s guitar virtuosity; in listening to the lyrical sparks flick from Kiedis’ tongue; in listening to the feel in Smith’s drumming, I had taken a rust-worn key and unlocked the fifth dimension.

Their genre cross-pollination, combining funk, punk, psychedelia, and hip-hop, was, and still is, electrifying

Insatiable, I quickly devoured the rest of the Chilis discography. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication, The Getaway – each record a phoenix rising out of the ashes of familiarity. But more importantly, each record, each track, was filling a musical gap deep within my soul.

Which, to some, is an unusual statement to make, especially about a band like the Chili Peppers. After all, they steamrolled into notoriety with their ‘socks-on-cocks’ antics, cavorting like frat-boys for frat-boys, with perhaps the spiritual agility of an elephant in a yoga class.

But I was hypnotised. The music spoke to me in a way it never had before; Flea’s funky bass was infectious, compelling me to move to each song, Frusciante’s solos (and, of course, the guitar work of Hillel Slovak, Dave Navarro, and Josh Klinghoffer) showed me how the boundaries could be pushed, as well as encouraging me to explore and fall in love with the work of Jimi Hendrix, Kiedis’ lyrics spoke of unparalleled creativity, bordering lunacy, and Smith’s dutiful drum fills served each song with a firm deftness.

Their genre cross-pollination, combining funk, punk, psychedelia, and hip-hop, was, and still is, electrifying. I had always thought that there were rules for making music, that there was some ancient rulebook out there, written by Beethoven and edited by The Beatles, and here it was being torn up in front of me. Without rules, with no external guide, the Red Hot Chili Peppers experiment together freely. The result? A distinctive and timeless discography.

Seeing them live from London Stadium, on Saturday 25th June 2022, for the Unlimited Love tour, only confirmed how I feel. With my gig partner, my dad, in tow, we made our way to the front. When the intro jam began, I started crying; I didn’t know the limits of music could be stretched and celebrated in such a way. The show then careened through the career of the band, starting with ‘Can’t Stop’, moving onto the newer release ‘Aquatic Mouth Dance,’ before stopping by the classics of ‘Otherside’ and ‘Under the Bridge’.

I reminisce about the memories shared between each song and my family

While it was the music that captured me that night, the true magic was in the full circle moment I got to experience. After all, without my dad being a fan of the band, without my childhood being peppered with their songs, I never would have delved into their music. But, there we were, my dad and I, listening to our favourites perform live.

Whenever the band announces a new tour, a new record, or any snippet of unknown information, he’s who I text first. When any song, but specifically when ‘Desecration Smile,’ track 15 on Stadium Arcadium, and my personal favourite, comes on, I get a text from him: ‘Look, it’s your song.’

And so, it is not with the shallowness that some people approach the band, looking only at their testosteronic ways, but a tenderness. I act intentionally with this band: I choose a record of theirs to play, and from start to finish, I listen. I reminisce about the memories shared between each song and my family, thinking of the first time I would have heard those songs and all the times since. I try and isolate the instruments, homing in on just the drumbeat, focusing on the lyrics, grooving with the bass, or being awed by the guitar – truly appreciating every note. On an intuitive level, on an emotional level, and on a personal level, I feel the music of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and I simply cannot imagine a world where I can’t.

As I drift off deeper into my daydreams, I am trying to imagine a world where California, but more specifically Los Angeles, doesn’t wear the crown of ‘cultural centre.’ It seems impossible. This is partly the fault of bands like the Chili Peppers. My interest in California itself is also partly the fault of the Chili Peppers. But my love of the Red Hot Chili Peppers? That is entirely my dad’s fault, and I shall always be grateful for that.



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