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Why the Red Hot Chili Peppers' debut album is their most bizarre

Scenario: you are a band in the crowded world of the Los Angeles music scene. While most groups are teasing up their hair and playing a poppier version of metal, your band cares more about funk, rap, and punk rock. Your lead singer doesn’t really sing so much as he spews gloriously incoherent word stew without paying much attention to pitch, intonation, or even melody. Your two best friends recently left the band because they believed their other band would be a more serious and successful venture. You’ve hastily recruited two new musicians and are running primarily on heroin and cocaine. 

Congratulations! You are either Flea or Anthony Kiedis circa 1984. In just under a decade’s time, your band will become one of the biggest rock acts in the world, praised for your chameleonic ability to take on different genres and styles. You’ll have to endure some tragedy to get there, and the revolving door nature of your lineup will end up being comical, but platinum albums, stadium tours, and international recognition are on the horizon. 

Only you’re not there yet, because you are currently singing songs about coyotes, California, jumping around, and how awesome your band is and how much babies love you. Nobody takes you seriously, despite having a killer live show and one of the most talented bass players in the world. That’s because your band is ridiculous, immature, and the complete antithesis of what’s popular at the moment. White boy rap, mixed with punk-funk and a generous amount of gonzo confidence, is a sideshow confined to the dankest and dingiest of L.A. clubs. People aren’t getting tattoos of your group logo or belting back anthemic choruses at you because you don’t have any of those elements yet. 

The Red Hot Chili Peppers, the self-titled debut record from California’s favourite sons, is a startlingly bizarre listening experience more than three decades later. Nothing about the album gives any indication that these guys would wind up being one of the most celebrated band’s of the past three decades. The Red Hot Chili Peppers is, throughout its relatively brief 30-minute run time, alternately confounding, hilarious, disgusting, unsettling, energetic, and at times utterly unlistenable. It’s more than just a band at its most green and naive: it’s a band that has chosen the complete wrong identity.

As was previously mentioned, guitarist Hillel Slovak and drummer Jack Irons departed the Chili Peppers once their less-comical band, What Is This?, scored a record deal with MCA. The Chilis had a record deal of their own, so they quickly found replacements in the form of guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez. In a brazen bit of unearned gall, the band assumed that they would gel during recording sessions. They did not.

The disconnect between the new recruits and the grizzled veterans makes for a chaotic album, which isn’t always bad. Tracks like ‘Get Up and Jump’ and ‘Out in L.A.’ have a frantic sort of groove to them, as if the band are playing these songs for the first time and want to get the impromptu energy captured on tape. But most of the time, the album dives headlong into complete nonsense and failed experimentation. 

‘Baby Appeal’, ‘Buckle Down’, ‘Mommy Where’s Daddy’, ‘You Always Sing The Same’ and closing track ‘Grand Pappy Du Plenty’ are confusing, jarring, and unpleasant slogs to sit through. Even though the album only runs the length of a sitcom (plus commercials), it feels excruciating when the group stretch out a single half-formed idea to over three minutes. ‘Police Helicopter’ at least knows it wears out its welcome quickly. On the flip side, there’s no reason for the lethargic ‘Green Heaven’ to last four minutes when it loses steam after one.

Kiedis, a man who would later show remarkable maturity and thoughtfulness as a lyric writer, plays solely into his perverse and weirdly gross cartoon persona on The Red Hot Chili Peppers, like a real-life MC Skat Kat five years before his first appearance. Choose your favourite bad/good/so-bad-it’s-good line: “Say what, you got a pumpkin in your pants/Jam Bob, Jim Bob, Slim Bob Boogie.” Or perhaps, “Here, above land, man has laid his plan/And yes, it does include the Ku Klux Klan.” Maybe even “Five thousand babies rocking out in the street/Well, that’s a serious sight I mean and golly gee whizz!” There’s room for another too with, “My body loves to scrump when I lick the ripe pick/Alike dump on a thumb pop hump, hump, hump, pop out.” My vote goes to that last one.

Eventually, the Chili Peppers would get their core lineup back together and release two more album’s before Slovak’s death from a heroin overdose in 1988, upon which Irons quit on account of not wanting to be in a band where his friends were dying. Kiedis and Flea, through their grief, carried on by recruiting a versatile new guitarist named John Frusciante and a hard-hitting drummer named Chad Smith. The rest is history: the band grew up and realised that they couldn’t be clownish rap funksters forever. Utilising Frusciante’s compositional ability plus the chemistry of the new lineup, the Chili Peppers were able to take the best of all their genres and fuse them together in a commercially and critically successful package.

But everything has to start somewhere. The most bewildering thing about The Red Hot Chili Peppers is its complete absence of any of the elements that would make them famous and acclaimed. If you like the rap-punk-funk side of the Chili Peppers the best, then Freaky Styley, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, and Mother’s Milk are far more enjoyable and well-produced places to go. If you happened to hear the Red Hot Chili Peppers and What Is This? back to back in 1984, you would most likely agree that Slovak and Irons made a logical decision with their allegiances. And yet, What Is This? faltered while the Chili Peppers only grew in exponential ways. 

It’s damn near impossible to see the band that would become the Red Hot Chili Peppers in their debut album, but that only adds to its alien appeal. What’s certain is that if the band kept making albums like The Red Hot Chili Peppers, they almost certainly wouldn’t still be around today.

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