clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

30 years of The Red Hot Chili Peppers, in 11 songs

The Red Hot Chili Peppers perform in 2006
The Red Hot Chili Peppers perform in 2006

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are an institution in American rock. Thirty years, 10 studio albums, and seven guitar players later, the band has evolved from sex-obsessed jerks into laid-back rock-and-roll legends.

On August 10, 1984, the group released its first album. Led by frontman Anthony Kiedis, the four-man band debuted at small Los Angeles clubs with a high-octane, sex-charged set that mixed 1980s punk with earlier funk tunes.  By the 1990s, The Red Hot Chili Peppers were superstars.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers are notoriously spontaneous, reckless, and kind of obnoxious. They are loved by many and hated by many, but the band that played at the Super Bowl this spring with Bruno Mars was markedly different from the 20-year-olds who jumped on stage in the '80s. Their sound has moved from punk, through funk, and into straight rock-and-roll. They've moved from frantic, sometimes arrest-worthy stage performances into lip-synching scandals.

Here are 11 songs from The Red Hot Chili Peppers discography to help you understand the band's enduring popularity:

1. "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes" (1984)

"True Men Don't Kill Coyotes" was the first song on The Red Hot Chili Peppers first album. With Kiedis on vocals, Hillel Slovak on guitar, Jack Irons on drums, and Michael "Flea" Balzary on bass, the song is as frantic and disorganized as the band was at that time. "True Men Don't Kill Coyotes" is a funk-rock riff mixed with Kiedis's limited vocals. Like the rest of the 1984 debut LP, the song gets monotonous and boring. It's the Chili Peppers in their infancy, but there are hints of their coming popularity in the lyrical references to Los Angeles and the signature Flea bass lines.

2. "Nevermind" (1985)

After its first EP, the band fired producer Andy Gill. The EP had been too disorganized, too monotonous, and frankly too boring. In his place the group hired George Clinton, the legendary frontman for Parliament Funkadelic to spearhead its first full-length album Freaky Styly. This album is the closest the Chili Peppers ever came to producing a straight-funk album. On "Nevermind," the Red Hot Chili Peppers are groovy, but they're also authoritative:

Nevermind the Pac Jam
Nevermind the Gap Band
Nevermind the Zap Band
Nevermind the Funk Scam
Cause we're
The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Freaky Styly is not even close to the band's best album, but it's the first time that we see the confidence that brought them into the limelight in the 1990s. The bass is slower and more fluid when paired with Hillel Slovak's guitar. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were going to do whatever they wanted. "Nevermind" was the anthem for that.

3. "Knock Me Down" (1989)

Freaky Styly was still a little too off-beat to make the Red Hot Chili Peppers famous. "Knock Me Down" is an admission that at this point, the band wasn't exactly where it wanted to be:

"If you see me getting mighty
If you see me getting high
Knock me down
I'm not bigger than life"

Mother's Milk, the third RHCP album, is considered to be the album that bridged the gap between the early work of the Chili Peppers and their later commercial success. Of all the Chili Pepper albums, Mother's Milk is the most punk and the angriest. But at that time, so were the Red Hot Chili Peppers. The band was lip-syncing "Knock Me Down" at a MTV taping when two members (Flea and Chad Smith, who replaced Irons on drums) of the band jumped off-stage and assaulted a woman in a bikini. The two were arrested and charged with battery and assault.

4. "Under the Bridge" (1991)

After Mother's Milk, The Red Hot Chili Peppers transformed. "Under the Bridge" started out as a poem that Kiedis wrote about scoring heroin. The band struggled with addiction at the time. Slovak, the original guitarist, had died of a heroin overdose before the release of Mother's Milk, and Kiedis was also addicted to the drug.

"Under the Bridge" was the height of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' commercial success. The song hit number two on the Billboard charts, and it brought the band into the spotlight. In fact, in 1992, the only two bands who outsold RHCP were Nirvana and Pearl Jam. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, to this day, have never had a song perform better than "Under the Bridge." A song written as a lament about drug addiction became their most popular, a constant reminder of that despair. Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the album containing the song, was an international sensation, and it made The Red Hot Chili Peppers into superstars.

5. "My Friends" (1995)

After the success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and "Under the Bridge," One Hot Minute was a total devastation. One Hot Minute is one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' worst albums, and there is no song more reflective of that failure than "My Friends," a sappy, confusing slow-jam with overwrought lyrics like, "On the brink of emptiness/ No words I know of to express/ This emptiness."

The whole album was as much of a failed experiment as the next guitarist they hired. In the wake of the band's success, John Frusciante—who had become the guitarist after Slovak's death— quit the band. The "loneliness" expressed in the song could easily be regarded as an expression of how the band felt without Frusciante. They replaced him at guitar with Dave Navarro of Jane's Addiction. Navarro only recorded One Hot Minute and was promptly fired.

6. "Around the World" (1999)

Throughout all of this swirling cast of characters and Kiedis's life-destructive drug addiction was Flea. After Navarro left the band, it looked like RHCP might fall apart. But John Frusciante returned after Flea coached him back from a heroin addiction, and almost immediately the band hit the studio and cranked out another album. Some might pick "Scar Tissue" as the song that revived the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1999, but no single song held this band together. It was Flea that helped RHCP maintain an audience, and it was Flea who found new members and provided the songs with continuity, just like his bass line does on "Around the World."

7 . "Californication" (1999)

The band released Californication, it seventh studio album, to widespread success. It sold more than 15 million copies. The group went on a world-wide tour that ended with a set at Woodstock in 1999.  The escalated popularity made the Peppers the final set of the three day outdoor concert.

The band had made it. The members were superstars, but they didn't have control of their crowds. During their set, the crowd erupted into a panic of vandalism, violence, and looting.  The band that had started its career as a punk band was now calmer than its festival-going fans.

8. "Can't Stop" (2002)

Almost immediately after the tour ended, The Red Hot Chili Peppers got to work on their eighth studio album, By The Way. The little punk band out of Los Angeles had become international superstars. Its sound became more commercialized. In "Can't Stop" Kiedis sings about love:

The world I love
The trains I hop
To be part of
The wave can't stop
Come and tell me when it's time to

The Red Hot Chili Peppers were a part of a wave. They had ascended to the height of rock and roll and were curling back toward their roots, toward funk. By The Way is groovier than Californication. The band traveled the world. It released a Greatest Hits album. The Red Hot Chili Peppers were at the pinnacle.

9. Dani California (2006)

Nothing, though, could compare to the massive success of the band's next album. Stadium Arcadium was the group's first number one album. It's also a mammoth of an album, clocking in at over two hours of play time. Stadium Arcadium won the Peppers four Grammys including Best Rock Album. Like this song, though, the album doesn't surprise anyone.

"Dani California" treads no new ground for a band that, up until this album, had constantly evolved. It's the same great bass lines from Flea, the same funk-rooted rock, and the same cooing voice from Kiedis. "Dani California" is a song about a girl, but it's also a song about being comfortable with world tours, number one albums, and world-wide recognition. It would have been easy to write off the Peppers and bury their career after Stadium Arcadium, but as the song says, "Too true to say goodbye to you Too true to say say say..."

10. "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie" (2011)

"Tick tock I want to rock you/Like the 80s," Kiedis sings in "The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie." The band's eighth studio album, I'm With You, does just that. It goes back to the funk, heavy-bass, sex-charged roots that made The Red Hot Chili Peppers exciting in 1985.  The band lost Frusciante again, but continued on its ride to success.

Hey now
We've got to make it rain somehow
She told me to
And showed me what to do
Our Maggie makes it in a cloud

The band certainly found a way to "make it rain somehow." I'm With You raked in $39 million in album and concert ticket sales, making The Red Hot Chili Peppers the world's 25th highest paid musicians.

11. "Give It Away" (1991)

With great success, however, comes a microscope.

"Give It Away" is the song that set Blood Sugar Sex Magik up to be the biggest album of RHCP's career in 1991. "I'm a low brow, but I rock a little know how," Kiedis sings on the track. But in the Red Hot Chili Peppers' most visible performance of their career, at the 2014 Super Bowl, he lacked that "little know how." Beloved bassist Flea was caught playing air-guitar when another famous guitarist tweeted that his guitar wasn't plugged in.  It was later revealed that the performance was pre-recorded to assure for quality.

"His heart is never gonna wither/ Come on everybody time to deliver," Kiedis sings on "Give It Away."  If the Red Hot Chili Peppers have done one thing for the last 30 years, it's deliver music that evolves, and if they stay true to form, they'll continue to do so. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have confirmed that they are recording another album. Whether or not that album will deliver the same heavy bass line and funk-rock sound is yet to be seen, but one thing is certain: the heart of the Red Hot Chili Peppers hasn't withered yet.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.