In 2014, U2 released a new album, and whether you wanted it or not, you got it as long as you had an iTunes account. It was just suddenly there on your phone and there wasn’t really anything you could do about it.
It did not go over well.
Was the album good? It didn’t matter. It would never matter. All that mattered was that in people’s minds, U2 had embarked on a massive invasion of privacy, and if the album was actually good, that was beyond the point.
Suddenly, U2 was trash. They were tainted and damaged goods. The perception of them had changed completely, and along with that, it seemed as if everything they had done leading up to that point no longer mattered. It’s as if we had all forgotten that U2 was really good and had been really good for over three decades.
If a band has been around for as long as U2, it’s natural for enthusiasm to wain. A career that long is bound to be filled with classic albums, tragically bad albums, comeback albums, mega tours, back-to-basic tours, a fall from grace or two, a return to glory or two, lineup changes, and more. A U2 backlash was inevitable; there had already been one or two already.
However, that iTunes debacle definitely didn’t help matters when it came to another public rebuke of the band, and since then, U2 has still been touring and released another album. With that said, in terms of coming close to regaining their status as a top-tier rock band, it’s been a struggle.
But again, U2 was really good and to turn our backs on that very real and very legitimate fact is insulting. It’s insulting to the band, to the music that they’ve made, and the legacy of both. What has been missing for U2 is something to remind people of their better days; something that allows people to forget about the stumbles of the past few years and flashback to the band’s glory years, of which there are many.
In recent years, Red Hot Chili Peppers, a band that has also been around for over three decades, have been following a similar trajectory as U2 has, and as recently as last week, seemed destined to continue down that path (one writer on this website has suggested they may go down in history as the most average band of all time).
What changed? What’s different?
Well, on Sunday Red Hot Chili Peppers announced that John Frusciante was rejoining the band.
Frusciante would be replacing guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, who stepped into his role in 2009. Frusciante had replaced Dave Navarro back in 1999, who had come on board to replace Arik Marshall in 1993 after Marshall had been brought in to replace Frusciante earlier that year. Frusciante had initially joined the band in 1989 following the death of their original guitarist Hillel Slovak.
It’s a little confusing and can be somewhat hard to follow but the main takeaway here is that Frusciante was back and had returned when the band needed him most.
When Frusciante was a member of the band, they produced some of their most inspired and best-selling music. In his first run, which started when Frusciante was a teenager, the band recorded two albums.
Mother’s Milk, released in 1989, found the band relatively drug-free for the first time and that—coupled with the additions of Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith—led to some of their smoothest recording sessions yet. The album made it to #52 on the Billboard 200, featured two songs (“Higher Ground” and “Knock Me Down”) that made it to the Top 20, and it became the first Chili Peppers album to sell over 500,000 copies.
Following the success of Mother’s Milk, the band switched labels (signing with Warner Bros.) and hooked up with producer Rick Rubin. What came next was their breakthrough album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The album would eventually sell over 12 million copies and make Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Songs on the record included “Give It Away,” which would win a Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance with Vocal, and “Under the Bridge,” which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
After Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the band were headliners and one of the hottest, best-selling acts in rock music. The sudden stardom proved to be the undoing when it came to Frusciante’s first run with the band, though, and in 1992, he abruptly left the group while they were on tour in Japan.
Because of Frusciante’s talent, creativity, and energy, he was hard to replace. The hiring of Navarro, who had been in Jane’s Addiction, seemed perfect on paper. But after only one album, it was clear that what looked so good on paper didn’t look so good in person.
Whereas the band clicked instantly with Frusciante, doing the same with Navarro was tougher and didn’t happen right away (if at all). Navarro was also more methodical and deliberate in his creative process, whereas Frusciante was looser and down to jam and hash songs out that way, which was something Navarro wasn’t a fan of.
Navarro also apparently didn’t care for funk, and I have to say that in hindsight, that might have been a problem seeing as how much funk music was part of the band’s DNA.
They recorded one album with Navarro: One Hot Minute, which was released in 1995 and decidedly more serious and somber than anything the band had done before. The album had a mood to it and it wasn’t a mood one would have associated with what people felt were the fun-loving Red Hot Chili Peppers.
One Hot Minute was a commercial success (it sold eight million copies) but was ultimately the product of a band in transition.
The last time this happened, Frusciante had come along when the band needed him most. They were dealing with drug addiction and the loss of a dear friend. The future was uncertain and any path forward was shrouded in mystery. They needed a burst of energy and a shot of enthusiasm, which is what Frusciante provided. If he was two steps forward, Navarro was a big step backward.
When the band parted ways with Navarro in 1998, they were lost and they might have been done if not for Frusciante once returning to save them from falling into the abyss.
The saving was mutual for Frusciante, as he had fallen on hard times while away from the band. He too had become addicted to drugs, and as a result, had fallen into poverty and his body was physically ravaged. If there was ever a case of two broken and despondent souls needing each other to survive, this was it.
The band’s first album with Frusciante back in the mix was Californication and it marked a new period for the group. For starters, Anthony Kiedis was rapping less and singing more, a shift that helped the band expand their sound and ditch the rap/rock stigma. The album’s music was layered and textured, full of melodies that called to mind that joyous spirit of the band’s earlier work. Frusciante also helped push their sound with his backing vocals, allowing their songs to go in different directions than they had in the past.
After nearly a decade of wandering in the wilderness, Californication put the band back on top. The album sold over 16 million copies, but more importantly, the band had found their compass again and rediscovered their true north. Not even a hiccup (like being part of the raging dumpster fire that was Woodstock 1999) could knock them off their game.
Clean, sober, and healthy, Frusciante had regained his confidence and the band quickly started working on a follow-up in the form of 2002’s By the Way. Frusciante’s emergence as a creative force in the band was a welcome sight but wasn’t without its problems. Whereas he wanted the band to go in a new direction sound-wise, Flea pushed back, not wanting to ditch their funk background. Things got a little dicey but differences were quickly settled.
When everything was said and done, the album did have a different vibe to it. The change wasn’t as drastic as the shift that occurred a decade earlier but it was still noticeable.
By the Way was a more meditative and low-key album. It lacked the fire of Californication. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good album or as good as Californication. It was just a little different and that’s cool. The band was now two decades old and growth should be expected. No one should be interested in listening to a band do the same thing album after album, year after year. At this point during the band’s career, what was important was that they were still finding new ways to be creative and doing so without losing who they were.
Frusciante’s high-water mark was the band’s 2006 double album Stadium Arcadium. It’s a massive album (and not just because it includes 28 songs). The album’s songs were tight, focused, ambitious, funky, rocking, melodic, and inspired.
Was a double album necessary? No, of course not. Double albums rarely are. But it came pretty damn close to warranting all that bandwidth.
With Stadium Arcadium, the band had once again released an album that made the world stop in its tracks and take notice. It was the third time they had done this and it had become clear that the band was operating at its highest levels when Frusciante was involved.
He was able to build on the foundation Slovak had put in place and then take things to places Navarro was either unwilling or unable to. The Chili Peppers have always been avid basketball fans, and as a result, understand the importance of a group having the right mix and having the right chemistry. Frusciante provided them with both and they were unstoppable with him on board.
Then he left again.
After a decade of non-stop recording and touring, the band went on hiatus. Yet when they returned in the fall of 2009, Frusciante wasn’t with them. He had elected to move on and pursue a solo career, leaving his friend and the band’s touring guitarist Klinghoffer to take his place. For fans, the hope was that given the closeness and friendship between the two guitarists, the change wouldn’t be nearly as noticeable as when Frusciante had left before.
What would be missing, though, was Frusciante’s creativity and contributions to the band’s songwriting. His second run had taken them to new heights and allowed them to explore new sounds and styles. It would be interesting to see how they would proceed with him once again on the sidelines.
Klinghoffer’s first album with the band was 2011’s I’m With You. It was a strong, solid album but certainly did not reach the creative peaks that Stadium Arcadium had. While it’s hard to determine how much of a role Klinghoffer played in there being such a difference, it’s easy to point to the departure of Frusciante when looking for reasons why.
In 2014—six months before U2’s iTunes debacle—the Chili Peppers suffered their own major misstep that had the potential to haunt them for years to come.
The band had been asked to join Bruno Mars during the halftime show at Super Bowl XLVIII. This was presumably because Mars wasn’t a big enough star to carry the show on his own at the time. He needed some backup and an established act like the Chili Peppers fit the bill.
However, it very quickly became clear that Mars DID NOT need backup. Mars and his band killed it, performing their set with a fire and ferocity that was infectious. The longer it went on, the more it felt like maybe the Chili Peppers could sit this one out and we could get more Mars.
But at about seven and a half minutes in, Mars started working in the words “Give it away” into his tune and up from the basement came the Chili Peppers. Mars and his crew quickly ceded the stage to the band, jumping in during the chorus. Musically it sounded fine and it’s always fun to hear “Give It Away,” but the optics weren’t great.
For starters, the Chili Peppers looked old. And they looked slow. It was like watching a younger, faster team play a squad of grizzled veterans. It wasn’t pretty.
It also didn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that neither Flea nor Klinghoffer had their instruments plugged in. It was quite obvious actually. While it’s long been understood that musicians aren’t really “playing” during such performances, part of that understanding was that they’d at least look like they were. We would suspend disbelief and they would look the part. That’s how it was supposed to go.
But that didn’t happen, and that—coupled with the youthful energy and enthusiasm of Mars and his crew and the awkwardness of seeing the now middle-aged Flea and Keidis performing shirtless—made for a sizable opening for hot takes about the current state of the band to come rushing out.
They were washed-up.
They were a joke.
They had never really been that good.
And so on and so on. Once the dam breaks in a situation like this, it’s every man for himself.
It wasn’t the end for them but you could argue that they had begun the same slide U2 had into lacking relevance anymore and becoming a nostalgia act.
They released The Getaway in 2016, and with Danger Mouse producing, it marked the first time they had worked with a producer other than Rick Rubin since 1989. Such a move has a tendency to be rather ominous, especially at such a late stage of a band’s career. It’s often sold as looking to change things up, but what’s implied is that things have gotten stale and a change isn’t an option but a necessity.
The Getaway is an interesting album and the change in producer does create some noteworthy moments, but overall, it’s a fairly forgettable record. In an interesting sign of the times, the album topped out at #2 on the Billboard 200 chart, even though the album sold more copies than Drake had (Drake’s streaming numbers are what put him in the top spot).
Once again, the band found itself at a crossroads. It had become clear that they were in the back nine of their career, and if there was any hope in them regaining some of the stature they once possessed, something drastic would need to happen.
Cue the return of John Frusciante.
It remains to be seen as to whether or not Frusciante can again work his magic and rejuvenate the band’s career, but based solely on the data and history, there’s definitely a chance. The band makes more sense with him than without him.
All of their peaks, whether it was Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Californication or Stadium Arcadium, happened with Frusciante in the band. When their epitaph is eventually written, it’ll be the songs he played on and helped write that will be mentioned and talked about. It’ll be those songs that get played on the radio and celebrated. Hell, they already are. There are good tunes on the Klinghoffer albums and One Hot Minute has a few solid ones as well, but “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge” are still played on a fairly regular basis followed by the hits from Californication and By the Way.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers now have a chance to remind everyone who they once were and what they were capable of. They can make people forget the Super Bowl performance and overlook their last two albums. They can force people to confront the greatness of Blood Sugar Sex Magik and once again appreciate the dynamism of Californication, the grace of By the Way, and the magnitude and force of Stadium Arcadium.
U2 isn’t so lucky. As they struggle to find their footing at this stage in the game, they are forced to do so under the same circumstances. That’s not going to help.
The next Red Hot Chili Peppers album just became one of the most anticipated releases of 2020.
That was not the case two weeks ago.