It’s tough for rock bands to age gracefully; decades after the genre’s dawn in the 1950s, it remains a young person’s game. And aging gracefully was never going to be easy for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a hyperactive punk/funk band well known for appearing on stage wearing nothing but socks.
Another hazard for rock bands is the scourge of changing members: at what point is a lineup change one too many? And here’s yet another pitfall: when you come up as part of a scene, what happens after that scene dies?
The Red Hot Chili Peppers weathered all of these storms, and more, on their 1999 comeback Californication, released on June 8, 1999 (we don’t need to go into their well-documented issues with substance abuse here).
By the late ’90s, founding Peppers Anthony Kiedis and Flea were pushing 40; their fellow bands from the L.A. scene that spawned them (like Jane’s Addiction and Fishbone) had broken up or lost their cultural relevance. The same was true of most of their peers from the Lollapalooza era (like Soundgarden, Living Colour, Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana). The rock landscape was dominated by angry nu-metal bands on one side, and sexless vanilla indie rock groups on the other. The Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t fit in on either side.
More problematically, they found themselves without a guitarist when Dave Navarro (the band’s eighth guitarist) left the band in 1998. But things started looking up later that year when John Frusciante (who played on the band’s most successful album, 1991’s Blood Sugar Sex Magik) rejoined the band. But the question was: with the changing musical climate, would the fans still care?
They got their answer on June 14, 1998, at the Tibetan Freedom Concert in Washington, D.C. They played a surprise three-song set — Pearl Jam shortened their set to make room for the Peppers — and the minute that they hit the stage with Frusciante back in the fold, the audience erupted. I was at that show; the Chili Peppers were supposed to play the prior day, but their set got canceled due to a lightning storm.
Pearl Jam’s set wasn’t their finest moment — it was a rare instance of things not “clicking” for the Seattle legends. Fans seemed to sense this and started filing out of the stadium, as they were the last scheduled act of the day. But when the Chili Peppers appeared and blasted into their first song, “Give It Away,” it felt like a brand new show, and the audience rallied, with people rushing back to their sets. The three-song set — “Give It Away,” “Under The Bridge” and “The Power of Equality” — showed that the band was tighter than ever and that the fans’ love had not abated. And the very end of their set, as you can see in the below video, right as they’re leaving the stage, Kiedis says, “Flea?” Flea responds, “Yes?” “I love you!” “I love you too!” The Chili Peppers were back and the fans were there for it.
So, we knew that fans still loved watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers, with John Frusciante back in the fold, playing their classics. Maybe that wasn’t a big surprise. But the bigger challenge was: fifteen years into their career, would anyone care about their new music? Their prior album, 1995’s One Hot Minute, was a disappointment. Eight years had passed since Blood Sugar Sex Magik. Would they still matter?
“Scar Tissue” — a Hendrixian ballad not unlike “Under The Bridge” — showed that they did still matter, a lot. A number one hit on both the alternative rock and mainstream rock charts, it also reached number nine on the pop charts. In the video, a beaten up Flea, Antony Kiedis, John Frusciante and [drummer] Chad Smith drive through the desert in a busted up car. They look a bit worse for wear, but the camaraderie is still there, and clearly, they were still able to create beautiful music together.
They followed that up with “Around The World,” the album’s opening track. This was a classic upbeat funk jam, but there was something different: Kiedis’s vocals seemed stronger than ever, and a newly-clean Frusciante was contributing gorgeous backing harmonies. It wasn’t a huge hit, but it showed fans that Chili Peppers’ ballads weren’t taking away from their funk. The following single, “Otherside,” split the difference – it was a moody, mid-tempo rocker. Again, Kiedis’ vocals were surprisingly strong, and Frusciante’s backing singing added a new element to the band’s sound. The song topped the alt-rock charts and made it to number two on the mainstream rock charts while reaching pop’s top 20.
The title track — another ballad — was another smash, topping both of the rock charts. It’s become one of their most popular songs, and they’ve performed it at nearly every show since 1999.
The album went deeper than the singles: they returned to their earlier funk jams on “Purple Stain,” “Get On Top” and “I Like Dirt.” The band’s Stooges influence came out in “Emit Remmus” and “Easily.” Buried in the middle of the album were two of the highlights: “This Velvet Glove” and “Savior.” Some of their loveliest and most delicate playings were on “Porcelain” and “Road Trippin’,” the latter of which was an acoustic song that didn’t even feature drums.
Sadly, the reunion wasn’t permanent; after two more albums — 2002’s By The Way and 2006’s Stadium Arcadium — Frusciante left again, this time replaced by his friend, Josh Klinghoffer, who remains in the band to this day.
But Californication gave the Red Hot Chili Peppers a rare gift: a new start, 15 years into their career. For a lot of fans, that was their jumping on point. They were too young to listen to Blood Sugar Sex Magik in 1991 and way too young to appreciate the band’s amazing ’80s material featuring the late guitarist Hillel Slovak.
I saw the evidence of this younger fanbase myself, at many Red Hot Chili Peppers shows over the past two decades. The one that sticks out was the band’s headlining set at New York’s Meadows Music Festival in 2017. Earlier that year, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails jokingly coined a phrase about legendary bands headlining festivals: “the Chili Peppers slot.” He explained it as an act “in the dying genre and the oldest people on the bill” headlining the last night of a multi-day festival. “[If I’m a fan,] I know what I’m doing at that point in a festival. I’m thinking [miming looking at his watch], ‘If I leave now, I can miss traffic.’ Nobody wants that. I mean, it’s an honor to be asked to do it, but it’s a pretty immediate mirror to find out where you’re at.”
I was curious to see if he was right, and where the Red Hot Chili Peppers were “at” at that point in their career, so I hung out at the front of the stage at the Meadows Music Fest, leaning on the barricades for an hour before the Chili Peppers played. What I saw was the youngest and most racially diverse group of fans that I’d ever seen for an older rock band. And the fans weren’t causal. Many of the fans in the front staked out their spot hours earlier, and all of them seemed to know the words to the songs, particularly the ones from that era, up to their then-current (and vastly underrated) The Getaway. The field was notably more crowded than it had been for the headliners on the two prior days – Jay Z and Gorillaz – and (sorry, Trent!) the parking lot was still packed when the show ended (and Queens traffic is no joke). Despite the fact that the ageist media tends to go with the narrative that any rocker past thirty has reached their expiration point and that kids don’t care about rock anyway, it was interesting to note that on that night it seemed like you can never be too old to rock and roll … or too young. And, for the Chili Peppers, Californication is a big reason for their young audience.