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7. Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mother’s Milk

In case there is need for any additional evidence of my general inability to discern and predict which artists that ruled over college radio had the stuff to cross over to the mainstream, I’ll share my certainty that Red Hot Chili Peppers had no real chance away from the understanding embrace of fist-pumping, head-bobbing, twenty-ish broadcasters. The band’s first three albums of aggressive modern funk did little on the major charts, perhaps understandably, even as they helped build up a respectable enough cult following and undoubtedly placed several songs onto cooler-than-thou mix tapes prepared for parties by intense, youthful Music Directors. I can even imagine “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes” as the song that spurred less understanding party hosts to remove the the cassette the weird kid brought and put G N’ R back on.

When the band’s fourth album was released in the late summer of 1989–positioned to be a fresh, tantalizing record for all those kids coming back to their colleges after long summers of parents insisting that the music be turned down–the music announced a forced reinvention. Founding drummer Jack Irons had left the group, a seemingly significant blow for a band so firmly defined by their torpedoing rhythm parts, although far less so given that other obligations faced by Irons caused him to cede the kit to Cliff Martinez on the band’s first two releases. Besides, there was a more significant and troubling personnel change caused by the heroin overdose death of guitarist Hillel Slovak. Certainly, that sad turn of events left his cohorts rattled, especially lead singer Anthony Kiedis, who was immersed in exactly the same addictions to nearly the same degree.

After aborted attempts with other musicians, the band settled on drummer Chad Smith and guitarist John Frusciante to fill out the line-up, each of them bringing distinctly different brands of musicianship. As the band started working out songs together in the studio, it was quickly clear that the tectonic plates of their sound were going to go through some significant shits. The propulsive funk that machine-gunned out of Flea’s bass was cut in a different way by the Satriani-evoking metallic guitar lines that Frusciante laid down. As heard on a song like “Johnny, Kick a Hole in the Sky,” Red Hot Chili Peppers had a new, tougher edge (and they were never especially sedate before) that had the potential to bring a entirely different set of music fans into their sphere.

Mother’s Milk was the album that resulted from all this tumult. As surprising as it was at the time, it now sounds clearly like a band committing themselves to reexamination and reinvention. It’s ragged and fairly fearless. The label and producer Michael Beinhorn were reportedly pushing the band to record a hit, which the members didn’t especially appreciate. A lot of the record sounds like an effort to actively subvert that desire for success. The music isn’t abstract by any means, but it does often have the feel of a band that’s happily, ruthlessly experimenting, figuring out how far they can rush down an oddball byways before some authority figure comes along and ushers them back. “Now now, boys, you may have had fun recording ‘Magic Johnson,’ but let’s get back to the business of making music that might get played on the radio, shall we?”

Despite the willful weirdness, the album does have impressive examples of shrewd songcraft. The lead single, “Knock Me Down,” was arguably one of the sharpest, most focuses songs the Peppers had released by that point. It was also clearly personal and open in a way that was fairly new for the band, probably best known up to that point for playing live wearing nothing but tube socks placed on parts of the body for which they weren’t originally designed. The song addressed drug use in a fairly straightforward manner, alluding to Slovak’s death while also pleading for help in avoiding the same fate. Message aside, the song builds and churns in an enticing way, locking a couple different great hooks together. For the second single, the band was able to lean on the expertise of Stevie Wonder, covering his song “Higher Ground.” Still, the Peppers impressively made it their own. To a degree, simply proving that they could adeptly perform a complicated song by one of the acknowledged geniuses of pop music was a feat that established how far the band had come and how far they might be able to go if they added a little more discipline to their approach.

Of course, I was wrong about the level of mainstream adoration Red Hot Chili Peppers could inspire. Their very next album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, produced the sort of smash hit single that a band can live off of for the rest of their collective career. That hit may have a sort of moony earnestness that wasn’t easy to see coming from the band, but Mother’s Milk had already proved that they were creatively restless enough to continually shift the boundaries of their music. Had I thought about it that way, it would have made perfect sense.

Previously
Introduction
90-21
20. Bob Mould, Workbook
19. The Rainmakers, The Good News and the Bad News
18. The Mighty Lemon Drops, Laughter
17. Couch Flambeau, Ghostride
16. Robyn Hitchcock ‘n’ the Egyptians, Queen Elvis
15. The B-52’s, Cosmic Thing
14. Camper Van Beethoven, Key Lime Pie
13. The Sugarcubes, Here Today, Tomorrow Next Week!
12. The Godfathers, More Songs About Love & Hate
11. Guadalcanal Diary, Flip Flop
10. The Pogues, Peace and Love
9. The Weeds, Windchill
8. Hoodoo Gurus, Magnum Cum Louder

10 thoughts on “College Countdown: 90FM’s Top 90 of 1989, 7

  1. Its strange how it wasn’t until just now that I noticed how poorly photoshopped that album art is. We have come along way with rockstar walking on giant boobs technology.

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