The Classics 008

Thursday, 01 March 2012

As unjustly maligned as some bands have been by the press before “the world smartened up and caught on” (Rolling Stone famously eviscerated every album Led Zeppelin released before 1973 – for example), no band was as consistently attacked by critics for everything they did as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were for the first eight years of their career. Seemingly from the moment the band formed in 1983, the Chili Peppers drew criticism of a tenor so harsh for every appearance they made, every tour they embarked on and every album they released that it bordered on personal assault; phrases like “overrated underachievers” circulated regularly in record reviews and a generally condescending editorial tone and attitude (check out dialogue like, “Flea's squirrelly bass aside, the silly shouted vocals, reckless genre-mixing busy arrangements and cheesy horns” from Grand Royal editor Bob Mack's summation of the Chili Peppers' work in the Spin Alternative Record Guide) were applied to renounce the band at every available opportunity. Sometimes it was difficult to be a fan of the band and read the press' remarks in the Chili Peppers' early career, but it was gratifying when Blood Sugar Sex Magik was released and the public sang its praises without press assistance or promotion which, in turn, forced the “professional appreciators” to stop dismissing and/or rejecting everything the band did out of hand.

From the first startlingly vibrant tones which come blasting out of “Power Of Equality” to open Blood Sugar Sex Magik, listeners will get the sense that while they might not know exactly what they're in for with this album, it's going to be the best, biggest and most bombastic thing the Chili Peppers have ever done. John Frusciante's guitar and Chad Smith's drums immediately generate a slippery stomp which is the perfect compliment to Flea's sweet, lowdown and libidinous bass, and that combination presents itself as a defining moment for sex and swagger in rock n' roll. “Power Of Equality” isn't just headbanging, it's not just moshing and it's not as willfully dumb and ironic as Soundgarden's “Big Dumb Sex” was just two years prior to this release, it's better than all that – here, listeners get a little bump and grind which is more rhythmically centered than the grand-standing cock rock which was dominating the charts at the time (but was already getting soft and would soon be totally limp as alt-rock got a better foothold), and the change is a welcome one. That instrumental backing connects a lot of dots through the rock which had come around through the two decades before it, and the result is a revelation; some sex and sweet low end similar to Parliament/Funkadelic mixes perfectly with the sex and classic rock grandeur of Led Zeppelin, and the connection seems so obvious that it's unbelievable no one came close before – but that it all comes together here feels incredibly liberating. As exciting as that is though, the secret ingredient to this mix which makes Blood Sugar Sex Magik play to every possible listener – the snotty punk, the Chocolate City playa just itchin' to get down, the hip hop thug ready to pull a piece and prove he's the meanest motherfucker on the block and every lost soul in between – is Anthony Kiedis' vocal performance. In “Power Of Equality” alone, Kiedis spits bullets at all would-be contenders who would try to push him down and croons mock-soulfully through lines which owe equally to pop, funk and hip hop in style, but it's punk in its “question-every-establishment” delivery too. That assemblage simply reeks of an ambition not at all characteristic of anything the Chili Peppers had done before, but the band commands it incredibly well and already has listeners feeling the vibe as the song begins to fade out – but that's when the plot gets thicker.

As “Power Of Equality” begins to fade out, a staccato guitar line begins to pick up. There is no hard break at the end of the song –  that guitar part reoccurs and ends up being the founding lick around which the second song on the album, “If You Have To Ask” is built. The transition between those two songs is seamless and perfect and really is innovative for rock; the “stream of sound” styling of it wasn't at all uncommon for funk and soul but, in rock and pop, such movements were virtually unheard of. The fluidity of the shift between songs turns out to be a winning X factor for BSSM though, as that staccato lick develops and ends up driving “If You Have To Ask” and helps fuel Kiedis' vocal flow (the freestyle he unloads before the solo break is stellar) and really helps to set a few of the precedents for the record. For example, the “Power Of Equality” / “If You Have To Ask” fusion is only the first instance of the running theme which sees songs feeding off of and informing one another as the record moves along, and that makes for an interesting dynamic in the run-time; the close-to-constant play of many of the album tracks gets hypnotic (especially on the CD version of the album), but also helps to present singles like “Suck My Kiss,” “Under The Bridge” and “Give It Away” as majestic anthems which stand out distinctly as the best songs the Chili Peppers had written to this point.

For all of those reasons, Blood Sugar Sex Magik occupies a particularly celebrated place in the Chili Peppers' catalogue, but a charmed sense of timing guaranteed that the album didn't go unnoticed in its time as well. That it was famously released on the same day as Nirvana's Nevermind could have proven to be catastrophic for BSSM, but that there was less metal in it than any of the Chili Peppers' previous releases worked to the band's advantage; first, it got them in with the “big” wave of alt-rock bands which included Nirvana, Pearl Jam, R.E.M., Soundgarden and Jane's Addiction but, second (and maybe even more importantly), producer Rick Rubin really helped the band stand out from the pack with the album's production and presentation.

To this day, decades after its original release, Blood Sugar Sex Magik stands out as a marvel of innovative production. Beyond the aforementioned “stream of sound,” Rubin installed a massive production palette in the album which alternated on a song-by-song basis between presenting larger than life sounds, perfectly intimate snapshot moments and, most often, a presentation which implied that them album was recorded live off the floor in a very, very large room. The results make for a very expansive experience, but the only way to really get the full effect of it is to hear the twentieth anniversary remastered vinyl reissue (released a hair late on January 10, 2012) through a good set of speakers.

Skeptics who question “how good vinyl really is” are advised to treat themselves and pick up a copy of the Blood Sugar Sex Magik reissue because, from the moment “Power Of Equality” starts, listeners will know the difference between it and any other reproduction they've ever heard before. There – as well as on some of the other bigger, rockier songs like “Naked In The Rain,” “Righteous and The Wicked” and the title track – it's possible to hear some of the ambient noise which was going on in the space around the band as the tape rolled to capture the album, including the natural reverberation which bounced off the walls from the drum sounds and Frusciante's guitar amplifier. Under some circumstances, such ambient texture would be viewed as the sure mark of a poor, sloppy production but, here, that noise makes the record feel a little warmer and lived-in, and makes it more accessible for listeners. Conversely, when the production style contracts (which is to say that the natural reverb evaporates and the songs play out with tighter and more condensed mixes) and the producer strips all the extra sounds and gimmicks away, the band shows a captivating and intimate side through songs like “Under The Bridge,” “I Could Have Lied” and (to an only slightly lesser degree because the rhythm is quicker and the arrangement fuller) “Breaking The Girl.” In each of those songs, it seems as though the band has gotten physically closer to listeners so Kiedis can confess some secrets about himself; an idea further driven by the fact that his vocal tone on all three is limited to sweet melodic whispers. The contrast that these acoustic numbers represent against the more bombastic rockers and funky rave-ups proves to be an excellent foil; before Blood Sugar Sex Magik, the Chili Peppers had already proven that they were a great party band, but those three softer (but not lighter) numbers really carry some weight here because they hold their own with some of the best and biggest rock and funk numbers the band has ever recorded. On Blood Sugar Sex Magik, it feels like the band is ready – they paid their dues, grew up and are ready to stake their place among rock royalty.

All of those aforementioned reasons make Blood Sugar Sex Magik a classic record but, as time has come to prove, the record is all the more of value because the Red Hot Chili Peppers would never again exactly strike the chord which resonates so beautifully here. Some have guessed that the reason the band would never sound like this again is because the band's line-up changed – but that can't be he case because, while John Frusciante did leave the Chili Peppers in 1993 (which did indeed change their approach when they made One Hot Minute in 1995), he returned in 1999 and the band didn't simply revert to the sound of Blood Sugar Sex Magik as a default. Others might wonder if it was the input of Rick Rubin which was so instrumental in the sound of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, but Rubin would go on to produce every Chili Peppers album recorded after 1991 – leaving that explanation to twist in the wind too.

So what other possible reasons for the sound and style presented on Blood Sugar Sex Magik could there be?

The truth about the Red Hot Chili Peppers' fifth LP is as frustrating to think about as the music is timeless: the album was made in a perfect moment under perfect circumstances for that recording and, because those elements have never lined up just right again, the band has never sounded the same way since. It sounds like a soft option to contend, but that's how it is; BSSM served its purpose and allowed the Red Hot Chili Peppers to move forward confidently, and it got the whole world to come along for the ride so there has never been any reason to repeat it. It is a classic album because it set an enduring standard that even uninitiated listeners can appreciate.



The 20th Anniversary reissue of Blood Sugar Sex Magik is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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