A persistent pop psychology theory suggests that the guitar is a phallic symbol, a sort of surrogate cock extension for young men to wave about in a celebration of their own masculinity. Mostly, it’s tossed at gurning axe-teasers like John Squire or [a]The Darkness[/a], men engaged in a seduction with their instrument so unabashedly carnal you feel a little filthy just watching them. But the fact remains, if there was any musician on earth that more personified the instrument-as-masturbation metaphor, it’s surely [a]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/a]’ bassist Flea. When Flea plays slap-bass, it’s the full Onan The Barbarian: a manhandling, a totally shameless musical celebration of the cock.
Early last decade, that was all you really needed to know about the [a]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/a]. Ever since their inception in South California back in the early ’80s, this band of funk-obsessed, smack-shooting punk rockers were all about socks on cocks, frathouse machismo, and the hunt for blowjobs. Listen now to Anthony Kiedis stattaco-bark “Your mouth was made to suck my kiss!” It doesn’t take an expert in semantics to read between the lines: the Chilis weren’t just led by their dicks – they were absolutely ruled by them.
But that’s not the whole story, as ‘Greatest Hits’ attests. In an age where the career-spanning compilation is often the last-ditch defibrillator shock to kick-start an ailing career – hello, and indeed possibly goodbye, [a]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/a] – this retrospective is the monument at the [a]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/a]’ commercial peak. The Chilis finally hit real paydirt with 1999’s multi-platinum selling ‘Californication’. With guitarist John Frusciante back and cleaned up from a six-year holiday in heroin hell (his angelic looks crumple irrevocably), it was an album that turned its back on the post-grunge gloom of the American alternative scene and raised its face to a future of redemptive balladry that looked far beyond its own churning libido. It’s all there on the bittersweet ‘Scar Tissue’, where Frusciante’s grand desert-scape guitar lines play off Flea’s thrumming bass line with an almost telepathic clarity of intention, and a sunburnt Kiedis sings somewhere from the heart of it all – battered, but not yet broken.
It’s this image that this chronological compilation is cast in. Ignoring the first three albums, it’s comprised of cuts from 1989’s ‘Mother’s Milk’ to last year’s ‘By The Way’ plus the obligatory two new tracks. So ‘Greatest Hits’ imagines the Chilis as a toned, fat-free commercial machine. And it rather suits them. The earliest cuts are slightly primitive, but save the pretty average [a]Stevie Wonder[/a] cover ‘Higher Ground’ – a galloping slice of stadium post-punk augmented by squelching keyboards – it’s happily familiar stuff. Born from the legacy of the rock-hop mongrel-breeding of [a]Run DMC[/a], ‘Give It Away’ predates nu-metal’s flirtation with hip-hop, and more importantly, does it without tripping over a pair of box-fresh Adidas. And, of course, there’s ‘Under The Bridge’. In retrospect, it’s not all that odd that couples embraced it as a dewy-eyed love song. After all, that’s exactly what it resembles: an eerily beautiful heroin love song, where the rush of blood to the head has been replaced by a rush of blood to the syringe. Still, it beggars belief that Kiedis planned this song as a cautionary tale, dedicating it to one-time Chilis guitarist Hillel Slovak, who died of an overdose back in 1988.
Still, it’s pretty amazing to hear this band have grown. The thought that a band might only hit their stride two decades into their career is a frightening one, but the likes of ‘Otherside’ and ‘Road Trippin’ do that rock sensitivity thing – sweeping cellos, finger-picked guitar, general emotional wreckage – without ever sounding contrived. And newie ‘Fortune Faded’ proves they’ve still got a way with a thunderstorm chorus. Yes, the [a]Red Hot Chili Peppers[/a] used to rush at life with their trousers down. Now, they’ve found a little empathy, a
little humility. The road of excess might lead to the palace of wisdom – but thankfully, you get the feeling that for this band of survivors, there’s a few miles left untrod.