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18 Years Ago: Red Hot Chili Peppers Release ‘Californication’

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The mid-’90s were some difficult times for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but bookending the decade were two of the band’s biggest albums. In 1991, they released their monster Blood Sugar Sex Magik album and in 1999, they offered Californication, their biggest-selling album worldwide. And those discs also provide an interesting arc for guitarist John Frusciante.

It was during support of Blood Sugar Sex Magik that Frusciante exited the band, unable to cope with the band’s growing popularity, and not long after his departure his growing drug habit began to spiral out of control. In the time after his exit, the band cycled through guitarist Arik Marshall, who helped them complete the Blood Sugar Sex Magik touring, then let him go in favor of Jesse Tobias and eventually replacing Tobias with the well-known Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame before recording their next disc. But what seemed like a good fit did not pan out as their 1995 disc, One Hot Minute, was deemed a major critical and commercial disappointment and the change in sound was not widely accepted by Chili Peppers fans, so Navarro exited in 1998.

Fast forward to 1999 and re-enter Frusciante. The guitarist addressed his heroin and cocaine addiction by entering and completing rehab. One of his visitors during that period was Chili Peppers bassist Flea and their renewed friendship led to an invite to rejoin the group.

Frusciante told Guitar Player, “We started in June 1998, but we took some time off for one reason or another. We probably spent a total of four months rehearsing and writing, and then we went into the studio and recorded everything in three weeks.”

Singer Anthony Kiedis recalled the first rehearsal to Rolling Stone, stating, “When John gets excited, he’s like eight billion volts of electricity. He was knocking things over — it was absolutely chaotic, like a little kid trying to set up a Christmas tree. And when he hit that first chord, it was so perfect — this blend of sounds from these people who I hadn’t heard play together in so long.”

Indeed the band was on to something. By early 1999, they played the songs “Scar Tissue,” “Otherside” and the title cut “Californication” to their managers, who decided the band was on the right track. It was also decided that “Scar Tissue” would be the lead single for the album. By May of 1999, the song arrived at radio and it soon became evident that they had another hit on their hands.

Frusciante got the unique guitar sound on the album by running his ’55 Strat through the Showman amp. He then took two notes far apart and turned it into a cool rhythm that vocalist Anthony Kiedis could write to. And Kiedis looked internally for inspiration, penning the track about his own battles with drugs and the arguments he had with friends and band members as a result. The song would spend 16 straight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart, 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart and it earned the band a Grammy Award for Best Rock Song in 2000.

With a hit song on the radio, it came time to finally release the Californication album, and on June 8, 1999, fans got their hands on the highly anticipated disc. After a summer dominating radio with “Scar Tissue,” the band moved on to “Around the World” as the next single from the Rick Rubin-produced disc.

Issued in September of 1999, the song did not live up to the success of “Scar Tissue,” which would be a tough feat for any track, but it did enjoy a solid run and remains one of the more popular Chili Peppers songs. “Around the World” peaked at No. 7 on the Modern Rock Tracks chart and No. 16 on the Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. Frusciante recalls of the song, “I thought of that guitar part at my house, and I said to everyone, ‘You gotta hear this, but I can’t play it by myself, or you’ll hear one in the wrong place because it has a really deceptive downbeat.’ I had Chad [Smith] keep time on the hi-hat while I played the lick. Everybody dug it, so I just kept playing it over and over until Flea came up with his bass part.

Kiedis pulled from a few different places for inspiration, stating that the verses come from his personal journeys and the extreme life he lives as part of the band. He also cited the Roberto Benigni film Life Is Beautiful as an inspiration. Meanwhile, Flea’s daughter is partly responsible for the end of the song. According to the By the Way book on the band, during writing for “Around the World,” Kiedis was having trouble coming up with lyrics and just scatted some words at the end to fill the gap. Eventually the band replaced the scatting, but Flea’s daughter expressed her disappointment that Kiedis’ scatting had been removed, so the original demo was used in the last chorus.

As the calendar hit 2000, the group chose “Otherside” as their third single. Once again, Kiedis used drug addiction as a point of reference, but this time chose to write from the point of view of the band’s late guitarist Hillel Slovak, sharing what he felt that struggle must have been like as he attempted to end his addiction. The fans once again gravitated toward the song and it spent 13 weeks at No. 1 on the Modern Rock Chart.

The fourth major single from Californication was the album’s title track, which dropped just shy of a year after the disc’s release. The group had their issues completing the track, but Kiedis’ insistence that there was something there led to them sticking with the song until it finally found its groove. Frusciante completed the final riff for the song two days before recording. Kiedis then laid down what he felt were some of his best lyrics. He stated in his Scar Tissue autobiography that the idea came about after hearing a woman in New Zealand ranting about the “psychic spies of China.” That lyric then led him down a path of singing about the dark side of Hollywood, hitting on subjects like pornography and plastic surgery along the way. “Californication” topped both the Mainstream Rock Tracks and Modern Rock Tracks charts.

Two others songs also received attention off the album by the time all was said and done. “Road Trippin’,” a song birthed out of a surfing trip by three of the band’s members, was released as a single in Europe in late 2000, and “Parallel Universe,” one of the more distorted-fueled songs on Californication, was issued as a promotional single in 2001 but did not really make much of a dent.

By the time all was said and done, Californication helped revive the band’s career, gave John Frusciante a more positive second act and helped solidify their status as future Rock and Roll Hall of Famers. The disc peaked at No. 3, but was certified five-times platinum in the U.S. and sold over 15 million albums worldwide. It was also chosen as one of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Top 200 Albums of All-Time.

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