A Deep Dive Into ‘Californication’, The Last Good Red Hot Chili Peppers Album
'Californication' was the last time a Chilis album felt important.
For their first Australian shows in over six years and their first headlining tour in almost 12, the Red Hot Chili Peppers took on arenas and open-air venues across the country in February last year.
No doubt each gig’s crowd was a cross-generational affair, ranging from fans who’ve been hooked since the late ’80s or early ’90s all the way down to the kids who were too young – or perhaps not even born – when the band were touring in 2007. After over 35 years in the game, it’s a testament to the band itself that people are still coming out to see them in droves.
One thing is for absolute certain, however: Not a single one of those thousands of people getting their tickets scanned at the gate thought to themselves, “Gee, I hope they play ‘The Adventures of Rain Dance Maggie’.”
Creatively, the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been spinning their wheels for quite some time now. It’s been 10 years since John Frusciante left the fold for a second time, and the current iteration of the band has next to nothing to show for it. If you could hum a single song from either of the last two RHCP albums, then you either have the asterisk tattooed on you somewhere or you have some elephant level of memory.
In fact, if you want to go back to a record where the band last truly held the cultural zeitgeist in a stranglehold, you have to go back quite a while. Californication turns 20 this coming June, and ahead of its anniversary, we’re going to look at why this make-or-break album ended up doing both, in that exact order.
A Second Chance
Prior to Californication, the Chili Peppers were on the verge of going extinct.
Their last LP, One Hot Minute, was a critical and commercial failure. The guitarist that played on it, Dave Navarro, had left the band in drug-fuelled acrimony. There were bouts of exhaustion, addictions to painkillers and enough in-fighting to break a smaller band into pieces. In the eyes of bassist and founding member Flea, there was only one way to save the band: Get it back together.
John Frusciante, while not an original member of the band, is considered part of the band’s classic line-up alongside Flea, vocalist Anthony Kiedis and drummer Chad Smith. It was this line-up that created the band’s breakthrough albums, Mother’s Milk and Blood Sugar Sex Magik, in 1989 and 1991 respectively.
In the eyes of bassist and founding member Flea, there was only one way to save the band: Get it back together.
This came undone only a year after Blood Sugar, however, as Frusciante’s heroin addiction and hostility towards his bandmates began to majorly interfere with the band’s trajectory. After six years apart, it was clearer now more than ever that the four of them needed one another. Flea visited Frusciante after he had completed a three-month stint in rehab, and offered him his old job back.
Within months, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were reborn, and would spend the next 11 years in the same formation. Through this lens, one can view Californication as the album that — for better and for worse — saved the band. It was a shot at both redemption and reinvention that the band took, and promptly ran with.
The Sound of The Summer
From the opening rumble of ‘Around the World’ right to the closing serenade of ‘Road Trippin,’ Californication easily trumps its predecessor in terms of energy, vitality, creativity and conviction.
It also makes a very strong case for being the band’s finest moment — a development from their bratty funk-driven roots, but never entirely losing sight of them. It’s a great party album, a (fittingly) great road-trip album and it’s a solid start-to-finish listen, even without the pangs of nostalgia that come with revisiting it after all this time.
Of course, there’s a lot of Californication that barely needs revisiting — over a third of the songs on this album were released as singles, and have gone on to serve as some of the band’s most instantly recognisable and beloved songs. Five songs from the album are on their 2003 Greatest Hits. Of the ten most-played songs in the history of the band’s live shows, four are from Californication — meaning they’ve been played over 400 times.
Given, these songs were so ferociously overplayed at the turn of the century that you probably could have gone without hearing them again for the rest of your days. There’s a certain spot that these songs hit, however, that welcomes their return upon listening once more.
One starts to pick up on certain aspects outside of a casual background listen via the radio or a Spotify mix. The interplay between Flea’s bass and Frusciante’s guitar on songs like ‘Otherside’ and the title track, for instance, are hitherto unrivalled within the band’s discography. There are the little things, like the ghost notes on Smith’s snare when he’s laying down the grooves, that felt like a human touch in an era of drum machines and click tracks.
Away from his usual fare of horny jibber-jabber, Kiedis also uses key moments within Californication to process his grief and farewell friends like Kurt Cobain and former Chilis guitarist Hillel Slovak.
There’s one point in the opening verse of ‘Around the World’ where Kiedis boasts: “I’m in my prime.” It would be incredibly easy to just dismiss this as another throwaway line — particularly given it’s paired with the phrase “rompin’-and-a-stompin’” — but as one takes in Californication with everything we know now, you honestly believe him.
Around The World
So, how did Californication fare? Let’s just take a look at some of the numbers: It’s their highest-selling album ever, out-selling Blood Sugar by nearly two million copies. It’s gone 46 times platinum worldwide since its release in June of 1999.
It’s charted in 24 countries, topped the charts in eight of them and hit the top ten in a further ten. This is a classic example of the JB Hi-Fi $9.95 album — an album so inescapable, it’s basically assumed knowledge that you own a copy of it.
It’s a legacy album for a band that were able to rewrite and redefine their legacy a few times over.
So, why did this album stick? Of everything the band has ever made, why has Californication survived? It would be easy to put this down to the strength of the singles, but there’s a lot to be said for the way Californication rolls out from start to finish. It times its mid-tempo detours well, contrasting them with more upbeat and bouncy songs so that the 56-minute runtime never feels like it’s dragging.
It’s a feelgood comeback story that more or less erases the band’s mid-90s failures — and smoothing over a dud album is one of the hardest things a major band has to do. It’s also a major entry point in the discography that brought in a whole generation of newer fans — many of whom have stuck with the band for the 20 years that followed.
It’s a legacy album for a band that was able to rewrite and redefine their legacy a few times over.
On The Otherside
While it’s easy to make the argument that Californication is the last truly great Red Hot Chili Peppers album, it’s not exactly a Steven Bradbury finish. The album that followed it, 2002’s By the Way, is a fan favourite that is also home to some of the band’s most popular and highest-charting songs.
There’s some truth, however, to the fact those singles — ‘Universally Speaking’, ‘The Zephyr Song’ — feel like Californication runner-ups. They’re perfectly fine, but aside from the album’s title track, they don’t particularly spark joy. Its overall stylistic inconsistency, too, means it falls just short of the mark.
Californication was their last main event — and, 20 years on, it’s still a hell of a spectacle.
Besides, if you thought its hour-plus runtime was bloated, 2006’s Stadium Arcadium leaves it in the dust. The band’s first double album is exactly like pretty much every double album ever made: It would have been ten times better as a single album. Much like By the Way, it too features some real diamonds in the rough, not to mention a couple of set staples that have been played hundreds of times in the decade and change since their release. Much like By the Way, however, it’s far best digested in bite-sized pieces rather than an entire course.
That’s more than can be said for 2011’s I’m with You and 2016’s The Getaway, that are so muddled and faceless they passed by without any real consequence or reception. Hell, the band played a song from their most recent album at this year’s Grammys, and the single most interesting thing about it was the fact that Post Malone just happened to be on stage.
A Red Hot Chili Peppers album used to be an event. Now, it’s an afterthought. Californication was their last main event — and, 20 years on, it’s still a hell of a spectacle. Dream of Californication.
David James Young is a writer and a podcaster. To get in before the comments section: Yes, he knows absolutely nothing about real music. Yes, he does listen to “pop shit.” Yes, he is a poser. You nailed that character assassination, Gary. You’ve earned that choccy milk and beef pie on smoko. Don’t forget to show Baz and Jono your handywork. By the way, that fish you’re holding up in your profile picture looks delicious — hope you had a great meal out of it. Oh, you can tweet him too: @DJYwrites.