Red Hot Chili Peppers dropped album number 13, Return of the Dream Canteen, in October 2022. As with much of their output, the meaning of the title isn’t so clear. The return of what, exactly? The album couldn’t be some sudden change in direction, having been recorded during the same sessions as the band’s previous LP, Unlimited Love.
To be fair though, sheer energy over clarity has been a constant throughout the band’s career. The playbook has always been part funk, part pop, part metal, part rap. Occasional punk fervour and the odd lullaby. We’d defy anyone to make complete sense of any lyric ever written by singer Anthony Kiedis.
The band directly referenced this fun-first, explanation-later approach on the single ‘If You Have to Ask’ from their 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik. As goes the callback to trumpet legend Louis Armstrong being asked to describe “this jazz thing”: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
Here are ten of the best from RHCP, with bonus live content for those keen to get in the mood ahead of the band’s upcoming Australian tour.
Red Hot Chili Peppers: 10 Essential Tracks
10. Higher Ground, Mother’s Milk (1989)
One of two covers on Mother’s Milk (the other a pell-mell take on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Fire’), ‘Higher Ground’ is a raucous version of the 1973 Stevie Wonder release. There might be no improving on a Stevie track as a general rule, but beginning with one of the bouncier bass intros Flea has laid down, it’s party time from there on in.
Throw in massed vocals on the chorus, wah-wah filters amping up that bass, and you’re transported back to a turn of the 90s house party. Pre-grunge and post-hair metal, the Chili Peppers filled some gaps with what would become their signature brand of energetic, funky fun.
9. Black Summer, Unlimited Love (2022)
Plenty of fans and critics were ready to write the band off after a patchy 2010s, during which Josh Klinghoffer took the place of guitarist John Frusciante. But 2022’s ‘Black Summer’ was an almost shocking return to form after those years in the musical wilderness. Flea’s fingers are pumping, the extended guitar solo from the returning Frusciante kicks arse, and the band was suddenly relatable again after a few iffy albums.
Lyrically, ‘Black Summer’ will chime with anyone coming back to life after however many lockdowns. “It’s been a long time since I made a new friend / Waiting on another black summer to end,” sings Kiedis. Unlimited Love might not boast a huge roster of fan favourites, but ‘Black Summer’ more than makes the grade.
8. Throw Away Your Television, By the Way (2002)
This deep cut off By the Way shows just how weird the Chilis can get, especially for a band that was, in the early 2000s, very much at the table for Biggest Rock Band in the World. ‘Throw Away Your Television’ proved that there was sonically nothing off limits for the quartet, with this head-bopper featuring jungle drums and a psychedelic twist that only gets better live.
For example, can anyone with some guitar knowledge explain to me what’s going on in this clip at around 2:28? Or for a body movement expert, what’s happening with Flea at 3:02? Things can get trippy in Peppers-land in truly unexpected ways.
7. I Could Have Lied, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
Allegedly a recount of a Kiedis romance suddenly broken off by Irish star Sinéad O’Connor, ‘I Could Have Lied’ is about as ballad-y as RHCP get. There are conflicting stories about the facts of the matter: whether there was much of a relationship there at all, whether the song was written and recorded in a night, and whether a tape of the song was dropped off in O’Connor’s letterbox the next morning. A very high school move, if so.
Regardless, the draw on this track is genuine sorrow. A rarity for the band; it’s partly the product of a vulnerable vocal, part muted bass and drums, and part wailing guitar.
For some outside reading, check out ‘Maggot Brain’ by Funkadelic. The possibly apocryphal origin of that song is that George Clinton told guitarist Eddie Hazel (with some illicit substances involved) to improvise as though he’d just found out his mother had died.
Similarly, the guitar solo on ‘I Could Have Lied’ isn’t funky, joyful, or a shredder special. Spin the track and think back to the day of your worst breakup. That was the instruction, and hoo-wee does it work.
6. Easily, Californication (1999)
A Frusciante special, ‘Easily’ really comes together at the end. It’s one of the songs from Californication where Rick Rubin’s famously squashed production can grate early on (read: every instrument is way too loud all at once). Things loosen up as the song progresses though, and the end is bliss from every angle.
Starting with one repeated phrase after the last chorus, each go-round adds one more guitar track in either your left or right speaker, or down the middle. By the climax it’s a Stratocaster choir, and a high point for Frusciante as a savant who can perfect melodic interplay as well as he can set a fretboard on fire.
5. Dani California, Stadium Arcadium (2006)
Speaking of fretboard gymnastics: ‘Dani California’. The track was conceived both musically and lyrically as a composite of influences from rock history. The less interesting half of that might be the women Anthony Kiedis wants to sing about, and more worth digging into are the aural shifts from well-worn classic chord progressions to Mellotron keyboards and guitar effects from different eras of rock music.
The tribute-flavoured nature of the song is cemented in the instrumental outro, openly based on Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’. According to the band, the solo was recorded only once by Frusciante with no double tracking, as it was too fast and wild to accurately get on tape twice.
4. Californication, Californication (1999)
In the 226th episode of NBC’s medical drama ER, to assess the mental state of a guitarist with a head injury, Dr. Ray Barnett asks them, “What are the first three chords to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Californication’?”. After answering correctly, the patient is cleared.
That’s just how pervasive this track was on release. The video was absolutely everywhere, janky 1990s computer effects and all, and to this day there’s no RHCP set list that doesn’t include the song.
There’s been some evolution to the track too, even after the initial mega-hit that it was. Flea and Frusciante often improvise a dual bass and guitar intro to the song live, a showcase of their ability to musically mind-meld. If you ask 100 people which song is the Chili Peppers song, you’re going to hear a lot of ‘Californication’.
3. Can’t Stop, By the Way (2002)
Another whopping hit on release, charting in 13 countries, the riff to ‘Can’t Stop’ is one of the band’s most memorable. The video is bonkers, improvised physical nonsense that proves that for some acts, there’s no growing up.
Similarly wacky are the lyrics, even on the long list of Kiedis-penned songs that could mean almost anything:
- White heat is screamin’ in the jungle
- Complete the motion if you stumble
- Go ask the dust for any answers
- Come back strong with 50 belly-dancers
‘Can’t Stop’ is one of the band’s dependable live killers too, and might be their funkiest song released since the mid-90s.
2. Under the Bridge, Blood Sugar Sex Magik (1991)
How many songs have lifted more lighters in stadiums and concert halls over the years than ‘Under the Bridge’? The mellow guitar intro gets a cheer and the verses are an all-in sing-along every time.
A rare moment of lyrical cohesion from Kiedis could be part of the song’s appeal, and a contributing factor to it kicking the Chilis into the mainstream. It was far from their first hit, but ‘Under the Bridge’ was the crossover that first got them to the top of the mountain.
Finally some trivia, in case it ever comes up at a pub quiz:
- Choir vocals for the track were provided by John Frusciante’s mum and her mates
- The music video was directed by Gus Van Sant of Good Will Hunting fame
- The location of the bridge itself has never been revealed, despite the lyric referring to a real Los Angeles drug hotspot
- You can probably ignore the 1997 All Saints cover altogether. Like, really. Don’t click on that link.
1. Scar Tissue, Californication (1999)
After the middling success of the One Hot Minute era with Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro on guitar, Flea and Kiedis asked a rehabilitating John Frusciante to re-join the band. His only objection was that every guitar he owned had been sold, lost, or stolen. Kiedis produced a 1962 Fender Stratocaster as an omen for the group getting back together, and the classic Chilis line-up got to it.
As the band jammed out early ideas in Flea’s garage, Frusciante’s hands weren’t yet strong enough to rip off the high-speed funk that the band was known for when he’d left. The result was a gentler approach, giving rise to some of the band’s simplest and most iconic riffs.
From those sessions came ‘Otherside’, ‘Californication’ and inspiration for later crowd-stoppers like ‘By the Way’. It was also the birthplace of ‘Scar Tissue’. By turns nostalgic and affirming, the song pinpoints RHCP exactly where past success and excess was behind them, with buckets of achievement still to come.
Anyone tuned into the charts around the turn of the millennium can likely sing along, but for a fully realised version of the song from when Frusciante’s body was back up to the task, here’s what the song sounds like in full flight. An all-time classic from a band at an all-time high.