When Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose
in 1988 the band were thrown into grief and confusion, but soon 18 year-old
superfan John Frusciante (born 5
March 1970) stepped up to be what seems now like an obvious new member of the
Despite his clear talent and enthusiasm, however, no-one knew exactly what a creative force he could be. Mother’s milk (1989) catapulted the band to number 53 in the Billboard charts, but once Frusciante felt confident and began to express himself the band went to a whole other level. As he said later: “I was trying too hard to be like what I thought a Chili Pepper should be [in the first year] rather than just being myself… musically on guitar and in my personal life”.
Released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind – and around the time that Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Soundgarden were emerging - Blood Sugar Sex Magik (released 24 September, 1991) made number 1 in New Zealand, Canada and Australia, sold over 13 million albums, and produced five hit singles.
Another key element in the success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik was the decision to hook up with producer Rick Rubin, who suggested that the band record at the Mansion, in LA, which had briefly been home to both the The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix and that would later host Marilyn Manson, Linkin Park and Slipknot. While singer Kiedis, bassist Flea, and guitarist Frusciante found inspiration by staying in the Mansion during the whole recording however, drummer Chad Smith chose to reside some distance away from the place that the other members of the band said was haunted.
Blood Sugar Sex Magik was written more rapidly than Mother’s Milk but ironically, despite the funk and the rap, Frusciante was able to subtley change the style to a more laid-back, textured and melodic groove. However, once recording, he’d typically nail the songs in or two goes. “John's philosophy was that he would only play a solo twice,” Flea told Guitar World in 1991. “He'd play it once, and if he didn't like it or we didn't like it, he'd play it again – completely differently. And that was it."
‘Give it Away’ was the first hit single taken from the album, but ‘Under the Bridge’, released afterwards, soon surpassed it, peaking at number 2 in the Billboard 100. Few could forget the legendary fragility of the opening riff to RHCP’s breakthrough single, which details what Kiedis regards as his lowest point: telling lies to dealers in order to score some heroin underneath a bridge in downtown LA. Frusciante reportedly picked up on the sadness in the song and so chose some ‘happier chords’ to play on his Sherwood Green 1966 Fender Jaguar at the start to balance out the dark.
On the other hand, Frusciante chose acoustic guitar for two other favourites from the album: I Could Have Lied and Breaking The Girl; while Suck My Kiss and If you have to Ask were also big hits. Flea was perhaps influenced by Frusciante’s more melodic approach as he later said he decided “to chill out and play half as many notes. When you play less, it's more exciting—there's more room for everything”. Another influence on him may have been Kim Gordon, from Sonic Youth, who had said that she “loved funk bass but hated the way white guys play it, because they've turned it into this macho-jock thing.” Flea - who admired Gordon - had read that interview and felt a chill, as he thought she might have been talking about him. Whatever the reason for Flea’s change, his bass fills on tracks like I Could Have Lied are really outstanding.
“The album had no verbal or intellectual goals,” Frusciante said. “We just woke up each morning and played what we felt best to play… The rest of the world didn’t exist, and we were living in a world of unbridled imagination.”
This article closes with those words; Blood Sugar Sex Magik represented a golden moment in time for both Frusciante and the band.