A stunning number of landmark albums were released 25 years ago, in the late-summer and early fall of 1991. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to spend some time looking back at this all-star musical Class of ’91. We’ve already covered Pearl Jam’s Ten and Guns ‘n’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion I and II. Next up is Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, which turns 25 on September 24. Ryan Sheely and Jordan Stokes celebrate the anniversary by digging in to the two songs at the core of the album: “Give it Away” and “Under the Bridge”.
Ryan Sheely: I’ve been thinking a lot about the apparent split personality in the Red Hot Chili Peppers catalogue. On the one hand you have the punk funk music of the first four albums they released in the 80s, and on the other hand you have their more melodic and balladic turn later in the 90s and 00s… “Soul to Squeeze,” “Scar Tissue,” “Californication,” and “Dark Necessities” off of the new album.
I think these two seemingly disparate sides of their catalogue come together right in the middle of Blood Sugar Sex Magik, with “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge”. Although the album itself is quite a mess, it is striking to me that there is something very deliberate with the placement of these two songs dead in the middle of the album, on either side of the title track.
And I think there is something going on with these songs that is a little more complex than just the two songs typifying transition from the “Old Funky Chili Peppers” to the “New Sad Ballad Chili Peppers” . Even though these two songs do each seem representative of different faces of the band, they both seem equally representative of “‘90s Alternative Rock,” even though on the surface they differ really starkly in terms of how they sound.
So, this is what I’ve been puzzling over. One interpretation (that probably holds some water) is that “Alternative Rock” is kind of meaningless as genre label, in terms of providing any useful information about what the music sounds like. It is a big leaky tent, and that’s why both “Give it Away” and “Under the Bridge” can be exemplars of “Alternative” (and if anything, both of these songs being by the same band help to create the grab bag nature of “Alternative”).
But I’m also wondering if if there is more to it, and if there are some more musical elements that unify “Give It Away” and “Under the Bridge”. Even though the are big differences in terms of tempo and mood, have a hunch that there are some interesting commonalities in what is going on in the interplay between Flea’s bass, Kiedis’s voice, and Frusiciante’s guitar parts.
Is there anything interesting going on harmonically/melodically in those two songs that is useful for the compare/contrast?
Jordan Stokes: This is a slightly difficult question for me, because my two favorite Red Hot Chili Peppers songs are, in this order:
1) “Under the Bridge,” and
2) Stop playing songs, Red Hot Chili Peppers, you are not a good band
I didn’t use to feel this strongly — I think back in the day I liked most of the individual songs on Blood Sugar Sex Magik if I just heard the one song, but the whole album was always kind of a death march.
Sheely: We had that same experience. When we covered BSSM on Theory for Turntables, I kept calling the experience of listening to it “Climbing Mt. Sex Magik”.
So, I gather that you don’t want to discover any similarities between “Under the Bridge” and the rest of their catalogue?
Stokes: Well, it could swing one of two ways. Either I find ways that the rest of the catalogue is like “Under the Bridge,” and I’ve found new songs to enjoy or else it’s like “Wait, you’re telling me that ‘Under the Bridge’ is by THESE assholes? God dammit!”
Sheely: Or third, you might discover why “Under the Bridge” is good, and why the rest of the catalogue is much weaker.
Stokes: So, my initial thought is not musically useful, but I think there might be something to it. Watching a bunch of Red Hot Chili Peppers videos, I think that my problem with the group is mostly Anthony Kiedis. I don’t find him relatable.
And the reason that I don’t find him relatable, is that it’s like he’s never once thought to himself, “Wait a minute, am I just an insufferable piece of shit?”
Which is astonishing to me. I can’t conceive of living like that. Must be nice. This isn’t a fair criticism of Kiedis in the least — it creeps into his vocal delivery sometimes, but I think it’s mostly his face, and he can’t help that. Still, I think that this aspect of Chili Peppers is the band’s true legacy… Because Rap Rock.
Because — try this on for size: Rap Rock is basically a strong, shitty misreading of two quintessential 90s groups, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Rage Against the Machine. Sonically, they both have an influence, but Rage’s is actually a lot stronger. Musically, all of Rap Rock is basically just footnotes to Bulls on Parade, amirite?
Rage is also the source for all that anger. (For proto-rap-rock, it’s amazing just how angry Red Hot Chili Peppers isn’t.) But even though the overall sound and emotional content are closer to Rage, Rap Rock actually feels closer to Red Hot Chili Peppers… and it’s because, again, it never once occurred to Fred Durst that he might be insufferable.
This isn’t to say that Zac de la Rocha is sufferable, necessarily. But I think if you asked him about that, he’d be like “it doesn’t matter if I’m a piece of shit: America’s police state is destroying a generation of black youth!” Or words to that effect, you know? Asked the same question, Keidis would take his shirt off and do a little shimmy, and Durst would slug the interviewer.
Ok, getting back to the music, what I like about Under the Bridge is it’s harmonic-architectonic form, which is super ambitious. The lead-in is an oscillation between D major and F major, which are chromatically related chords — they aren’t part of the same scale. And the scale that the melodic passages are built on is F minor — neither of those chords is really the tonic. And then the song proper comes in in E major, which isn’t related to any of those things.
The chorus of the song – “I don’t ever wanna feel” is still in E, but with a lot of non-resolving color tones. We already had some of this in the verse — the one chord that sort of hangs out unresolved after each run through the verse is an E major seventh — but it gets ramped up in the chorus. There’s a sense that each new section of the song is, in an undefinable way, “bigger” than the section that preceded it.
And then the bridge — the “Hey yeah way yeah” or whatever that comes in after “take me all the way” — is in A minor, with mode mixture to A major (sort of calling back to the F minor F major tension from the opening guitar figure). Note that this is a one-way bridge: if feels like the songwriting structure that we call a bridge, but we’re never going back to the verse. This is an interesting non-standard song structure, and I love those.
But anyway, within this new tonal area, there’s a huge, yuuuge buildup of rhythm, instrumentation, register, harmonic density (through pedal tones that sustain over the chord changes — that high chorus!), etc. And it just builds and builds and builds. That one intense cadence at like 3:09, I would trade for the whole rest of their discography.
The point is that it has a shape! It is structural, solid, architectural, like a bridge! Not limp, and shapeless, like a dicksock!
There are lots of other Red Hot Chili Peppers songs that feel like they’re trying to do the same things. Like, they shattered “Under the Bridge” and tried to make a new song out of the pieces: the harmonic complexity, the big emphasized cadences, the huge buildups, etc. “My Friends” is a pretty good one, “Soul to Squeeze” another. But to me these all just feel like less-good versions of “Under the Bridge.” Maybe it’s just that I heard that version first? Or maybe they had the bad luck of getting it exactly right the first time that they tried.
An odd thing: Flea is usually held up as a great funk bassist (or at least a great, funky bassist), and I tend to agree… but Under the Bridge might be the least funky song in their catalogue.
Now, on the other hand, you have something like “Give it Away,” which is all rhythm, no harmony. It trades entirely on groove: the verse/chorus tension is between the sixteenth-note groove of Kiedis’s vocals in the verse, and the 32nd-note triplet groove of his vocals in the chorus. (There’s a little bit of harmonic complexity in the contrasting “spacy guitar stuff” sections, but this doesn’t feel like a really big part of the song, to be perfectly honest. Like, it’s fine, but it’s not a big deal.)
I like groove-based music fine when it works. Parliament’s “Flashlight” is a good — perhaps peerless — example. But I find that groove-based music that *really* works on me is relatively rare. Maybe this is me being super white?
Most actual funk is NOT just groove-based, though. Even something like “I Feel Good” has nice strong bones: it’s a slowed down 12-bar blues progression.
Sheely: I want to hone in on Flea a bit more. I agree that “Under the Bridge” isn’t particularly funky. But is there anything that he is doing on there that connects to what you broke down above? Or are his contributions to what is cool about that song pretty minor?
Stokes: Well, I don’t know who wrote it. But I guess you mean, how much does his bass playing contribute to the music’s sonic experience? He’s much more restrained than usual here — no pitch bends to speak of, for instance — but if instead of comparing this to “Give It Away,” you compare to, say, “November Rain,” suddenly the bass line seems almost hyperactive. That shift to F minor on what I’m calling the “one way bridge,” manifests as a sort of duet between Kiedis and Flea (and is the first point in the song where the baseline REALLY kicks in). The big cadence at 3:09 is absolutely grounded on the bass.
So he plays a role, for sure, but not like in “Give it Away,” which is, like, the Flea show.
Sheely: You honed in on exactly the parts of “Under The Bridge” where the interplay between Flea and Kiedis jumped out at me. I especially like the idea of the “one way bridge” as a duet between the two of them, especially when considering the themes of the song. If the song is about hitting rock bottom and feeling alone and disconnected, then Flea’s entrance late in the song is about finding Kiedis in that underpass and leading him into the light.
“Sometimes I feel like I don’t have a partner”
“BRO, BRO, BRO…. FOLLOW THE SOUND OF MY BASS”
Stokes: “LET ME TAKE YOU TO… FUNKYTOWN”
Sheely: Thankfully, there is a rehab center between the bridge and Funkytown.
I do think there is something there though… “Give it Away” (and a lot of the other earlier funky RHCP songs) are also Flea-Kiedis duets, but the dynamic is more one of a wingman or accomplice.
But in “Under the Bridge,” Flea is much more of this lifeline, pulling him back from the brink, which I think is part of how powerful and poignant the song is.
But I also wonder if it is also showcases him being an enabler, in that Flea’s willingness to bail Kiedis out is what allows him to continue to be an insufferable piece of shit.
Kiedis says “I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day,” but it doesn’t seem like his solution is to fix the root causes that led him to hit rock bottom under that bridge. Instead, it is just to stop feeling that way, and I think that Flea’s endless supply of grooves helps to facilitate that.
So in that interpretation, “Under the Bridge” is just as important to rap-rock as “Give it Away” is… what you find on the other side of Flea and Anthony’s one-way-bridge is Fred Durst.
Want more discussion of Blood Sugar Sex Magik? Tune into Episode 218 of the Theory for Turntables Podcast, where we compare and contrast that album with RHCP’s 1987 album The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
You might want to clear a space right in front of you because here’s an anecdote sure to make you headdesk: it also took me a long time to warm up to the original version of Under the Bridge because – please don’t judge me over this – I knew the All Saints cover first, so their brisker, more upbeat version was the one that sounded normal to me. I know, I know, say it now and get it out of your system… yes, I realise making it brisk and upbeat runs totally and utterly against what the song’s actually about, but I know much better now, okay? Just promise not to hold it against me, I’ve repented since those days.
I certainly never thought of BSSM as an endurance trial, because – and this is important – to me it takes me back to when I was 16 and first learning to play bass guitar. I’d graduated from the Blink 182 songs that are, like, training wheels for bassists, and was essentially taught the exquisite art of the four-string by following Flea wherever he led (and, funnily enough, Rage Against the Machine. There’s definitely a connection there worth exploring). I’d put BSSM in my CD player and waste a whole afternoon learning each and every single song by ear. I loved the harmonic weave of Under the Bridge’s pseudo-bridge, the raw melancholy of I Could Have Lied (way more real to me now as an adult than it was as a teenager), remember the triumph the first time I nailed the double-stop verse riff from the title track, or the desperate frenetics of the Naked in the Rain solo. It was always tied off by Sir Psycho Sexy’s filthy, filthy lyrics, which I of course loved because, as I keep saying, I was 16.
I got pretty good too, if I may blow my own horn. From Flea I learned to improvise. I learned to play through mistakes. I learned that, despite what my music teachers had tried to show me, music is really fricking fun. From Blink through Chili Peppers I made my way up the ladder as far as Dream Theater before I, you know, got a job and started living in places that didn’t want to woken by me rehearsing at all hours. My amp’s over in the corner right now, untouched in years, staring at me, silently accusing; my bass is hidden behind the door, where I don’t have to look at her.
Say what you like about Blood Sugar Sex Magik, to me it’s a collection of songs full of energy and joy. And, if you’re a bass player, there’s a lot to listen to as well. The insufferability of Anthony Kiedis never really registered for me anyway, he always seemed pretty incidental. It’s Flea who *is* the band.
This is actually a really good point: based on every bass player I’ve ever talked to, it seems like Red Hot Chili Peppers is a whole different experience if you play bass.
And if anyone is struggling with this band, but really wants to find a way to enjoy their music — like, say you’re dating a superfan, or you’re stuck on a desert island with nothing to entertain yourself but a copy of BloodSugarSexMagik (and apparently a printout of this comment thread), just make a conscious effort to pay attention to the bassline at all times. In the prep for this article I listened to Give it Away maybe half a dozen times. Even to a hater like me, this is a pretty good song. But the last couple of times I heard it, it was after Ryan started asking about what Flea contributes to their music, so I was listening specifically for Flea. And oh man, what a difference it makes.