Every week in Second Listen, Frank Macarthy looks back at lesser-loved albums from well-loved bands’ discographies.
Some fans call it selling out. Some call it buying in. Others call it maturation. I prefer musical chameleon. Whatever you want to call it, few bands are ever able to reach the stage in their career where they can abandon their sound for a tighter, sleeker, more commercially viable option. The Goo Goo Dolls did it (remember?). The Beastie Boys did it. Green Day did it. But, one of the most drastic transformations of all came from the funkadelic depths of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Prepare yourself for way too many funk puns.
Anthony Kiedis, Flea, John Frusciante, and Chad Smith. The names we have come to know and love. The names that are the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Right? Wrong. The Chili Peppers went through more line-up changes than Black Flag and the Misfits combined (not really, though). The original drug-addled line-up consisted of Kiedis, Flea, Hillel Slovak on guitar, and Jack Irons on drums. But, strangely enough, their third album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, was the only album that featured all of the original members (cause Hillel and Jack were a couple of quitters for a bit in the ‘80s). The album also featured the Chili Peppers’ original psycho-funkadelic reggae sound (sprinkled with a dash of thrash) they seemingly misplaced over the years.
After kicking most of the drugs to the curb and battling with a rather unsympathetic decade (the ‘90s kinda sucked, admit it), the Chili Peppers have become the mellow, melodic, pseudo-poetic “adults” that get to play at the Super Bowl. But, this wasn’t the case with The Uplift Mofo Party Plan years. No, those Chili Peppers would have shown up in nothing but strategically placed socks. They also probably wouldn’t have agreed to play with pre-recorded guitar, bass, and drums. Funk that noise. But, let’s rewind a bit.
In 1983, four high school friends formed a group called Tony Flow and the Majestic Masters of Mayhem. That name didn’t last too long. Neither did Irons or Hillel. After their first poorly received album, Hillel popped back in for a bit, followed by Irons after a second poorly received album. If you wanted to hear the Chili Peppers, you had to hear them on a college radio station. That was about it. And The Uplift Mofo Party Plan didn’t really change much.
The first single on the album, “Behind the Sun” was originally written by Hillel during an impromptu jam session. It has a more mainstream pop feel to it – removing the whole George Clintonesque sound the Chili Peppers picked up on their second album, Freaky Styley (probably because Clinton produced the album). This single was the first sign of a genre transformation. The whole album is a stew of mixed genre. Some might see this as confused; I see this as finding their sound.
Let’s talk about that “Subterranean Homesick Blues” cover for a minute. Mostly cause it’s funkin’ awesome. Picture, if you will, your own personal depiction of Bob Dylan. Now, think of what “folk” means to you. Got it? Good. Destroy it. The Chili Peppers have stripped this classic Bob Dylan folk track of all of its folkiness and Bob Dylan-ness. And it works. Really, really well. Kiedis’ white-boy speed rap style perfectly fits Dylan’s tongue-twisting lyrical style. Don’t tell anyone, but I prefer this one to the original.
Bass is king on this album. More than almost any other band (excluding Primus), the Chili Peppers center their sound on Flea’s slaptastic bass lines. The bass intros to “Me and My Friends” and “Behind the Sun” are perfect examples of this, and the heavy as funk bass riff on “Backwoods” supports this theory even further. “Spotlight the slap” seemed to be the motto for this album, considering Flea is louder than practically everyone else on almost every track. Why hide talent? Even if it is the bass…
“Me and My Friends” might be the perfect buddy anthem, but the entire album is filled with a smattering of friendly tributes. Both “Skinny Sweaty Man” and “No Chump Love Sucker” are notoriously written about Hillel’s preferences for bright clothing, ferocious shuffle dancing (mostly while on cocaine), and gold (and drug) digging women. The album is a memento. A memoir of simpler times. If high school could be considered “simpler times.”
The Uplift Mofo Party Plan was apparently family-friendly enough to use as a title for the album, but “Party on Your Pussy” was a little too vulgar for the record label. Upon release the title was changed to “Special Secret Song Inside,” which still has that not-so-subtle and often uncomfortable sexual connotation the Chili Peppers are known for. Or, at least were known for. No one has ever accused the Chili Peppers of being poetic geniuses, but they can still make their fans blush.
From start to finish, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan, in my opinion, is the best Red Hot Chili Peppers album. There’s something about Hillel’s style that just seems to fit with the rest of the band. Don’t get me wrong, I think Frusciante is great, but he is more like the deliciously smooth after-dinner Andes Mint, while Hillel was the main course of two scalding Hot Pockets. They might taste good at first, but they’ll leave you feeling a little gross afterwards. This was the first album of theirs I heard and will always resonate with me as the “true” Chili Peppers sound. And if you don’t agree, you can go funk yourself.