Albums at their Peak – Californication by Red Hot Chili Peppers

This 1999 release dominated the first few years of my adolescence – yes I got into it late. For some it was Nirvana, others it was Blink 182, but for me it was always RHCP. I first heard it in a Punky Fish shop – the horror – and immediately dragged Mum to HMV to by my very own copy. I found Anthony Kiedis incredibly sexy. I devoted myself to reading his autobiography Scar Tissue as quickly as possible (three hours, if you’re wondering) and would lose myself to my parents’ old hi-fi for countless evenings. Fast forward six years and I’m sitting in my room in Vanderbilt, Nashville, and am offered a ticket to see RHCP in Memphis the next night. Reader, I went and made my adolescent dreams come true. Here’s why this album is so great, track by track.

Californication

Around the World: From the first explosive shriek from Anthony Kiedis’ mouth, you know this is going to be a great, energetic song. The bass and guitar combine to provide a punchy and immediate verse backing, whilst Kiedis’ vocals also move from sharp to smooth between chorus and verse.  It’s a heralding call-to-arms, with the choral vocals towards the end drawing us all in.

Parallel Universe: The static strings are really brought out here, with the bass joining in for effect. We are almost in a trance, with Kiedis’ long notes enticing us in. As the tempo quickens and the vocals heighten, we’re uplifted but we’re still trancing. It’s all you can do not to jump around and throw things in near-insanity when this song reaches its sweaty climax. We’re intruding on a personal jam session and it leaves us on a breathy high.

Scar Tissue: Here, the more funky deep sound the band showcased on this album is really highlighted. It’s soulful and tranquil, Kiedis’ lyrics are swinging, emotional and absorbing. The video for the song showcased the band in a car,with guitarist John Frusciante driving, representing his recent return to the band after battling drug and alcohol addictions. It’s been seen as a song on resurrection, which makes perfect sense, but it’s also about loneliness and beauty. Frusciante’s guitar solos are some of the most haunting RHCP have ever done, whilst all the bass can do is quietly support. A deserving winner of the Grammy for Best Rock Song in 2000.

Otherside: The first time I heard this was in my boarding house, when two boys sat in the living room after dinner one night and belted it out. It seemed, at the time, simply an emotional outpouring with some beautiful images – only later did I learn its true meaning as a discussion of the troubles facing drug addicts. What I love about it is that it builds and grows slowly but surely throughout, as instruments join and quicken. To me, this represents the sliding scale of drug addiction and how quickly you can find yourself trapped. Violent imagery combines with heavy drum and bass beats to drive home the song’s message.

Get On Top: A jolt from the previous two songs, this feels much more like a spontaneous scat or rap, full of funk. Like Around the World, Kiedis takes us on a tour of his crazy life and we feel like we’re in a whirlwind, with the bridges calming us down like the eye of the storm. I don’t know of many other instrumentals that are as good as this middle section. It’s really no wonder Kiedis dances around so much on stage – how can you not.

Californication: Yet another change of pace, but can you hear that bass? It’s still distinctly RHCP. The slowest paced song thus far, it seems appropriate that the title track is the one that takes the most space and time to do its job. Portrays one of the most famous places on Earth in an almost mythical way – what are ‘first-born unicorns’ doing next to ‘hardcore soft porn’? But that’s the  beautiful contradictions of California and, indeed, America in general. Kiedis takes this opportunity to comment on the dark side of Hollywood, bringing up Kurt Cobain, Star Trek and ‘psychic spies from China.’ A small contemplative guitar solo in the middle adds to this dreamy,  critical and classically American song.

Easily: The funkiest song on the album, this to me just shouts freedom and craziness. But in the midst of all of this, we have mentions of war, wolf packs and just letting go. A bit of violent imagery to go along with the crazy almost imperceptible lyrics. It’s spiritual and anthemic – not a hard task for the song that follows up an amazing foursome of RHCP singles.

Porcelain: Recently I was asked what my favourite RHCP song is and I said this one. I can hardly believe that I betrayed all of the other amazing songs, but listening to it again I remember why I chose it. If you heard this in isolation, you would never guess it’s RHCP, the prominent bass is really the only giveaway. ‘Do you carry the moon in your womb’ is such a surreal image, as she’s ‘drifting and floating and fading away’; Kiedis is singing to a lonely girl, drifting away from all she knows. The quiet atmosphere permeates the funk we hear on the rest of the album. It’s nothing short of beautiful.

Emit Remmus: And just like that, we’re back on the streets of California. Or is it London? Who knows. It got me excited enough that Kiedis was writing about my home city right next to his own. As if echoing London’s hustle and bustle, the chorus of this song explodes  to welcome the madness, whilst the verses to me represent the somewhat more laid-back Californian attitude, with the guitar splintering the casual bass. It’s gritty and sexual – ‘what could be wetter than/an English girl/American man’ – with that bass kicking in and making the track pleasantly dirty.

I Like Dirt: This song is about sex. It’s as simple as that. Although the lyrics are difficult to follow, it’s about dirty, gritty basic instincts. The best part about this song is absolutely the riveting guitar solo in the middle; it explodes and jumps out of the song – orgasmic, perhaps? – and it makes the song all that more frank and jumpy in its rhythm.

This Velvet Glove: Another soul-touching song. In it, Kiedis discusses beauty, love and overcoming addiction. It’s a moving song and a commitment to both himself and those he loves. It’s a song of dedication and triumph, whilst not forgetting to add a bit of sultry soul in the mix.

Savior: No man is an island and this song proves just that. Kiedis exposes how much he relies on those around him, with little jingle bells in the background showing us his fragility. His voice and the backing vocals seem further away from us than they are on the rest of the album, making the track more desperate and intimate. Forgiveness and resurrection reappear here to great spiritual effect. The end guitar solo seems almost like a wolf howling, perhaps pleading for help.

Purple Stain: The first lyrics set this up to be another song of sexual exploration – ‘to finger paint is not a sin/I put my middle finger in/your monthly blood is what I win/I’m in your house now let me spin’. A defiant bass emphasises this outspoken track. The title ‘purple stain’ most obviously refers to blood, however it actually refers to a stain caused by hair dye left in too long. The most celebratory and fun song on the album, this is all about the guys letting go, getting into another musical trance and letting their creative juices really flow.

Right On Time: Speaking of creative juices, this one is just that. It’s as if the band had a little bit of craziness they needed to squeeze out before the album’s tranquil finale. It still beautifully rises and falls like many of the other tracks but maintains a breathless pace throughout. Make of this what you will.

Road Trippin’: This is the least-known single from the album, released only in Europe inbetween Around the World and Parallel Universe. A chilled out story of a surfing trip, this is possibly the most Californian track on the album. It also brings in some peaceful strings, adding depth to this final track. Lyrically and musically stripped back, this song makes for a soulfully quiet ending to this explosive album.

Other essnential listening: Soul To Squeeze, Desecration Smile, Under the Bridge, By The Way, Suck My Kiss.

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