Red Hot Chili Peppers: The Houston Texans of Rock
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the weak link of one of rock music's most iconic bands.
Houston Texans fans and Red Hot Chili Peppers fans have way more in common than one might think. In particular, both know what it’s like to support an outfit whose whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. Stay with me here. The Texans, as anyone who has visited NRG Stadium or turned on local television this year can attest, are a well-rounded unit. The team has playmaking receivers, a quality running back and one of the league’s best defenses. But because its quarterback situation is unsettled, to put it kindly, a team with Super Bowl talent at numerous positions will more than likely not play in that very game on its home field in February.
Here is where Chili Peppers fans can sympathize with the Texans’ plight. The L.A. band is one of the most famed and legendary acts of its era, a commercial force in rock for the better part of 30 years. Despite lineup changes and personal heartbreak (original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of an overdose in 1988), the Chili Peppers have weathered the storm to release numerous hit singles and sell more than 80 million albums worldwide. Hell, their upcoming January 7 gig at Toyota Center sold out quickly.
So the Chili Peppers' place in musical history is unquestioned, but perhaps it shouldn't be. And this is because Anthony Kiedis — the quarterback of this team, if you will — is undoubtedly one of the most overrated front men in rock history. He's not exactly Brock Osweiler, but the Matt Schaub comparison is apt — just good enough to get you to the playoffs; just bad enough to get you beat in the playoffs.
Let me preface by saying that this point in no way is meant as a sign of disrespect to the Chili Peppers’ other members, nor is this a slight to any Texans skill-position player (all deserve better). Flea is an absolute legend, both as a bassist and as a rock figure. Will Ferrell doppelganger Chad Smith is a great drummer. And current RHCP guitarist Josh Klinghoffer, while no John Frusciante, is a more than capable guitarist, particularly when he spends most of the band’s live shows covering his predecessors’ work.
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But whether in sports or music, any team is only as good as its weakest link, and for the better part of the band’s career, Kiedis has been just that. The good-timing, sock-on-junk-wearing California kid was an absolute force on breakout singles like “Give it Away,” “Under the Bridge” and “Suck My Kiss.” The only issue is, those tracks — while successful and musically proficient — aren’t particularly well-written, kinda like when Osweiler rallied the Texans to a win at home earlier this season. Yeah, it technically got the job done, but to call it a well-played game would be a vast overstatement.
“Low brow is how/Swimming in the sound/of Bow Wow Wow,” Kiedis raps on “Suck My Kiss.” “Bob Marley, walkin' like he talk it/ Goodness me, can't you see, I'm gonna cough it,” he opines on “Give It Away.” Hell, even “Under the Bridge” — a poignant, if overrated, song — reads like something out of a high school poetry competition.
These sins are certainly forgivable. Kiedis was a young man when those songs were recorded, and the Chili Peppers – “Under the Bridge” notwithstanding – never really aspired to artistic creativity during their early run. Rather, they were a party band that infused funk sensibilities with radio-friendly pop. They did it well, and for a spell in the early and mid-'90s, it made them very rich and very famous.
The issue, however, lies in the band’s maturation phase. In the late '90s, the Chili Peppers were largely forgotten as a commercial entity, and their funk-meets-pop sound had certainly run its course. So the band did what many before had and reinvented its sound. With Frusciante back in the mix after he overcame substance abuse issues, the Chili Peppers slowed it down, cranked up the wisdom and delivered Californication, one of the best rock albums of the late '90s. The album wasn’t without its misses — “Around the World” is downright nonsensical — but on the whole, Kiedis finally rose to his band’s level to make the album a welcome musical surprise. He did so to a slightly lesser degree on the band’s follow-up, 2002’s multiplatinum By the Way, which featured hit tracks like “Can’t Stop” and “The Zephyr Song.”
But then the wheels fell off. Released in 2006, Stadium Arcadium was a hit, despite the fact that lead single “Dani California” is terrible, one of many of Kiedis’s tired attempts to romanticize his home state. Frusciante – the band’s musical heart – departed soon thereafter and the band’s last two records, I’m With You and this year's The Getaway, have debuted to diminishing critical and commercial returns.
The Chili Peppers, thanks to their longevity and their standing in the musical marketplace, will likely not suffer at the turnstiles, no matter their musical output going forward. They’ve paid their dues and put out more than enough hits to fill even the largest of set lists, even if a number of those tracks are repetitive and passé, and make millions selling out arenas around the world. But, like the Texans, their signal caller will ultimately be their undoing.