In August 1985, Simon Witter received a phone call from George Clinton saying that the P-Funk All-Stars show at London's Hammersmith Odeon that weekend had been cancelled, but that the support group was already in the country and had blagged themselves a gig supporting Muddy Waters' keyboard player. Thus began Witter's love affair with LA's Red Hot Chili Peppers, interviewed for an NME piece that ran the following month--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
"Jacques Cousteau is a big influence on our music," announces Hillel Slovak. "We go backpacking in the Sierras every year."
Say what?! Run that past me again. Are we talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the dirtiest lowdown kinda guys around? We are! Pass the Alka-Seltzer!
Talking to the most crazily perfect punk-funk band ever to frazzle a stage is no joke. Frontman Antwan The Swan - in keeping with the band's notoriously spontaneous character - has pissed off to Paris with a severe case of the lovebug (he also missed his plane back to LA). Drummer Cliff Martinez (ex-Weirdos, Captain Beefheart) rarely opens his mouth, and so I'm left to decipher the preposterous motormouthings of semi-aboriginal bassist Flea (once described as "less modest than Dave Lee Roth") and goofy Israeli guitarist Hillel. What did I ever do to anybody?
Having personally witnessed their live act (Black Flag frantically twanging Bootsy's Rubber Band) at Dingwalls in late August, I thought I'd made a great discovery until, two breathless days later, and a mere few hours before they left these fair isles, the Peppers deposited their press kit in my lap. Therein lay testimony to the fact that for well over a year now, the amassed rock critters of the US have been blazing a snail's trail of drool in the shell-shocked wake of this deranged combo. Hit the Smirnoff, I wisely decided, and go easy on the superlatives.
The Peppers spread a highly contagious musical infection called Freaky Styley. Despite the spring-heeled bounce in their hair-raising hardcore storm - and their productive affair with Funkmaster George Clinton - the Peppers' soul stew remains predominantly, ragingly punky.
Onstage the hip-stepping howl of their skintight hardcore lurch is perfectly complemented by a demented visual act based on hyperventilating bumper cars. No producer can hope to immortalise this multi-sensual mania, but George Clinton (producer of their new album Freaky Styley) has come commendably close.
The Peppers claim to have discovered Funkadelic only after the comparisons were made, but it is in P-Funk that we can best nail down their disparate influences. Their new album continues the generic cross-breeding that Funkadelic practiced - on Standing On The Verge Of Getting It On, Cosmic Slop, etc. - from the black side of the racial border. Only now they're white, and the guitar noise in this volatile reaction is punk, not acid rock.
A little history... necessity was not the mother of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, all otherwise gainfully employed at the time of their one-song unrehearsed debut (a spontaneous guest spot at a friend's gig). Flea, who formed the Peppers after refusing John Lydon's offer to join PIL was the bassist with LA's notorious Fear, and also the skinhead star of the Penelope Spheeris film Suburbia, whilst Hillel and original drummer Jack Irons were with What Is This. But the effect of this "joke" appearance (playing 'Out in LA'), and the club-invited return match, was such that, within a month, the Peppers had become the hottest act in their native Hollywood.
Of course their unspeakably obnoxious stage manner was not to everybody's taste. As a review in the LA Herald Examiner ambiguously concluded: "These guys should go far. And, with any luck, they'll do it soon." But to an understandably-wowed Spin they were simply "the greatest rock band in the world."
Unlike the accelerated Britpunk of much West coast hardcore, the Peppers' influences are mainly American - the Germs, Ohio Players, Jimi Hendrix, P-Funk, Dead Kennedys, Captain Beefheart, etc. - yet the most audible ingredient of their cosmic slop is the Gang Of Four's judderfunk.
In fact the Peppers' self-titled debut long player was Andy Gill's first production job outside of GO4. In the studio it soon became apparent that his new found feel for slick pop and rhythm machines was greatly at odds with the luddite Peppers' spontaneous attitude (he dismayed them too with the comment that the Gang's seminal first two albums were "bought by a few lunatics"). But if relations were as bad as rumours have suggested, why did he work with them?
"Lordy knows," Flea muses. "He liked the band, and we gave him $10,000, which was probably a big influence."
Their second (far more unlikely) collaboration with P-Funk main man George Clinton was such a success that the mere mention of his name sends the band into a loveglow of awe. His relaxed production style allowed them to flourish, stimulating them rather than imposing ideas on their music.
Flea: "The only click track we had was George clapping, stamping and dancing around us. And when he was in the control room, he'd scream into the mic: 'Yeah, kick it! Do it! Get Deep! Throw it down!'. When George is doing that in your ear while you're playing you just go (emits a pop-eyed, speed-crazed yelp!) whooooho whoooheeeooh! That's great. George is really spiritual like that, which is why he's 43 and still blowing it out."
So how about the criticism that Freaky Styley is rather heavily stamped with Mr. Clinton's identity?
Flea: "George was a fifth member of the band when we recorded the album, no doubt about it, but he didn't do anything we wouldn't have done completely on our own. He made it easy for us to do a lot of things, 'cos he had access to the James Brown horn section, and he understood us but, if we'd had our way, the first album would have sounded like this too."
Did your collaboration surprise the fairly segregated US music biz?
Flea: "Sometimes they make a gimmick out of it. 'Hey! White guys working with a black guy, playing funk!' We play what we play 'cos that's what we like, and we work with George because he's great. That's all there is to it."
Did you see much racism?
Flea: "Sometimes it's hard for me to see what's going on, 'cos I never surround myself with anyone who has the slightest inkling of racism. It makes me so sick, I just wanna s--t on their faces. There's definitely a monstrous racism problem. That's one of the main things we stand against, if we stand against anything."
The punk-funk label, which has been applied to people as unlikely as Rick James (by himself admittedly), seems very accurate in your case.
Hillel: "We prefer to be known as bone-crunching mayhem funk."
The Peppers are a very silly band, whose talk is peppered (sorry) with saucy phrases like "Suck the juice outta my butthole", "I caught him with his erection in a watermelon", etc., ad nauseam. Onstage they like to sing their single 'Hollywood' completely out of tune and crack dumb jokes about their friends and pets which the crowd hasn't a hope of understanding.
The Peppers like to be jerks (at Dingwalls, Swan dedicated a song to "all you whiney Britishers who can suck my American c--k") but don't let the surface attitude fool you. Inside there's a serious band trying to get out. Universal love songs like 'Brother's Cup' or sensibly anti-religious/anti-American songs like 'Catholic School Girls Rule' and 'American Ghost Dance' belie the risibly sex-obsessed image. So what are they really like?
Flea: "We eat raw cactuses, and we lie under the sheets, wallowing in our womb-like beds. We have sex whenever we can, and when we can't we masturbate, 'cos being in a band takes up a lot of our time (Hillel starts to play an imaginary violin)."
You once said: "We want to make the world a better place with out music". I presume that's a major league porky pie?
"Anyone who says that's a lie can f--- off and die," rages Flea with classical symmetry. "It's complete cornball, but it's true. There's so much disgusting stuff going on, if people can get loose and feel good... When we start repeating ourselves or becoming professional, when it becomes anything but a complete good time - where we can channel into a different state of mind - then it's time to stop."
So do the Peppers have a driving ambition?
Flea: "We wanna play everywhere, blaze a smelly trail of dirty funk across the world."
The Peppers are the best new band I've seen this year, a raging example to all those hapless pretenders in the disaster zone of musical fusion. Living by a motto handed down from Captain Beefheart - "Hit it to hell in the breadbasket and fingerf---- the devil" - they really play every note as if it were their last. But don't take it from me, find out for yourself what the LA Weekly meant when it called them "KC and The Sunshine Band on angel dust".
So how will Joe/Jolene Public know if they've got Freaky Styley?
Flea: "It feels like a vibrator coming out of your nose."
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