The Red Hot Chili Peppers Finally Break Through With ‘Mother’s Milk’
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The most widely known lineup of the Red Hot Chili Peppers — Anthony Kiedis (vocals), Flea (bass), John Frusciante (guitar) and Chad Smith (drums) — made its debut on 1989’s Mother’s Milk, the band’s highly successful, critically acclaimed fourth album, which hit the streets on Aug. 16, 1989.
The album arrived with quite a bit of back-story. In June 1988, founding Chili Peppers lead guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose, and drummer Jack Irons parted ways with the group soon after. (He would later turn up as a member of Pearl Jam). Needing new blood, the Peppers held two sets of auditions and tapped Frusciante and Smith as replacements.
In terms of musicianship, Smith is a hard hitter in the vein of Dave Grohl — but with a funkier flare. Listen to Mother’s Milk, and you can immediately hear the edge Smith brings to the band’s already all-over-the-place sound. And Frusciante’s guitar work, a cross between staccato rhythm and firecracker lead, specked with intricacies and shades of Jimi Hendrix — came to define the band’s sound.
As noted by Kiedis in a 1990 People magazine article, the title Mother’s Milk came about because it’s “good for you, it’s pure, healthy and intoxicating, and it comes directly from the source.” Without a doubt, it’s the most accessible of the band’s first four albums.
The record itself is an eclectic mix of the rap-funk and punk that defined the first three albums, only now with a mainstream rock edge. The new approach can be heard on singles “Knock Me Down” and their top-notch take on Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” wherein Flea’s ridiculous bass line takes the place of Wonder’s signature opening keyboard riff. Also notable are album opener “Good Time Boys,” which references X’s John Doe and Mike Watt’s fIREHOSE; “Magic Johnson,” an ode to the band’s favorite NBA star; and “Fire,” a sped-up cover of the Hendrix classic and showcase for Frusciante’s classic-rock chops.
Also noted in the People article, ’80s porn star Traci Lords makes an orgasmic cameo at the 1:24 mark in “Stone Cold Bush.” The band was never shy about referencing drugs and sex in their songs, and with this one, they took it a step further, following in the footsteps of Guns N’ Roses, who featured a climaxing woman on “Rocket Queen” two years earlier.
After struggling to be heard with their first three records, Mother’s Milk was just what they were looking for. It reached No. 52 on the Billboard 200, and within a year of its release, it was certified gold. It’s since gone platinum in the U.S., and for good reason: With the exception of 1991’s smash follow-up Blood Sugar Sex Magik and 1999’s Californication, Mother’s Milk is the Red Hot Chili Peppers at their very best.
In 2003, Mother’s Milk got the deluxe-reissue treatment, with bonus material, outtakes, demos and a few live tracks, two of which were Hendrix covers, showing again what Frusciante brought to the party.
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