Tuesday, March 06, 2012

THE WHEELS WERE ABOUT TO FALL OFF the Red Hot Chili Peppers from 1987-1990

As the title of this posting might suggest - the Chili Peppers weren't always considered Red Hot. Reason being, the wheels were about to fall off when in 1987 the band's unstable foundation began to crumble. If we turn back the clock, it all began as a project in motion when in the early 1980's an undefined genre of music began to surface on the West Coast that was being spearheaded by what was later known as the RHCP. Their music wasn't quite locked into a defining category which to many people was an attraction within itself. Early critics called it Punk Rock while others coined it with more core phrases such as Alternative Rock or Funk. Whatever term used, it was commonly known the Red Hot Chili Peppers were early architects of a sound not yet popularized. But something about them was creating a buzz and their attention brought interest to EMI Records when in 1984 the label signed the band to an artist contract. EMI released two intermediate albums on the band that were lacking in hit material but drawing positive reviews from a normally critical music press. Their second album, "The Uplift Mofo Party Plan" released in 1987 officially put the band on the map. The combination of college radio airplay and MTV video exposure helped the group as they worked the underground club circuit playing to packed houses. Plus, their live performances were always associated with wild stage antics, sweaty audiences and crowd-diving. However, with two albums released into the marketplace the band encountered several major personal changes that ended-up altering the chemistry of the group. Devastation hit in 1988 when the band experienced the departure of two founding members, guitarist Hillel Slovak by death of a drug overdose and drummer Jack Irons who quit while being unable to cope with the tragedy and the band's drug addition. It became glaringly apparent for the Red Hot Chili Peppers ...the wheels were about to fall off.

With only two original members remaining, vocalist Anthony Kiedis and bassist Michael "Flea" Balzary were definitely at a crossroads. Plus, substance abuse for the remaining twosome was now at an all time high. This gives you an idea of how brutal the luring attraction of the music business can be as there are minefields and road blocks along the way. But what should they do now? By all accounts they were doomed. It seemed apparent these downhill spirals were often about the learning curve. Should they try to carry on and regroup? Or should they face self-reflection created by this bohemian behavior and just fold their tent and go home. The future did not look rosy.

But sometimes out of tragedy comes something good. Considering recent circumstances and with no place to go but upward, suddenly things began to fall into place for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Allow me to explain.

By now the year was 1989 and the remaining band members, Anthony Kiedis (seen below) and Flea had regrouped while establishing themselves with new band members guitarist John Frusciante and drummer Chad Smith. Delighted with a rebirth of sound, both new members grooved well with their band mates as they set out for a tour of the East Coast called The Positive Mental Octopus tour. By the time their concert dates had returned to the West Coast the band had played and rehearsed extensively and came up with exciting pre-production material for a new album. The energy among members was extremely high while a new element to their sound was complete. A title for the album, Mother's Milk had been selected as label heads at EMI were getting anxious and pushed for returning producer Michael Beinhorn to give them a hit. Yet, from the beginning there was much upheaval in the studio between band members and their producer as there were many creative differences that fostered endless friction and delays. Despite circumstances the sessions produced three strong singles, "Knock Me Down," "Higher Ground" and "Taste the Pain." Next came a marketing plan for Mothers Milk.

No doubt it would take a herculean effort from a professional marketing team to try and break this album because up to this point the Red Hot Chili Peppers had not delivered the goods. Consider the fact there were two existing albums and both had failed to land in the top 100 albums in Billboard. In truth, the band's alternative music had yet to produce radio friendly records hence the reason behind the lack of sales. Consider the fact the record buying audience was very fickle and purchased mostly what they heard on the radio. Plus, the band's negative vibe in the mainstream press didn't help matters either. But fortunately, the band had an aggressive manager by the name of Lindy Goetz. If you add his skills and combine them with a crackerjack EMI promotion & marketing team led by label V.P. Jack Satter, you're guaranteed for amazing results.

Upon the release of Mother's Milk, a West Coast tour consisting of small venues and clubs would help launch the album. From Vancouver, B.C. to Seattle and then to Portland before embarking on numerous California dates. Bassist Flea (L) was psyched about a new chapter unfolding and informed EMI West Coast reps, "he would do whatever it takes to get things rolling." The band's single, "Knock Me Down" did well with album radio but their next release,"Higher Ground" had the familiar name recognition of the great Steve Wonder. Some years earlier Stevie Wonder had penned the song while his original version scored big on the pop charts. Chalk one up for the hit making machinery as it was not a bad idea to use this particular song as a platform for the Red Hot Chili Pepper's official assault upon pop radio.

Upon arriving in Seattle a retail marketing blitz was organized by EMI's West Coast Marketing Director, Rob Gordon and his regional associates at CEMA distribution(Capitol-EMI), Kevin McCathfery and Astrid Guldenmann. Long lines gathered outside the retail giant Peaches Records in Seattle's U District while on-lookers were eager to get a glimpse of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Band members positioned themselves behind a serving table as they prepared themselves for interaction with anxious fans. The doors were opened and fans rushed to meet the band. Not one to be overlooked, RHCP drummer Chad Smith (R) fit right-into the madness when he entertained a crowd of autograph seekers by displaying his nipple. If that wasn't enough for onlookers, as an encore he then took it a step further by adding a pinch to his areola. That was so thoughtful of him. Such a sweet and dignified gesture.

EMI NW Regional Promotion & Marketing Director Phillip Rauls gets into the action when he is headlocked into a photo with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. (L-R) Phillip Rauls-EMI, Chad Smith-RHCP, Flea-RHCP, John Frusciante-RHCP, Anthony Kiedis-RHCP). Everyone was feeling pretty good about this photo except for Flea who suddenly remembered that he had accidentally forgot to take his morning dosage of Prozac. But have no fear, everything was under control as everyone was keeping a stiff upper lip and kept their chin up. The hardships were to be considered as all in a days work.

After a potty break and once the band members had all received their daily breakfast of Coca-Cola's, candy bars, coffee and cigarettes, the mood became a little more tolerable. Now they were ready to do some real work. Or, signing posters and albums mind you. Somehow they didn't inform band members of this hardy task when they attended the school of rock. Yet, consider the fact they had moved into a new phase of their career now and graduated from being just an underground Punk band to becoming the highly respectable bad boys of Rock.

Usually, the success of an up-and-coming rock band is governed by their availability to roll up their sleeves and participate in a marketing strategy outlined by their record company. I'm going to go way-out on a limb here and say they probably experienced enough chaos during the course of their first two albums to recognize the unique opportunity being presented here. It all begins with those special efforts which can lead down the road to success.

Pictured here are participants from the in-store event: (L-R) EMI's Phillip Rauls, Chad Smith-RHCP, Flea-RHCP, John Frusciante-RHCP, Anthony Kiedis-RHCP, and Damon Stewart-KISW Radio.

After spending quality time at Peaches, next the band was off to do radio interviews. Although several tracks from Mother's Milk were being programed on Seattle radio such as, "Taste The Pain," "Magic Johnson" and "Knock Me Down," the main focus was being put on the single, "Higher Ground." Airplay concentration was being placed on one individual track by the label which would help channel all consumer interest to one song. This marketing ploy proved successful in many campaigns when breaking a new group.

Pictured here in the control room at KISW Radio in Seattle are Flea and Anthony as they hone-in on their interview skills by answering questions about their songwriting collaborations. Their closely-knit association allowed them to reach beyond normal kinsmanship as their relationship went all the way back to their high school years. During those years their first band together was called, "Tony Flow & The Miraculously Majestic Masters Of Mayhem."

There was plenty of mayhem being dispersed in the control room after the interview as members from the Mothers Milk team posed for a lively group photo. (L-R) EMI's Phillip Rauls, Flea-RHCP, Damon Stewart-KISW and Anthony Kiedis-RHCP.

In the coming weeks, radio airplay and video exposure were key essentials that contributed to the success of this album release. Plus, unlike the RHCP's previous outings, the band's musical style had evolved with diverse new songwriting techniques and harmonies. Mother's Milk featured an array of musical styles which no doubt was brought on with the emergence of guitarist John Frusciante. The rhythm-based songs he introduced to the band blended well with their funk-oriented backgrounds. This element transformed the group to a new sense of unity while expanding their repertoire considerably. They had now reached international sucess.

The Red Hot Chili Pepper's Mother's Milk was certified as a gold record in March of 1990. This award was the band's very first gold record. Within a year's period their album would also gain the coveted platinum status. It seemed that only a short period earlier, the band was in total disarray as the wheels were about to fall off. This time however, the Red Hot Chili Peppers brought the goods home.

Copyrighted (c) story & photographs by Phillip Rauls - All rights reserved

Contributing photos (c) also taken by Jon-Eric Rauls - Rauls Media LLC