September 24, 1991 was an historic day for music: it was the day that both Nirvana’s Nevermind and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik were released. Along with Metallica’s self-titled album and Pearl Jam’s Ten – both of which were released the previous month – these records inarguably shaped the musical path of the decade to follow. To celebrate the anniversary of these landmark records, let’s take a look at their place in rock history.
Red Hot Chili Peppers – Blood Sugar Sex Magik
By Jay Hale
Twenty-five years ago, though they’d earned a gold album for their 1989 release Mother’s Milk and a minor hit with their remake of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers were still something of an underground band. Not quite Los Angeles’ best-kept secret anymore, but not yet a fully national, much less international success. Little did they know all that was about to change.
Having just scored a new record deal with Warner Brothers after leaving EMI, singer Anthony Keidis and guitarist John Frusciante had begun writing songs for what would be their debut release for their new label. They decided on Rick Rubin to produce the album. Rubin agreed, despite having turned down a request to produce their early release Uplift Mofo Party Plan due to Keidis and Frusciante’s predecessor, former guitarist Hillel Slovak’s drug addictions (a battle Slovak would later lose). The band decided they wanted an interesting vibe for the recording sessions, and the infamous “Houdini House” in Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon was chosen.
The house, owned by Rubin, was quickly outfitted with the necessary recording gear. It now exists as a full-time recording facility known as “The Mansion.” There have been stories written about the place; it’s alleged to be haunted, and walking around at night, you definitely get the feeling you’re not alone (even when technically you are). The place is seriously spooky. One rumor states that people have been “inappropriately touched” in the basement (which is probably the creepiest area of the house). Also in the basement once existed a secret tunnel, now boarded up, that lead underneath Laurel Canyon Avenue to a house across the street, supposedly used for Masonic or Druidic (depending on who you talk to) rituals another previous owner, Rudolph Valentino is said to have participated in.
In May of 1991, three quarters of the band decided they would reside there during the recording sessions. Drummer Chad Smith, wanting no part of sleeping in a haunted house – said no thanks and commuted daily. Frusciante has indicated, however, that the spirits in the house were “friendly”. Keidis, Frusicante and bassist Flea each took rooms in different areas of the mansion and the recording sessions began. Flea’s brother documented the sessions in what would later be released as the “Funky Monks” documentary (sharing its title with one of the songs that would come from the sessions).
The band recorded for a month at the house, and in addition to the aforementioned musical growth they were experiencing, the tracks were a departure sonically from their previous work as well. Frusciante, having been dissatisfied with being coaxed into using primarily heavy tones on their previous effort, was given by Rubin the freedom to experiment with cleaner, more funk-oriented Strat tones. There would still be instances of his heavier Marshall tones, but here he regularly throws down some Strat quack that would be at home on any Parliament or George Clinton track (and Frusciante has long been a fan of the clarity of the SSL-1 Vintage Staggered for Strat). This was accomplished in many cases by plugging his Strat directly into the board; though for amp sounds he split his signal via a DOD Chorus pedal to a pair of Marshalls. He would also experiment with Hendrix-influenced backwards guitar sounds, like the solo on “Give it Away” which become a major hit, and still a popular song all these years later.
Interestingly, in the April 2009 issue of Vintage Guitar, Frusciante revealed that what he thought were original 50’s Fender pickups in his 1955 Stratocaster were actually SSL-1s. “They are so similar to the original that it’s hard to tell the difference in sound,” he said. “I had my ’62, which has the original pickups, and then I had the ’55 with the Duncans, and the sound was very similar. The differences had more to do with the guitars than the pickups. Eventually, I had to get Duncans in the ’62 as well.”
Rubin’s overall production is excellent, and has aged well over the years. There’s no schmaltz or overdone effects on the tracks, it’s actually quite dry. Flea’s bass tone and playing is impeccable, and Chad Smith’s drums, though also dry, sound like they were recorded in… well, a mansion, or some huge room, at least. It’s hard to imagine any drummer complaining about the tone. He also beats the drums like they owe him money, which always helps. The combined stellar production and more melodic, mature songwriting would prove to be a hugely successful combination. Mind you, the material was still mostly about getting laid (of course), but it was atmospheric and imaginative – and the funk was strong with it. There were also anti-racism messages (“The Power of Equality) and ruminations on broken relationships (“Breaking the Girl” and “I Could Have Lied”) – Keidis’ relationships to be specific. Aside from his more melancholy vocals on those tunes, his ability to write silly-yet-thoughtful rap lyrics that fit perfectly in the pocket of the groove his bandmates created is especially impressive here. Though they’d go on to be credited for spawning “Rap Rock,” no one does it quite like Keidis.
Once completed, the album was released on September 24, 1991. Warner Brothers got fully behind the project, commissioning videos for “Give it Away” and “Suck My Kiss” (which complied bits of the “Funky Monks” footage shot by Flea’s brother), “Under the Bridge” and “Breaking the Girl.” The release was an immediate hit, and all of those singles were huge hits. The album peaked at #3 on Billboard’s Top 100. Comparatively, their previous release “Mother’s Milk” had peaked at #52. Once a mild amusement, MTV suddenly loved them, as did everyone else.
The impact of Blood Sugar Sex Magik can’t be denied, and it still stands up as their seminal release today. Everyone loved the success except for Frusciante, who thought it somehow tainted the music. His frustration led to him leaving the band mid-tour, (to be briefly replaced by Arik Marshall) and plunging into the depths of heroin addiction, as documented in a “Behind the Music” documentary. He would eventually get clean and re-join the band, but not before Arik Marshall was briefly replaced with Dave Navarro for their follow-up album. He’s since quit again, replaced by Josh Klinghoffer. The Chili Peppers continue to soldier on, and again used the Houdini House AKA the Mansion to record their most recent release, Stadium Arcadium. But Blood Sugar Sex Magik is what the RHCP will be remembered for most when all is said and done.
Nirvana – Nevermind
By Peter Hodgson
Although there were hints of their sound in other bands before they arrived on the scene, 1991 was the perfect time for Nirvana to break through. Their angrier take on the Pixies-like quiet verse/loud chorus formula and Kurt Cobain’s distinctively raspy vocal delivery were the ideal antidote to the overblown excess of the previous decade of rock, and even though there are little hints of 80s-style production still creeping around the edges of Nevermind, the band’s aggression and the darkness of the lyrical themes was certainly more in tune with Generation X’s sense of isolation and pessimism. By the time Nirvana released In Utero in 1993, the world was theirs.
Famously recorded mainly at Sound City studios in Van Nuys, California, Nevermind’s bass and drum tracks were nailed in a couple of days, with Cobain taking more time to build the album’s layers of guitars. Check out the swimming chorus effect in “Come As You Are” and the verses of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for great examples of how Cobain fattened up his clean tones and gave them a sense of movement which allowed the distorted choruses to hit even harder.
Cobain’s guitar style was particularly influential, probably because it wasn’t particularly difficult to emulate. Part of Cobain’s genius was that his guitar parts were primal and direct, and kids who had never played guitar before could pretty easily learn to play a working version of hits like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and “Come As You Are.” And his guitar solos were typically restatements of his vocal melodies, which made them very memorable and playable. Perhaps another key to Cobain’s accessibility to young guitarists: his tone didn’t sound like a rack full of processors, and was therefore more attainable by fans looking for a similar sound. Cobain liked to use the JB Model (particularly in Mustangs), and he had the bridge single coil pickups of his Fender Stratocasters replaced with Hot Rails single-sized humbuckers.
At the time Nevermind came out, there was a bit of a division in the guitar world. For some you were either a Nirvana kid or a Metallica kid, and that was that. Time has dulled these divisions though, and even fans of ultra-technical guitar will be able to find plenty of inspiration in Nevermind’s arrangement ideas, tones and approaches.