July 13, 2002
What if the Beatles didn't break up? What if Kurt Cobain didn't commit suicide? What if Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or Jim Morrison didn't die way too soon? The history of rock music is full of alternate timelines where early deaths or intractable egos don't get in the way of making genius music. Maybe we would've gotten more great music as a result, or maybe we wouldn't, at least compared to what actually saw the light of day. But it's fun to think about the different paths pop and rock music would've taken had the darker aspects of the human condition not forced their hand.
All of this is to say that the Red Hot Chili Peppers are one of those success stories that probably never ought to have happened. They dealt with so much adversity both before and after they found fame that it might have been hard for people to imagine the band would still exist in 2002, never mind that they would release arguably their best album, certainly my favorite by them.
There's a lot to unpack about the Chili Peppers prior to "By the Way", but I'll do my best to give you the cliff notes version.
Anthony Kiedis was born in 1962 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and moved to Los Angeles to live with his father. Kiedis's father was a struggling actor who sold drugs to support himself, and Kiedis wound up trying cocaine and heroin as a teenager. In high school, he bonded and became best friends with classmate Michael Balzary, who went by the nickname Flea. The two met Hillel Slovak at a gig for Slovak's band, and they eventually formed a band with drummer Jack Irons called Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem. It's safe to say that had that name stuck, I wouldn't be writing this post. As the band's repertoire grew, they changed the name to Red Hot Chili Peppers, but not before Irons and Slovak left the group.
The Peppers released their first two albums in 1984 and 1985, but neither album made much of an impact. Soon Irons and Slovak returned to the fold and they recorded their third album called The Uplift Mofo Party Plan in 1987 hoping it would be their breakthrough. All the while, Kiedis and Slovak became addicted to heroin, and indulged in drugs heavily. The album would be their first to crack Billboard's album chart, and the band toured North America to support it. But the members' addictions only became worse, and in June 1988, Slovak died from a drug overdose.
Irons, deeply troubled by Slovak's death, quit the band soon after, and eventually joined Pearl Jam, a band that will eventually appear in this column in its own right. Kiedis would enter rehab afterward, and he and Flea tried to move forward with the band. They hired Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro, who introduced them to a young fan named John Frusciante. Frusciante was hired as the band's guitarist, while Peligro was fired for his own drug issues, being replaced by Chad Smith.
The band released their fourth album Mother's Milk in 1989, and began to finally get some significant national attention. The single "Knock Me Down" was the band's first of many top 10 hits on Billboard's brand new Modern Rock chart. Following that album's success, the band hired Rick Rubin to produce their fifth album. Rubin had turned down the band a few years earlier due to their drug problems, but by 1990, the band was clean and focused. The resulting album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, was released in 1991 and became an absolute blockbuster. The first single, "Give It Away", was the first of a ridiculous 15 #1 hits for the band on the alternative chart, while the follow-up, "Under the Bridge" became the biggest hit of the band's career, peaking at #2 on the Hot 100. Amazingly, "Under the Bridge" is not one of the 15 alternative #1's, only getting to #6 on the Modern Rock chart.
The band seemed to have left their problems behind them, but Frusciante wound up developing all new problems. He was troubled by the band's newfound fame, and secretly became addicted to heroin. After a concert in Tokyo in 1992, he quit the band and returned to Los Angeles. The Chili Peppers eventually hired former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, who was battling his own drug addiction, but got clean in time to perform with the band at Woodstock '94. (As a solo artist, Dave Navarro's only song to reach my top 40 was 2001's "Rexall", which peaked at #30.)
The chemistry with Navarro was severely lacking, however, which held up production of their next album, 1995's One Hot Minute. The album did decent business, but not compared to Blood Sugar Sex Magik. By 1998, Navarro and the Peppers parted ways, and the band considered breaking up. Meanwhile, John Frusciante was living in poverty due to his heroin addiction. Flea convinced him to get sober, and eventually he was asked to rejoin the band. The reunion resulted in 1999's Californication, which became the biggest album in the band's career. The Peppers added three more Modern Rock #1's to their mantle, and the title track lasted long enough after it was released to be their first song to appear on my top 40. (It spent a single week at #37, but easily would've been at least a top 10 hit for me in 2000.)
For their next album, By the Way, the band brought back Rick Rubin to produce. The album has a psychedelic, textured feel that is both a departure and complement to the Peppers' previous funkier efforts. The title track wasn't the band's first choice to be the lead single, but it feels very representative of the album as a whole. Kiedis alternates between singing and rapping on the track, something that would've fit in neatly on alternative radio in 2002. I'm not too sure what the lyrics to "By the Way" are about, but that really doesn't matter. Kiedis's charisma as a vocalist overflows from the speakers on most Chili Peppers tracks, and this is no exception.
Frusciante's guitar at the beginning of the song calls on the listener to see what comes next, and the song builds and builds from there. Flea's bass slapping is what made me hooked on the song for as long as I was. There's no soft spot to the song.
In the video, Kiedis is kidnapped by a crazy taxi driver and taken to an abandoned tunnel where the driver does some kind of interpretive dance to the song. Eventually Kiedis flees the taxi and into a car driven by driven by Flea and Frusciante, only for Smith to get into the taxi next, oblivious to anything that's happened. It's a fun watch, and the frenetic pacing goes well with the song.
"By the Way" proved to be another durable hit for the Peppers. The song went straight to #1 on the Modern Rock chart, where it stayed for 14 weeks. It never got released to pop radio, but still managed to peak at #34 on the Hot 100.
The band followed it up with "The Zephyr Song", a trippy love song that worked its way to a #3 peak on my top 40 later in 2002. I spun the hell out of the By the Way CD for the better part of a year. Even though it clocks in at over an hour, it's a pretty breezy listen, with some really fascinating deep cuts. And it wasn't done cranking out hits either. We will see the Peppers again in this column.
In 2007, Dutch DJ Peter Gelderblom released an unauthorized house remix of "By the Way" entitled "Waiting 4". It got enough attention in the United Kingdom to peak at #29 on that country's singles chart. Here's that video:
THE NUMBER TWOS
DJ Sammy's space age cover of Bryan Adams' 1985 hit "Heaven" peaked at #2 behind "By the Way".
Pink's angsty, emo-adjacent hit "Just Like a Pill" peaked at #3 behind "By the Way".