Formed in the wake of the L.A. punk scene, the Red Hot Chili Peppers combined funk and punk with macho, sexed-up lyrics. (One early track was called "Party on Your Pussy"). The result was a high-octane sound that made the quintet alt-rock favorites in the Eighties, then superstars in the Nineties. But as the Chili Peppers aged, their songs became more laid-back and lyrical, and the band went from flesh-baring firecrackers (a 1992 Rolling Stone cover featured them naked) to respected veterans.
After meeting at L.A.'s Fairfax High School, singer Anthony Kiedis, bassist Flea, guitarist Hillel Slovak, and drummer Jack Irons formed Tony Flow and the Miraculously Majestic Masters of Mayhem before changing their name to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They became a popular attraction up and down the L.A. strip, though the early lineup was short-lived as Irons and the Israeli-born Slovak departed to form What Is This? Kiedis and Flea recruited guitarist Jack Sherman and drummer Cliff Martinez prior to releasing their eponymous debut in 1984. The album stiffed; Slovak returned, and the band took to the road, sometimes appearing onstage wearing only strategically placed tube socks.
The funk-heavy Freaky Styley (1985), the last album featuring Martinez on drums, was produced by P-Funk's George Clinton and featured appearances by funk horn players Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. The record went largely unnoticed at the time. Irons returned to the band in time for the more rock-oriented The Uplift Mofo Party Plan (Number 148, 1987), which sold better than its predecessor. Any optimism was shattered by the 1988 death of Slovak from a heroin overdose. Disturbed by Slovak's death and Kiedis' own heroin problem, Irons quit the band a second time. An interim band with P-Funk guitarist Blackbyrd McKnight and Dead Kennedys drummer D.H. Peligro did not take hold. Kiedis recruited a Chili Peppers fan, guitarist John Frusciante, and auditions brought drummer Chad Smith. This version of the band recorded Mother's Milk (Number 52, 1989). With videos for "Knock Me Down" and a cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground" on MTV, it looked like the Peppers were about to break through.
The band's lifestyle came under some attack, though, with Kiedis convicted in 1989 of indecent exposure and sexual battery in an incident following a concert in Virginia. The next year during a taping of an MTV Spring Break special in Florida, Flea and Smith jumped offstage, with Flea grabbing a woman and carrying her on his shoulders, and Smith spanking her. The two were charged, and Flea was found guilty of battery, disorderly conduct, and solicitation to commit an unnatural and lascivious act. Smith was found guilty of battery.
The Chili Peppers scored their first major hit in 1991 with BloodSugarSexMagik (Number 3), which featured the single "Under the Bridge" (Number Two) and "Give It Away" (Number 73). Produced by Rick Rubin, the record was written and recorded in a mansion the band claimed was haunted. It sold more than 4 million copies, leading to their headlining Lollapalooza in 1992. Just prior to the tour, John Frusciante left the band and was replaced by Arik Marshall. Marshall lasted only a year and, after many auditions and one false start with Jesse Tobias, was replaced by former Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro. The 1995 release One Hot Minute (Number Four) went platinum but failed to generate the unparalleled excitement of BloodSugarSexMagik, precipitating a fallow phase in the band's career. Flea joined Navarro for a 1997 reunion tour of Jane's Addiction, and Navarro and Kiedis slipped back into old drug habits. Navarro quit the group in 1998 to pursue solo ambitions, casting the future of the band in doubt.
Instead of breaking up, however, the Chili Peppers invited Frusciante to return, the guitarist having recovered from a severe drug addiction. The subsequent album, Californication (Number Three, 1999), was a commercial and critical triumph. The Chili Peppers were back on top with hit singles "Scar Tissue" (Number Nine) and "Otherside" (Number 14) and a major tour that included a fateful show at Woodstock '99, where the group had the dubious distinction of performing as a fiery melee erupted.
By The Way (Number Two) was released in 2002 and found Frusciante digging into the complexities of multi-tonal, layered guitar tracking. In 2006, the ambitious double album Stadium Arcadium (Number One) was the first Chili Peppers' record to top the charts and earned the band Grammys for Best Rock Album, Best Rock Song ("Dani California," Number Six), Best Rock Performance By a Duo Or Group With Vocal and Best Producer (Rick Rubin).
But for the occasional live appearance, the Chili Peppers spent the next two years on hiatus as Frusciante — with the occasional help from Flea — and Smith embarked on solo careers. Frusciante announced in late 2009 that he was leaving the band a second time to focus on other projects. The Chili Peppers' follow-up to Stadium Arcadium is set for release in late 2010.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Joel Hoard contributed to this story.