What a beautiful moment it must have been for the skeletal ex-Chili Peppers’ guitarist, John Frusciante, weighing just 85 pounds (38.5 kilos) following years of heroin abuse, but just clean after three months in rehab, to have bassist Flea turn up at his door and invite him to rejoin the band. And what a way to return this gift from the group by being a key figure in delivering Californication (8 June 1999; Warner Bros. Records), their most commercially successful international release, which produced four hit singles: Around the World, Californication, Otherside and the Grammy Award–winning Scar Tissue. “It was the album that confirmed them as world class,” said one reviewer.
It is impossible to understand this ‘world class’ album without knowing about Frusciante’s journey, which had taken him from deep depression to sublime drug-induced happiness to – perhaps inevitably after five years - death’s door. Thanks to his close friends encouraging him to seek professional help, Frusciante had been ‘reborn’ and embraced new beliefs: “I don't need to take drugs. I feel high all the time right now because of […] trying to constantly be a better musician and eating my health foods and doing yoga,” he said. “I feel so much more high than I did for the last few years of doing drugs.”
Frusciante changed the band's sound altogether, from funk-punk to a cleaner, more melodic, sound, for which, at least on the live versions, he relied on his 1962 Fender Stratocaster and his 1955 Gretsch White Falcon. He is more optimistic and energised and his playing is more versatile; effortlessly moving for example from the the gentle emotion of Porcelain to the funky finger-picking of I Like Dirt.
While his lead guitar playing represented a change of direction for the band, the tight rhythm section, comprised of Chad Smith on drums and Flea on bass make tracks like Around the World, Otherside and the rap-dominated Get on Top work as really outstanding songs. One critic said that “best of all, [Frusciante] makes you forget about that crazy monkey on bass”; that might be amusing but the truth is closer to another reviewer who argued that “if there were a Most Valuable Bass Player award given out in rock, Flea could have laid claim to that bitch ten years running.”
Completing this exceptional ‘recipe’ is the key ingredient of vocalist and lyricist, Anthony Kiedis. While his lyrics are sometimes off-the-wall, he expanded his repertoire from sex and drugs, to, well…sex, drugs, death and California, and produced some outstandingly catchy lines. But far more importantly Kiedis grew enormously as a singer on this album, producing a clean, soulful and richer range on cuts like Scar Tissue, Savior and Otherside.
While Kiedis and Frusciante wrote a lot of the songs, guitar riffs and lyrics in their homes in the Summer of 1998, with Flea and Smith adding their contributions later, credit must also be given to inspired mixing and direction from the Chili’s long-time producer and musical genius, Rick Rubin.
Californication closes with the stripped-down Road Trippin’, with Frusciante on acoustic and Kiedis’ serene voice offering further depth in the Chili Pepper’s style. Frusciante and the band found themselves in confident, passionate and brazen form and suddenly seeking to be “a mirror for the sun.”
It is almost impossible to imagine that without Frusciante’s ‘rebirth’ the band would have reached the dizzy heights of Californication. Full of outstandingly catchy hooks, great guitar, rhythm and vocals, the album is nothing less than a landmark in the Chili Pepper’s career, and the history of rock music in general.