15 Years Ago: Red Hot Chili Peppers Release ‘By the Way’
After the return of guitarist John Frusciante and the success of Californication, what would Red Hot Chili Peppers do for an encore? On July 9, 2002, we found out as the band released their eighth studio album, By the Way.
And while Californication had Frusciante getting back into the flow with the band, By the Way found the more confident guitarist really putting his musical stamp on the music. “Like Californication, writing By the Way has been one of the happiest times of my life,” Frusciante told Total Guitar. “It’s been a chance to just keep on writing better songs and improving my guitar playing.” While Frusciante was largely credited as leading the creative force on the disc, the guitarist viewed it more as a collaborative effort, stating, “I know what Anthony [Kiedis] and Chad [Smith] and Flea have said but I think of it more as a band effort. I do put a lot of energy into everything, sure, but I don’t underestimate that the real energy comes from the four of us. That’s number one over any of our individual efforts.”
Instead of the typical funk-filled fare that fans had become used to, the album leaned more on melody and harmony. At the time, Frusciante was getting more into the ’60s sounds of the Beatles and Beach Boys, while also gaining interest in the doo-wop groups of the era. And while he also was pulling from some of his punk influences, producer Rick Rubin found the sound of the melodic tracks more original and started having the band focus on that material.
“We started finding some magic and some music and some riffs and some rhythms and some jams and some grooves, and we added to it and subtracted from it and pushed it around and put melodies to it,” recalled Kiedis.
The band set up shop for a period at Los Angeles’ famous Chateau Marmont, working out new songs. “We just rented a room on the seventh floor, in the back where it’s a little less noisy, and set up our Pro Tools computer in one room and the microphone in the bedroom and just kind of decorated the room to our liking,” recalled Kiedis to Rolling Stone. “I brought in a bunch of old movie posters from the Forties and the Fifties that I have been collecting. I had a Creature From the Black Lagoon, This Gun for Hire, the original one-sheet. I had Sullivan’s Travels. I had a painting by Andy Warhol of Jean Cocteau. I had another poster that John had given me for my birthday. I’m kind of heavy into Veronica Lake.”
Lyrically, Kiedis was also pulling from his own personal life, telling Billboard at the time, “There are a lot of sort of full-circles in this record because as I was writing, I was with the girl I’ve been with for the last three years. I felt such huge waves of euphoria and elation toward her. But while we were recording the record, we broke up. It wasn’t a ‘confused, what’s going on, tragedy’ break-up. It was kind of a ‘it’s time to go on a new path’ break-up. So then I had the inspiration of that kind of pain and enlightenment of detaching from something that I couldn’t imagine being without a few months before. Both were equally inspiring, and I got the entire spectrum in the making of this record.”
But while creatively things seemed to be working well for Frusciante and Kiedis, a divide came into play for bassist Flea, who almost left the band twice during the period of promotion for the disc. In an interview with Q Magazine, Flea stated, “John went to this whole level of artistry. But he made me feel like I had nothing to offer, like I knew s–t.” Initially, Flea had planned to finish the album but quit before the tour began, but according to Chad Smith, the bassist and guitarist had a meeting to air out their differences. Eventually they began to repair their musical relationship, but Flea would later reveal the idea of exiting the band and becoming a full-time teacher at his Silverlake Conservatory of Music came up again during touring of the album. He explained, “The most painful part of quitting and the thing that stopped me was the idea of telling Anthony.”
In the end, the band recorded 28 songs with 16 being used for the album. Leading the way was the “By the Way” title track. Kiedis told Rolling Stone that the song was penned in the aftermath of 9/11. “John and I took a holiday together over Christmastime down in St. Barts,” recalled Kiedis. “We were out in this perfect blue water, just kind of bobbing in the swell, and we were like, ‘All this talk about the world coming to an end, and it’s such a destructive time — that’s bulls–t.’ There is more infinite beauty out there than there could ever be negativity. It’s just like a growing pain for us — the September 11 thing. It’s just the very nature of existence is there’s this constant struggle between dark and light.” The track connected with fans, spending 14 weeks at No. 1 on the Modern Rock chart and seven weeks on top of the Mainstream Rock chart.
By late summer of 2002, the band would release their second By the Way single, “The Zephyr Song,” one of the band’s more melodic tracks. Like “By the Way,” the band found more of that “infinite beauty,” this time in the healing power of human connection. Though not a chart-topper, the song would peak at No. 6 on the Modern Rock chart and No. 14 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
Red Hot Chili Peppers would find themselves back on the top of the chart though in early 2003 with the release of “Can’t Stop.” One of the songs on the album that did feature some of Flea’s funky bass playing with a bit of Frusciante reggae flare thrown in, the infectious track became one of the bigger songs in the band’s catalog. It topped the Modern Rock chart for three weeks and topped out at No. 15 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
By the time all was said and done, two other songs would be released from the album. “Dosed,” which features four guitars playing completely different riffs, peaked at No. 13 on the Modern Rock chart. Due to its complex nature and multiple guitar parts, the band has avoided the track when it comes to live sets. The other song, the upbeat “Universally Speaking,” only received release in Europe and Australia.
In the end, the By the Way album would be a big success for the band. The album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Album Chart, and was eventually certified double platinum in the United States. Plus, it broadened the musical palate for the group as it showed that fans would be more accepting of their forays into more melodic music moving forward. As drummer Chad Smith commented at the time, “[By the Way] is very honest, raw, emotional music. It’s a very dynamic, rich and lush album. Probably the best collection of Chili Peppers songs we’ve ever put out.”
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