These days, Red Hot Chili Peppers are Rock and Roll Hall of Famers with a string of successful albums that have helped define their careers. But in 1984, the young rockers were just getting started, fresh out of high school and looking to make a name for themselves in the music industry. And while the band’s self-titled debut disc, released on Aug. 10, 1984, wouldn’t go on to sell millions of records or even generate a breakout hit, it showed the promise of things to come.
The original lineup featured Red Hot Chili Peppers mainstays Anthony Kiedis on vocals and Flea on bass, with future Pearl Jam drummer Jack Irons and guitarist Hillel Slovak rounding out the band. Originally performing under the name Tony Flow and the Masters of Mayhem, they played their first show at the Rhythm Lounge to approximately 30 people. That show went so well, they were asked back and eventually decided to change their name to the Red Hot Chili Peppers after realizing there might be a future.
Word began to spread about the band, but there was one big problem—Slovak and Irons were engaged in another band called What Is This?, and just as the Red Hot Chili Peppers were starting to get brand attention, What Is This? signed a record deal with MCA. Six songs from the band’s initial shows with Irons and Slovak appeared on their first demo tape, but in order for the Red Hot Chili Peppers to continue, they needed to find a new guitarist and drummer. Initially, the band called on Cliff Martinez and Dix Denney, members of LA punk band The Weirdos, but Denney didn’t pan out, leaving the band looking for a guitarist. They landed on Jack Sherman as a replacement for Slovak.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Get Up and Jump”
Sherman’s time with the band was tumultuous but also influential. This was told by producer Andy Gill Diffuser, “Personality-wise, it was clear he wasn’t going to last. Jack was macrobiotic. They were into their drugs at the time, and there was a bit of a clash there. But Jack actually turned them over to Funkadelic—they really didn’t know anything about it , so he brought some of that to the band.” The guitarist would not last the touring cycle with the band and eventually sued the group due to the emotional distress caused during his tenure. Eventually, Slovak and Irons would return to the group, but Sherman and Martinez stand as the musicians of record on the self-titled debut.
The band chose Gill to produce their album as he was a personal hero, having been a member of Gang of four. He recalls, “When I first met (Red Hot Chili Peppers), they were big fans. There’s a Gang of Four song called ‘Not Great Men,’ and they said that’s why they started their band. That song just became them. They were very… they loved that kind of guitar music, funky guitar music, I guess you could say. They were doing their own kind of funky semi-rapped stuff at the time, and they also had these very fast, short punk rock songs. At the time, there were a lot of bands doing that super fast music, all in two minutes. I thought it wasn’t interesting — it was just kind of a different version of punk rock. But the other stuff I thought it was really interesting and cool. My biggest contribution to them was probably to kind of get them to not concentrate too much on those punk rock songs and get them to make it more funky.”
But as a new band, there were a few growing pains. The group argued with Gill over the sound, saying they were not thrilled with the results of their debut disc. Anthony Kiedis commented, “Andy’s thing was to have a hit at any cost, but it was such a mistake to have an agenda.” He also wrote in his Scar tissue book, “For the first few days in the studio, everything seemed fine. But I quickly realized that Andy was going for a sound that wasn’t us. By the end of the sessions, Flea and I literally stomped out of the studio into the control room, crawled over the console’s VU meters and screamed, ‘F– you! We hate you!'”
This led to an incident between Gill and the band, where they took out their frustrations by leaving a dump on the recording console for Gill. As Flea would later reveal in line the notes for the album: “At one point during recording I said, ‘I’ve got to take a s–t’… Andy replied in his dry holier-than-thou English way, ‘Oh, how charming, bring it back to me will you? ‘ So Anthony and I went into the bathroom down the hall and got a piece of cardboard and I rocked a big old duke on it and we brought it to the control room and put it down on the mixing board in front of him … Oh that was fun.” In retrospect, Flea stated that while Andy and the Gang of Four were an influence, he felt that Gill did not understand the album the band was trying to make.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Mommy Where’s Daddy?”
He also stated that while Sherman and Martinez were part of the album, they probably should have stuck with Slovak and Irons. “Honestly, in retrospect, the smart thing to do would have been to try to keep Jack and Hillel there at least during the recording process to preserve the original raw and rolling rockin’ feel we had at the time, and I think we would have made a more intense and precise record that captures a deep hard groove,” says Flea. “But we still did our best and wrote some good stuff with those two, especially”Mom, where’s dad?.'” That song would feature guest backing vocals by Gwen Dickey, who sang in ’70s disco group Rose Royce.
The album attracted a lot of attention. “Real men don’t kill coyotes” would be released as their first music video. The bass-driven track would be slightly slower than the tempo of most future Chili Peppers songs, but it was an entry point for fans to familiarize themselves with their funkier sound. Meanwhile, the funk was infused”Stand up and jump” was released as the first official single. The song was the second number ever written by the Chili Peppers, following on the heels of “Out in LA,” a track that Kiedis had improvised as a rap poem.
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”
Another favorite from the album was “Green Skies.” Flea says in the album’s liner notes: “I was so excited when Anthony wrote the lyrics for ‘Green Heaven.’ I used to call everyone I knew and read them to them over the phone. I remember when we recorded that demo, furiously banging away at that bass. I felt this ethereal floating feeling. I was just disappearing into the beat and I’m sure we all shared that. To this day, that’s the feeling I always strive for when I’m in the studio recording. I touch it sometimes. I always know if I’m playing well, know what it does to my body.”
The disc also featured a cover of Hank Williams’ “Why Don’t You Love Me,” with a Chili Peppers stamp, of course. “We used to listen to Hank Williams a lot with Bobby, and that had a lot to do with ‘Why Don’t You Love Me,'” says Flea. “However, most of it just came out of the intense fire and ice style relationship between me and AK. I think there were a lot of times where we were all each other.”
While the album may not have turned out the way the band wanted, there were the seeds of something big on the horizon. As Flea reflected, “I used to really regret that we didn’t make the record I thought we could, that it could have been a classic record, but Anthony recently pointed out to me that it was all part of our learning process and had we been too good too fast, we would never have continued the long and rich growth process we are still in the process of.”