Flea and John Frusciante are critical to the success of Red Hot Chili Peppers, one of rock’s most remarkable groups. Flea primarily plays bass, while Frusciante is best known as the band’s principal guitarist.
They’re both extraordinary in these roles as individuals. Their ability to work well with other great musicians – particularly with each other and alongside drummer Chad Smith and frontman Anthony Kiedis – is also praiseworthy.
Against a turbulent backdrop, eccentricity and accessibility combine in these players’ soundscapes. Their music can be sexy or sad, youthful or world-weary, dark or delightful. Excursions into laidback funk and soft rock temper virtuosity and vigour. This duo doesn’t just build bridges, verses and choruses. They are creators of an unparalleled universe.
Early Promise in the ’80s
As early as their self-titled debut from 1984, Flea was a glorious beast, getting his teeth into great basslines like “True Men Don’t Kill Coyotes”. He later made genius contributions to “Me and My Friends” and “Behind The Sun”, both from the band’s 1987 album, The Uplift Mofo Party Plan.
Then, Frusciante stepped in on guitar, playing on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1989 LP Mother’s Milk. He completed the daunting task well, often delivering high-quality, hard-edged funk-rock, with the closing track, “Johnny…” being one highlight for him and Flea.
The group’s cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” demonstrates Flea’s knack for quickly slapping his instrument and other forms of bass-pummelling closer to punk than funk. Also on that LP is the instrumental, “Pretty Little Ditty”, on which the interplay between Flea and Frusciante is charming.
Explorations in the ’90s
In 1991, Flea and Frusciante played an essential part in making the album Blood Sugar Sex Magik beloved without sacrificing artistry. There can be found understated beauty, irresistible grooves, elaborate virtuosity and explosive chaos.
Even with the marvellous “Soul To Squeeze” excluded, almost all of the songs included in the band’s first top-class LP are strong, and many of Flea and Frusciante’s offerings there are exceptional.
Another slice of Sex Magik, “Give It Away”, recklessly dispenses with the radio rulebook. According to frontman Anthony Kiedis’ autobiography Scar Tissue, one station rejected the single, implying it didn’t “have a melody“. And yet, that song became a commercial hit and live favourite, as did the amazing “Under The Bridge”.
Frusciante quit while the band toured that album, but the remaining members persevered. On 1995’s One Hot Minute, Flea did not disappoint. He proved he could also achieve greatness with another new Red Hot Chili Pepper, Dave Navarro (an experienced guitarist from Jane’s Addiction), with whom he appeared on the song “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morissette.
With Frusciante rejoining after Navarro’s departure, the Red Hot Chili Peppers reemerged with the album Californication in 1999. Kiedis pointed out in his book that Frusciante “developed an incredible minimalist style“. This enhanced the slow-paced “Porcelain”. It also added tension to “Otherside” and enriched the sonic assault heard during the rawest sections of “Around The World”.
That opening track and others on the 1999 album, including the fast-driving “Parallel Universe” and the intricate ‘Easily’, showed the complexity of Flea’s music. His approaches were highly effective, assisting the band in communicating diverse moods on their second classic album.
Turning Heads Again, 2002-06
Building on the foundation laid by Californication for the follow-up, Frusciante delivered gorgeous backing vocals and excellent guitar parts on By The Way. Stating that the album “represented an identity crisis for Flea“, Far Out Magazine says Frusciante was “dictating the album’s more mellow musical direction“, a task which “often included writing basslines…”
In addition to the usual stylistic influences of funk, rap and rock, some tracks have a dance music-related or Latin feel, and there’s even a trumpet solo. This eclectic palette helped form the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ third masterpiece, the sweetness of which was counteracted with moments of melancholia and angularity.
By the mid-’00s, the group had built a strong reputation as a live band, with Flea and Frusciante playing particularly well. The DVD Live at Slane Castle is possibly one of the most brilliant live recordings ever, containing excellent improvisation and fantastic songs. The great 2004 double-CD offering, Live In Hyde Park, features the neglected gem, “Leverage Of Space”.
The next full-length was Stadium Arcadium, with 28 songs, none of which were poor. Its lead single, “Dani California”, had an arena-sized outro, but “Snow” was even better, with its incredible main riff, which Kiedis compared to “flamenco” guitar in a Spotify audio commentary for the album.
As an array of outstanding elements from the band’s past combined, Stadium Arcadium rivals their 2003 compilation Greatest Hits. Largely thanks to Flea and Frusciante, the two-hour-long 2006 effort is one of the best double albums ever.
From the Klinghoffer Years to Dream Canteen, 2011-22
After Frusciante quit again, Josh Klinghoffer – previously a touring Red Hot Chili Pepper – became the band’s primary guitarist. Flea demonstrated he could consistently produce excellence on I’m With You (2011) and The Getaway (2016), even as the rest of the band arguably faltered, at least on the former of those two records. Meanwhile, Frusciante was a ghost that haunted the band, remaining powerful even in his absence, despite the underrated work of Klinghoffer.
In 2022, with Frusciante back in the fold for a third run, the group released an album many bands could never match. Unlimited Love began with “Black Summer”, which possibly has the most expansive Red Hot Chili Peppers bassline ever.
Due in part to solid performances from Frusciante, “Tangelo” and “Veronica” also excelled, as did the diversion into country music, “White Braids…” Flea shone especially brightly on “The Great Apes” and “Aquatic Mouth Dance”.
The band put out another great album less than seven months later. If pure funk exists, many of the songs on Return of the Dream Canteen come close to that, while more unexpected apparent inspirations — taken from classical and 1980s electronic music — are intriguing. However, the LP’s exceptional bass-riff collection is its most fabulous treasure.
Flea has lent a dextrous hand to his Red Hot Chili Peppers bandmates for forty years, producing unmatched consistency and taking the bass into unchartered territory. And, while Frusciante has had a more transient role, he’s arguably no less important, creating extraordinary music on every Red Hot Chili Peppers album he’s been involved in.
Since the close of the 1960s, it is probable that almost no other well-known two-musician partnership has displayed so strongly the combined musical assets of Flea and Frusciante.
Only Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead have been especially near the California-based pair’s frequent quality and sweeping scope. Flea and John Frusciante are one of the greatest duos in pop and alternative music history.
Words by David Lownds (with help from Grammarly Premium)