Released 25 years ago this month, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ fourth album, Mother’s Milk, marked an artistic and commercial turning point for the band. In retrospect, it’s a wonder the album ever got made.
EMI/Capitol Records was considering dropping the L.A. punk-funk monkeys after their first three albums sold poorly. When guitarist Hillel Slovak died in 1988 and drummer Jack Irons quit, their fate seemed to be sealed.
Bassist Flea and singer Anthony Kiedis vowed to keep going with new drummer Chad Smith and 18-year-old guitarist John Frusciante, a fan who’d “been living, eating and breathing the Red Hot Chili Peppers from the age of 13. For him to join the band is a miracle,” Kiedis said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1989.
The disc kicks off with “Good Time Boys,” but these goofy guys in tube socks were maturing. Kiedis dug deeper with lyrics about the treatment of Native Americans and the toll of addiction. Frusciante and Smith pushed the band toward stronger melodies and a heavier style, reflected on the album.
Mother’s Milk spawned the band’s first hits with “Knock Me Down” and a bass-thumping version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” It also fanned the flames of the new alternative-rock movement, inspired bands including Pearl Jam and Rage Against the Machine and paved the way for the Peppers’ 1991 smash Blood Sugar Sex Magik. The tube socks disappeared, but the band has been packing arenas ever since.