73. Red Hot Chili Peppers - Subway to Venus

The Red Hot Chili Peppers have put out two different "Greatest Hits" albums. The first was 1992's What Hits, while the other was 2003's Greatest Hits. Between the two, there are thirty-four tracks (with a few double ups). "Subway to Venus," one of the best songs of my lifetime, is on neither record. Apparently, the Red Hot Chili Peppers don't agree with me. And judging by the fact that it wasn't a hit record off of 1989's Mother's Milk, not too many other people do either. There are other more popular songs that would make other people's lists: "Under the Bridge," "Scar Tissue," "Give it Away" just to name a few. And I love all of those songs. There's only one problem. They're just not as good as "Subway to Venus" in my mind.

At first I had "Give It Away" as my Red Hot Chili Peppers selection, but then I got in the mood to listen to all sorts of Chili songs and "Subway" just bubbled its way past all the others to the top. "Give It Away" was a huge hit for the band, and there are those of you out there who are completely befuddled by my choice. You might say, "It's like choosing some lame song off of Pop as U2's greatest musical contribution." (Don't get me started, but "Mofo" is one seriously underrated song...) But that's what's great about music. It's what you like. If a song's great to you, then go ahead and make the case for it and maybe you can change some minds. So here's my case for "Subway to Venus."

First off, the song is played at the frenetic "If we don't play this song as fast and as hard as we can our heads might just explode" pace that is typical of so many great Chili Pepper songs. It's got that punk-funk-rap-rock fusion that they basically invented because they couldn't settle on just one style. The blistering pace is kicked off with drummer Chad Smith and Guitarist John Frusciante, both new members of the band for this record. Frusciante replaced original guitarist Hilel Slovak, who died from a heroin overdose after the band's Uplift Mofo Party Plan album, while Smith replaced drummer Jack Irons, whose grief just overwhelmed him and resulted in his departure from the Chili Peppers. Smith plays his snare drum as if each hit was a gunshot (give kudos to producer Michael Beinhorn for this). Frusciante plays with a souped up, acid-rock sound that is completely infectious. When you see him play the song live, you can see in his movements that he's trying to transfer the energy from his body into his guitar.

While the new guys on the block shine in the song's introduction, they're quickly joined by the speedy fretboard boogie of bassist and founding band member, Flea. I could go on for a few pages about Flea and his bass playing. I'm so enamored of it. He not only plays it faster than almost anyone on the planet, but there's a musical complexity that can be easily overlooked since he's "just the bass player." But Flea doesn't let you off so easily. In almost every song, he plays so fast and hard that it's almost like he can't stop it from coming out of his body and fingers. He plays so hard, in fact, that due to the repetitive slapping of his bass (no using picks for Flea), he's worn a deep impression in his thumb that he has to fill with super glue to protect him from working his way down literally to the bone. Singer Anthony Kiedis does his usual rock-rap during the verses, but adds a kind of growl to his style. He sings his way through the choruses while backed up by John & Flea. Then there's the blasting of the trumpet and saxophone throughout, giving the song some extra punch. Overall, everyone's giving a strong and complex musical performance.

Lyrically, the song is all about having a fun time with music. No deep, life-changing platitudes or psychological investigations of childhood. Anthony just wants you to enjoy this jam and help you think about better things. Having the Red Hot Chili Peppers inside your brain can't be a bad thing, and Anthony thinks it's just what you need.

Open your bashful mind
Let my band step inside
and take you on a cosmic ride
With honest sounds i'll paint your brain
For in this song i do proclaim
that once aboard this moving train
I'll do my best to ease your pain

So many of us use music as an escape from parts of our lives that we don't (or can't) deal with. The Red Hot Chili Peppers offer a psychedelic reprieve from the harshness, or maybe just boredom, of daily life. Some bands shy away from that, feeling that they have to "make a difference" for their fans. The Chilis are doing just that, just without pretentious lyrics and that sad bastard serious attitude that so many musicians cling to. Life should fun, they're saying. Why would you waste your time with anything else?

(Fun Fact #42 - The great brass work on this song includes the stellar work of a former trumpet prodigy. That prodigy? Flea. Many experts who heard him play as a youngster thought he could've been a world-class jazz trumpet player if he'd decided to go down that route.)

(Fun Fact #18 - Both Anthony and Flea have dabbled in acting. You can see some of Anthony's finest work as a hostile locals-only surfer in Point Break. Flea does some Oscar-caliber work in Back to the Future II & III, and he was nice as a nihilist in The Big Lebowski.)

Here's a video of the album version of the song.

Here's a great live video from 1989 where you can see the amount of energy the Chilis put into their performance. Also, you can't beat Flea's pants made out of stuffed animals.

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