John Frusciante when playing with the Red Hot Chili Peppers was arguably the most innovative and committed to experimentation guitar player of any band with the success necessary to fill out football arenas. In his solo work he pushed his means of self expression to their outer edge and created wonderful music, that was at times perhaps a little too adventurous even for the Chili Peppers faithful.
During his time with RHCP, especially in his second spell with the group, Frusciante got into the habit of learning and playing covers. The choices were interesting and often times odd. So was the manner of playing them. He might go from covering Donna Summers, to Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Bauhaus or Fleetwood Mac. His love for the music, or for music in general, was always what was on display.
Most of the times Frusciante would deliver renditions of songs in an incredibly fragile and intimate manner, in a tenor tone, usually accompanied solely by his guitar. A lot of the times when he did so, he would be in front of thousands of rock fans. One would assume that many of them having just finished drinking a half dozen beers were waiting to hear “Give it away” or “Suck my kiss”. The fragility of these performances were almost like a signal delivered by Frusciante as to what the intentions of the Chili Peppers were in earnest. It was a way to distance themselves from a “frat boy” rock band mold that some of their material may have unwillingly sentenced them to.
Without any hesitations or irony, Frusciante could take the reins and sing a song like “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John. (He also covered “Your Song” by the same artist). The audience must have sensed that the guitar player was trying to dedicate himself entirely to the music and not delivering the material in any sort of parody form. Then again, some of the fans would just be left surprised and shocked for a whole of 2 or 3 minutes until the drums and bass would float back in.
When John Frusciante joined the Chili Peppers he was to be the replacement of funk-rock virtuoso Hillel Slovak. By most accounts the choice of hiring him was due to his ability to imitate Slovak’s sound. But he brought something else to the group and ultimately to their success as an alternative rock band. Frusciante seems to have an almost religious affection for alternative bands like the Velvet Underground, Joy Division or the Ramones. He also has immense respect for very melodic music like that of Elton John. Besides that, his incredible skill as a guitar player is sometimes intentionally downplayed, opting to emphasize the emotional aspects of the music.
The set of John Frusciante covers added into the Red Hot Chili Peppers became a staple of their live shows. They offer a glimpse into the mind of the guitarist and display his innate fascination with multiple styles and genres of music. They also act as a counterpoint to much of the other material the group would play live. Not least, it’s a symbol of John Frusciante’s vision being redeemed. During his first tenure with the band his approach would sometimes fall under criticism, especially by Anthony Kiedis. Here, during his second stint, Frusciante’s ideas would come to dominate the group’s sound. As for the songs they would put RHCP back within the list of most successful rock bands in the world.
John Frusciante’s art can be better understood through his favorite songs. Take his now-famous cover of Tiny Dancer by Elton John. It is certainly touching, as much as it must have been surprising to hear for the audience expecting high decibel rock. It shows Frusciante’s respect for Elton John, for songwriting, as well giving the guitarist ample room to play with the famous arrangement on guitar.
No Best of John Frusciante has ever been officially released. Perhaps, this is for the best. The musician’s approach to his solo albums was to focus on a time and a place. Because of this, they are best appreciated as one cohesive piece of work each.
But, if a Best Of compilation was to somehow be released, it would be best served if it included some of Frusciante’s covers. Yes, the numerous styles featured in his recordings would also need to be included. His angsty LoFi, as well as the glossier soundtrack work, would need to be featured. But, at his most comfortable John Frusciante seems to be content primarily as a music fan. His love for popular music is sincere and the musician looks happy to be playing his part in it. The music is the place where John Frusciante’s soul lives.
In his second spell with the group, Frusciante also spent a lot of time studying vocal harmonies. This would become part of the distinctive sound of the group for the next albums. One of the greatest inspirations was the music from the ’50s and ’60s and the vocal harmonies of girl groups from that time, like Chantels and the Ronettes.
Primarily known as a lead guitarist, Frusciante’s voice is striking. He often emphasizes high notes, bravely, making good use of his natural tenor. Often, he chooses to soften the singing with a dramatic falsetto. The sound of his voice is always earnest. Never does it search for attention in the way that most singers would use their instrument. Rather, he saves this approach for his lead playing. And, when singing vocals alongside Kiedis, Frusciante is conscious about not competing with his bandmate. Instead he focuses on complimenting the lead vocals, in adding another layer to the music. And it’s no gimmick either. Frusciante takes this role wholeheartedlly seriously.
Frusciante also included covers during his solo shows. Now living a clean and sober lifestyle, he was more enthusiastic about music then ever. Frusciante created a vast and dense output of material throughout the 2000’s, which included his solo albums, collaborations and work with the Chili Peppers.
Alas, Frusciante felt the need to leave the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and while many fans deeply regretted his absence from the group, few imagined he was taking this decision for the wrong reasons. Having reached a high level of discipline and sensibility for the art, Frusciante talked about the need to constantly evolve. One would assume it is not easy for anyone to leave a successful, world-renowned band. But that is exactly what he did. He departed from the RHCP in 2009, for the purposes of pursuing personal and artistic growth. He was replaced by Josh Klinghoffer, a frequent collaborator of Frusciante and the RHCP.
While Josh Klinghoffer has carved his own legacy with RHCP, it is interesting to see how much of John Frusciante’s stage moments and mannerisms have been kept. The covers are still represented in similar fashion. The songs themselves may be different. But, Klinghoffer uses a similar tactic, singing and playing guitar on his own and presenting some tender covers of famous alternative rock artists.
The vocal approach is also similar. This, likely, is largely due to their natural similarities. But, the current RHCP also favors high back-up singing to Kiedis. Falsetto and high register singing are all still emphasized.
While the moments remain beautiful, critics have complained about the relative lack of spontaneity. John Frusciante’s covers seemed off the cuff. Singing them in an arena of rock fans seemed to represent a risk at the time. Is it the same when the formula has been used for so long, even if the results are often very good? It’s best to take things as they are, perhaps.
His creative output has moved into more experimental areas and he has shown and ever growing interest in electronic music,. It was not a move that long time fans had perhaps expected. At one point Frusciante even declared that he was considering not releasing any of his music to the public any longer so as to avoid with having the pressure affect his process of creating music.
If that were the case, and one would perhaps selfishly hope it is not, we are left with his great work as a guitar player, vocalist and interpreter of other artists’work through his covers.