"Flea had this big pipe and was beating it, I’m playing car wheel brake drums and Anthony was playing a garbage can" - the story of Red Hot Chili Peppers' Breaking The Girl

Red Hot Chili Peppers
(Image credit: Michel Linssen/Redferns)

For Red Hot Chili Peppers’ 1991 album BloodSugarSexMagik (BSSM) the band seemingly had it all. A breakthrough album with 1989's Mother's Milk, a new line-up with the mercurial John Frusciante on guitar and major tours booked. Yet there was much messiness behind the scenes.

The band were still grieving for guitarist Hillel Slovak, who overdosed on heroin in 1988, a tragedy that prompted frontman Anthony Kiedis to beat his own heroin addiction. A few other guitarists were tried out before Frusciante arrived in 1989. Ironically, Frusciante would soon spiral into heroin abuse himself and leave (in 1992) for six years. On the bright side, the Chili Peppers had great new songs and a new producer, Rick Rubin.

Rubin was a maverick and bought ‘The Mansion’, a 10-bedroom pile in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles. The house had been used by actor Errol Flynn in the '30s and was once home to famed escapologist Harry Houdini. It wasn’t a typical studio, but Rubin and the Chili Peppers agreed they would record there for “the vibe”. Audioslave, The Mars Volta and Slipknot have all since recorded albums at The Mansion.

The basic chords for Breaking The Girl were written by Frusciante, partly inspired by Led Zeppelin’s acoustic forays Friends (III) and The Battle Of Evermore (IV). Kiedis immediately wanted to match Frusciante’s folksy neopsychedelic music to a lyric addressing his recent break-up with model Carmen Hawk.

Kiedis’ words also mused on fears that he was repeating the mistakes of his womanising actor father, John, who had bizarrely organised for Anthony to lose his virginity at just 12 with Kiedis Snr’s own 18-year-old girlfriend. Witness the lyric: “Raised by my dad / Girl of the day / He was my man / That was the way.”

The singer also later mused: “I began to wonder if I was following the standards of my father, jumping from branch to branch… As exciting and temporarily fulfilling as this constant influx of interesting and beautiful girls can be, at the end of the day that shit is lonely and you’re left with nothing.”

I was trying to think like Manic Depression, the Hendrix song, that tom thing… and that’s almost what Breaking The Girl is

Chad Smith

Clearly Breaking The Girl is no ordinary ballad. Unusually in the Chilis’ canon, it’s also in 6/8 time and a true collaboration. As Frusciante said of the Chilis’ modus operandi: “Everybody’s their own boss. I write the guitar parts, Chad does drums, Flea writes the bass and Anthony writes the vocals. Everybody makes suggestions about everyone else’s part. If you really want to do that part, you can do it, but everybody takes suggestions from everybody else.”

Bassist Flea has since revealed he wanted to adapt a “less is more” approach for BSSM: “I had been playing too much prior to that… If I do play something busy, it stands out, instead of the bass being a constant onslaught of notes. Space is good.”

Frusciante concurred, adding: “Space is a huge part of it. Like those parts of life when you’re able to kick back and do nothing – those are amazing parts of life. It’s the same with music… Mother’s Milk doesn’t represent the type of guitar player I am. I’m a bit embarrassed by the album, really.”

Meanwhile, Chad Smith’s Breaking The Girl drum parts were inspired by the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell. “I was trying to think like Manic Depression, the Hendrix song, that tom thing… and that’s almost what Breaking The Girl is. I’ve always been into taking suggestions from other [band members]… Flea’s a very interesting pedestrian drummer and he’ll play a straight roll on a tom and I’ll move it around, but I wouldn’t have thought like that. I kind of digested [Flea’s] version and made it more drum-oriented.”

The percussive bridge is another story altogether. Smith recalls the whole band wanted a “metallic” breakdown. “We sent out the runner guy from the house to go to the dump yard and bring back big metallic pipes and stuff. We sat on the ground in the foyer and Flea had this big pipe and was beating it, and I’m playing [car wheel] brake drums and Anthony was playing a garbage can or something. Then we all kind of switched and double-tracked it and Brendan [O’Brien, engineer] put a mic out there and would say, ‘OK, now you sit closer, you sit farther’… and it was done in half an hour.”

Indeed, working at The Mansion encouraged such improvised recording. While Breaking The Girl’s metalwork was hit in the foyer, Kiedis recorded many vocals in his bedroom and all of Frusciante’s acoustic guitars for BSSM were recorded in his sleeping quarters. For Breaking The Girl, Frusciante played a Maton Messiah 12-string, down-tuned a semitone to Eb. A Mellotron was used for the ‘flute’ parts.

By the time the video for Breaking The Girl was filmed, Frusciante had tumbled into drugs and quit. The Breaking The Girl video is one of only two Chilis videos to feature Arik Marshall (who briefly acted as a replacement before Dave Navarro), the other being If You Have To Ask. But it’s Frusciante who plays both tracks.

Breaking The Girl is an atypical track for the Chilis, but a fan favourite, perhaps because it’s different. To play it, a 12-string will help. If you don’t have one, try to mute strings and use a hard, rhythmic pick attack. As for the junkyard drums? We’ll leave that to you.

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