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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Mayer

History Isn't Shit. Some Music History Might Be. A Startling Find about the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Updated: Dec 22, 2021

Every death drags behinds it a long tail of grief, disruption and sadmin, the painful process of sorting out the messes left by your dear departed. Some of these will be bureaucratic; always there are the physical accretions of life that must be dealt with, the clothes, the belongings, the paperwork. My husband, musician and Gang of Four founder Andy Gill, bequeathed to me an unusual volume of...stuff. It is one year and ten months since my love died, and still I am only in the foothills of wrangling his affairs into order. The pandemic has complicated the process too. Even now I sleep next to a wardrobe full of his clothes. One entire room and several large cupboards are stacked to the brim with boxes of material.

If this were of consequence only to me and the people who knew Andy, perhaps I would simply dispose of it. I can't do that. The letter I sent on Friday to the Andy Gill Music mailing list, reproduced below, explains why. This relates to just one find in Andy's archive. Undoubtedly there is much more of interest. Anyway, enjoy.

Dear all,

This is Catherine Mayer, Andy’s widow. As promised, here’s the lowdown on the notebook I found in his archive—though “archive” implies something far more orderly than the huge drifts of posters and setlists and letters and lyrics, original artwork, emails, texts, photographs and films and SO MUCH MUSIC—on cassette, DAT, hard drives, much of it unpublished and unheard—that I’m struggling to sort through.

A lot of these things relate to Gang of Four, but Andy was also a prolific producer and composer, who collaborated with an incredible roster of musicians. The full significance of many items, notebook included, is apparent only if you know their backstory—and backstories and context are routinely lost when people die. How I wish I’d turned journalist on Andy, recorded at least some of our three decades’ worth of conversations. I drive myself mad trying to remember his anecdotes. There was one involving a hash-dealer called Tony, whose dad, also called Tony and, unlike his son, an upstanding pillar of the community, took a call, from schoolboy Andy or one of his mates. They were hoping for a “pony” of wares. Tony Senior assumed the query related to a gymkhana. This much I remember, but not enough of the detail that made it funny.

Similarly, when I found the red notebook and saw, in Andy’s distinctive scrawl, on its very first page, a list of phone numbers for “Jack, Flea, Cliff, Anthony” and other people and places including Eldorado studios, I knew immediately that it must contain Andy’s notes for the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s self-titled debut album, which Andy produced in 1984. A flick through the pages confirmed this, with notes for every track, timings and observations and to-do lists. A few pages were harder to decipher. Two drawings, occupying a page apiece, didn’t resemble anything Andy would have done. He drew and painted all the time and often sketched little scenes from our life. I messaged the photos to Flea, who confirmed my suspicions. The drawings in the notebook are by Anthony Kiedis.

Even so, it has taken me longer to realise a greater significance to the notebook. A few words on a single page call into question a piece of music history that anyway involved several different accounts and interpretations. Andy and Flea and Anthony have all spoken about artistic and personal tensions during the production of that first Chili Peppers album. It truly delighted Andy that in recent years he’d rekindled his friendship with Flea after bumping into him at Damien Hirst’s 2008 Sotheby’s show; they later caught up at various Chilis gigs, including a great set the band performed for guests at the opening of Damien’s Venice exhibition, Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.

Andy loved the amazing cover of Not Great Men that appears on The Problem of Leisure: A Celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four. (Album artwork, of course, is by Damien.) Flea created the track with John Frusciante and a children’s choir from the Silverlake Conservatory, a wonderful non-profit co-founded by Flea. When Andy asked Flea to do the track, neither man anticipated it would be for a post-mortem tribute album. Nor did Andy know he was dying when he listened to the cover in his hospital bed and dictated an email to Flea about how highly he rated it, how surprising and brilliant an interpretation it was. He would surely have been moved by the beautiful eulogy Flea gave for his memorial too.

The mutual love and respect between Andy and Flea certainly seemed quite a long way from the stories about their time in studio together back at the dawn of the Chilis. Hadn’t Andy told me that the band once left a turd on the mixing desk for him? Indeed, Flea tells a version of that story himself in the liner notes for the album.

That story has been widely and frequently conflated with another, from Anthony’s 2004 autobiography, Scar Tissue. Anthony writes this: “One day, I got a glimpse of Gill's notebook, and next to the song ‘Police Helicopter’, he'd written ‘Shit.’ I was demolished that he had dismissed that as shit. ‘Police Helicopter’ was a jewel in our crown. It embodied the spirit of who we were, which was this kinetic, stabbing, angular, shocking assault force of sound and energy. Reading his notes probably sealed the deal in our minds that ‘Okay, now we're working with the enemy’, It became very much him against us, especially Flea and me. It became a real battle to make the record.” Unsurprisingly, in many tellings, the turd on the mixing desk is assumed to be a direct response to Andy’s note.

The thing is, Andy never wrote “shit” in his notes about “Police Helicopter”. What he did do, as I realised when I studied the notebook, is potentially, in Anthony’s eyes, damn it with faint praise. As you can see, in this list labelled “basics”, he lauds every track but one with words and phrases such as “excellent”, “exquisite” and “in the bag”. Next to “Police Helicopter”, he has written “??? Possible machine job”.

The machine Andy is referring to is a drum machine. Here, in Andy’s own words, from a 2014 interview he gave to Diffuser, is a memory that chimes with the notebook: “I remember having a wonderful argument with Anthony. We had a drum machine and I wanted them to kind of use it as a tempo to guide them, so they didn't speed up too much, and we had this argument. Anthony basically said that it had no soul, so it was therefore wrong to use it. I was really digging in on it, you know, it doesn't matter if it's got a soul or not, it’s going to keep you in time. It was this big old drum machine from the ’80s. At one point, he got on one end of it, and I got the other end of it, and we were shouting back and forth, ‘No! Yes! No! Yes! It's got no soul!’ Then he was calling the box ‘1984,’ meaning it's Big Brother. It's funny the arguments you have in the studio. So, the compromise was, Cliff Martinez, the drummer, was going to listen to it and put down a cowbell and they'd play to the cowbell, which had a soul, obviously. But not the drum machine itself, so that was the compromise."

There’s a photograph I’ve seen all over the internet, taken during the recording of that album. Andy and Flea both stare into the lens, Flea clowning, Andy apparently serene. Everyone else is distracted and in movement. It’s a good metaphor for the process of production and band dynamics. Also, they are all so very young and full of potential.

(BTW, does any of you know who took this photo? I’d love to get an original.)

(UPDATE 22 December 2021: the photographer is Edward Colver. Thanks to Max Elfimov for the tip.)

How many more insights does the notebook hold? How much more is there to discover in Andy’s things? A lot, I’d guess. It’s bittersweet work, but I will keep sifting and sharing what I find. In the meantime, love to the lovely Flea and to all of you.


LISTEN - La Roux - Damaged Goods EP

WATCH - La Roux - Damaged Goods video

WATCH - Andy Gill YouTube channel

LISTEN - The Problem of Leisure: A celebration of Andy Gill and Gang of Four

To sign up to the Andy Gill Music mailing list, click here:

Words, notebook photo and video ©Catherine Mayer 2021

Photograph of Chili Peppers and Andy in studio ©Edward Colver

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