Transcript 158: Give It Away

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.


Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today we discover what happens when you give it away.


Hi there! I’m Claude Call.


Here’s some fun trivia for ye. I’d like you to tell me what the following songs have in common musically. We have:

“Love Me Do” by The Beatles

“On the Road Again” by Canned Heat

And “Take the Long Way Home” by Supertramp.

For an extra hint, I could probably add in “Join Together” by The Who. So, musically, what do they have in common? I’ll have that answer for you near the end of the show.


Today we’re talking about the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their first Number One single, “Give It Away.” And before I start, let me throw another quick trivia question at you. How many times does Anthony Kiedis sing the phrase “Give It Away?”

“Give It Away” was written by guitarist John Frusciante and bassist Flea during a jam session before they began recording for their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik. After touring in support of the previous album, Mother’s Milk, the duo was working on a side project called H.A.T.E. with some of the members of the band Fishbone.


When H.A.T.E. did some performances, they’d play this rhythm now and then between songs, but when H.A.T.E. disbanded, they decided to recycle it as a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. As it happened, Anthony Kiedis had a bunch of song fragments floating around in his head, and one of them was a phrase he’d wanted to use, which was “Give it Away.” In his autobiography Scar Tissue, Kiedis said that it was that bassline which inspired him. He was so taken by the way the bass used up the entire length of the instrument’s neck that he jumped up with his notebook in his hand, and began chanting the refrain “give it away, give it away, give it away now.”

So where did the phrase “give it away” come from? It goes back a few years to when Kiedis was dating Nina Hagen. She was a few years older than he was and again, according to his autobiography, she was a mentor to him when he was addicted to heroin. He said that she realized how young and inexperienced he was, so she started dropping these little gems of wisdom on him from time to time. One day he was looking through her closet and he came across a jacket he liked. When he told her he thought it was really cool, she told him to keep it. Her reasoning behind this was an attempt on her part to make her own life more enjoyable, and explained that if you have a closet full of clothes and you try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet and someone sees something they like, if you give it to them, the world is a better place. This was a revelation to Kiedis, who said he’d never in his life thought that way, and he decided to apply it in his own life. When he began getting sober and going to drug and alcohol meetings, he bumped into the philosophy again. The way to maintain your own sobriety is to give it to another suffering alcoholic. Now, that said, it should be noted that throughout the song the lyrics move on from unselfishness to other topics such as Bob Marley, River Phoenix and sex in general.

Now, when “Give it Away” was first released in September 1991 as the leadoff single from Blood Sugar Sex Magik, several stations turned it down. But KROQ in Los Angeles put it in heavy rotation. That, plus positive reviews in the press combined with a press tour in Europe, got the song out in front of the public and helped propel it to the top of Billboard’s Alternative Airplay chart and their Modern Rock tracks chart here in the US. On the Billboard Hot 100, though, it only peaked at Number 73, but it was a top 40 song in several European countries and even made it to Number Nine in the UK. In Australia it topped out at Number 41, in in New Zealand it went to Number 22. But over time I think it’s safe to say that it’s picked up in the general level of esteem among the public, given that to date it’s been certified double platinum, with over two million sales recorded.

Now, I think we need to talk about the video for this song. Kiedis wanted the video to be visually different from other videos, which he felt were starting to all look alike. And sure enough, the sample reels that he got from Warner Brothers pretty much looked like each other. But then he found one made by Stéphane Sedanoui, a French fashion photographer and director. Kiedis and Flea recognized that it didn’t look anything like something you’d see on MTV, so they met with Sedanoui, who proposed “a very desolated, very graphic landscape,” with little focus on anything other than the band members themselves. The finished product has a very experimental look, with lots of different filming techniques mixed together, including superimposed images, wide-angle lenses, split-screens of the same action from different angles, different lighting situations, flashy clothing and reverse film effects, to go with the reversed guitar solo. In that scene, John Frusciante is waving a long aluminum ribbon. When they got to shooting that part of the video, Kiedis says in his autobiography that he was a little nervous about John Frusciante being asked to play with the ribbon, thinking that Frusciante would be less than enthusiastic, but he turned out to love the idea and, according to Kiedis, would have played with it all day if he’d been permitted to. It took them two days to shoot the video out in the desert and cost about $140,000 to produce. The finished product was delivered to both the band, who was in Europe touring to support the album, and to Warner Brothers, who were worried that it would be too weird or too artsy for the general public. But ultimately they let it go out without making any changes. It got huge airplay on MTV and was nominated for three MTV Video Music Awards: Best Alternative Video, Breakthrough Video and Best Art Direction, and won the last two.

“Give It Away” is a staple of the band’s setlist for live performances, including their appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2006 and at the Super Bowl in February 2014. And, of course—of course—the Red Hot Chili Peppers played it during their appearance on The Simpsons, which led to one of my favorite gags on the show. It’s a reference to the Doors’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show:


And finally, before I get to all the trivia, if you’re a fan of the song and you haven’t seen Weird Al Yankovic’s parody video of the song, you definitely need to check it out. It’s called “Bedrock Anthem.” Nuff said.

And for the record, Anthony Kiedis sings “Give it Away” 68 times during the song.

For what it’s worth, including this sentence, I say “Give It Away” thirteen times during this episode.


And now, it’s time to answer the trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about what these songs have in common. And on my list were:

“Love Me Do” by The Beatles

“On the Road Again” by Canned Heat

And “Take the Long Way Home” by Supertramp. Plus an extra bit of “Join Together” by The Who.

Well, the answer is that they all have a harmonica prominent in the song’s opening. “Love Me Do” and “On the Road Again” both open immediately with harmonica, while “Take the Long Way Home” and “Join Together” open with another instrument, but those are just warmups to the harmonica carrying you into the main part of the song. I guess for good measure I could have also thrown in “Midnight Rambler” by the Rolling Stones. I tell you what: there’s something about a well-used harmonica that can really elevate a track.

Before I wrap up, let me tell you a harmonica story that Paul McCartney told during the Got Back Tour. When they first recorded “Love Me Do,” John Lennon was playing the harmonica and singing lead throughout the song, while Paul was only singing backups. So the way they originally played it was having John sing the title, Love me do, and then starting to play the harmonica. But producer George Martin thought it didn’t sound quite right, so he suggested that John play the harmonica on the same beat as the “Do” in “love me do.” Now, remember this is 1962 and they were recording everything at once, no overdubs or anything. So Martin turned to Paul and said, “That means you’re going to have to sing that part.” And Paul said that singing lead wasn’t something he’d considered doing, so he was nervous when he stepped up and sang that part.


And I gotta tell you, I’ve always noticed a little warble in his voice, but the phrase Paul used, which was “Sheer terror,” wasn’t quite what I thought it was.


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