When the Red Hot Chili Peppers stormed onto the music scene in the ’80s, they were a bunch of funky punks who could both rock and rap. The wild boys — who didn’t seem to own a shirt between them — were a rowdy novelty who were part Iggy Pop, part George Clinton, part Grandmaster Flash. 

To many, though, they were ultimately a gimmicky party band — known for performing with nothing but tube socks over their junk — that was not to be taken too seriously. And there was always the sense that they might crash and burn from their own hard partying: In fact, original guitarist Hillel Slovak died of a heroin overdose in 1988.

But somehow, against all odds, the Chili Peppers made it through to the “Otherside.” And 38 years after releasing their self-titled debut, the quartet will be honored with the Global Icon Award when the MTV Video Music Awards take place at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Sunday. Add that to their long list of laurels, which includes eight other VMAs (including the coveted Video Vanguard Award in 2000), six Grammys and a 2012 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Flea and Anthony Kiedis in 1988
Flea and Anthony Kiedis rock the tube-socks-only look during a 1988 Red Hot Chili Peppers performance.
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Seriously, who would have ever thought that the Chili Peppers would end up being a slam-dunk to make the rock hall way back when?

The Global Icon Award comes as they are still filling stadiums on their “Unlimited Love” tour — which takes its title from their latest album — while the dynamic duo of frontman Anthony Kiedis and bassist Flea are both turning 60 in a couple months.

The original Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1988
The original Chili Peppers: Flea, Anthony Kiedis, the late Hillel Slovak and Jack Irons.
picture alliance via Getty Image

When I saw them earlier this month at MetLife Stadium, it was clear that their fan base transcended generations as well as genres with everyone from hipsters to prepsters. And even if they are now becoming elder statesmen of rock, Kiedis and Flea still have a disdain for shirts — and they can both still pull off the bare-torso look.

As I was watching the Chili Peppers being embraced by both O.G. fans and their kids, I was also struck by the fact that few other rock bands could fill a stadium these days. It’s a pretty short list: Rolling Stones, U2, Coldplay and Foo Fighters (when they hopefully come back from drummer Taylor Hawkins’ death).

The Red Hot Chili Peppers at their 2012 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.
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The Red Hot Chili Peppers at the 2007 Grammys.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers won four of their six Grammys in 2007.
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At a time when rock has seen far better days, the Chili Peppers brought a welcome jolt to the genre when they released “Unlimited Love” — their first album since 2016 — this past April. And they’re showing no signs of slowing down, releasing their second LP of 2022, “Return of the Dream Canteen,” on Oct. 14.

Both albums find guitar hero John Frusciante returning to this band of bros after quitting the group for the second time in 2009. No doubt, he has brought richer melodies and musicality to the Chili Peppers since first joining them for their 1989 breakthrough “Mother’s Milk” and then their 1991 classic “Blood Sugar Sex Magik.”

And as these unlikely icons keep on rocking at the VMAs on Sunday, here’s hoping that they can’t stop.


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Tyler Cowan