In my youth, like most teenage boys trying to impress girls, I decided to take up playing guitar as being a flautist doesn’t quite give you the same street cred as a guitar or drum sticks do when hanging out in the band room at high school. My guitar teacher introduced to me to a lot of popular music during this period, but the one band that I discovered on my own was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I started playing guitar approximately when the Californication album cycle was coming to an end. I really enjoyed this album and their back-catalog was well suited to teenage boys, so much so, that I rushed out and tried to buy as many albums as I could. This rush caused me to stumble upon their newly returned guitarist, John Frusciante, first solo effort that was released in 1994.
At this time, John Frusciante had just released his third album, but wanting to experience his music in the intended order, I picked up his first album; Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt (henceforth referred to as Niandra LaDes). After spending most of my time listening to the Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and an assortment of other ‘90s heavyweights in the American alternative rock scene, this album was a big awakening.
Filled with streams of consciousness, guitar-laden, lo-fi experimentation, this album sounds nothing like the style of song found on the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ BloodSugarSexMagik (BSSM). BSSM was written and recorded in 1991 at approximately the same recording time as Niandra LaDes. BSSM is arguably Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ best album release. Frusciante had a large role in BSSM’s success and was clearly a very creative time for Frusciante, allegedly due to his copious amounts of drug use in combination with his youthful exuberance, being 21 at the time of recording.
There is a tonal cohesion throughout Niandra LaDes attributed to most tracks being recorded onto a small cassette recording deck. Layers of guitar parts and vocals make up the majority of the sounds. There is some piano work and a number of instances of reversed guitars. This trick involves turning the cassette over in the recorder and recording while the same song is being played backwards (this trick was made famous by Eric Clapton on ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ by The Beatles) in addition to other tape manipulation techniques.
Niandra LaDes’ production seems unconcerned with noise and distortions. As the album moves through its more ‘structured’ first half, usually referred to the “Niandra LaDes half”, many of these tracks are conventional songs, constructed with verses and choruses. However, there are no stringent rules with how they are applied in the songs’ construction.
It opens with Frusciante counting in the first song. This definitely gives the album a demo-recording feel or even a journal entry. This is made more apparent by the scribbling of song lyrics on the album art. Through many songs, Frusciante sings about what he is or has been.
“I’m as happy as can be” (As Can Be).
“I’ve been insane, well the time slow” (Been Insane).
“I’ve got blood on my neck from success” (Blood on My Neck from Success).
These song lyrics from the first half of the album start happy and then descend to a darker place. The untitled songs of Usually Just a T-Shirt (the second half of the album) become frantic, more experimental and definitely strange. Frusciante isn’t concerned with the album’s production; there is no ‘cleaning up’ of the ‘making of’ as done in the first half of the album. Frusciante’s work continues to remain bare and exposed, but increasingly as the surrealism and experimentation continues.
This switch from titled and mostly structured songs to a series of untitled and inconsistent pieces almost reflects his switch from one of the biggest bands in the world, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, to his hermit like self-seclusion. It feels very symbolic, with the first half of the album’s penultimate track ‘Blood on My Neck from Success’. Just from the titles, it is clearly a criticism of the fame and celebrity exposure Frusciante experienced during his time with the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
After one more song in the first half, there is an immediate change to ‘Untitled #1’, which is a 30 second preview of the madness that will follow in this second half of the album. This song is abrupt, strange and sudden; much like Frusciante’s departure from Red Hot Chili Peppers. There are some song-like moments, but many tracks are instrumental and lacking any specific structure. Sections with lyrics seem to crop up through the noise of looped and layered guitar parts. The album ends in a cacophony of noise, where you are lead to believe that the album is literally dissolving in the CD player. Frusciante resurrects his profile in 1994 for an interview, presumably for Niandra LaDes’ release.
Watching this famous VPRO 1994 interview with Frusciante, he appears disheveled and just a shell of the person that he was years ago when he wrote the album. Niandra LaDes acts as his diary, documenting his descent into the dark. Watching the Red Hot Chili Peppers documentary, titled Funky Monks, that captures the making of BSSM, we see a young and exuberant Frusciante with incredible focus and determination to create great music. Three years later, this youthful exuberance is gone replaced with a darker persona.
Niandra LaDes foreshadows this descent. The track ‘Mascara’ features this dark descent where the song ends with multiple lead vocals sung over one another, using lyrics and melodies from songs yet to be heard until later in the album including ‘Been Insane’ and ‘Your Pussy’s Glued to a Building on Fire’. The most tangible aspect of this album is the catharsis that Frusciante seems to be going through. It sounds as though he is exorcising his inner demons. However, unlike other artists, this is not art for others. It is his own exorcism.
So, why does this album need rescuing? For those, who like me, have come to this album from listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Niandra LaDes could easily discarded as a piece of noisy nonsense. Where are the drums? Where are the ‘normal’ songs? Why does it sound like this? These are questions friends of mine asked on their first listening to this album.
Oddly enough, the album is not about the music or the production value. The album is about understanding the context of Frusciante’s time in the limelight with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and his abrupt departure from the band while on tour to support BSSM. This resulted in Frusciante’s subsequent spiral into drug addiction and self-imposed exile from public life. While he was urged by those around him to release Niandra LaDes to showcase his musical genius to the world, Frusciante preferred to hide away in obscurity so that he could make his music.
Niandra LaDes is a musical journey of an artist, bursting at the seams with creative energy while simultaneously struggling against the grain of fame. On this album you can almost hear Frusciante burrowing away, withdrawing within as he attempts to exorcise his demons.
This album is the epitome of DIY. It is all Frusciante. If music is created to have meaning for people, then this album wasn’t made for an audience; rather Niandra LaDes was created only for Frusciante himself. This album is like reading a journal or watching a documentary; -although a very surreal one. The album is not a literal interpretation of Frusciante’s life; rather we infer his dark descent from the lyrics, the sound and the music.
This album was my first musical purchase that sounded genuine to me; it sounded real. It has been 15 years since I first listened to Niandra DaLes and it still leaves a lasting impression on me to this day. To reiterate, this album is not about the production or the performance. Niandra LaDes is Frusciante’s diary and should be listened and treated as a historical narrative. This album is a challenging listening experience, but one to be enjoyed. This album articulates Frusciante’s creative process, that is, a release of his thoughts and feelings into a work of art. It just so happens that this album is a much more confronting work of art.
By all appearances, Frusciante made this album for himself as a demo or as a life journal. If this is so, then by definition this album is not for everyone. But it should be.
The Album Rescue Series (ARS) book will be launched on November 16th 2015 during Melbourne Music Week. The ARS book will feature 35 albums that the press and general public considered to be far from exemplary of a particular artist. This book rights those wrongs. The ARS book is a contributive piece of work by music academics and scholars, each of whom take a unique approach to rescuing an album. ‘Niandra LaDes & Usually Just a T-Shirt’ John Frusciante is authored by Matt Bangerter, one of ARS’s guest authors. Matt Bangerter is a Senior Lecturer at SAE Institute in Melbourne, Australia. (Follow Matt on Twitter @mbangerter)