Originally published on Forbes.com.
On the surface, Irish rockers U2 appear to have little in common with the Los Angeles funk apostles the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Where U2 are spiritual, the Red Hot Chili Peppers are debaucherous. Where U2 are steady—they have had the same personnel for thirty-eight years—the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ list of former members is in the double digits.
But on the occasion of both bands featuring prominently in Super Bowl XLVIII, it is worth taking a closer look at what the two bands have in common. The Red Hot Chili Peppers joined Bruno Mars to perform “Give It Away” at the halftime show while U2 introduced a new song, “Invisible” via a 60-second mini-video giving viewers the opportunity to download the song for free on iTunes for 24 hours, with Bank of American donating $1 to RED for each download.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers
What else do they share? According to Mirit Eliraz, author of Band Together: Internal Dynamics in U2, R.E.M., Radiohead and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, a lot. “U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers are two bands that have proven indestructible in the face of time and the challenges of continual reinvention,” she told me. Underneath superficial dissimilarities are internal dynamics that distinguish them from most rock n’ roll outfits. Here are six unique features that U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have in common:
1. As teenagers they were drawn together by being outsiders. “We were four completely different people, four people going nowhere,” said Bono, “and we decided to go there together. Four rejects, on all different levels, from the system.” Here’s Anthony Kiedis on his relationship with Flea: “He was a freak and I was a freak, so we decided to freak together.”
Most people in the rock n’ roll pantheon are outsiders. Even Elvis was no typical truck driver walking into his first recording session for Sun wearing a pink shirt and eyeliner. But for U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, their friendship, built on the common ground of being uncommon, came before the music.
2. Both bands serve as surrogate families for their members. Bono and Larry Mullen Jr. of U2 had lost their mothers, and Flea and Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers had come from broken homes. The band came to serve as their family, their source of identity, support and belonging.
“Both quartets are defined by a true gang mentality,” told me Eliraz. “That’s what it really boils down to: a strong sense of being a band and a distinct consciousness of a collective identity, uncompromised even by the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ frequent lineup changes.”
3. U2 and the Red Hot Chili Peppers divide royalties equally no matter what each person’s relative contribution. Most bands allocate royalties based on each person’s contribution, which can create problems as band members compete to get their songs on albums or to increase their relative contribution to each song. Hence the joke, “What was the last thing the drummer said before he was fired? ‘Hey guys, I’ve written a song!’” Once credit and money cloud band members’ judgment about the music, it can be difficult to maintain the high quality of a band’s product. U2 divides credit equally for the music (though not lyrics, which are mostly written by Bono) as do the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who “give it away” to anyone who was present on the jam that created the song. When songwriting credits are allocated equally, everyone in the band feels valued for their hard work and the interests of the songs prevail over personal agendas.
4. Both bands have a loose jam-based songwriting practice. The Red Hot Chili Peppers lay down the basic framework for their songs through extended group jams. Then they polish the songs by developing parts separately, with each person taking charge of their area of expertise. According to their longtime collaborator, producer Rick Rubin, “A lot of bands, people just play their parts, but the Chili Peppers are truly an interactive band.” Likewise U2’s songs emerge out of group jams, a system that Bono has dubbed “Songwriting by Accident.” Like the Peppers, U2 eventually get systematic about polishing their songs, but the genesis is in the group.
It’s not always easy. “When we’re making the records,” Bono has said, “it always feels a bit like we’re drowning, and you do wonder if there’s an easier way. But we seem to need some chaos to bring us together.” But it works, in part because the constant verbal and musical communication and discussions that are required to stay on the same wavelength help maintain the team.
5. They didn’t see fame and riches overnight, so they had time to adjust their internal dynamics to the changes and challenges of success. The Red Hot Chili Peppers didn’t become a household name until their fifth album, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, eight years into their careers. Likewise U2 didn’t make it big until their eleventh year together with The Joshua Tree.
As I’ve argued elsewhere, success may be a good problem to have, but it’s still a problem. With success come new kinds of pressures to keep doing better, invasive exposure into personal lives and ego-inflated temptations to go solo. But because growth was gradual, each band had the opportunity to test their resilience through small challenges and develop coping mechanisms both individually and as a unit. Arguably one of the reasons the Red Hot Chili Peppers lost guitarist John Frusciante following the massive success of Blood Sugar Sex Magik was that, as the newest and youngest member of the band, he had not had time to adjust to life in a band before its success made the experience overwhelming.
6. Both bands see their bands as being greater than themselves. “They never lose sight of the entity and its paramount importance,” told me Eliraz. “Everything is subservient to the interests of the group. Everything is about the group. Even their ego is a group ego. They cultivate pride in their joint exploits, rather than in individual accomplishments.”