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Summer scene gets a jolt of L.A.'s rock legacy with Guns N’ Roses, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Prophets of Rage

L.A. rock giants
The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Anthony Keidis, Guns N’ Roses’ Slash, and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello.
(From left: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times; Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Before they were rock stars with one-word stage names, Flea and Slash knew each other as teenagers growing up in Los Angeles in the late 1970s.

“I remember rehearsing once with my first band in my bedroom in Hollywood,” said Flea, now world-famous as the hyperactive bassist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers. “And this 13-year-old kid climbs over the fence — he’s looking through the window, watching us play.” That was Slash, known today as the top-hat-wearing guitarist in Guns N’ Roses.

The musicians grew apart in the late ’80s as their two bands came to signify opposing ideologies: “They were Sunset Strip hair-metal dudes,” Flea said, “and we fancied ourselves these underground art-punk guys. The scenes did not mix.”

Thirty years later, those scenes have largely withered, the result of rock’s overall decline in the face of pop, hip-hop and electronic dance music. Yet the Chili Peppers and Guns N’ Roses are still here — and more or less in the same boat. Along with members of Rage Against the Machine, they’re among the survivors of L.A.’s last big rock moment who are keeping busy this summer on the road or with new music.

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“There’s so few of us left,” Flea said, referring to bands composed of live instrumentalists. “We’re kind of like the last men standing.”

On June 17, the Red Hot Chili Peppers will release “The Getaway,” their first album since 2011. A few days later, Guns N’ Roses are set to launch a North American tour that will reach Dodger Stadium on Aug. 18 and 19.

And after debuting last week with shows at the Whisky a Go Go and the Palladium, Prophets of Rage — which combines Tom Morello, Tim Commerford and Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine with Public Enemy’s Chuck D and B-Real of Cypress Hill — will play arenas, including the Forum, beginning in August.

Other veterans of rock’s mid-’90s heyday in Southern California are back in business as well, including the pop-punk trio Blink-182, which has a new record coming July 1. But if the intervening years have smoothed out many of the differences that once separated these acts (and their audiences), their overlapping returns aren’t without distinctions.

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Axl Rose on Dave Grohl’s throne at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 16.
Axl Rose on Dave Grohl's throne at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 16.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times )

With Guns N’ Roses, touring for the first time in decades with both Slash and frontman Axl Rose, what’s on offer is basically a loud-and-proud nostalgia trip. At April’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival — where, in another indication of rock’s eroding subgenres, an injured Rose performed while seated on a throne borrowed from his onetime nemesis, Dave Grohl — the band played only old songs like “November Rain,” “It’s So Easy” and “Sweet Child o’ Mine.”

It sounded good too — tight and precise yet given to dramatic flourishes — even if Rose’s inability to run across the stage meant the show lacked the live-wire intensity that used to define GNR gigs. The singer’s broken foot is likely to be healed by August, which means he should have some new moves at Dodger Stadium. New tunes, though, seem far less likely.

The Chili Peppers, in contrast, were determined to find fresh sounds for “The Getaway,” which they recorded with the producer Danger Mouse (known for his work with the Black Keys and Gnarls Barkley) instead of their longtime studio guru Rick Rubin.

The record is still rooted in the band’s trademark gestures: Flea’s funky bass lines, for instance, and the goofy jibber-jabber of frontman Anthony Kiedis. But songs like “The Longest Wave” and “We Turn Red” have a lush, almost Beatlesque quality that Flea said reflects the carefully incremental way Danger Mouse had them build the tracks.

“We’d never written like that, and I was nervous about it,” the bassist said. “I didn’t want to lose what makes us unique in this day and age, which is that we’re really able to play live.” At the same time, “mixing up the process” was crucial, Flea insisted. “A band without change is just death, man.”

The Prophets of Rage approach represents something of a middle ground: The group is doing familiar songs — politically motivated tracks by Rage Against the Machine, Public Enemy and Cypress Hill — yet with a novel lineup, as well as a determination to connect the material to the tumult of our current election season.

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“Two-thousand-sixteen is the reason we formed Prophets of Rage,” Morello said. “So this is a band that has to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our legacies and create something that matters right now.”

As vital as Prophets of Rage sounded at the Whisky, one reason Morello and his mates still command attention is because they haven’t been supplanted by a younger generation of rock bands the way Guns N’ Roses and Rage Against the Machine made their immediate forebears appear old-fashioned.

“The model of a drummer, bassist, guitarist and singer — that’s not necessarily what’s going on in music right now,” said Lisa Worden, program director at L.A.’s modern-rock radio station KROQ-FM (106.7). More typical of the moment, Worden added, is a group like Twenty One Pilots, the Ohio duo whose combination of chanted vocals and electronic loops yielded the top-five hit “Stressed Out.”

I’m very rarely excited by a rock band these days. So I don’t know what the place is for us. I’m just proud that we’re still growing.
Flea

In other words, holding on to the more traditional live-band setup (even with tweaks like those the Chili Peppers make on “The Getaway”) can help an act speak to fans for whom that model remains valuable. And if it does nothing to boost their appeal among kids who place no importance on the sight of a guy behind a drum kit? Flea is OK with that.

“Look, I love the idea of touching the hearts of the world — of being a real cultural phenomenon,” the bassist said. “But even with me, I’m very rarely excited by a rock band these days. So I don’t know what the place is for us. I’m just proud that we’re still growing — and still being ourselves.”

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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