Van Halen. Van Halen.
1978, Warner Bros. Records. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, 1983.
IN A NUTSHELL: Van Halen, the debut album by the band, is exceptional for many reasons: Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, of course, but also Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals, Alex Van Halen’s drumming, the sound of the record, and – perhaps most of all – its musicality. Van Halen is different from other hard rock/metal bands of the era because it adds interesting touches to everything it does. Even front man David Lee Roth’s shenanigans take a backseat to the record’s many charms.
NOTE: The setup – below the line ↓ – might be the best part … Or skip right to the album discussion.
(FURTHERMORE: Fair Warning, VH fans! This post is going to take a little longer than usual to get to the album discussion.)
All of these thoughts about my dad and fatherhood have surfaced while considering not just Van Halen’s debut album, but many types of media from my youth. Van Halen is certainly not the first artist, or the only artist, to present women solely as objects of sexual pleasure. And sure, that drive to derive pleasure, shared by almost all people, is what’s kept humans on Earth for all these years – so it seems like something worth singing about. But like many bands of this era, in this hard rock genre, Van Halen’s message to teen-aged boys was that they should be out there bangin’ some chicks, any (hot) chicks, with little regard for said chicks’ opinions on the matter.
Everything about the band – their look, their sound, their actions – pointed toward the pursuit of some type of desire that was outside the terms of manhood I’d seen in my dad. My family didn’t discuss … that4. I had friends in middle school who loved the mighty VH, but I always left when they played their records. I felt there was something … bad about them. I felt the same way about punk acts as a pre-teen: I was disgusted by these musicians who seemed to disregard the decorum and dignity I knew my dad (and mom) valued, including issues around, you know … that. I ignored them for many years.
It wasn’t until sometime around 1983 that I heard their version of the classic Kinks’ song “You Really Got Me” at a friend’s house, and it suddenly clicked: this band sounds tremendous! By the time their mega-album 1984 came out, I had all their albums on cassette (many dubbed from my friend Rick’s vinyl) and I was listening near-constantly. Sure, the lyrics and front-man David Lee Roth’s antics continued to suggest that, still made me a little uncomfortable, but I just focused on the amazing guitar, the cool harmonies and depth of sound, and the overall sense of FUN the band exuded! There was, and is, much to love about Van Halen besides (or in spite of) that.
First and foremost is Mr. Edward Lodewijk “Eddie” Van Halen, now considered a national treasure worthy of a Smithsonian Institution gathering, heard here introducing himself, his guitar, and the band’s version of “You Really Got Me.”
The solo at the beginning is called “Eruption,” and it sure does sound like one. This song introduced Eddie’s famous “two hand tapping” technique, which he didn’t invent but that he sure did master. All kinds of poofy-haired, pouty guitar players of the 80s tried to hijack his style, but what you realize when you listen closely to Van Halen records is that Eddie is so much more than flash. There’s a musicality to his playing that seems to require his technique. It’s like he had a sound in mind and had to learn the flash to get it out of his head; others learned the flash, then looked for some reason to showcase it. “You Really Got Me” has a straightforward, cool rock sound that the band makes their own. It makes use of bassist Michael Anthony’s terrific high harmonies, doesn’t strain Roth’s (let’s face it) limited singing abilities and allows Eddie to have fun throughout and play a solo (3:05 – 3:27) that sounded like nothing else at the time. I was hooked.
Van Halen may be the album I’ve listened to most often in my entire life. It seems like it was on a constant loop in my room from 1983 – 1985. That siren opening the album, leading to Anthony’s pulsing bass (which he pretends to play with his teeth in the clip below!) and Eddie’s unmistakable riff meant I was home from school and “Runnin’ With the Devil.”
A dorkish, do-gooder kind of teen, I never really ran with any devils but this song made me want to5. I love Eddie’s simple strumming on the upbeat through the verses, which he nicely embellishes with all his harmonic tricks. Roth’s “singing” through the chorus is hilarious. The only way you’re going to appreciate Van Halen is if you make peace with these two facts: he’s a vocalist, not a singer; and he’s sort of a buffoon. Roth isn’t going to write brilliant lyrics, he’s not going to expressively melt hearts with his voice, but he’ll give you a show. And spout weird squawks, shrieks and phrases like (1:41) “God damn babe, you know you like this, I’m only gonna tell you one time, aaaahhhhhh.” Instead of worrying about Roth, listen to the SOUND of this album. The robust bass sound, and the way the guitar, which is clearly the star of the show, is pushed to the front, loud and clear, is really noticeable in Van Halen records. Eddie’s playing is actually subdued (for him) in this song, although his solos are terrific.
A secondary star, often overlooked because of how brightly Eddie shines, is drummer (and Eddie’s older brother) Alex Van Halen. He has the million-piece drum kit, like so many hard rock and metal drummers, but it’s not how many drums he hits that’s as impressive as how well he swings. In “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” it’s his swinging beat that, to my mind, makes it more musical than if played by a band with a different drummer. He keeps it from being a simple pile-driver of a song.
Eddie’s riff is great, and Anthony’s harmony lyrics in the chorus are strong as ever. It’s a catchy song, with a nice breakdown, at 1:54. The breakdown has great rhythmic punctuations, and some more of those fantastic Eddie harmonics. At 3:00 the iconic “Hey! Hey! Hey!” shouts are heard, and at 3:30 during the coda, the band again shows off their musicality with a fantastic ending instead of a simple fade-out. During that earlier breakdown, Roth asks us to feel sorry for the fact that he’s lost a lot of friends – apparently for having a girlfriend with a disease, with whom he’s not in love? I think it’s a waste of time to look too closely at Roth’s lyrics, which I once heard him state he writes during TV commercials, but I do think it’s interesting to look at Roth’s use of the term “love” throughout the record. Here he states clearly he’s not talking about love, and I don’t think he’s talking about “love” whenever he uses the term. He means that thing I dared not talk about when I first heard the band. I wasn’t talking about sex, and he’s not talking about love.
For example, in the fun and catchy “Feel Your Love Tonight.”
I can feel the love of those dear to me whenever I spend time with them. However, I don’t think this is the type of love Roth means when he apologizes for taking this girl “a little too far” in his car, an incident he seems to have told the fellas about behind the bar. In attempting to feel her love (tonight) he uses various tactics: he flatters (“you’re the prettiest girl I know,” although the modifier “I know” sort of undercuts the flattery a tad …); he makes plans (having gotten into work 10 minutes early, he proposes hitting the town after midnight); he warns of vague consequences (“use it before it gets old,” which seems rather alarmist for someone described as a girl); he disparages (“you’ve let your life grow cold,” which may actually touch a nerve, as her trips up and down his road indicate she may have some compulsive tendencies, and she could be the type to stew over her life circumstances …); and finally he begs (on bended knee, no less, which must seem a little bit creepy to her, right?) Anyway, clearly DLR didn’t spend much time on lyrics, and so defaulted to “let’s get laid” themes. But this nonsense aside, the song sounds terrific, with Anthony’s bass pulsing below Eddie’s riffs and Alex’s thumping swing moving it right along. It’s another song in which Eddie’s playing – even on chords in the verses – sounds distinct. The vocal harmonies are once again terrific, and of course, as a Beatles fan, I love the Fab Four-esque “Ooooh” in the chorus.
Roth doesn’t just want to feel “love,” he wants his gal to “show her love,” which I’m presuming does not mean he wants her to leave a cute note in his lunch bag. This request is made on one of my favorite songs on the album, a real feature for drummer Alex, “I’m The One.”
The lyrics may actually be about the love the crowd shows him at his concerts. But why are we discussing words when Eddie is playing stuff like the intro, from the beginning through the incredible run at 0:31? This is a song that demonstrates why Van Halen is different from all the other fast-fingered guitar bands from the 70s and 80s. That introduction, the descending, syncopated pre-chorus (first heard at 0:50), and even the goofy, yet well-done, “Shooby-doo-waa” doo-wop section (2:50) are musical touches that set the band apart. And Alex’s drumming is both bombastic and subtle (if that’s possible): the triplets heading into the second verse (1:45) are cool, and the way he controls the tempo, pulling back slightly through that pre-chorus. The harmonies are great, as usual, and, also as usual, Eddie’s guitar playing is off the wall.
A few of the songs aren’t as interesting as the rest, but even in the rather mundane songs like “Atomic Punk” and “On Fire,” there’s always Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drumming to keep a listener involved. On “Atomic Punk,” the brothers are locked together, Alex answering each of his brother’s riffs, and Eddie plays a solo (1:30) that isn’t particularly flashy, yet is brilliant nonetheless, finding notes that sound like they shouldn’t fit, yet fit perfectly. And Roth’s lyrics take a science fiction turn that’s rather unexpected. “On Fire” features an Edwin Starr-esque “Good God, y’all” from DLR.
One characteristic that definitely set Van Halen apart from many of the imitators was their reluctance (thank heavens) to record a Power Ballad6. They’d play some slower songs, sure, but “Little Dreamer” isn’t a power ballad – no screeching vocals, no “love forever” lyrics. It’s just the VH basics, slowed down: great guitar, great harmonies, and a guitar solo (1:47) that goes in a direction one wouldn’t expect.
I’ve written before that what makes me love VH is their sense of fun, and that sense is certainly evident on the rave-up “Ice Cream Man.”
The David Lee Roth version of the band7 has always loved playing cover songs (besides “You Really Got Me,” the band would also cover The Kinks’ “Where Have All the Good Times Gone?” Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” 60s classics “You’re No Good,” and “Dancing In the Street“), and this is a fine example. It opens with acoustic guitar played by Mr. Roth himself, and singing lyrics well-suited to his persona, but he soon gives way to the full band. Alex again shows his penchant for swing, and the bass is fun, but this is a guitar highlight of the record. Eddie plays a solo at 1:42 that shows all his musical gifts. At 2:40, he and Roth do a call-and-response that’s loads of fun. And loads of fun is how I describe the mighty VH.
“Jamie’s Crying” is one of the band’s most popular songs, and it’s easy to hear why.
It’s got a mid-tempo groove courtesy of Alex’s drums, a terrific melody, a memorable riff and those harmonies again. The syncopated bars just before the chorus again show a musicality many lesser hard rock bands lack. After the second verse, the song picks up a dance beat for a few measures, giving it something else a bit different. Eddie generates a number of sounds in the song, and all fit perfectly. The lyrics are really asshole-y, however, mocking a woman who falls for a man who only wants to have sex with her, not a relationship. Her two choices are to feel sad about not being with him, or to have a one-night stand and then feel worse. Roth sings the song through a smirk, clearly relishing the woman’s heartache. I used to hear this song and think, “Yeah, well, it’s a man’s world. That’s how it goes.” Nowadays I think Roth sounds like an asshole. (I still love the music, though!)Maybe my dad could have done more to make me aware of the world around me, of the privilege I’d been given for simply for having that Y chromosome. Maybe he could have listened to Van Halen with me and pointed out, “You know, these songs about women …” and provided a long discourse on the nature of power and control in human, patriarchal societies. (After all, he did like a few Van Halen songs, including “Big Bad Bill,” “Could This Be Magic?” and their version of Roy Rogers’s “Happy Trails.”) However, this was an impossibility for him for many reasons. But I’d say he did the job well regardless, as he raised three kids who continue to learn and develop and (hopefully!) model those characteristics we observed, even into our 50s. My dad didn’t have any plans for fatherhood, he just had a lot of love. The kind David Lee Roth wasn’t talking about.
“Runnin’ With The Devil”
“You Really Got Me”
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”
“I’m The One”
“Feel Your Love Tonight”
“Ice Cream Man”