Fair Warning. Van Halen.
1981, Warner Brothers. Producer: Ted Templeman.
Bootleg Cassette, ca. 1983. Purchased, ca. 1998.
IN A NUTSHELL: A record by a band that I describe in one word: “fun!” Eddie Van Halen’s guitar heroics are all over the place on this album, and he always plays with a sense of enjoyment and laughter. David Lee Roth is the clown prince of cock rock, and the band’s rhythm section is second to none. This album has all the hallmarks of a VH classic. It might not be for everyone, but if it’s you get it, you’ll want to get it!
Everyone likes to have fun, right? At least a little bit? I’m sure there are a few people you can think of who seem completely disinclined to have fun. I myself have a relative or two who seem to need a lesson in fun. But I’d venture to say even those dour folks you know who seem to have gone to some weird face gymnasium to build up their Zygomaticus muscles (major and minor) to ensure their lips can never curl into a smile have some little thing in their lives that they consider fun: weather-stripping the house, perhaps, or looking at their Commemorative Spoon collection. Fun means different things to different people, but it’s a universal feeling, known across cultures, throughout history.
Popular music has often celebrated fun, as well. Hit songs from the past 60 years that extoll its virtues include those by Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, Sheryl Crow, Sly & The Family Stone, Madness1, Wang Chung and Tom Tom Club. (Less popular musical artists, such as Bruce Willis and Charles Manson, have also cut tracks about fun). Plenty of other songs describe such fun activities as jumping around, driving around, going on vacation, going to parties, playing basketball, playing baseball, playing cards … even cosplay (sort of). Throw in fun activities like dancing and sex, and it becomes damn difficult to think of a song that isn’t about fun. (Songs by 70s-sad-sack-sap-spewers Bread notwithstanding.)
Despite the universal appeal of fun, and despite the fact that it’s a standard topic of song, musical artists devoted to fun are not typically held in the same regard by critics as those artists with a more serious worldview. The most-admired rock and roll artists from the Turbulent 60s® had at a bare minimum at least one phase, or important work, that touched on universal human and political themes. Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan did, of course, as did The Beatles, James Brown and Marvin Gaye … even good time party-boys The Rolling Stones had their “Street Fighting Man” era. Through the 70s, gravity reigned: The Who wrote operas; Led Zeppelin wrote serious-sounding songs about serious-sounding subjects; prog rockers like Yes and Genesis and Rush demonstrated a serious devotion to virtuosity and Grand Ideas; and earnest dudes with acoustic guitars became unlikely pop stars. Then punk came – and while its pogo-ing fans were having fun, what The Critics™ responded to was the bands’ anger and passion. Fun was certainly a big part of the 70s Disco Movement, but the music itself wasn’t taken very seriously.
The 80s were a heyday for fun-themed music, from Madonna and Michael Jackson to the scourge of Hair Metal. MJ was always a critics’ favorite, and Madonna eventually got there, but the music of the 80s that The Critics tended to love – more serious artists like Tom Waits, The Smiths and Hüsker Dü – weren’t really all that popular in the U.S. in the 80s; they were niche acts. Popular, fun acts like Huey Lewis and The News and Bon Jovi and all the other Hair Metal acts2 were already starting to sound tiresome to critics (and record buyers) by the time the 90s dawned. The lasting 80s rock bands – U2, R.E.M. – were serious bands with some (at times embarrassing) fun thrown in.
Fun mostly took a backseat in 90s pop music. Sure you had some goofballs out there, and the decade’s “Swing Revival” tried to encourage us that fun could be had for a mere 2 years of dance lessons and a few $500 Zoot Suits. But from Gangsta Rap to Grunge to College Music, the 90s were not really an era of much musical fun. Just ask Cher, from Clueless. (Although, to be fair, inter-genre pairings in the decade did produce a pretty fun soundtrack album for Judgment Night.) The music of the 2000s may have had some fun – I was having my own fun with a couple of young kids, so I kind of missed a lot of what happened in that decade. But I’m going to take it for granted that once again, fun was an afterthought for most of what was considered critically-acclaimed music.
I sort of understand why Fun wouldn’t be more critically-appreciated as a musical topic. The fact is, nobody experiences fun the same way, and what’s Fun for one person probably isn’t for another. For example, statutory rape, mass murder and poorly-conceived-and-unsubtly-executed-double-entendres aren’t everyone’s idea of a good time, so it might be difficult for some folks to just accept “hey, it’s fun!” as a reason for finding redeeming qualities about the music. Also, part of what is expected from the arts – any of the arts – is a reflection of the human condition by an artist. The more complete that reflection is, the more deeply a listener will respond to an artist. So, if only the sunny, fun side of life is being reflected by an artist’s work, it may make the listener feel like the artist is either disingenuous or lazy.
However … some musical artists have been celebrated for their achievements in Fun. The recent death of Rock and Roll architect and future only-Rock-and-Roll-name-in-Music-History (according to Chuck Klosterman) Chuck Berry elicited heaping mounds of rightfully-deserved praise on the man.
And something that stood out to me in all of the obituaries, memorials and tributes to the man was how much FUN his music was. Of course, there was a lot of talk about his impact on the sound of Rock and Roll, and about his lyrics, which were the first in rock and roll to express stories poetically about people. But the fact is that his music was always FUN, as well!
He wrote about driving around, about school being boring, rock and roll, the USA, and cars – both fast and not so fast. He had a few serious songs, like “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Memphis, Tennessee,” but even they sounded fun3. He had a signature guitar sound and performance style that wowed audiences, and nobody expected him to get very philosophical with his songs. Nobody clamored for “a different side of Chuck Berry,” in which he plumbed the depths of his mind and soul for multi-layered reflections on life’s true meaning. Listeners wanted Chuck Berry to kick ass, and ass is what he kicked.
It’s in this ass-kickin’, fun-havin’, let’s-just-rock-and-roll, Chuck Berry spirit that I love the band Van Halen. They can be as goofy as that duck-walk, and as dumb as a song about playing guitar, but they have a signature sound and performance style I love, and guitarist Eddie Van Halen is an innovator and sound-generator who stands apart even in a crowded field of rock guitar virtuosos. They are my Chuck Berry4
I remember hearing and seeing Van Halen as a middle schooler in the late 70s. There was a pair of brothers who lived up the street, the Starrs, and they LOVED Van Halen. I was still in my disco/pop phase, so I thought the band – with its scarves and poofy hair and loud guitars and tight pants – were just silly. (Somehow, grown men dressed as a Cowboy, Indian, Biker, Construction Worker, Cop and Army Man didn’t seem all that silly to me. Go figure.) As I moved through high school, Van Halen videos would turn up on MTV, and I sort of shrugged. They weren’t really my thing. But that changed when they released their 1984 album in my junior year of high school, and – pop music fan that I was – I bought in. My good friend and high school music guru Rick immediately told me that 1984 was lame, and brought to school the Van Halen Canon to that point, all on cassette tape5. I bought in big-time, and was just becoming a super-fan when lead singer David Lee “Diamond Dave” Roth left the band in 1985. Neither his new schtick nor the band’s new direction interested me much, so I kept delving into those cassettes.
Being a fan of the “classic” DLR6-era Van Halen is a bit like being a fan of The Three Stooges, an act I also greatly enjoy. With both acts, you’re just going to have to accept that a) much of the stuff they do is ridiculous; b) some of the stuff they do is going to miss the mark; and c) you’ll meet as many people who hate the act, and judge you for your love, as you will those who understand. But fuck them. An interesting thing about being human is that you can’t really control what it is that’ll make you laugh or tickle your music-receptors. Both tastes, all tastes, evolve, for sure, but I find that certain stimuli abide, and never lose their power to excite. And the opening of the Fair Warning album, the song “Mean Street,” excites me every time.
It opens with some weird, fabulous guitar nonsense from Eddie. This album was the band’s fourth in four years, and fans were expecting guitar histrionics and brand new sounds from Eddie every time out, and it sounds like he wanted to get some of it out of the way right off the bat. Then its a simple, driving riff that propels the entire song. I’m not going to get into D.L. Roth’s lyrics just yet, but I will say that I doubt that this son of a wealthy ophthalmologist, from a long line of wealthy doctors, has really only ever known the Mean Streets, as claimed. One of the finest, and least-appreciated, aspects of Van Halen albums has always been bassist Michael Anthony’s harmony vocals. They are perhaps the “Larry Fine” of the band, if we’re going with a Three Stooges analogy; always providing a small, key piece to lift group performances to a higher level. At about 2:20, above, Eddie begins a really cool guitar solo that almost sounds Arabic in places. He’s known for playing very fast, but it’s not just the speed that’s amazing: it’s the style and the sound, as well. His brother, Alex, pounds a great drum track throughout, especially during the nice little breakdown part, at about 3:15, and then it’s on to the end of the song. Just as The Three Stooges were smart enough to make short films, Van Halen knows that it’s in their interest to keep songs compact, and I rarely hear a song of their’s that I think “Okay, time to end it, boys.”
Van Halen appreciation is easiest if – regardless of gender – you are at peace with your inner 13-year-old-boy. You’ll need that comfort to fully comprehend the genius7 of a song like “Dirty Movies,” allowing you to either laugh off or fully embrace the song’s juvenile reflection on pornography and its performers8.
But as with every goddamned song Van Halen ever made, the focus should be squarely on Eddie and what he says with his guitar, instead of what any lyrics might say. (And I’ll get into lyrics soon … I swear.) This song opens with a nice, gentle swing beat courtesy of the terrific Alex Van Halen, and cool bass harmonics by Anthony. Eddie’s guitar squawks give way to a fluid solo, about 0:40, and the entire thing builds to a very strong intro riff about 0:49. The band often throws interesting little song-structure things into songs, like, for instance, at 1:18, when they end the verse with a little syncopated run, or the syncopation behind the pre-chorus, heard about 1:29. It’s things like this that elevate them above other “flashy guitar” bands of the 80s. Anthony’s bass line is particularly nice in the chorus, where – once again – his strong harmonies help lift the song. We Van Halen fans awaiting a scorching solo actually have to look elsewhere, as Eddie confines his histrionics to background wails and runs.
I remember reading a quote from David Lee Roth – who, during those wild and woolly early MTV days was always good for a hilarious quote – regarding his lyrics. I scoured the internet looking for it, but I couldn’t come up with it. But I recall him stating words to this effect: “nobody comes to Van Halen because of the lyrics. I write them during time-outs watching football on TV.” However, this lack of effort hasn’t left him as a lyricist without personal style. It’s hard to think of anyone else who could pull off such lyrics as “Who’s that babe with the fab-oo-lus (sic) shadow?/It’s only one scene but to me it don’t matter.” Just as some people will never find Moe poking Curly in the eyeballs funny, some people will never appreciate the ridiculous humor of Roth’s lyrics. But I still find myself laughing when I hear lyrics like those in “Sinner’s Swing.”
Couplets such as “She looked so fucking good so sexy and so frail/Something’s got the bite on me I’m going straight to hell” crack me up. And Roth can perform the lyrics well, too; I won’t use the term “sing,” as his delivery varies between singing, speaking, barking and laughing. He doesn’t try to be earnest about thrown-together lyrics such as “No one is above suspicion, no one’s got it wired/I’ll eat it with my fingers want my iron in that fire,” but unleashes them with an implied wink, as if to say, “come on, we’re just having fun!” Alex again shows he’s one of the more inventive drummers in rock, even in the first few seconds as he doubles the main guitar riff on drums. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album, even though – once again – Eddie’s role is mostly left to background runs, although at 1:40 he unleashes a seemingly Galaga-inspired solo that is both impressive and typical. The signature vocal harmonies on the chorus’s “G- g- g- g- g-/Get out and push!” (I do believe Roth when he says he doesn’t spend much time refining the lyrics) are also terrific.
But goofiness aside, just as you’ll find that The Three Stooges are actually far more clever in their wordplay than one would expect given all the slapstick, Van Halen songs are often more interesting musically than expected. A great example of that is the song “Hear About It Later,” a piece that begins with a cool, subtle build-up to a Dave scream. But at the end of the verse, at about 1:18, the band throws in some nifty triplets as Roth sings “tried and convicted, it’s winner take all.” It’s little things like this that elevate their songs beyond the standard hard-rock, guitar-wanking BS.
Similarly, about 2:25, the song smoothly transitions to a nice minor chord in the bridge – again unexpectedly. Then there’s a breakdown at 2:40, and Eddie begins his solo, which sounds like it could be part of a different song. But that’s not a knock – it’s a fantastic bit of playing, and it makes the song interesting, especially when he leaves the solo and the band enters the bridge again. Also, for all I’ve said about Roth and singing and lyrics, he really does have a knack for writing catchy melodies. The song’s got a really great ending, with Eddie playing quintuplets as it draws to a close. Look, it’s not The Brandenburg Concerto, but it is a step or two beyond what one expects from a Guitar God band. And I love it.
Another song I love is the (sort-of) “hit” from the album9, the fun, propulsive “Unchained.” It’s classic VH, with excellent guitar, cool harmonies, great drumming, unexpected musical nuggets, and silly-terrific lyrics by Diamond Dave.
This is a song that I think I could listen to just as the isolated Eddie Van Halen guitar track, and I’d be happy. The entire time he’s making simple stuff sound cool with squawks and flanges and other inventive sounds. Musically, the syncopated rhythms during the pre-chorus – about 0:40 to the descending syncopation around 0:53 – once again show there’s more to the songs than just “4/4, play chords.” At 1:49, Eddie unleashes a weird, noisy solo. Lyrics such as “blue-eyed murder in a satisfied dress” are classics. Plus – as with the entire album – there’s a depth of sound on this (and every DLR-era) Van Halen album. My high school chorus director10 loved the sound of Van Halen albums, and credited their richness to producer Ted Templeman, who gets a vocal credit on this song during the breakdown section, beginning about 2:15. Whatever the case, the entire production is perfectly suited to hold and feature Eddie’s guitar heroics.
The band does a few other things on the album. “Push Comes to Shove” is a subtle, nifty guitar feature, with a disco beat and DL Roth’s crooning about the vagaries of love, while Eddie creates some excellent, angular, reggae-inflected gems and blasts off a terrific, guitar-hero solo. “So This Is Love?” is a shuffling, good-time boogie with – you guessed it – phenomenal guitar. “Sunday Afternoon In The Park/One Foot Out the Door” is a punk song (the latter) with a weird, blobby, guitar-generated introduction (the former). Alex kicks some double-bass drum ass on it, but overall it’s a pretty weak song on which to end a great album.
So, anyway, listen: these are some pretty scary, lousy times in the USA. Your life could use a little more fun, so why not get some from the music you’re listening to? I find it fun being impressed by Eddie’s guitar and Alex’s drums, and enjoying Michael’s harmony vocals and “Diamond” Dave’s ridiculousness … Maybe you’ll find fun somewhere else. But try to make a place for it in your music listening: life’s really too short not to!! In the immortal words of Diamond Dave: “Don’t waste time/g-g-g-g-g get out and push!”
“Hear About It Later”
“Push Comes To Shove”
“So This Is Love?”
“Sunday Afternoon In The Park”
“One Foot Out The Door”