40 years ago today, the music was world changed forever by a popular band from the Los Angeles club scene. Van Halen unleashed one of the most important albums ever.
Author Greg Renoff writes in magnificent detail on Van Halen’s assent to greatness in his book Van Halen Rising. The band worked tirelessly on the L.A. backyard and club circuit to eventually get noticed by Gene Simmons of KISS, who produced their first demo. KISS manager Bill Aucoin, who would later regret his decision, said the band “had no chance of making it” and passed. Shorty after that, famed producer Ted Templeman saw the band in front of a small crowd and was blown away. The next night, he brought Warner Brother’s executive Mo Ostin with him to watch Van Halen, and both decided that they needed to be signed. Remarkably, Van Halen still was an afterthought to some extent. Famed producer Bob Ezrin thought little of them, while many of the brass at Warner Brothers focused on the Sex Pistols as being the next big thing. They were all wrong.
Van Halen was the perfect storm. The front man, while not a virtuoso in the vein of Freddie Mercury, was the embodiment of the California lifestyle. David Lee Roth had boundless energy and a magnificent presence highlighted by his handsome good looks, perfect mane of blond hair and incredibly quick wit. Bassist Michael Anthony looked like your older brother’s coolest buddy, kept a solid backbeat and most importantly provided the greatest background vocals ever. Alex Van Halen was a monster plain and simple, hitting the drums with a ferocity that meshed melody with heaviness. Eddie Van Halen was simply a game changer not only in the world of guitar but the world of music. He was eccentric, brilliant and tortured as most geniuses are. His playing was fast and aggressive yet more importantly melodic and unique. He mixed the blues of Clapton with the fusion of Alan Holdsworth and the heaviness of Page and Iommi. Despite these defining properties, Eddie’s playing didn’t sound like anything anyone had ever done. It was heavy, catchy, brutal and harmonious.
Whatever short comings Roth had on the vocal end, producer Templeman nurtured into a powerful performance. The band entered the studio in late August of 1977, where Templeman took all of the perfect ingredients that made up Van Halen and created magic. The result was something sonic that the public never heard before. As the hard rock stalwarts such as Aerosmith, Deep Purple, KISS, Black Sabbath, and Ted Nugent began to fall into disarray and decline, Van Halen would kick the genre into another stratosphere.
I always liked the Kink’s song “You Really Got Me,” but when I heard a newer, more incredible version preceded by a guitar solo that I for the life of me could not comprehend, I could not believe what I just listened to and immediately rushed to the record store to buy Van Halen. The cover was a picture of four of the coolest guys I’ve ever seen. The sound of the album was something new and amazing. Every kid at school and on my block wanted to borrow the album and being the nice guy that I was, I paid the price due to the fact some asshole scratched it. Therefore, I had to buy a second copy.
Van Halen leads off with a cacophony of car horns that end with a simple but memorable one-note bass thump. “Running With the Devil” then proceeds to become an anthem that is impossible to forget. Eddie’s guitar is blistering but once again melodic. Here is where a lot of guitarists missed the point when they decided to copy someone as unique as Van Halen. Eddie really could not be copied, and those who tried became obsessed with the speed while forgoing the melody and pop sensibilities that makes Van Halen great. Sure, it’s hard rock, but it blends together every sort of musical genre that existed. The band was influenced just as much by the Ohio Players as they were by Cream. Templeman did not mess around as he put Eddie’s brilliance in the forefront making “Eruption” the album’s second track. It is the guitar solo to end all guitar solos. It’s a guitar solo that becomes a song. No one has ever eclipsed its beauty. “You Really Got Me” follows. The band takes a famous cover song and has the audacity to make it sound as if it were their own. “Ain’t Talkin ‘bout Love” is another anthem that remains timeless with a powerful chant that is tailor-made for live performances. Side one ends with the frantic “I’m the One”. Eddie rips on guitar so much that one’s head begins to spin only to be delightfully interrupted by some awesome doo-wop scat vocals that make another classic. Side Two begins with the brilliantly heavy pop song “Jamie’s Cryin.” Here is where Anthony’s backup vocals create a song that the hardest of rocker will like but also could be played on any top 40 bubble gum station at the time. “Atomic Punk” is perfection and dare I say at the time, thrash at its best. Eddie once again sends the guitar into another dimension with an intro that features him hitting his strings with his palm while using a heavy flanger effect. “Feel Your Love Tonight” brings the album back to heavy melody with a chorus that remains timeless. “Little Dreamer” turns things down a notch in a good way as Dave shines vocally accompanied once again by Eddie’s game-changing brand of playing. “Ice Cream Man” is a blues cover that Roth demanded as a track on the album and to this day is a staple at live shows featuring Roth. The opening acoustic vignette is fun and a great switch of gears, while the bulk of the song is blues played in the stratosphere called Van Halen. The album ends on an extremely high note with “On Fire”. The song was a long -time opener for the band in early tours and is a pure head banger. Eddie Van Halen, as he does throughout the album, is stellar but it is a simple high string, frantic mute sound that makes “On Fire” an incredibly kick-ass hard rock classic. Eddie’s playing throughout the entire album has incredibly fast leads, great sound effects, masterful hammer-ons but most importantly it is all done with soul, charisma, and melody.
Van Halen was recorded within a few weeks at a total cost of $40,000. The result as stated before, is one of the most important albums ever made. Sales have exceeded over 10 million, and the names of Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth are ones that will forever be a part of our culture in the same way the Beatles and Elvis are. 40 years later, Van Halen remains as fresh and wonderful as the day it was released.
Written by Joe Becht. Follow him on Twitter @JoeBecht
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