From the Archive: Rock Albums that Changed the World: Van Halen

Today we got the devastating news that Eddie Van Halen has succumbed to the cancer that he’s been battling for some time. Without a doubt, Eddie was one of a small handful of rock guitarists that changed the world. He quite literally reinvented the rock guitar and the evidence is that all lead guitarists that followed him owe a debt to Eddie’s creativity and ability to imagine beyond the established ways of playing the instrument. A musical prodigy, a great writer of hooks, and a smiling presence on the rock scene through his whole career, we will miss him terribly and wanted to run this article once again as a tribute to the man and his music.

When the debut album of Van Halen was released in February 1978, the rock world was still reeling from the repercussions of the punk explosion of the previous year. The dressing down given by the English punks sent most established rock artists scurrying back to their mansions to regroup and figure out how to move forward in a marketplace where cynicism was the new currency. With arena rockers back on their heels and the zeitgeist whirling in a vacuum, the span between the killing off of the status quo in rock and the coming of the new normal brought by MTV (roughly 1978-1982) were among the most interesting, exciting years that rock music has ever offered to its audience. 

The change in mood simply needed to be reckoned with and a punk influence was palpable in the late-70s works of ascendent rockers Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. “I Need to Know” sounds like Petty wrote it after an inspiring night at CBGBs. Springsteen pared down the overblown Phil Spector “wall of sound” of Born to Run to the punchy, more direct approach of the Darkness On the Edge of Town album. And the Stones’ resurgent Some Girls album owes much to the pure energy and search for newness that was filtering through the rock world in the wake of the seismic event that was the punk revolution.

The span between the killing off of the status quo in rock and the coming of the new normal brought by MTV were among the most interesting, exciting years that rock music has ever offered to its audience

It was a new era and new terms were generated to help music fans navigate the musical terrain. “Post-punk” broadly covered the more avant-garde strains of bands: the abstract minimalism of Wire and The Cure, the dark explorations of goth pioneers Bauhaus and Siouxsie and the Banshees, brutalists Joy Division and Public Image Ltd, and nervy, noisy funk purveyors, Gang of Four, along with American art-rockers Talking Heads and Devo, and Bowie’s deep dive into his musical paint box with his Berlin Trio and Scary Monsters albums. 

“New Wave” was used to describe more pop-song oriented bands and artists: British pub rockers Nick Lowe, Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, and Squeeze, American power pop bands like Cheap Trick, The Romantics, The Plimsouls, and The Knack, and eventually synth-pop groups and artists influenced by Krautrock pioneers Kraftwerk including Gary Numan, Human League, Depeche Mode, The Eurythmics, Ultravox, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, and Duran Duran. Meanwhile, pioneering punk bands expanded their vistas and developed their sound and musical missions on such groundbreaking albums as London Calling by The Clash and All Mod Cons by The Jam, while new punk-inspired rock bands such as The Pretenders, Hüsker Dü, and The Replacements started to spring up in droves.

It was a time of upheaval, with an avalanche of new trends and styles. Musical cross-currents created interesting hybrids when mixed with the power of drums and electric guitars and amplifiers. Reggae and funk, Afrobeat and hip-hop, electronica, all contributed to the new sounds. Ska music inspired a whole two-tone movement of multiracial bands in England. Fashion trends flowed in and out and androgyny became the norm. Everything was in flux.

And through all of this stylistic experimentation, extended jams and guitar heroes were conspicuously absent. Also suddenly passé was the opulence of jet-setting rock stars and their grandiose onstage manner. Hair was as cropped as the length of the guitar solos when they could even be spotted, and huge Marshall stacks, smoke machines, and pyrotechnics were replaced by a clean minimalism, small amps, and guitars and keyboards filtered through effects pedals and reverb boxes. 

In this time of swirling invention and innovation, the arrival of the strutting, guitar-wielding, spandex-wearing, stage-leaping, charmless, anachronistic Van Halen should have landed with a thud. On the contrary, their 1978 self-titled album was one of rock’s most successful debuts, followed by 4 top ten albums, and all 5 albums certified between 2x and 10x platinum. The band in its first years, the David Lee Roth era, were massive sellers, huge concert draws, and though their cock-rocking swagger was in many ways a throwback, Van Halen were true originals, pioneers who influenced all of their peers and spawned a new genre of rock and a slew of pop-metal, later termed “hair band” imitators, none of which came close to the quality and audacity of the original item.

Eddie and older brother Alex Van Halen were born in Amsterdam into a musical family and migrated with their parents to California when they were ages 7 and 9. Blessed with a deadly musical ear, Eddie became proficient at classical piano without learning to read music, a skill he has still yet to acquire. Moving over to drums to play with Alex who was mastering the guitar, the two brothers switched instruments however when Alex was found to have secretly learned to play the kit while Eddie was out every day on his paper route earning the money to pay for it.

Playing in bands together steadily from ages 9 and 11 through high school, they eventually picked up bass player Mark Anthony and finally David Lee Roth on vocals and by 1974, the band was a unit performing under the name Genesis, but later changing their name to Mammoth when they discovered that the name had already been taken. It was Roth that insisted that the band should perform as Van Halen, and soon they were gigging around and madly self-promoting. Over the next three years they gained a strong following, becoming a staple of hotel bars and local taverns, including Gazarri’s and other rock clubs along Hollywood’s famed Sunset Strip. In 1977, Gene Simmons of KISS found them and financed their 24-track demo tape after seeing them live, but cut ties with the band after they refused to take his advice to change their name to “Daddy Longlegs” and after being told by his manager that Van Halen had no chance of making it (Simmons still owns the 15-song demo recorded at New York’s Electric Lady Studios). Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman caught them at a subsequent gig, however, and signed them to Warner Brothers, releasing their debut album the next year with Templeman producing.

Ted Templeman was not a hard rock producer and his long-time engineer Donn Landee was not a hard rock specialist. Templeman’s savvy in producing the band was in spotting their talent, booking the right studio with the right vibe and staff, and then not interfering, except to help choose takes and to keep the project moving along. After the first day of recording — 28 songs in two hours (!) —  the team “knew the band could play,” says Landee and, and instead of using the usual meticulous methods, Templeman knew that he wanted to capture the band’s live energy, and decided to record the band live to 24-track tape (using 16 separate mics on the drums, but live to tape). Over the course of a few recording dates at Sunset Sound in Hollywood, the band nailed the album, recording with very few overdubs and a minimum of double-tracking, including David Lee Roth’s lead vocals which were sung in isolation, live with the band. The few remaining tracks on the 24-track were used for background vocals.

The album’s commercial hard rock sound had everything to do with the prodigious talents of the band, their refined pop sensibilities, and the tight polish they acquired through years of gigging and relied very little on studio trickery and a producer’s heavy hand. With the band’s showy, explosive sense of dynamics, a charismatic frontman in Roth, and a tongue in cheek sense of humor, Van Halen burst onto the rock scene fully formed with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb.

The appeal of the band was huge and their timing was ripe, filling a void left by the retreat of hard rock’s old guard. Van Halen arrived with a killer combination of swagger and great songs and soon were crashing rock radio’s heavy rotation with the five singles released from the debut album. Though they had yet to crossover onto the pop charts, Van Halen was a dominant presence on rock radio all through the David Lee Roth years, culminating with their biggest hit, “Jump” which rose to #1 in 1984. 

Van Halen burst onto the rock scene fully formed with all the subtlety of an atomic bomb

From the beginning, “Running with the Devil,” “On Fire,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” and the best of them, “Jamie’s Cryin’” provided a string of hits for the band from their debut, starting with the release of their first single, an audacious cover of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” a track that the band rush-released because Eddie had let on to members of the band Angel that they had recorded a version of the song and producer Ted Templeman found out that Angel had recorded their own version the next day. Reportedly Eddie was disappointed that Templeman was going to go ahead with a cover tune as Van Halen’s very first release, preferring to go with one of their own songs instead, “Jamie’s Cryin’.”

Hit singles are the currency of the music industry and it’s hard to survive in a competitive business without them. Van Halen’s radio success is a feather in their cap and a tribute to their ability to write a good hook and bring it off with true charisma, but that is not where their essence lies. As for the astonishing power and impact of the band, their reason for being, all is attributable to their uniquely gifted leader, the great innovator of his age, Edward Van Halen, a true genius of the electric guitar.

An inspiring virtuoso and genuine trailblazer, Eddie redefined the electric guitar and its range of expression and sheer power. He invented his own technique with a flurry of hammer-ons, pull-offs, and especially a two-handed tapping technique, all of which enabled him to not only play faster than anyone, but to conceive of new dimensions of rhythm, subdivisions of the beat not imaginable or immediately understandable to the human ear, at least not in that pioneering time before the army of imitators rushed in.

Eddie says that he grew up memorizing every lick Clapton ever played, but that he ended up with a style much closer to Jimmy Page. Maybe so at some interim stage, but the Eddie Van Halen that arrived on the scene in 1978 was fully formed, as if landing from another planet or more likely, from the future.

When Hendrix landed in London in late ‘66, he turned the guitar world upside down with a style so inventive, so expressive, and so audacious that he sent every other guitarist on the scene back to the drawing board, bringing the British Blues movement to an abrupt close and launching a new era of exploration and guitar dominance. Every rock fan has a guitar hero. There have been many geniuses — Jeff Beck, Jimmy Page, Frank Zappa, Robert Fripp, Duane Allman, Carlos Santana, Alan Holdsworth, Brian May, and so many others — but Eddie Van Halen was more than just an amazingly creative player, he actually rewrote the rules of lead guitar. You can tell by looking at every guitarist that followed him. There simply is the world before Eddie Van Halen and the world after it.

As astonishing as Eddie’s talent is, what’s so impressive about the band is how Van Halen manages to rise to meet and match the blinding charisma of their lead guitarist and the results are truly extraordinary. Listening to their 1978 debut, every attribute of the group’s powerful appeal is on full display. David Lee Roth is a positively explosive frontman, a true original, and a powerhouse singer with his own whimsical take on the role of strutting rock star. The band’s songwriting is incredibly strong, full of great hooks and funky grooves. The minimal production is perfect, highlighting the band’s tight playing and the undeniable power of their union. 

As astonishing as Eddie’s talent is, what’s so impressive about the band is how Van Halen manages to rise to meet and match the blinding charisma of their lead guitarist

It’s not unusual for audiences to be way ahead of critics and Van Halen started filling stadiums as their debut album climbed the charts despite a lukewarm reception by record reviewers. And long before critics woke up to their greatness, a whole pop-metal movement sprung up in their image. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see in hindsight that Eddie Van Halen and his band single-handedly altered the trajectory of rock, saving it from the scrapheap that it was headed for after punk’s guided missile and instead, breathed new life into the whole proposition. If the next wave of rock was as talented and consequential as the band that inspired them, Van Halen would have gone down in history as the great saviors of rock and roll, but that, unfortunately was not to be. Nevertheless, Van Halen’s 1978 debut is one of the most consequential albums ever released, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar playing has jumpstarted the development and richness of the genre, and both deserve a permanent place in the history of rock.

On the recording of the album:

photo credits:
Tiger Photo by Sayantan Kundu from Pexels
California Photo by Katelyn Meininger from Pexels