Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40

Van_Halen_album

I’ve been traveling a lot lately. It’s hard to keep up with what’s going on in the world, especially considering how much is actually going on. All of that aside, I saw last month that on February 10th, Van Halen’s self-titled, debut album turned 40 years old. I was thirteen when that album came out and while that seems like a lifetime ago, I didn’t think it had been forty years, or an actual lifetime. As Dylan sang, “Time is a jet plane, moving way too fast.” I saw several of the rock websites and magazines give mention or even full articles to the anniversary, but I couldn’t help but think back to my own experience with this landmark album.

As I’ve often mentioned in the pages of B&V, the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls was the first album I ever purchased with my own money. It was money my Sainted Grandmother had given me for Xmas. She didn’t want to be the one to buy me Some Girls because the back cover was an old-time add for woman’s bras. Grandma was concerned those images might corrupt my young mind… oh, little did she know, that cat was out of the bag. My actual first album ever, which was a gift that Christmas, was Steve Martin’s Wild And Crazy Guy. Comedy albums used to be, as we say, a big fucking deal. Everybody had a copy of that album and would perform the bits in school to make the girls laugh, but that’s another post.

What I don’t often talk about, are the albums I bought after Some Girls. I had been a bit of late bloomer when it came to music. If my brother hadn’t insisted that my mother turn the radio to the rock station in KC, KY/102, while I was in the car, I never would have heard “Shattered” and gotten on this whole rock n roll train. Well, I probably would have, but it would have taken a lot longer. After hearing the Stones that fall, I started tuning into KY/102 regularly. Previously I had only turned on the radio to listen to sports. My God, I was missing out. After hearing the Stones, the world of rock and roll was rapidly opening up to me. Well, as much as it could in the midwest.

While I bought Some Girls over Christmas break of ’79 (again, I was late to the party), buying more albums came slower. To purchase an album you had to have almost $10, a major investment in those times. The second album I ever purchased, was the classic debut album, Van Halen. It had been almost the constant soundtrack of my early rock and roll experience, how could it not be my second ever album? Hearing that band, at that time, you had to own Van Halen’s debut or you had absolutely no street “cred.” We were young, experimenting with beer and other things, and girls were taking up more and more of our mental capacity… Van Halen captured all of that energy in one album.

I can still remember the spring of ’79, eager to show off my new stereo, after riding our bikes around the neighborhood one weekend (pretending we were a motorcycle gang), where there may have been some herbal remedies invoked and drinking a stolen 40 ounce beer between four of us, we made our way back to my room. I unveiled my turntable/radio/cassette unit and two big speakers to my friends. I had just made a major investment on this new album and played Van Halen’s debut three or four times. I decided to show off my depth of music and put my only other album, Some Girls on the stereo. I can still remember my friend (who to protect the guilty, I’ll call) Paul saying, “Dude, put the fucking Van Halen back on.” That’s how huge that record was for us. We listened to it constantly.

1978 was a weird time. The energy and fury of punk was slowly evolving into “new wave” best represented by the music of say, the Cars. Disco was still a poisonous and potent force, especially with my mother, sadly. The legendary rock stars of old had gotten slow… The Stones had sort of captured and absorbed the punk thing on Some Girls. Punk seemed to wake Pete Townshend out of his torpor and he at least came up with a response on “Who Are You?” Springsteen took a huge stylistic left turn from Born to Run and turned up the anger and the guitars (or perhaps the angry guitars?) and put out Darkness On The Edge of Town. Less successful at dealing with punk were Led Zeppelin who just added synths (although that might have been because Jimmy Page was in a heroin cocoon) or Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham with his experiments on Tusk. 

Hard rock was somewhat lost. Kiss was really big at the time, even with some of my comrades. I never got that. I didn’t like Kiss… Aerosmith were at their peak, but they never had the commercial reach of some of the older bands. Judas Priest and the new British metal were doing great things, but you didn’t hear a lot of that out in KC, or at least I didn’t get into that until much later in high school. We were too young to even realize the gravity that rock and roll, hard rock or heavy metal was in such peril. Enter Van Halen.

Their debut wasn’t without controversy. Many critics panned it and the band, especially for their lyrics. They thanked Gene Simmons on the album cover (he’d recorded some demos for them) and the biggest, most nefarious rumor, to my friends and I, was that Van Halen was actually Kiss without their make up. I remember a group of my friends staring at the inside sleeve picture of Michael Anthony, Van Halen’s bass player and harmony vocalist, and thinking, “Hmm, that might be Gene Simmons with his hair dyed.” I laugh now at what a big deal that was to we, the rock purists, a group I had only newly joined.

But my God, the music on this album. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before. It’s always hard to understand the magnitude of something that is so vastly influential that it colors everything that comes after it. The riffs that Eddie Van Halen played had no precedence in the Ritchie Blackmore, Jimmy Page, blues-based riffs we’d all heard before. Aerosmith, while good, didn’t really break any new ground. They were heavier, perhaps. You could draw a line from Chicago Blues to the Stones/the Yardbirds to The Jeff Beck Group to Led Zeppelin to Aerosmith. You couldn’t draw a line from anything to Van Halen. It was like Eddie was a space alien who had landed with his guitar to teach the world to shred. Nobody played like him. It wasn’t until I saw video of him playing up the neck of the guitar that I realized how he was doing some of this stuff. In the early days of Van Halen, Eddie played with his back to the crowd so other guitarists couldn’t rip him off. The song “Eruption” was the most amazing thing we’d ever heard. It was more influenced by classical music than anything I’d heard in the blues rock dominated scene of the time. There would have been no Randy Rhodes without Eddie Van Halen.

Looking at the inner sleeve of the record, and the pictures that had been taken at The Whiskey after a gig, these guys looked like the coolest people on earth. David Lee Roth, the lead singer, was THE MAN! Clearly these guys had discovered what Jeff Beck said when he recruited Rod Stewart to be his front man. The dudes come to see the guitarist, the chicks come for the big, blonde, good looking guy on vocals. There was a menace to the music of Van Halen, but Roth gave it a smirking wink. On the track, “I’m the One,” a great rocker, there’s a barbershop quartet breakdown right in the middle. Out of nowhere. Only someone as cocksure as Roth could have pulled that off. “Bop Bop Shoobie Doo Wah…”? What? Roth and Eddie’s yin/yang thing was magic. Every front man who came after him in the 80s, and many of them sucked, were emulating Roth… Don’t blame him for the pale imitations. Roth was, and in some respects remains, the ultimate teenage boy, full of lusty innuendos and drug references.

The first track I ever heard on the radio was their definitive take on “You Really Got Me,” a Kinks cover. I had to be told by a friend that it was a Kink’s cover. In Van Halen’s hands, they made it their own. The song that drove me to my piggy bank and then to the mall was the epic “Runnin’ With the Devil,” a song that still scares my mother. Although once Valerie Bertinelli married Eddie, she said, “Well, he must be a nice boy after all…” Jesus, mom. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” was another epic, menacing rocker. I read somewhere that to record that track, Roth had been fasting from pot and booze and bad food. When he just couldn’t get the vocal right, he called for a cheeseburger, coke and a joint. After consuming all three, he stepped in and nailed the vocal in 1 take.

“Jamie’s Crying” was as close to this album came to a ballad. It takes the viewpoint of a young girl besieged by horny men after only one thing… “Atomic Punk” is a riff that still is so epic and so original that 40 years in, I’m still not over it. It makes me stand up every time I hear it. The most Roth song here is the only other cover, “Ice Cream Man.” Roth is at his comic best on this one. He starts off with “Dedicate one to the ladies…” In his day he was both cool and funny.

I listen to this album and even at the ripe age of forty it still sounds fresh and original. I wish these guys could have held it together after the wild success of 1984. At this point I’d settle for another reunion album, although this time, I’d like to hear Michael Anthony on bass and harmony vocals. I think that, like Pink Floyd, this is a band we’ll never hear from again. But I urge everyone who is a fan of rock’n’roll and hard rock to purchase this album. It’s essential to any collection.

Cheers!

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Album Lookback: Van Halen – The Smirking Menace of Their Debut at 40

  1. Great work Kenneth!! 1984 was one of my 1st ‘Rock’ cassette tapes. We would cruise Hutch and Wichita in my buddies Dodge Charger jamming to VH!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those were the days, my friend. I had 1984 on vinyl and taped it to cassette so I could listen in my car to and from Manhattan. VH were so epic with Roth. Thank you for reading!

      Like

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