Review Summary: Forty years later, still the pinnacle of Rock 'n' Roll.
One of the funniest scenes in the film Back to the Future
involves the protagonist, Marty McFly, donning the disguise of an omniscient alien in order to convince his teenaged science fiction-loving father to ask his mother to the school dance. Marty’s disguise merely consisted of a hazmat suit, a few Star Wars and Star Trek references, a walkman, and a cassette tape marked “Edward Van Halen”. The humour in this setup stems from the fact that these commonplace items from 1985 would, in 1955, have been completely alien, both literally and figuratively, making Marty’s disguise hilariously believable. Marty’s ingenious ruse, however, had a basis in fact. More than two decades after the fictional setting of this scene, the first time anyone popped a cassette or record carrying the Van Halen name into their stereo or record player, they were assaulted with sounds that were still so far removed from contemporary music that they could only have come from a future alien dimension.
You see, there was a war on for the soul of Rock ’n’ Roll in the 1970’s. Dinosaurs still walked the Earth. The decade had been ruled by the art-school pretensions of Progressive Rock and the ground still trembled beneath the stomping drums of the not-yet-extinct John Bonham and Led Zeppelin. But the Punk Rock cavemen were hunting the dinosaurs, armed with their speed and bludgeons made of three chords. Deep underground, bereft of sunlight, the mole men were building their own arsenal of weapons made of Heavy Metal. And, in Australia, a bunch of bogans were sitting around drinking beer and having a party. Then, on February 10, 1978, the starship Van Halen
landed and, in under 36 minutes, soundly routed all factions...except for those Aussie bogans who are, to this day, still
sitting around drinking beer and having a party.
Now to be fair, it's not as if Van Halen invented the wheel. Eddie Van Halen worshipped at the same altars as every other pubescent '70s guitarist; those of Clapton, Page, Hendrix and Frehley. But Eddie took everything they had done, deconstructed it note-by-note, and completely rebuilt their temple in his own image. EVH may not have been the first to use two-handed tapping or whammy dive bombs or phaser/flanger effects, but he so casually perfected them that it's hard to compare anything he did to their actual progenitors. The guitar solo, which was suffering a long, slow devolution into perfunctory masturbatory excess became, in his hands, an invigorating flight of creativity and drama. At its core, Van Halen's songwriting wasn't all that different from, say, ZZ Top. There was a certain bluesy boogie underlying everything they did, thanks in no small part to the steady rhythmic foundation provided by Alex Van Halen and Michael Anthony. But Eddie approached the music and the electric guitar from angles that had hitherto barely been imagined, let alone attempted, and in the process gave the shuffling Blues wings and taught it to fly.
Of course, it's possible none of that would have mattered if it hadn't been for David Lee Roth's outsize personality matching Eddie Van Halen’s pyrotechnics explosion-for-explosion. To judge Diamond Dave as a singer and lyricist is to completely miss the point of Van Halen. He wasn't a vocalist, he was a frontman. Sure, he sang a bit in between the "whooo's", but he was as much a ringmaster and a clown as he was a singer. If Eddie’s guitar was the estoc
, Dave's schtick was the muleta
distracting you until the killing blow was delivered. Diamond Dave was, and is, every excessive, decadent, rockstar trope made tangible in the vague shape of a human being. While the public soured on the hollow rock god frontman image, David Lee Roth injected a much-needed shot of levity and authenticity into the role by dropping any pretence of ever not
being Diamond Dave. To paraphrase his own words, he wasn’t throwing a party, he
was the party.
A lot could be said, and has been said, about the music on Van Halen’s debut album; about the thumping freight trains of machismo that are “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Atomic Punk”; about the winking humour of “I’m the One” and “Ice Cream Man”; about the sly malevolence of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” and “Jamie’s Crying”; about the arch sentimentality of “You Really Got Me” and “Little Dreamer”; about everything “Eruption”. None of that really needs to be repeated. None of it can
be repeated. Nearly every hard rock musician in the ‘80s tried to re-engineer and repeat the alchemy that was Van Halen
, and most failed miserably.
But, in the end, the only way forward was to dig under the mountain and undermine it rather than try to climb it. Thus, Van Halen was succeeded on Rock ’n’ Roll’s throne by the anti-all-things-Van Halen
Nirvana, possibly marking the beginning of the decline of the empire of Rock ’n’ Roll. Forty years after it first landed, Van Halen
remains the pinnacle of Rock ’n’ Roll. A singular artistic achievement that was equal parts science experiment and bacchanalian orgy, delivered with effortless grace and guileless enthusiasm. It’s a testament to Van Halen
that, four decades later, if someone dropped "Eruption" on you in the middle of the night, you’d still probably think futuristic aliens were invading the planet.
. The music on the “Edward Van Halen” cassette was actually recorded by Eddie himself.
. Legend has it that Eddie honed his chops by slowing down Cream records and learning every Clapton lick note-for-note.
. The estoc
is a matador's sword and the muleta
is the red flag. I just saw Ferdinand
, hence the bullfighting metaphors. It’s not bad for a kid’s movie.
. DLR about Sammy Hagar: “Sammy throws a party; I am
the party.” This is probably the most apt and insightful comparison of the two vocalists that there has ever been.