The second half of Van Halen’s “Roth Era” delivered three albums that doubled as testaments to the mighty battle of wills going on behind the scenes for the band’s destiny between guitar whiz Eddie Van Halen and frontman David Lee Roth. However, turmoil within a band often creates enough pressure to transform dysfunction into memorable music. That’s exactly the case here as the warfare resulted in an artistically revered fan favorite and two high-charting albums, both of the high-charters also producing noteworthy hit singles. This installment of Catalog Crawl takes you through that bumpy terrain to point out all the hard-rocking wonders within it…
FAIR WARNING (1981): The dark horse of the catalog and the hardcore fan favorite all at once. It sold slower than the others but it’s fiery, full of ideas and a darkness that represented the growing tension between Eddie on one side (who wanted innovation) and the Roth/Templeman team (who wanted hits and live-sounding production, respectively). As a result, music and lyrics went in a grim direction: the coiled, almost fusion-esque “Mean Street” sets the ominous tone, the atmospherically sleazy “Dirty Movies” has a prom princess becoming a porn queen and the ominous, slo-mo funk rock of “Push Comes To Shove” uses romantic breakdown as a metaphor for the fraying band relationships. Even rock radio favorites “Unchained” and “Hear About It Later,” wrap hooks and barnstorming riffs around a sense of despair. Only “So This Is Love” has the joyous swagger of old. Despite the omnipresent darkness, it’s a killer listen with some of Roth’s finest lyrics and vocals – he’s as tough as the music here – and Eddie, who snuck in after sessions to do overdubs behind Templeman’s back, creates an array of guitar tapestries both melodic and bludgeoning as well as some edgy synth textures.
DIVER DOWN (1982): And here’s an album that was a big hit yet remains a subject of debate for the band’s fans. Backstory: the label was pressing the band for more commercial fare after Fair Warning, especially when a sleazed-up hard rock cover of “Pretty Woman” cut as a between-albums single became a surprise hit. Thus, Roth and Templeman led the charge in the studio for a quickly thrown-together album that supplemented just four Van Halen originals with five covers and three brief instrumentals (two of them intros). Despite its random construction, it’s a fun listen that manages to be cohesive thanks to the band’s distinctive approach. All the originals are strong stuff, particularly the rhythmically complex “Little Guitars,” the instrumental stuff adds atmosphere and the covers are intriguingly eclectic, including a radical re-arrangement of “Dancing In The Streets” built on a polyrhythmic synth/guitar blend and the charming pre-rock pop of “Big Bad Bill,” a Judy Garland cover (!) with Van Halen dad Jan contributing some jaunty clarinet. In retrospect, the covers and genre-hopping make this a dry run for Roth’s solo career – and that didn’t help the Eddie/Roth tension. Forgotten gem: “Secrets,” a smooth downtempo cruiser silkily crooned by Roth.
1984 (1984): The power imbalance of Diver Down reversed polarity here, with Eddie hosting sessions at his home studio to keep Roth and Templeman on a short leash. Luckily, Eddie’s tightly-controlled venture turned out to be the most polished and commercial album of the Roth era. His biggest innovation here is pushing synths to the front of the arrangements on a few tracks and racking up hit singles: exuberant electro-AOR/hard rock hybrid “Jump” took its barrage of hooks to #1 while model obsession ode “I’ll Wait” twisted its keyboards in a darkly symphonic way that went top 20. Elsewhere, “Panama” ditched the keyboards to deliver a thrill-a-second rollercoaster of a guitar-driven arrangement that provided another top-20 hit and MTV fave “Hot For Teacher” is like speed metal if it was fun and had hooks, also throwing in cool Gene-Krupa-goes-metal drumming by Alex. Even the album tracks have frills that linger in the memory, like the chiming guitar passages of “Top Jimmy,” the strip club-worthy grind that fuels “Drop Dead Legs” and the tension-and-release theatrics of “Girl Gone Bad.” The excellent end result couldn’t keep ego battles from sinking Van Halen but at least it sent them out on top.
To read Part 1 of Catalog Crawl for Van Halen, click here.