You could be excused for thinking that the rock book world already has enough tomes on the topic of Van Halen. In the last few decades, we’ve seen autobiographies by David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar, an encyclopedia, an autobiography from an ex-manager and several potted histories of the band’s life and times. Surely there is nothing left but scorched earth, right?
Enter Martin Popoff with Unchained: A Van Halen User’s Manual. His approach is to weave elements of these disparate styles into a single user-friendly tome, built on the usual Popoff framework of exploring a band’s career album by album, song by song. Surprisingly, this combo platter approach works nicely, creating a fun read that encourages you to focus on the music as it layers the reading experience with trivia, opinions and soundbites galore.
In the author’s trademark style, you get a detailed chapter on each studio album plus the two sets of demos they recorded before they were signed and a selection of Roth’s solo albums (the first two hit albums and the later cult favorite, DLR Band). These chapters are a well-assembled mixture of quotes from vintage interviews, interviews done by Popoff himself and critical commentary to stitch it all together.
These chapters expand upon a lot of concepts familiar to the fans – Fair Warning as a dark horse favorite of the catalogue, Diver Down as a rush-job forced by the label, etc. – but you also get interesting insights into topics like why Van Halen II sounds so different from the debut album in terms of material and approach from the debut. Popoff’s extensive knowledge of hard rock and metal allows him to contextualize each album, which comes in handing during the ever-shifting sands of hard rock fashion that occurred during the “Van Hagar” era.
The album explorations also give extensive info about the techniques and equipment that Eddie Van Halen used to get his distinctive guitar sounds: this is not Guitar Center-style tech fetishism, it’s actually key to understanding the guitarist’s “mad scientist” approach to his work. Even better, you learn when the band’s prodigious archive of demos was raided for particular albums: this really comes in handy on the chapter about A Different Kind Of Tension, where the majority of the songs were constructed from vintage, unreleased music.
The Hagar era really comes to life in these pages thanks to extensive interviews with Sammy, who is happy to discuss the songwriting process on every key track from this era as well as his frank assessments of band politics and Eddie’s temperament. His ego flares up amusingly when he discusses Roth, with putdowns often preceded by “I’m not putting him down but…” Similarly fascinating is some fond yet honest commentary from one-off singer Gary Cherone about Van Halen III, often considered the band’s nadir by fans.
And there’s more to Unchained than just a deep-dive into albums. This is not a conventional biography so Popoff treads lightly on some topics (example: the souring of the band’s relationship with original producer Ted Templeman) but he assembles some extra non-album chapters, digressions within chapters and an array of worthwhile sidebars to deepen the reader’s appreciation of the band’s work.
For example, an opening chapter features an interview with Mike Kelley, a scenester in L.A.’s budding hard rock scene of the mid-’70s. He rubbed shoulders with the band during their club days and is able to provide a lot of fascinating info on the band’s genesis. There’s also a section in the Diver Down chapter that explores the band’s famous US Festival appearance and the unique cultural significance of the event.
The sidebars offer the biggest fun. You get stuff you might expect like timelines of events around each album, rankings of the album covers, a breakdown of cover versions (live and studio) done by Van Halen, etc. However, Popoff goes even deeper with commentary-driven lists on the band’s keyboard-driven songs, the sales rankings of different albums, the little “ear candy” elements stashed on various tracks, a rundown of rare tracks from demos that never made it to albums, essays on Eddie’s use of tapping and his famous “Frankenstrat” guitar and more.
A particularly cool sidebar involves Luke Cairo, an expert on Alex Van Halen’s work: he provides commentary on the drummer’s finest moments in the band’s catalog, with plentiful detail on the types of percussion used and the techniques employed on each track. Alex is often overshadowed by his brother’s guitar innovations so this recurring feature allows you to appreciate what a unique and accomplished drummer he is.
In short, Unchained: A Van Halen User’s Manual lives up to its title by offering a smorgasbord of material that the reader can utilize to enhance their understanding and appreciation of this band’s catalog. You can read it cover to cover or just browse wherever your interests take you, ensuring it will become a dog-eared favorite you can return to again and again… even if you’ve got a whole bookshelf of Van Halen material.
Click here for ordering info on this book at Popoff’s website.