CATALOG CRAWL: VAN HALEN, Part 1 (1978-1980)

We lost the definitive guitar god of the post-Hendrix era when Eddie Van Halen passed away on October 6th, 2020. It’s not an overstatement to say that he reinvented the sound of hard rock as well as what we would expect from a guitar hero with his self-named band. In their heyday as a recording outfit, roughly 1978 to 1984, Van Halen recorded a string of albums that worked both as party music and high-tech sonic architecture in rock music form. The tension between Eddie and the group’s self-styled hype man David Lee Roth would ultimately deep-six this classic lineup but oh, what a racket they made together. This installment of Catalog Crawl looks at the first half of that era, a time when Van Halen broke all the rules and then rewrote the rulebook to their own specifications.

Members: Eddie Van Halen (guitar), David Lee Roth (vocals), Michael Anthony (bass & backing vocals), Alex Van Halen (drums)

VAN HALEN (1978): not only a perfect debut but the album that invented the sound of 1980’s commercial hard rock: a party-band approach to the genre (“I’m The One”), a little outlaw mythology (“Running With The Devil,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”), a little pop-savvy balladry (“Jamie’s Cryin'”), a fret-scorching mad scientist on guitar and a Vegas-ready master of ceremonies behind the mic.  Ted Templeman’s production is pristine in recording quality but also free of artifice, simply letting this road-tested band ransack the bag of tricks they developed playing backyard parties and clubs. If that’s not enough, Eddie inspires a half-billion Guitar Center students in under two minutes with “Eruption,” they use the blues as a springboard for lusty arena rock with “Ice Cream Man,” mutate metal into proto-hardcore with “Atomic Punk” and create the template for every glam metal band who’d cover a rock standard with their romp through the Kinks chestnut “You Really Got Me.” The icing on top is provided by the Roth/Anthony vocal harmonies, the industry standard for post-Queen/Sweet hard rock… just listen to the delightful surprise doo-wop break in “I’m The One.”

VAN HALEN II (1979): this wasn’t packed with instant standards like the debut but shows a band confidently pursuing their own innovative yet oddly casual style of hard rock. Despite a shoot-from-the-hip approach to songwriting here, they deliver their most charming, radio-friendly song in “Dance The Night Away,” an evocation of party courting rituals with heavenly harmonies at chorus time. The other radio fave is “Beautiful Girls,” a party tune with a jazzy sense of swing: it’s the song that chart-minded hard rock bands of the ’80s would spend their entire careers trying to write.  The rest can be divided into gonzo rockers that manage to be tightly structured as they go over the top (“Somebody Get Me A Doctor,” “Outta Love Again”) and songs that evoke a darker mood, like the brooding downtempo cover of “You’re No Good” and especially the bleak runaway kid character sketch “D.O.A.,” whose streetwise darkness predicts the noirish quality of Fair Warning. Roth is authoritative in both party leader and cynical raconteur modes and Eddie stuffs guitar innovations into every nook and cranny of these tunes without ever making his flourishes to feel like filler (Schlockmania’s favorite: the elegant, effects-filtered intro to “Women In Love”).

WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST (1980): there were no hit singles this time out, a reflection of how the band had settled into delivering state-of-the-art hard rock recorded at the speed of inspiration: “Everybody Wants Some!” emerges from a tribal-beat swamp to deliver a riff-crunching stomper with a shout-along chorus and “Loss Of Control” is essentially hardcore music as played by a Sunset Strip band, also including a fake-out intro that sounds like Black Sabbath. Elsewhere, you get some surprising mutant boogie with “Fools,” a teenage lament that starts with Roth wordlessly wailing the blues and closes with his Louis Armstrong impression, and “Take Your Whiskey Home,” which swaggers as drunkenly as the title suggests. It’s a relief when the album delivers a little light material at the end via the acoustic sea shanty of the title track and “In A Simple Rhyme,” the closest thing to a pop tune here with its surprise acoustic riffs and plush harmonies. It sold well enough to justify the band’s experimentation and thus paved the way for the even more daring Fair Warning.

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