Graded on a Curve:
Van Halen,
1984

Y’know, it turned 35 years old last week. How old do you feel now?Ed.

A couple of years ago the apartment my ex-wife and I lived in suffered a mouse infestation. We tried regular traps and glue traps, but they seemed terribly cruel, so we finally bought some catch-and-release traps. We lived on the third floor, and I got tired of carrying the traps down to the alley to release them. So I thought, why not release them on the balcony, where they’d be free to scamper along the rooftops to safety? So I tried it, but instead of escaping via the rooftops my frightened test mouse shot out of his little prison like a furry little bullet, promptly sailed off the edge of our balcony, and fell screaming (I may have imagined the screaming) to the concrete parking space below.

I’m not sure why—or actually I am—why that mouse never fails to remind me of Van Halen’s great “Jump.” I might as well have been singing, “Jump! Go ahead and jump!” as he plummeted earthwards. But anyway, the point I want to make is not that mice should look before they leap, although they should, but that I love Van Halen’s “Jump”—loved it even during those years when virtually all I listened to were SST bands, and admitting to liking a Van Halen song (at least amongst my crowd) was not so far from confessing to like that Seals and Crofts song about the summer breeze blowing through the jasmine in your mind.

I should add that my love for “Jump” did not extend to Van Halen itself. I had in fact never so much as listened to a Van Halen LP in its entirety, much less owned one. Honestly? I thought they were a band of morons. They dressed like Jose Feliciano was their haberdasher, and it was my considered opinion that Eddie Van Halen was a shameless showboater with his tapping (a technique he didn’t invent); single pickup, single volume knob guitar; and volume swells, or “violining.” Then there was the perpetually mugging David Lee Roth, whom I considered the world’s oldest class clown. (I’ve come to love him over the years for the same reason.) As for bassist Michael Anthony, well, bassist Michael Anthony was just short. Too short. Like midget short. Then there was the drummer, Eddie’s brother, whose name slips my mind (Alex? Alek like Lee Harvey Oswald’s USSR name?) but it hardly matters because who pays attention to the drummer except other drummers anyway?

In hindsight, I was wrong on all counts except “Jump,” which really is one whiz-bang archetype of the perfect pop song, right up there with The Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” and Rick Derringer’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Hoochie Koo.” And not only is “Jump” great—so, for the most part, is the LP it’s on, 1984, which just happens to be the year the LP was released. And I’ve come to love lots of their other material, from 1978’s “Runnin’ with the Devil” and “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love”(the Minutemen version rocks balls!) right up to songs like “The Trouble with Never” off 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth. But if I had to pick a favorite LP I’d go with either their self-titled debut or 1984, and I wouldn’t be caught dead listening to any of their joyless albums with Sammy “I can’t drive 55 with my thumbs stuck in my eyes” Hagar or Gary Cherone fronting the band.

A not-so-brief history: Netherlanders the Van Halen brothers stowed away to America, rather than face felony charges for wearing abominable clothing. Here they met David Lee Roth, whom they let join the band because he had a killer sound system. After much dues paying, Van Halen fell under the wing of Kiss’ Gene Simmons, who produced the band’s first demo. Unfortunately Kiss’ management went nada, saying VH lacked commercial potential. Speaking of Simmons, he almost destroyed the band’s career hopes forever by suggesting they change their name to Daddy Longlegs.

Following the Kiss debacle, a miracle “discovery” moment occurred when Warner Bros.’ execs Mo Ostin and Ted Templeman heard Van Halen live, and dollar signs, and I’m talking literally, appeared in their eyes. Van Halen’s self-titled debut was pure genius and sold like hot cakes made from pure crack. Follow-up Van Halen II (1979)—which included both a cover of the Linda Ronstadt hit “You’re No Good” and the execrable “Dance the Night Away”—proved that the sophomore jinx is real, while 1980’s Women and Children First marked a return to form. 1981’s Fair Warning faltered commercially while critics panned it for its lack of fun and nasty and brutish sound. Finally, 1982’s Diver Down may have sold but it was still a major disappointment, comprised as it was of five covers (including Roy Orbison’s “(Oh) Pretty Woman and (yech!) “Dancing in the Street”) and three instrumentals.

That’s where matters stood when Van Halen released 1984. A long-festering rift (can rifts fester? Don’t ask me) between Eddie Van Halen and Roth had reached the breaking point, with the former wanting to write darker and more complex material while Roth wanted to write pop tunes that made people happy, thereby widening their audience base. In 1984 Roth won, just as Van Halen had on Fair Warning.

One doesn’t normally associate heavy metal—with its faux-Satanic preening, frequently macabre lyrics, and overall violence and misogyny—with fun, although bands like AC/DC have managed to pull it off. But not as well as Van Halen Mark I does on 1984, with tunes like “Jump,” “Panama,” and “Hot for Teacher.” Which is not, I would like to say at the outset, without its problems, beginning with opener and title cut “1984,” a snaky and blessedly brief slice of synthesizer-dominated prog. Prog? Van Halen? Who do these guys think they are, Tangerine Dream? Van der Halen Generator? I’ve heard some iffy LP openers in my time, but this one takes the cake.

Fortunately it’s followed by the infectious “Jump,” which demonstrates that synthesizers—which on “Jump” play a melody every bit as catchy as a tightrope artist’s net—have their place. E. Van Halen’s finger-tapping solo is brilliant as usual, as is his synthesizer solo, and Roth, back against the record machine (which is playing “Jump,” I’m sure) is uncharacteristically humble, singing, “I ain’t the worst that you’ve see/Ah, can’t you see what I mean?” My favorite line: “Ow oh/Hey you/Who said that?/Baby, how you been?” And “Jump” is great until the very end, when Edward VH plays a chugging (but for him primeval) riff as Roth continues to cry, “Jump!/Go ahead and jump!”

“Panama” is also catchy as Hades, and I’m talking from the get go. The melody grows on you like some kind of disease you really don’t want growing on you, while Eddie’s guitar playing is pure savage bombast. Meanwhile the chorus is addictively cool and is guaranteed to have you singing along, or your money back. The rhythm section produces a big dinosaur stomp, Roth emits great squeals and screams, and Eddie VH plays a brief but tres cool solo that leads straight into a monologue by Roth, which comes complete with the sound of a motorcycle revving up. Or what is supposed to sound like a motorcycle revving up. Personally I think it sounds more like some guy in his backyard trying to pull-start a recalcitrant gas-powered push mower.

As for “Top Jimmy,” I find it impossible to listen to it without thinking of The Dictators’ “Borneo Jimmy,” which I prefer because it’s louder, crunchier, and boasts a better chorus. But “Top Jimmy” is the real gear and an excellent tune as well, opening as it does with some muted guitar pyrotechnics before the band leaps into a straightforward rocker about “Juke-joint Jimmy,” who “sang so good that the roof fell in/And he didn’t even stop the show.” Eddie plays it low-key for most of the song, but finally tosses off a high-pitched, fire-starter of a solo, although to return to “Borneo Jimmy” for a moment, I’ll take Ross “The Boss” Friedman’s solo over Van Halen’s any day. And the song closes with the band singing like high-pitched girls, “Oh, Jimmy!”

“Drop Dead Legs” reminds me of Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs,” not musically fortunately—just in title. That said, “Drop Dead Legs” sounds stilted to my earholes, and sorta hobbles along like a man on a peg leg. In other words, it lacks a melody to write home about, and is really only distinguished by Edward’s long guitar solo, which is amazing, and his bro’s drum work, both of which take the song out. Fortunately it’s followed by the immortal “Hot for Teacher,” which opens with some drum wizardry followed by a cool Van Halen guitar riff that reminds me of ZZ Top. This one is just one long, great riff, with the rhythm section toiling away in the background like stokers in the boiler room of Hell while Roth ad libs up a storm, the best of his lines being (if you skip the wonderful “I brought my pencil!”) the classic, “Oh man, I think the clock is slow/I don’t feel tardy/Class dismissed.” That “I don’t feel tardy is pure poetry,” and to think I used to believe Elton John’s “Teacher I Need You” was the best paean to student-teacher concupiscence ever. Move to the back of the line, Captain Fantastic! And take your brown-dirt cowboy with you!

Unfortunately, after “Hot for Teacher,” things go downhill, and I’m talking Sonny Bono downhill. “I’ll Wait” features another long and prog-friendly synthesizer intro, as if somebody hypnotized the boys into believing they were Atomic Rooster. It’s followed by a joyless mid-tempo tune that’s short on the funny and long on the prog, and nothing, not even Van Halen’s long (if rather so-so) guitar solo or his brother’s metronome-steady drumming can save this song from mediocrity.

“Girl Gone Bad” starts on a pretty note, or notes rather, only to segue (via a brief and priggishly prog interlude) into a not bad but no so great either (once again, where’s the catchy melody?) song that is all over the place: more prog! Even Van Halen’s guitar solo has a synth-like sound to it, leaving Roth, who screams, goes “Ooh!” a lot, and stretches out his words (“Gi-hirl goooone baaad!”) to do the heavy lifting. Finally, the S&M-themed closer “House of Pain” suffers (guess that’s appropriate) from the way Roth’s vocals are buried in the mix, and again emphasizes great playing over great melody, which is always a great big mistake. Eddie Van Halen goes at it like a demon the entire song, but all his cool guitar wank is wasted on a song that doesn’t put its claws in you (to continue the S&M theme) and refuse to let go. Me, I’m as much into S&M as your normal pervert, but Lou Reed’s “The Blue Mask” this ain’t. Hotshot musicianship doesn’t equal good music; in fact the opposite is often true, and “I’ll Wait,” “Girl Gone Bad,” and “House of Pain” all prove it.

What else is there to say? 1984 was both the original band’s watershed and its swan song, and it was as if Roth, who quit for myriad reasons too dull to recount here, took the band’s sense of joyous mischief with him, leaving the Van Halen brothers and Michael Anthony to finally become the band with tremendous instrumental chops but no fun Eddie seemed to want all along. Van Halen Mark II, with Hagar on vocals, did remarkably well at the commercial level, but where was the spunk? Where was the humor? Where were the spitballs directed at the teacher? Gone with Roth, that’s where, who painted his face and recorded “Just a Gigolo” and seemed as lost without Van Halen as Van Halen was lost without him. I would call it a tragedy if that weren’t grossly overstating the case. A tragedy is when I can’t find my car keys, which happens frequently seeing as how I don’t own a car.

Anyway, the original band is back together again, and I like to look upon the Sammy Hagar and Gary Cherone eras as bad dreams, like the one I had last night where I was watching TV and every channel I switched to featured Oprah praising a boy with no arms and no legs who’d learned to water ski with his nostrils. I guess you had to be there. Oh, and about the mouse. I hope he survived. He learned the hard way that you can’t take David Lee Roth, or his lyrics, too literally. When Roth commands you to jump, he’s talking about getting down, and having you some fun, not leaping off a third-floor balcony. Because unlike 1984, that’s no fun at all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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