Graded on a Curve:
Van Halen, Van Halen

So I was listening to the masterful and spiritually uplifting guitar artistry of John McLaughlin and thought, “You know what? I’d rather listen to Van Halen.” That’s the kind of spiritually evolved being I am. There is the cosmos, with its songs of devotion and birds of fire, and then there is the shirtless David Lee Roth. The fact that I prefer the latter is proof that I exist upon a lower class astral plane, in a double-wide trailer whose front yard is littered with empty beer cans.

Let me say this just to start: When it comes to Van Halen, I’m a 1984 guy. Hardcore fans call 1984 a sell-out. I deny they sold out. I would argue they sold up. But the fact is I’ve already written about 1984, so I’m writing about Van Halen’s kick-ass 1978 self-titled debut. It’s not 1/10th as funny as 1984–the biggest laugh riot of a metal LP this side of Kix’s first–but it rocks much harder and is a lot meaner to boot. Van Halen was the opening salvo of a band that was clearly hungry and just as clearly had something to prove. It’s evident in every note Eddie Valen plays; you can hear it in David Lee Roth’s straight-from-the-crotch vocal swagger. Not all of its songs are winners–I might even go far as to say its B side sags–but the winners win big. Why, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love” is so wonderful The Minutemen saw fit to cover it on Double Nickels on the Dime. When you’re the kind of band punk rockers love to hate but punk rockers still love your songs, you must be doing something right.

Van Halen was not universally beloved upon its release. The critics in particular were mean. Rolling Stone’s Charles M. Young opined, “In three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and disgusting … follow[ing] Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet. In the meantime, they are likely to be a big deal.” Meanwhile, the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, commenting about Van Halen’s status as a bar band, wrote, “The term becomes honorific when the music belongs in a bar. This music belongs on an aircraft carrier.” And you know what? He’s right. This music does belong on an aircraft carrier, provided everybody on said aircraft carrier is drunk, said aircraft carrier is driving erratically and well over the posted speed limit, and there’s a wet t-shirt contest being held on the flag bridge.

But I digress. Van Halen succeeds on the strength of a A side that might as well be a declaration of war. “Running’ with the Devil” hardly convinces me Van Halen are Knights in Satan’s Service, but from the gargantuan guitar riff that opens it to Roth’s screams to that great chorus it gets the job done and then some. And then there’s the song’s big bottom and Eddie’s guitar wank, which pretty much announces, “There’s a new guitar god in town, so pay attention.” And just in case you missed the announcement along comes “Eruption,” which is all guitar solo and nothing but guitar solo, and if that isn’t chutzpah I don’t know what is. Sure it doesn’t go very far, but going nowhere has rarely sounded this good. I’ll take Greg Ginn’s anarchical tendencies over Van Halen’s technical prowess any day, but “Eruption” succeeds on pure excess. Sure it’s a clear case of overkill, but in the end I find Eddie’s dedication to playing as many notes as humanly possible in the shortest amount of time possible endearing. My friend William Honeycutt once said, apropos of another guitarist altogether, “Don’t try to listen to every note whatever you do.” I think his words apply here.

Van Halen’s cover of the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” is an exercise in going right over the fucking top, and it works. It’s the original on steroids, from supersized hook to David Lee’s aircraft carrier vocalizations to Eddie’s splashy guitar pyrotechnics. And it’s followed by the LP’s standout track “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love,” one of the greatest metal songs ever committed to vinyl. The intro is the intro and is instantly recognizable by everyone on Planet Earth, Roth concedes that the song’s subject is “semi-good looking” and that his “love is rotten to the core,” and Eddie’s guitar solos are a study in minimalism by his usual 6,000 notes per minute standards. And who doesn’t go weak-kneed at the sound of those great “Hey! Hey! Hey!”’s?

Side closer “I’m the One” takes a brief side trip into doo wop, anticipating the “show biz” Dave of later years. But not before dragging you through a positively ferocious foray–this is a band working on all cylinders, and overtime at that–into metal for metal’s sake. Alex Van Halen’s drumming is revelatory, his brother plays more notes than Jimi Hendrix did in his entire career, and how this song manages to sound “pop” in the midst of all that carnage is a mystery that will elude me forever. Side Two opener “Jamie’s Cryin’” isn’t just another example of the band’s fondness for the ellipse; it’s the band’s attempt to slow things down without doing anything as pathetic as going the power ballad route, and it works. Does David seem to lack compassion for poor Jamie? I think he does. But there’s some feeling in there, even if it’s not evident in the boo hoo hooing that constitutes the chorus. And the band’s rhythm section has never sounded so rock solid.

“Atomic Punk” ain’t punk but it is a proof of the powers or radioactivity, from washboard guitar opening (how does Eddie do that?) to Roth’s “I am the ruler of these netherworlds” braggadocio. Eddie is manic impressive on guitar–”Atomic Punk” boasts his wildest flights of ax fancy on the entire album–and the rhythm section is preternaturally tight. Can’t help but wonder where Diamond Dave got the idea he was punk, though; bet he’d have crossed the street to avoid Darby Crash. “Feel Your Love Tonight” is hackneyed from title to too-tight trousers, but it’s friendlier than most anything else on the LP, and is a harbinger of the nice guy metal Van Halen would bring to the forefront on 1984. Which is just another way of saying it’s a pop song, albeit one adorned with a whale of a guitar solo.

“Little Dreamer” is slow and sultry, and doesn’t do much for me; I suspect the boys tossed it onto the LP as a sop to their lady fans, who skipped it in favor of “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘bout Love.” “Ice Cream Man” is an acoustic guitar blues lark and gives us another early glimpse of Diamond Dave, Vaudevillian. It hardly measures up to Aerosmith’s “Big Ten Inch Record” in the salaciousness department, but it is a welcome howdy from the fellow who once quipped, “I used to jog but the ice cubes kept falling out of my glass.” What’s left? Just “On Fire,” a real rave-up that kicks like a mule on speed and takes Van Halen out on a ‘eavy note. Speaking of kicking mules, the rhythm section might as well be one, while Eddie VH does everything with his guitar but saw it in half with a chainsaw, just to hear the sound it makes. And for all I know he did saw his guitar in half during “On Fire.” I wasn’t in the studio at the time.

When it comes to hard rock, heavy metal, hair metal, or whatever you want to call it, I’ll always take Van Halen over almost everybody. Their hedonism was funnier and their decadence was less sleazy and woman-hating to my ears–Van Halen might have been going to Hell, but they were going with a friendly wink and a smile on their face. They kind of remind me of the Faces in this regard. And while Eddie Van Halen will never be my ideal guitar hero–he’s too damn good for his own good, in my opinion–I can’t help but get off on his dedication to making his guitar do things no decent guitar should ever be asked to do.

As for Van Halen, it may not have been the signature event of 1978, but it has only improved with age. Van Halen emerged from the wilds of the San Fernando Valley and proceeded to turn heads. No, they weren’t the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They were too horny and irreverent and eager to become big rock stars. Fuck the astral plane; they just wanted to do cocaine and laugh. And I’ll always love them for that.


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