Remedial Appreciation: Van Halen

On the strength of the last post, I’m listening to their studio work this afternoon, and I’m having the same experience I usually do with their catalog: why don’t I listen to this more often? There’s a lot more to this band’s 7-record catalog than most people remember.

Frankly, they’ve been gone so long that it makes it easy to forget how huge they were; to think about Van Halen is also to recall the tragic private plane crash 24 years ago last month that claimed the lives of Sammy, Eddie, Alex, and Michael — plus, ironically, David Lee Roth, who happened to be camping in the otherwise deserted stretch of California wilderness where the Lear went down.

At the top of their game after the successes of both the last Roth record and the first Hagar record, we’re left wondering what magic they might have created if only for the critical instrument failures. At night, far from populated areas, Eddie — a new pilot, with far too few instrument hours for the flight, truth be told — was likely unaware of the danger until the final moments, which I suppose is a mercy.

Still, you wonder what amazing music they might’ve made had they lived. I mean, with the band freshly sober and firing on all cylinders, it seems unlikely that they’d have wasted the decades of musical opportunity that would’ve followed with petty infighting and substance abuse problems, like so many bands we could name.



Now, the Heathen Top Ten:

10. “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love,” Van Halen, 1978. It’s like a distillation of the whole band, full of swagger from Dave and Eddie over solid rhythm from Mike and Alex. Also, perhaps a near-singularity of apostrophe use in a song title.

9. “Romeo Delight,” Women and Children First, 1980. It’s like the first record, but tighter and more concentrated. Use with caution.

8. “Running with the Devil,” Van Halen, 1978. The first track off the first side of the first record. You know the thumping. You know what’s coming.

7. “And the Cradle Will Rock…”, Women and Children First, 1980. Have you seen Junior’s grades?

6. “Dance The Night Away,” Van Halen II, 1979. Them Dutch Boys beat the sophmore jinx. The second record isn’t the lightning bolt the first one was, but it remains a solid rock-and-roll record. The interlude at about 2 minutes in is worth the cost of admission.

5. “Cathedral,” from Diver Down, 1982. “He’s doing that with his volume knob? Are you shitting me?” Also, the song in which it’s easiest to tell Eddie was raised by a classical musician.

4. (Twofer): “Sunday Afternoon In The Park” into “One Foot Out The Door,” Fair Warning, 1981. This record is just criminally underrated; the whole thing is awesome, especially side two (see what I did there?). It smokes, and nobody listens to it.

3. “Get Up,” 5150, 1986. I remember buying only two tapes on day of release when I was in high school; this was one (I’ve written about the other one before). Warning: do not listen while driving, lest you run afoul of the local constabulary. Also, dig Alex’s drums.

2. “Mean Streets,” Fair Warning, 1981. Honest to God it’s hard not to list this whole album, but “Mean Streets” opens the record, and has for my money Eddie’s best solo.

1. “Eruption,” Van Halen, 1978. Oh, come on. You knew this would be the top track. It’s the sine qua non of both the band and the guitarist.

One thought on “Remedial Appreciation: Van Halen

  1. I am very pleased to note your most proper evaluation and ranking of FAIR WARNING. You are most wise and correct. That record stands alone. Love the amp hum at the song beginnings and ends all over that record! I’ll never stop being glad that they didn’t bother to clean that stuff up- especially the bits where you can hear the MXR Phase 90 stomped on.

    To my left lies a well-worn vinyl copy of said record. Consider for a moment the agony, the torment I suffered as a boy who had no knowledge of dropped-D tuning as I tried to learn Unchained off the record. (“How does he make that low chord? It’s not on my guitar ANYWHERE. Maybe he has a bigger guitar. This sucks.”)

    Michael Anthony’s often flawless sky high backup vocs made David Lee Roth sound like the singer he wasn’t. Good luck finding a bass player who can sing like that.

    When I heard the keyboards pushed way up front on 1984, I wanted to weep, but while tunes like Drop Dead Legs, Top Jimmy, and Girl Gone Bad weren’t destined for 24 hour FM radio rotation, they were still solid signs that the band wasn’t over yet.

    Two less than popular personal favorites- Little Guitars and The Full Bug from Diver Down. I saw them at the Summit on that tour as a wee lad. Mind=blown. Eardrums also=blown.

    There are those who say that Sammy Hagar would have gone on to do little more than peddle lousy tequila to failed middle age frat boys in Cabo if not for the plane crash. I tend to agree.

    What I cannot agree with, and not just because Alex Jones has been all over it for the past 20 years, is the notion that Eddie deliberately steered the plane into not just David Lee Roth’s campsite in general, but specifically, his tent.

    I prefer to simply think that they’re all in rock and roll heaven playing “Dirty Movies” off of Fair Warning while Sammy fetches water and sweat rags.