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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

When great records breed bad followers: The ups and downs of Van Halen

Illustration for article titled When great records breed bad followers: The ups and downs of Van Halen

Permanent Records is an ongoing closer look at the records that matter most.

Van Halen’s 1978 self-titled debut is widely regarded as one of the best rock records of all time. With its mix of catchy harmonies, guitar bombast, and not-so-subtle humor, it has the ability to inspire dancing, gasps, and laughter. As good as it is, though, it also carries an odd mixed legacy, having inspired some of the worst tendencies of the many 1980s rock and metal acts that followed in its wake.

Great records are hardly ever judged on the music alone. There are other elements we naturally consider, such as general aesthetic, backstory, and the larger zeitgeist. An important—and perhaps unfair—lens through which many records and artists are also judged is their detectable impact. It’s one of the many reasons that, though they weren’t commercially successful at the time, The Stooges, The Velvet Underground, and Nick Drake are so celebrated today. Their impact is considered largely positive. So beyond even their own sonic merits, Raw Power, White Light/White Heat, and Pink Moon are all considered classics. Van Halen has had a tougher row to hoe in that respect, at least partly because of the groups and records that were influenced by it.

Right or wrong, many of the worst tropes and clichés of rock and metal in the 1980s were crystallized on Van Halen. The self-indulgent musicianship, the overtly misogynistic sexual innuendo of its humor, and the impossibly tight spandex pants are all in some way rooted in this release. Notable examples of the decade at its most decadent that can in some way be traced back to Van Halen include Cinderella, Poison, Ratt, Dokken, Warrant, and W.A.S.P.


It’s almost inevitable that any commercially and artistically successful record is going to spawn a number of acts looking to borrow its elements in pursuit of their own fortunes. Jimi Hendrix influenced some of the greatest guitar players ever and also begot some of the most banal acid-rock outfits imaginable. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana inspired grunge, and more unfortunately, post-grunge. Van Halen is different from those examples only because the scope of influence was larger and lasted far longer.

Nineteen seconds into the album’s opening track, “Running With The Devil,” the world was introduced to Eddie Van Halen and his so-called “brown sound.” Essentially, it’s the sound of a humbucker-equipped guitar fed into a wattage choked, 100-watt Marshall amplifier cranked to 10. From Poison to the Power Rangers theme song, the “brown sound” became the go-to tone of the electric guitar throughout the 1980s and into the early ’90s.

Even more important than setting the tone for the way the guitar sounded for the next decade, Eddie Van Halen also defined how it was played. Facets of thrash metal, speed metal, hair metal, neo-classical metal, and the entire career of Yngwie Malmsteen can be traced back to track two, side one of Van Halen and a short instrumental called “Eruption.” It took Eddie Van Halen just 103 seconds to transition from a veritable nobody to one of the most praised guitar players in the world.

Using a technique known as finger tapping, whereby instead of playing single notes with a pick he tapped them out with both hands on his fretboard, Van Halen was able to play faster than anyone had before. Suddenly, speed was viewed as one of the most important aspects of playing itself and the world became inundated with the likes of Michael Angelo Batio, C.C. Deville, and Herman Li.


For Van Halen, speed was simply an innate element of his own musicianship. Sure, there was a certain degree of flash about it, and in some areas it ran a little overblown, but at least for this record, it was rarely deployed to the detriment of the song as a whole. It’s telling that Van Halen only displays his full capabilities as a lead guitar player on a rather short impromptu instrumental jam. In his first-ever interview, Eddie was keen on emphasizing melodic structure over fretboard fireworks. “We are into melodies and melodic songs,” he said. “You can sing along with most of our tunes, even though many of them do have the peculiar guitar and the end-of-the-world drums.”

The other thing that people seem to forget when considering Eddie Van Halen is how truly great a rhythm player he is. Setting “Eruption” and the vast array of mind-bending solos on this record aside, one of the more notable aspects of Van Halen is how eclectic and catchy the riffs and rhythms are. From the loud-quiet-loud bombast of “Running With The Devil,” the smooth minor key swing on “Little Dreamer,” the punchy, in-your-face bombast of “Atomic Punk,” and the chipper acoustic blues on “Ice Cream Man,” each song is set apart from everything else and is driven forward, sped up, and slowed down by way of Eddie Van Halen’s keen ear and unassailable direction.


Lest listeners think that the only issue with 1980s rock music was the guitar work, check out a decade’s worth of overtly misogynistic lyrical themes and unabashed sexual innuendo pioneered by David Lee Roth. Double entendres certainly existed before Van Halen. Robert Plant was squeezing lemons with Led Zeppelin long before 1978, and just the year before, Kiss released the not-so-subtle Love Gun. But Diamond Dave kicked things up to a whole new level.

Take “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love.” Where Kiss typically managed to combine sexual innuendo with feelings of true affection, Roth is blatant about his desire to keep things entirely physical. He declares that his love is “rotten to the core,” and “if you want it you got to bleed for it baby.” The fact that the object of Roth’s lust is only “semi-good lookin’” in his eyes somehow makes the whole ordeal even more unseemly.


There are other tracks where Roth is more openhearted and sympathetic. On “I’m The One,” Roth implores a concert-going admirer to “show her love” to him. On “Ice Cream Man,” he flips the script and instead of looking for self-satisfaction, he’s on the prowl to bring pleasure to others. “I’m your Ice Cream Man, stop me when I’m passing by / All my flavors are guaranteed to satisfy.” And on “Feel Your Love Tonight,” he appears genuinely apologetic for his overt advances, “I’m sorry honey if I took you just a little too far,” then proceeds to spend the rest of the song on his knees, begging for sex.

What manages to redeem the blatantly ribald wordplay is Roth’s delivery. When Roth steps to the mic, he usually speaks with a rhythmic diction that can sometimes be confused for singing, but actually isn’t. “You Really Got Me” might be the best example of this phenomenon. He gets away with his near-iconic stilted delivery only because he consistently sounds like a guy just out to have a good time.


You really could go as far as to make the claim that bassist Michael Anthony was the best singer in the group. Nearly every time a chorus kicks in, the rest of the band joins in with Roth to harmonize and help with the heavy lifting. It’s actually an ingenious way to hide what might otherwise be a pretty glaring deficiency.

There’s a certain degree of humor that’s built into this truth, and Roth milks it for all it’s worth. What he lacks in terms of natural ability, he makes up for in sheer charisma. Golden throat be damned, Roth was born to be a rock star. Onstage, he overcame his own deficiencies by way of attention-grabbing high kicks, mid-air splits, crude humor, and samurai sword shows. In the recording booth he grabbed the listener’s ear through many varying oohs, ahhs, hiccups, squeals, and exaggerated phrasings. If the man can’t sing, he can surely ham it up, and nobody in rock history brought the ham like Diamond Dave.


It’s quite important to note that the Van Halen on Van Halen is not the Van Halen that the group ultimately became. Rock critic Charles M. Young hit the nail dead on the head when he opened his contemporaneous review of this record with a startling prediction: “In three years, Van Halen is going to be fat and self-indulgent and disgusting, and they’ll follow Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin right into the toilet.”

There’s some room to argue with that timeline, but Young was somewhat correct in his speculation. As the years wore on, the guitar playing became more overblown, the group became more self-serious, and the jokes less funny. Van Halen nearly became the worst version of the very thing it spawned. Like many of Van Halen’s latter-day cohorts, the group forgot one of the most important elements that made Van Halen a truly great record—restraint.


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