Van Halen

TrackAlbum
EruptionVan Halen
Runnin' With The DevilVan Halen
You're No GoodVan Halen II
Dance The Night AwayVan Halen II
Romeo DelightWomen And Children First
Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now)Diver Down
Little GuitarsDiver Down
Panama1984
Hot For Teacher1984
Why Can't This Be Love?5150

Van Halen photo 1

Van Halen (l to r): Alex Van Halen, David Lee Roth, Michael Anthony, Eddie Van Halen (photo: Fin Costello 1978)

 

 

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Van Halen playlist

 

 

Contributor: David Lewis

2020 just keeps getting worse. The death of Eddie Van Halen in October was a blow to every rock guitarist. He is one of the very few players whose approach filtered its way into everyone’s style, even if they didn’t know it. He is as influential as Chuck Berry, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix. There may be one or two others. This type of influence isn’t the influence of seeing a performer on TV or hearing them on record and picking a guitar up – as important as that might be. This influence is taking an instrument with some tradition, and changing how it is played. But in the same way that every guitarist has absorbed, even subconsciously, the introduction to Johnny B. Goode, or the main riff of Layla, or the hook to Foxy Lady, Eddie’s finger tapping technique and unique rhythm changed the way we played guitar.

Of course he did it in the most visible way possible – in a band he formed with his brother, Alex. Alex played the drums, and while Eddie was a whirling dervish of speed and flash, Alex was a pounding explosion of rhythm. Holding it all down was Michael Anthony on bass, who was something of a musical director, vocal harmonies being key to his approach. And then the ADHD-addled ego maniac (to be read as two separate words – he was a maniac as a performer), Diamond David Lee Roth. One of the great front men, his somewhat limited vocal range was overshadowed by his stage antics and charisma. That’s not to say he had a bad voice – as a frontman, he was closer to Jagger than Robert Plant or Freddie Mercury.

The band came out of Southern California. Four snotty brats who didn’t give a …. what you thought. They put the rock back into rock and roll – much of the music scene in the late seventies was skinny boys with funny haircuts, playing synthesisers. Music was quantised, commercialised, pasteurised. Van Halen was unapologetically rock. Led Zeppelin, but with less adult maturity.

The band helped launch several genres – the LA glam scene, the neo-classical movement (see, for example Yngwie J. Malmsteen from Sweden, but more directly the roster on Mike Varney’s LA-Based Shrapnel records), and could even be seen to have launched grunge, if only because those Seattle bands in particular wanted to not be like that. Even when they did, just don’t tell anyone. They have a place in EDM, too.

They sold. They sold exceptionally well. One of only five bands who had two studio albums go platinum in the US, they moved 58 million units there. 80 million outside the US. The Netherlands, for fairly obvious reasons, loved those Van Halen boys. So did Australia, Germany, the UK …

I probably won’t discuss every song individually – mostly they speak for themselves. But before I speak about every song individually (you know I will, I know I will, but what’s rock without a little bit of rule breaking), I need to go back to my first point on Eddie’s influence. Those of you who already know can skip ahead and be enraged about my opinions on Hot For Teacher. Those of you who know him as a name, wait here a bit – let me catch you up.

He wasn’t the first to finger tap. Finger tapping is using your picking hand to ‘tap’ on the finger board – that is to press the strings in such a way the note sounds, but without plucking it. It’s called a ‘hammer-on’ usually. Classical guitarists had known it as a technique for centuries. Ritchie Blackmore (who was a large influence on Eddie) states that he saw American guitarist Harvey Mandel do it in the sixties. Steve Hackett from Genesis was tapping in 1971. Pedants point to Brian May’s sublime attempt (on It’s Late on the News Of The World album) several months before the first Van Halen album was released. (If you do go to It’s Late, it’s much slower than you’d expect.)

What Eddie did though was to take finger tapping from an occasional spice to being the main dish. And he could outplay any rock guitarist. There is a generation of players who call Eddie – not Hendrix – the greatest of all time. It’s a big claim, and it’s worth debating – though not here. Eddie changed the guitar, pushing it even more forward and upfront. Like all the great players, he never wasted a note. As fast and as plentiful as they were, take one out (or add one) and the whole thing falls apart. And it’s not just finger-tapping. He used pinch harmonics to make the guitar squeal. He played really hard chords in perfect rhythm – in fact, he might be a better rhythm player than lead player. He can pick as fast as anyone. He was an innovative user of the vibrato bar, so much so his type of playing was one of the factors in its redesign. He used effects as musical instruments, not sonic affectation. He bent, used finger vibrato, volume swells. It seemed his technique was limitless. And he did it all live, all while running round the stage, throwing the guitar round like everything he’s playing is easy.

It’s not easy. Guitarists know this. Let us all assure those who don’t play, it’s not.

Let’s put him into a wider context. Snotty brats made rock and roll. Elvis sneering and wiggling his hips on national television; Jerry Lee Lewis setting his piano on fire, after playing a set of Chuck Berry songs because they told him Chuck was the headliner; Little Richard singing about forbidden topics in the language of the Church; John Lennon being told his lyrics were being analysed in school, so he writes a song containing the lyrics goo goo ga joob and other nonsense lines which becomes one of his best ever songs. Keith Moon driving his Bentley into a swimming pool; Mick and Keith daring you to let them marry your daughter. Hendrix burning the guitar, egging it on to play even more anguished notes. Johnny Rotten declaiming he’s an anarchist and an anti-Christ. Snotty brats who didn’t care what you thought. Van Halen played like hopped up virtuosos – it seemed they’d had three bowls of sugary breakfast cereal, four cans of Coca-Cola and had watched cartoons all day. They presented with the maturity of 14-year-olds who’d had no parental guidance, but with the bodies and experiences of 25-year-olds, and the musical skill of 70-year-old virtuosos. All done, not with the sombre air of ‘proper’ virtuosos, but with a joy and an energy few others matched.

Eddie smiled the whole time. Roth showed off like an attention-deprived extrovert. Song lyrics were juvenile and most egregiously politically incorrect. Songs about whisky, women and wild times – not like some country songs, where there’s a note of regret. Life is a party – if you’re not having fun, what is wrong with you? David Lee Roth’s high kicks, the thundering rhythm section and the otherworldly guitar of Eddie was magic.

Eddie and Alex were born in Amsterdam to a Dutch father, Jan (whom we’ll meet again) and an Indonesian mother, Eugenia van Beers. They moved to California as children. In 1964, they formed their first band, firstly called the Broken Combs, then a stint as the Trojan Rubber Company (snicker). By 1974 they were called Genesis, but found that name was taken. Eddie was lead vocals and guitar, Alex played the drums, and Mark Stone was on bass. They’d hire their PA from a snotty brat called David Lee Roth. It soon made economic sense to hire Roth as vocalist – no more PA hire costs. They then decided that Stone wasn’t suitable, so they replaced him with Michael Anthony, who could also do backing vocals, as well as being a more simpatico bassist. There was a brief name change to Mammoth. Roth claimed he chose the name Van Halen, claiming it had a power to it, like Santana. Alex advised his brother to turn around and not face the audience. This was so other guitarists wouldn’t work out what he was doing. Their reputation grew, and they got the attention of Gene Simmons of Kiss, who tried to sign them to Casablanca records. They got as far as free flights to New York for demos, but ultimately weren’t signed.

They continued playing gigs in Southern California, notably the Whisky a Go Go and Gazzari’s. And almost inevitably, they were signed to Warner Brothers with Ted Templeman producing. It was successful. Their eponymous 1978 first album is one of the bestselling debut albums of all time. It features the statement of defiant intent, Eruption. This is the track that changed guitar. For all the talk of great players, I think only Hendrix, and maybe Eric Clapton in the Yardbirds, had the impact that this does. The vibrato system on the guitar is abused (and you wouldn’t believe how much discipline I need to not talk in great depth about the Frankenstrat, as it came to be known). The notes spill off the neck in ways that had never been heard before. It builds and builds and builds. This is the Messiah after the John the Baptist guitarists of the 60s and 70s. Imagine hearing this for the first time, and trying to work out what he’s doing. It’s the Alpha, and in many ways the Omega of guitar solos. Still fresh and vital after 40 years, it’s that cheeky grin, middle finger and dropped clutch as you drive off in your hot rod, spinning your wheels while poking your tongue out at your girlfriend’s father.

And Eruption came straight out of Runnin’ With The Devil, the previous track on Van Halen. Roth is superb here, and the riff builds into a fantastic song. It also features near-misses You Really Got Me, which takes the aggression and masculinity of the Kinks original and revs it up. I love Michael Anthony’s rhythmic sighing in the bridge. Ice Cream Man is a fantastic blues number, showing the versatility the band would present for a while. But more on that versatility later.

While the grief and shock of Eddie’s death linger, it is here we pause and remember that Van Halen was a band. With songs. With four vital members. It wasn’t just a showcase for Eddie’s talent, but a showcase for all of them. Van Halen II is a bit more coherent. Michael Anthony has said that the first album was essentially their live show. Van Halen II shows the development of the band. It opens with a stunning cover of the Clint Ballard song You’re No Good, an R&B hit for Betty Everett and a No.1 for Linda Ronstadt. Whereas Betty is devastated, and Linda is angry, Roth is indifferent – not in a bad performance way. He’s shrugging his shoulders and walking away. It’s probably his fault, but why should he take the blame? You’re no good. Eddie decorates with the anger and frustration that Roth is ignoring. A great band can do great covers. And the breakdown is just genius. I’ve also chosen Dance The Night Away, which was a successful single, and shows how the band’s songwriting develops.

By the time of Women And Children First, Van Halen had become a crack recording unit. Romeo Delight not only features typically Roth vocals, but a great interplay between Eddie and Anthony in the solo. It’s a strong album but was followed by the disappointing Fair Warning in 1981, which was in turn followed by a return to form the next year with Diver Down. It is perhaps here that they find their feet as artists, demonstrating a more fundamental self-confidence. Never a band to lack faith in their ability, they’ve finally mastered the form. And while there are great originals, I’m going to the covers – Roy Orbison’s (Oh) Pretty Woman, Martha and the Vandellas’ Dancing In The Street and the 20s jazzer Big Bad Bill (Is Sweet William Now). It doesn’t feature a guitar solo, but Van Halen solos on it – Jan Van Halen, Eddie and Alex’s father. He had been a jazz clarinetist, though had lost a finger so hadn’t played in a while. Listening to it, you wouldn’t think that. Eddie and Alex’s joy of music came straight from their father. Roth’s voice suits this style of music – he was later to have a solo hit with Louis Prima’s Just A Gigolo/I Ain’t Got Nobody. Big Bad Bill is a satisfying surprise from a heavy band. The other standout track is Little Guitars with Eddie showing his competence on acoustic guitar. To give you a sense of just how good it is, a lot of people think it’s overdubbed. It’s not. It’s all on one guitar. And the song is wonderful too.

The biggest selling album of the Roth years is 1984, released, well … do I really have to tell you? It featured the massive selling single Jump, which brought the keyboards Eddie had been using to the forefront. It’s a great keyboard riff actually. And naturally a great solo. Apparently inspired by a news report of a suicide attempt, Roth imagined that someone was probably yelling “might as well jump”. Producer Ted Templeman agreed this was a great lyric, and the song was written around the start of a love affair – might as well jump into love. But it also has a carefree element – “ow, oh, hey you, who said that, baby how you been”. Filler lines? Place holders? Lyrical genius? You decide. But let’s get to the selections – Panama and Hot For Teacher.

Panama is a great listen – it’s party time with a great riff and terrific performances. Hot For Teacher though is a juvenile, unsubtle sexist pig of a song, with a worse film clip. But … that opening and lyrics aside, it’s magnificent. Probably the greatest opening to a rock song ever (and yes, I know Johnny B. Goode, Smoke On The Water, Bohemian Rhapsody and Led Zeppelin’s Rock And Roll. And probably anything else you suggest). Four older snotty brats throwing it down, not as a challenge – they still couldn’t care less – but as another middle finger extended to those who’d dismiss them. AC/DC, I think (and have written elsewhere) decide to try and show the young punks how to do it in Thunderstruck, and acquit themselves marvellously as they always do. But they don’t have Alex Van Halen’s frenetic drums which sound like fingers tapping nervously, except at high volume and low frequency. The song itself is magnificent brattery. That guitar rhythm – the dynamics jump from quiet to loud to quiet. And then the song winds it back for some single entendres – and while we don’t condone the sexism, how many of you males did wonder if your teachers might be interested in you? Be honest now. Michael Anthony’s arrangement of the backing vocals are perfect. And few played the snotty brat as well as Roth. Gloria in Excelsis.

However, the band was starting to self-destruct. Ego was, I think, a big part. Roth himself had stated that he wasn’t talented enough to be humble. Eddie was being feted everywhere and by everyone. Quincy Jones had got him to play on Michael Jackson’s Beat It as a young hotshot in 1982. And Michael and Alex were part of a massively selling band. There was also a lot of pressure. Van Halen had an expensive and fragile touring rig. And they had strict demands. It is said Roth used to crawl on his hands and knees, nose to the floor looking for any obstacles that might trip him up on stage. Their rider was specific as to electrical requirements. You couldn’t just ‘plug and play’. They were the band responsible for the infamous brown M&M’s clause. Tour promoters were required to remove all the brown M&M’s from the bowls in the band’s tour rider. Not actually motivated by snotty brat reasons – that’ll show these promoters – it was actually a way for the band to monitor that everything was done properly. Roth argued that if a promoter had removed all the brown M&M’s, it was a quick check to see if they could be trusted to set up the expensive and technically challenging rig. If the brown M&M’s were there, there was likely going to be other problems.

Tensions like this build. And we can add in personal issues – drugs, alcohol and other trappings of the life. Roth and Ted Templeman wanted less keyboards. Eddie was, I think, a bit sick of guitar and wanted more keyboards. During the tour to support 1984, Roth announced he was leaving. He went off to a successful solo career, with Billy Sheehan (ex-Talas), Steve Vai (ex-Zappa) and Gregg Bissonette (noted studio drummer) as his first backing band. Van Halen searched for a new lead singer. Patty Smyth from the band Scandal was considered, but she declined. Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates was also approached, but he declined. In the end, Sammy Hagar, formerly of the band Montrose, but now a successful solo artist, was asked and accepted the gig.

Few bands have managed to swap a prominent singer at the peak of their career and maintain success, let alone build on it. AC/DC springs to mind. So does Black Sabbath. Deep Purple managed. There are others. But it’s rare. Sammy Hagar was a great replacement for Roth. He had the rock and roll attitude (his biggest selling single was I Can’t Drive 55) but he brought a maturity to the songs. It’s possible he brought out a maturity in Eddie’s composing, though I think that was happening anyway. The first Van Hagar album, 5150, was a great follow-up and a wonderful ‘debut’. Why Can’t This Be Love? was a great single with a marvellous guitar part. It helped propel 5150 to a platinum status in a week, and was Van Halen’s first US Billboard #1. I would also like to point out the solo to Dreams, which I think is one of Eddie’s best – I don’t care what you think. It is.

Sammy Hagar was to do three more successful albums with Van Halen – OU812 (1988), For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991), Balance (1995). I reckon this version of Van Halen is as good as the Roth one – just different. However, Hagar was fired for reasons I’ve run out of room to untangle. Gary Cherone, formerly of Extreme, was recruited. The album Van Halen III got to #4 on the Billboard chart in 1998, but was only a gold seller. There is nothing at all wrong with Gary Cherone – he’s a talented singer and songwriter. But the chemistry of a band is a funny thing. They tried reuniting with Roth and later Hagar. They did release a fairly good studio album with Roth, A Different Kind Of Truth in 2012, but you can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice, it seems. Michael Anthony was fired, to be replaced by Eddie’s son, Wolfgang. This was the version that toured in the last years.

To make matters worse, Eddie’s health declined. He had been diagnosed with tongue cancer in 2000, and had some of his tongue removed. He blamed the copper and nickel picks he’d put in his mouth, as well as the electromagnetic field of the studios he was in. His doctors suggested the heavy smoking habit he’d indulged in since he was 13 or 14 was the more likely factor. Whatever the cause, he spent 10 years pretty unwell, and the cancer was finally to overtake him 6th October 2020.

Anthony and Hagar toured together in various formations. Roth had a successful career (I particularly recommend Skyscraper but all of his recordings are worth chasing up). He later became a paramedic and lived in Japan as a film maker and owner of a tattoo parlour, but the pull of music was too strong.

Van Halen was primarily a band – and a great one at its best. In fact, it’s three bands – each singer gave it a different flavour. While Eddie remains firm at, or near the top of, the guitar pantheon, I think it’s safe to say that he wouldn’t have got there without the band and the strong songs and albums it produced. Many of Eddie’s disciples missed this, and so we have hundreds and thousands of guitarists who forget that great playing is not just wailing. “Tale(s), full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Eddie signified all that is great and timeless about rock music.

Vale Eddie Van Halen.

 

Tributes to Eddie Van Halen (1955-2020)

“He knew the greatness in his fingertips. You could feel the confidence as soon as he picked up a guitar, but there was none of this ego and bullying that a lot of talented people seem to have. I’m heartbroken. He wasn’t just a guitar god to millions of people, but Eddie was a gentle soul.” Gene Simmons

“Eddie was a guitar wonder, his playing pure wizardry. To the world of music he was a special gift. To those of us fortunate enough to have met him, a very special person. He leaves a big hole in a lot of hearts.” Angus Young

“Eddie Van Halen was a brilliant guitarist who started a technique of guitar playing which was emulated by a whole generation of guitarists. He was one of the nicest musicians I ever met in the music business. Very shy and not at all conceited about his ability as a guitar player. Frank Zappa said [Eddie] reinvented the guitar. I agree. He will be sadly missed but his brilliant legacy will always be remembered. The ultimate guitar hero.” Ritchie Blackmore

“Completely gutted to hear the sad news. This wonderful man was way too young to be taken. What a talent – what a legacy – probably the most original and dazzling rock guitarist in history. I think of him as a boy – an innocent prodigy – always full of joy, always modest – and those truly magical fingers opened a door to a new kind of playing. I treasure the moments we shared. His passing leaves a giant hole in my heart.” Brian May

“Eddie Van Halen was one of the nicest guys I ever worked with and we shared so many laughs together. His influence on music and especially the guitar has been immeasurable. He was an absolute legend.” Ozzy Osbourne

“I don’t think it’s possible to sum up what his inspiration did for me as a musician. No man made his playing so effortless that I endeavored to make mine sound the same.” Billy Corgan

“Eddie Van Halen was a guitar superhero. A true virtuoso. A stunningly good musician and composer. Looking up to him as a young kid was one of the driving forces in my needing to pick up a guitar. I was so blown away watching him exert such control and expression over his instrument.” John Mayer

“Eddie had an exceptional talent and influenced new generations of musicians. Van Halen added their unique style and flavour to their cool versions of Kinks songs You Really Got Me and Where Have all the Good Times Gone. He’ll be very much missed.” Dave Davies

“Oh man, bless his beautiful creative heart. I love you Eddie Van Halen, an LA boy, a true rocker. I hope you jam with Jimi tonight. Break through to the other side my brother.” Flea

“He was a consummate musician and an extraordinary virtuoso on the guitar. He leaves a giant footprint and an irreplaceable void.” Billy Joel

“Eddie Van Halen’s playing was immediately recognizable and all his own. That tone, the ‘brown sound’, it was all in his hands. That metallic chink, it came from how he picked, holding the plectrum between his thumb and middle finger. You can hum his riffs and his solos are memorable. It’s the utmost honor when people hear you play and say, ‘Hey, I know that guy!’ That’s the sign of a truly unique artist and player.” Joe Trohman

“I’m just devastated. Eddie was really cool. He changed guitar playing. He was such an amazing musician, amazing guitar player, amazing innovator and just a hell of a guy. And we really lost a major contributor to rock and roll today.” Slash

“Crushed. So fucking crushed. RIP Eddie Van Halen. You changed our world. You were the Mozart of rock guitar. Travel safe rockstar.” Nikki Sixx

“I’m just devastated to hear the news of the passing of my dear friend Eddie Van Halen. He fought a long and hard battle with his cancer right to the very end. Eddie was one of a very special kind of person… Rest In Peace my dear friend till we meet again.” Tony Iommi

“Words cannot describe how monumental the loss of Edward Van Halen is to the music community. He inspired generations of guitar players of all genres. His playing was unrivalled in its ingenuity and its ferocity. Rest In Peace to the greatest Rock Guitarist of all time.” Joe Bonamassa

“Just heard the devastating news… One of the absolute giants is gone. He influenced and inspired an entire generation, including myself. His legacy will always remain.” Yngwie Malmsteen

“I just heard about Eddie Van Halen and I feel terrible about it. Eddie was such a great guitarist and I remember how big Van Halen was, especially here in L.A.” Brian Wilson

“What a long great trip it’s been.” David Lee Roth

“This is
Eddie Van Halen,
howling at the stars,
combing the
stratosphere,
howling for the
children,
the burning fields,
then free, flies
two-handed,
straight into the
celestial realm
where all
is music.”
Patti Smith

 

Michael Anthony and Sammy Hagar on EVH

 

Eddie Van Halen – Great Guitar Moments

 

Eddie Van Halen on “Les Paul & Friends” (1988)

 

 

Van Halen official website

Van Halen News Desk

The Mighty Van Halen – ultimate archive – years 1978-84

VH Links: Internet Resource Guide

Van Halen Discography

Van Halen biography (AllMusic)

David Lewis is Australia’s best jazz mandolinist, unless you can name someone else: then he’s Australia’s second-best. In any case, he’s almost certainly top 100. He is a regular contributor to Toppermost, and also plays guitar, banjo and bass professionally. More of his writing can be found at his rarely updated website. David is also the co-author of “Divided Opinions” published this year and derived from an established podcast on Australian politics.

Some of David’s other posts for this site include AC/DC, Queen, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, B B King, Fleetwood Mac

TopperPost #911

2 Comments

  1. Alex Lifson
    Oct 18, 2020

    Thanks for the timely essay/tribute. So many good ones to choose from.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Oct 18, 2020

    Thanks for this very timely piece. Not really my cup of tea musically but can appreciate what a great guitarist Eddie was. The clip where he shows how he played is really superb.

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