9.30.2014

Everybody Wants Some - The Van Halen Saga

Let's get my bias out of the way before we go anywhere: Eddie Van Halen is the greatest rock guitarist of all time. 


As bold statements go, that's not much of one, I know. He won Best Guitarist so many times that Guitar Player permanently retired his name from the ballots, for crap's sake - hardly a man who needs little old me rising to his defense. But I sometimes wonder if people need to be reminded. So many times I hear "so-and-so is the best guitar player" and I wonder what people are thinking. If you picture a spreadsheet of guitar-metrics with separate columns for tone, versatility, precision, technique, ability to improvise, songwriting, innovation, patents, fundamentals, etc. who could possibly get more checks than Eddie? A few come close, sure, but all too often the "so-and-so" in question only gets checks in a couple of columns. 

I greatly enjoyed reading Ian Christe's history of heavy metal Sound of the Beast, so when I discovered he also wrote a biography of Van Halen, I was intrigued.  All quotes below are from his book:

 

"(He) was a technical innovator who reconfigured the instrument to suit his needs. Unsatisfied with stock instruments, he essentially invented the modern shredder guitar by taping together various parts to create a lightweight, high-output weapon suitable for his soon-to-be-trademark attack (...) His mind was so tightly wrapped around the electric guitar that he was thinking holes straight through (it) - how the strings were twisted, where to apply oil, what kind of frets gave the right sound. (...) 

Eddie wasn't a nascent guitar god because his pick moved faster. He put more ideas together quicker but still poured more feeling into his playing, expressing a higher level of excitement and euphoria than anyone before him." 

I haven't listened to Van Halen with any regularity since the early 90s. Here and there, sure - I liked them enough at one point to always find a reason to over the years. But never a full-on album-by-album listen-through. Then last month my wife bought me Everybody Wants Some for my fortieth birthday. Turning forty occasions a lot of "Hey! Thirty years ago I was..." sort of thoughts - as anyone reading this blog over the course of this year can attest to - and hey! It was thirty years ago that I got into Van Halen.

Along with about a billion other people.
I tuned out around Balance and only kept up with them in the years since through their often baffling media misadventures and reunion misfires. A listen-through while I read the book seemed timely. 

The Van Halen experience begins with that wonderful spaceship-landing sound at the start of Runnin' with the Devil on Van Halen I. Christe's book begins with:

 "I didn't think it would be fair to write this book without learning how to play Eruption, (...) I wanted to write this epic story about Van Halen with at least a tourist's understanding of life in the land of big rock."

I knew I was in good hands. 


The book deftly condenses the Van Halen family's immigration to California and their subsequent grind up the ladder from backyard gatherings in the Pasadena, CA party scene of the mid-70s (where their main rivals were a little band called Quiet Riot who had their own whirlygig of a guitar player in the late, great Randy Rhoads) to their steady gig at the Whiskey-Go-Go in Hollywood to getting signed to a major label and subsequent MTV and worldwide arena stardom.

THIS GUY.
Let's start at the beginning. (Links provided for convenience, not necessity. Also, for this post, I'm disregarding the proper grammar for putting song titles in quotes; it just looked too visually repetitive.)


Van Halen (1978) Produced by Ted Templeman
Runnin' with the Devil / Eruption / You Really Got Me / Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love / I'm the One / Jamie's Cryin' / Atomic Punk / Feel Your Love Tonight / Little Dreamer / Ice Cream Man / On Fire
Runnin' with the Devil, You Really Got Me, and Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love are still in fairly steady classic rock rotation, but the album's centerpiece is definitely Eruption. Although it became "the calling card of a certain type of douche bag who hangs around guitar stores waiting to be discovered, bullying younger players in the meantime," that's not to be held against it. (In this regard, it's much like Stairway to Heaven)

Beyond Eruption, you can't go wrong with any tune on this one.

Just ask this guy.

Funny - at the time it was popular, I hated Wild Thing. I was the kid who said "This is just ripping off 'Jamie's Cryin'! This is BULLSHIT!" Now I love it. Probably even more than Jamie's Cryin'. I kind of miss taking ridiculous stands on things like this.

Certified diamond (ten million copies sold) in 1996, it still moves a respectable bit of product year after year. "More people own Van Halen I than live in any one of forty U.S. states. If the album were a country, it would have roughly as many citizens as Belgium, Poland, or Greece."

I Forgot How Much This One Rocks: I'm the One
In My Personal Reckoning: 5th
of 12.


Van Halen II (1979) Produced by Ted Templeman
You're No Good / Dance the Night Away / Somebody Get Me a Doctor / Bottoms Up / Outta Love Again / Light Up the Sky / Spanish Fly / D.O.A. / Women in Love / Beautiful Girls
This was probably my least favorite Van Halen tape back in the day. But it's aged pretty well. Outta Love Again has a real 70s Kiss feel (with better backing vocals) and Bottoms' Up is a great show-opener. And Beautiful Girls is pretty much the definition of a feel-good party anthem. 

That cover, though. Cool logo and all. But come on. 

I Forgot How Much These Ones Rock: D.O.A., Spanish Fly ("An acoustic flamenco-style answer to the electricity of Eruption. Eddie was now admonishing his acolytes with tapped harmonics, opening another vocabulary for lead guitar.")
In My Personal Reckoning: 8th of 12.


Women and Children First (1980) Produced by Ted Templeman
And the Cradle Will Rock / Everybody Wants Some! / Fools / Romeo Delight / Tora! Tora! / Loss of Control / Take Your Whiskey Home / Could This Be Magic? / In a Simple Rhyme / Growth
Christe relays how Growth, a twelve or thirteen second fragment of a riff that fades out at album's end, was meant to fade back in as the first track of their next album. But the idea was never resurrected. As such it ends things on a bit of an odd note, but no matter: this album rocks.



Eddie wanted to bring keyboards into the mix, but both Templeman and David Lee Roth nixed the idea. He acquiesced for the most part, but he was still able to sneak a phase shifted Wurlitzer electric piano through a 1960s model 100-watt Marshall Plexi amplifier for the memorable riff of And the Cradle Will Rock.

The hamburger scene from Better Off Dead still comes to mind every time I hear Everybody Wants Some but in case people need reminding, this is in the running for  greatest cock rock song ever. David Lee Roth's involvement with just about anything officially designates the song in question as "cock rock." Sometimes that's too bad. But I don't think it really matters with Everybody Wants Some.

I Forgot How Much This One Rocks: Take Your Whiskey Home
In My Personal Reckoning: 6th of 12.


Fair Warning (1981) Produced by Ted Templeman
Mean Streets / Dirty Movies / Sinner's Swing / Hear About It Later / Unchained / Push Comes to Shove / So This Is Love? / Sunday Afternoon in the Park / One Foot Out the Door
The story behind the cover by William Kuralek is fascinating, and I didn't know any of it. I never had this on vinyl, so all I saw was the cropped cassette cover version. Now I kind of want to track down some huge poster of it and stare at it all day long.


Well. Maybe for the pantry, not for ongoing visual consumption.
Eddie seems to have an abiding interest in mental illness. The studio he built out of his home got its name from the law enforcement numerical code for a mentally disturbed person (Section 5150 of the California Welfare and Institutions Code.) Whether the first Van Hagar album was named after the studio or this code or for "the number of years Atlas held up the earth" as Alex and Eddie told Circus magazine at the time is anybody's guess.


Fair Warning was a commercial disappointment (selling "only" two million copies) but the band's most well-reviewed album to date. It broke new ground with the Electro-Harmonix-synthesized paranoia of Sunday Afternoon in the Park (a title that always makes me smile considering how unsettling the tune is) and its grittier lyrical content.

Every song is great on this one. Ironically, the only single (Unchained) is probably my least favorite. It's a cool tune and all, I'm just saying - the rest of the album is better. 



I Forgot How Much These Ones Rock: Sinner's Swing, Push Comes To Shove.
In My Personal Reckoning: My pick for The Best VH Album.


Diver Down (1982)

This one was critically savaged on its release, both for its abundance of cover songs (Where Have All the Good Times Gone, Oh Pretty Woman, Dancing in the Street, Big Bad Bill, and Happy Trails) and its departure from the tone of Fair Warning. Nevertheless, it's a pretty smart rock and roll record. The originals are all top notch, and the covers are actually really great, the synth parts for Dancing in the Street in particular. 

Eddie's Dad plays clarinet on Big Bad Bill. "I think when you hear Mr. Van Halen playing," said Dave at the time, "you'll have an idea it's a shadow of where Eddie and Alex are now. There's a sense of humor in there, a lot of technique, and a whole lot of beer."

Alex and Eddie with their parents.
For years, I thought Intruder was all Eddie, but I discovered in the Christe book that this intro to Oh Pretty Woman originated with Dave.




I Forgot How Much This One Rocks: The Full Bug.
In My Personal Reckoning: 3rd of 12.


1984 (1984) Produced by Ted Templeman
1984 / Jump / Panama / Top Jimmy/ Drop Dead Legs / Hot for the Teacher / I'll Wait / Girl Gone Bad / House of Pain
The other diamond-certified record in their catalog, this catapulted the band into the stratosphere. It also broke the band apart at the seams. More about that in a second.

Re-connecting with the videos from it in 2014 really took me back. Particularly Hot for the Teacher (which has more than a little in common with Steve Vai's later video for The Audience Is Listening) and Panama.



I've always considered the tune to be quintessential party rock, more than even Everybody Wants Some. I probably think this because this video gave me my first and largely unaltered impression of the band. Everyone's having such a blast, and the riff is just so fantastic. Probably because there are like four or five of them, strung together seamlessly. The song's just full of hooks all around.

"PAN-A-MA!"
I Forgot How Much This One Rocks: Top Jimmy (listen to the intro into the riff of this one; Eddie was / is just so, so great.)
In My Personal Reckoning: 2nd of 12.

As aforementioned, 1984 marked David Lee Roth's last recording with the band for several years. He'd recorded this solo EP on the side:

Crazy from the Heat (1985) Produced by Ted Templeman
Easy Street / (Medley) Just a Gigolo, Ain't Got Nobody / California Girls / Coconut Grove
And it was about as huge as anything MTV had released at that point. David Lee Roth owned MTV in 1985. Forget Weird Al's Al-TV spoofs of MTV culture (although those are personally cherished;) the video for Just a Gigolo / Ain't Got Nobody featured Dave doing his Dave's-a-horny-goofball bit, crashing through the sets of every popular video MTV had ever played. 


Both it and the video for California Girls - to my mother's barely-restrained exasperation - were the coolest things in my universe that year.

Favorite Song: Just a Gigolo, definitely, but Coconut Grove is pretty smooth. Dave's not exactly known for his subtle musicianship, but he wasn't just a more crass Al-Jolson-in-whiteface. (I know, I know.)

The band didn't like Dave doing side projects (although, to be fair, Eddie did a few of them as well, including the solo for a little song named Beat It) and a series of long-smoldering arguments finally exploded. David Lee Roth went his own way, and Van Halen announced they'd be replacing him with Sammy Hagar. More on that saga momentarily - let's have a look at one of my all-time favorite rock records:

Eat 'Em and Smile (1986) Produced by Ted Templeman
Yankee Rose / Shyboy / I'm Easy / Ladies Night in Buffalo / Goin' Crazy / Tobacco Road / Elephant Gun / Big Trouble / Bump and Grind / That's Life
Technically, this came out after Van Halen released 5150, but let me wrap up my solo-Dave thoughts here before moving on. (I'm not going to cover Skyscraper and beyond, nor any of Sammy's solo albums, as they didn't have the effect on me that this one did. I don't think a day went by in 1986 or 1987, especially, when I didn't listen to this record.)

"After a brief series of wilderness adventures, Roth resurfaced with a new band of lethal players that could only be described as Van Halen killers."

Although that conjures images of a David-Lee-Roth-ified Darth Vader walking before a group of bounty hunters, it meant hiring Billy Sheehan (aka "the Eddie Van Halen of bass") Steve Vai (aka "evil Eddie") and Gregg Bissonette (aka Dengar.) 

Vai is the man. Vai's still the man. And in the 80s, I think it's fair to say only he (and perhaps Joe Satriani) could credibly out-Eddie Eddie. Vai's appearance in the movie Crossroads is particularly memorable. At the time, it wasn't available for purchase anywhere, so I had to put a portable tape recorder up against the speaker of the TV and record it to tape so I could listen to it all the time. Time travel: today, I google it - and voila! In a lot of ways the 21st century is a complete and utter crock. But stuff like that almost makes up for it.

The video for "Yankee Rose" pretty much sums up David Lee Roth: you've got to get by the ass-less chaps and his rubbing his bejeweled crotch into the camera to get at the rock and roll. Sometimes that's too tall an order, I grant you. But for what it's worth, the music on Eat 'Em and Smile is far more varied than this description might suggest. Either Ladies Night in Buffalo or Big Trouble are probably Solo Dave's greatest songs. (Although Perfect Timing from Skyscraper is pretty hard to argue with.)



David Lee Roth returns to the Van Halen saga later in the program. But for now, there's a signpost up ahead. Next stop:

THE VAN HAGAR ERA

5150 (1986) Produced by Van Halen with Mick Jones and Donn Landee
Good Enough / Why Can't This Be Love? / Get Up / Dreams / Summer Nights / Best of Both Worlds / Love Walks In / 5150 / Inside
Unlike most of the kids with whom I discussed such things in 1986, I was already a Sammy Hagar fan when he joined Van Halen, so I wasn't all that resistant to the idea of his replacing Roth.


I was mainly a fan of the I Can't Drive 55 video (and song.)
But I also had the 45 for Winner Takes It All, the Giorgio-Moroder-written theme to the Stallone movie of the same name.

(That movie, man... as Norm MacDonald once quipped to Stallone when he appeared on SNL: "What were you thinking? I mean you had to arm wrestle the guy for the custody of your son for God's sake. Remember that movie Kramer vs Kramer? That was about a child custody hearing too. But it wasn't any good. It was missing something. Oh! I know: arm-wrestling.")

Hagar shared David Lee Roth's basic worldview and singing style, but the two pretended to be mortal enemies in the music press. "Though down to earth about a lot of things, he had a loose-screw California side. 'When I was about 19 or 20, aliens downloaded everything in my head. I don't know who the fuck they are, but I've narrowed them down to a people called The Nine, who are called that because they're from the ninth dimension." 

Apparently, Love Walks In is a product of this alien download and is described in the book as "the first in a series of alien-themed ballads." What? I never put that together, nor did I know this was a series. "I think Edward Van Halen is an alien," he told MTV. "I don't know what planet he's from, but they all play guitar."


5150 is a great album, and Sammy does a great job on it. He kept his voice in better shape than Dave's, and while the two eras are definitely different, there's probably as many classics in the Van Hagar era as there are in the Roth one.

I Forgot How Much These Ones Rock: Inside. (Not the album's best track, but it's tucked away at the end and I always forget about it. That chorus has been in my head for weeks, now.)
In My Personal Reckoning: 4th of 12.


OU812 (1988) Produced by Van Halen and Donn Landee
Mine All Mine / When It's Love / A.F.U. (Naturally Wired) / Cabo Wabo / Source of Infection / Feels So Good / Finish What Ya Started / Black and Blue / Sucker in a Three Piece / Apolitical Blues

When DLR left, he took a lot of the VH apparatus with him. Mainly their videomaking technical crew. This is the album where they got back in the music video swing, as epitomized by the Feels So Good and Finish What Ya Started videos: band playing, Sammy bopping around, cutaways to metal chicks. (The production on those songs is dynamite. Sure, Feels So Good has some ridiculously sappy lyrics, but everything sounds so crisp I don't mind.)

It was during this era that "the band's lawyers filed a lawsuit against NC-17 rappers 2 Live Crew, who brazenly sampled Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love for a riff in the The Fuck Shop on their As Nasty as They Wanna Be magnum opus. Van Halen weren't too old to understand the nature of rap sampling - they had been using samples and sequences themselves for almost a decade - but after Tone Loc bum-rushed the security gates, it was time to get paid."


Van Halen has a lot in common with Kiss. As mentioned in Kiss and Sell, Paul Stanley felt he had to over-compensate for his age in the 80s, so he intentionally ratcheted up the "rough sex talk." I don't know if this was the rationale behind some of Van Halen's lyrics in the 80s particularly on this album but elsewhere as well. But the "artless boner" (as I've seen it referred to) quality of something like Black and Blue is kind of at odds with the lyrics of something like When It's Love or Feels So Good. 

Personally, I'm more offended by the lyrics to When It's Love. Who the hell would be asking Sammy Hagar or any of these clowns for advice on when lust turns to love? That is patently absurd.



(Pretty song, though, especially the "Na Na Na" part at the end.)

I Forgot How Much This One Rocks: Source of Infection
In My Personal Reckoning: 7th of 12.

For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (1991) Produced by Van Halen, Andy Johns, and Ted Templeman
Poundcake / Judgement Day/ Spanked / Runaround / In 'n' Out / Man on a Mission / This Dream is Over / Right Now / 316 / Top of the World
Another awful cover. How did they get away with this - twice?

My memory of this album is that it was on the radio and MTV every five minutes. You just couldn't escape it. Which was fine for awhile, as I liked the album, but its constant airplay burned me out on the band for years. Revisiting it now, I hear a pretty "safe" album. The big songs (Runaround, Top of the World, This Dream Is Over) are fine tunes (and as always Michael Anthony's vocals are perfect) but they're kind of AOR-by-numbers.

Not so with Poundcake, though, which is one of the all-time greats. The video is ridiculous. I mean, they're all ridiculous - I know (well, the video for Right Now is one of the coolest ever made, by any band, so, while we're here, that one's definitely not ridiculous.) But with the "What are little girls made of?" intro and the subsequent writhing and casting-couch storyline, it makes it seem like Van Halen are sex traffickers or something.



"Give me some of that UN-HUNH, UNH-HOWWW-UONN!" is one of my favorite cock rock lyrics ever. 

In My Personal Reckoning: 9th of 12.
 
Balance (1995) Produced by Bruce Fairborn
The Seventh Seal / Can't Stop Loving You / Don't Tell Me What Love Can Do / Amsterdam / Big Fat Money / Doin' Time / Aftershock / Strung Out / Not Enough / Baluchitherium / Take Me Back (Deja Vu) / Feelin'
Okay, so now we get to the bad stuff. I wish I was here to tell you the rest of Van Halen's catalog is under-appreciated, but basically from here on out, it's a slog.

One interesting bit, though, the song Strung Out, "eighty-eight seconds of avant-garde piano terror documenting an episode from ten years earlier. While renting film composer Marvin Hamlisch's beach house in the early 80s, Eddie had investigated the sonic properties of a Yamaha grand piano with the delicate use of hammer, saw, AA batteries, and silverware. The recording of scrapes and snapping strings cost over $10,000 and was culled from over six hours of raw tape - potentially the most edgy Van Halen bootleg never released."
In My Personal Reckoning: 11th of 12.

Sammy's last recording with the band was the song Humans Being for the Twister soundtrack in 1996. Not a bad tune, that. Later, Sammy sold eighty percent of his Cabo Wabo Tequila company to Campari for eighty million. Which is staggering. I instantly imagine the proceedings as if they took place on Shark Tank. "You're valuing your company at what?" But hey, good on ya, Sammy.


Dave returned to the band to record two songs for their Best Of, Volume One collection: Me Wise Magic and Can't Get This Stuff No More. Some see the latter as subtle commentary on the whole Van Halen saga itself, but for my money, it's kind of vague and can be applied to anything. (Like most Roth lyrics. If he even wrote the lyrics - I'm not sure actually.) Me Wise Magic is a pretty good tune - it would've been better if Sammy sang it, though.

But Sammy was gone, and the third Van Halen singer was Gary Cherone, formerly of Extreme. (Who happened to record one of the best Van Halen songs not recorded by Van Halen: Play With Me.)


Van Halen III (1998) Produced by Mike Post and Eddie Van Halen
Neworld / Without You / One I Want / From Afar / Dirty Water Dog / Once / Fire in the Hole / Josephina / Year to the Day / Primary / Ballot or the Bullet / How Many Say I
Yeah, this album. Sheesh. It's just boring. I listened to it three times preparing for this blog, hoping something would catch on with me. I'm what you'd call a "Highly Motivated" Van Halen listener. But nope, nothing. 

I feel bad for Gary - he was in more or less an impossible position.
In My Personal Reckoning: 12th of 12.

Christe's book was published before Roth rejoined the band. It ends on kind of a bum note, actually, lamenting the decay of Van Halen's affairs. He recorded two tracks and some incidental music for a porno film, oddly, during this period. Here's the description for the video for one of them, Catherine: "the poignant isolation of the three-minute video seemed the clearest picture of what Eddie had been doing since 1999. The optimistic story that began on a boat from Holland had all but turned into Citizen Kane, with Eddie losing his mind like Orson Welles at his Xanadu estate." 

Dave rejoined the band in 2007, but Michael Anthony was ousted rather dickishly (he read about his departure in the press; so much for decades of loyal service. Though who knows what happened behind-the-scenes.) After a couple of years of touring and mouthing off to the press, they released:



A Different Kind of Truth (2012) Produced by John Shanks and Van Halen
Tattoo / She's the Woman / You and Your Blues / Chinatown / Blood and Fire / Bullethead / As Is / Honeybabysweetdoll / The Trouble with Never / Outta Space / Stay Frosty / Beats Working / Big River
I have a simple rule when it comes to reunion albums: how does it compare to Iron Maiden's Brave New World? If Maiden can get back together and release one of their all-time best albums, I figure any band worth its salt should be able to, as well. Technically, though, that standard of comparison doesn't apply to A Different Kind of Truth, since Michael Anthony's not on it. Which is immediately missed. Frankly, Van Halen without Michael Anthony's harmonies and backing vocals just doesn't sound like Van Halen. 


It's not a terrible album or anything, it just reminds me more of Monster by Kiss. It adds little to the official record. Still, hey: more power to you, guys. I'm not about rooting for anyone to fail, particularly if the anyone in question is three-fourths of the group that gave me so many of my favorite tunes.


In My Personal Reckoning: 10th of 12.

IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS

Well, the listen-through re-enforced what I knew beforehand, that the post-1991 era of Van Halen isn't really my cup of tea. But I enjoyed the crap out of revisiting the older stuff. And the book was a blast to read. 

I'll leave off with the Official Dog Star Omnibus Top 20 Van Halen Songs.

20. Runnin' with the Devil
19. Cabo Wabo
18. Jump
17. Beautiful Girls
16. Sinner's Swing
15. Hang 'Em High
14. When Push Comes to Shove
13. Little Guitars
12. Summer Nights
11. Poundcake
10. Dreams
9. Eruption
8. Sunday Afternoon in the Park
7. Everybody Wants Some
6. 5150 *
5. Source of Infection
4. Finish What Ya Started
3. Best of Both Worlds
2. Hot for the Teacher
1. Panama

* Such an underrated tune.