Van Halen: Van Halen

Nothing says 1978 debut album like that cover, does it?

It is impossible to review this album as if you don’t know what happened afterwards.  And I’m not even talking about this lineup releasing five more albums worth of hits then doing the Sammy Hagar thing and all that.  What I’m saying is that it’s impossible to review this album without acknowledging the next 12 or 13 years of hard rock guitar bands. I mean, it’s all here, the arena-ready choruses, the pillaging of the blues and classic rock (in this case mostly the latter) pumped up to new speeds and volumes, the oversexed, fun-loving flashpottiness, and, of course, the wanky guitar solo.  This album was 10 years ahead of its time.  Either that or 1988 was 10 years behind its time.

The other aspect of this album that makes it impossible to review normally is that it’s like listening to classic rock radio.  Because so many of these songs are still played ad nauseum on classic rock radio.  I had no idea how many standards they put on this album alone: “Runnin’ With The Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talking ‘Bout Love,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and “Feel Your Love Tonight.”  That’s five out of eleven tracks.  (And note that there’s three explicitly dropped G’s in that list.  Three!  These guys really wanted the orthography of their song titles to match their pronunciation.)  So, while I think the album sounds more like a collection of singles than a cohesive whole, that may be due to the fact that, for me, born in 1974, this is a collection of singles.

So I can’t really say a whole lot about what this album is because it would be like classic rock radio itself.  And it’s really hard to untangle my feelings about classic rock radio from this album.  So many of these songs are catchy but have been overplayed so much that they drive me crazy in parts.  Does “Jamie’s Cryin'” get kept for its bridge or knocked down to like for its whiny chorus?  How about the triple-apostrophed “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love?”  Can I get past the fist-banging chorus enough to keep it?  Or does “I’m The One” get credit for its spastic insertion of doo-wop and the successive climax, or is its more dominant characteristic the way everything before that part is a too-fast throwaway quasi-punk misfire?

That list goes on, and all the answers are revealed below (he writes before knowing the answers himself).  But I can also point out a few surprises from this album.  First, the deep cuts are the best.  “Atomic Punk” is the perfect prototype of a hard rock/punk fusion that should have taken a country of mes by storm, but never came to fruition because I’m kind of like the most musically sophisticated person ever.  “Little Dreamer” is, I believe, one of the band’s most popular songs among devoted fans, and for good reason…it should dominate rock radio the way so much of this album does.  Rounding out the pleasant surprises, I didn’t realize just how ridiculously acrobatic David Lee Roth’s voice was.  From opener “Runnin’ With The Devil” through closer “On Fire,” Roth jumps octaves, bellows, and howls, setting a prototype for 80’s metal vocalists like Ronnie James Dio and Geoff Tate.  Turns out, though, that the style’s way more fun when tossed off with a semblance of effortlessness and a flirty, ironic wink than it is when done sincerely singing about orcs and wizards.

There were some less positive surprises, too.  I didn’t know the band did so many covers.  That’s not particular to this album, but rather something I picked up yesterday on Wikipedia.  But even here you’ve got The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” of course, and then an old blues tune “Ice Cream Man,” that lit the way for the less honestly attributed blues-plundering of the likes of Aerosmith, Cinderella, Great White, and more of the 80’s hard rock ilk.

The covers thing is neutral, but there was at least one really negative surprise, too.  I never really realized just how wanky Eddie Van Halen could be on guitar.  I guess I’d always just compared him to people like Steve Vai (who I kind of like) and Yngwie Malmsteen (who I definitely don’t), and in that light Van Halen is the master of songful integation…but good God, there are times when you wonder if he’s listening to anybody but himself.  The most obvious of these is, of course, “Eruption,” one of the most famous guitar solos in all of rock.  It gets a like for its first 50 and last 25 seconds, but that start of the second half of the track is insufferable.

It’s really kind of amazing the partnership between the effervescent Roth and the showy Van Halen lasted as long as it did.  Based on their styles, I can’t believe they ever could have liked each other enough to have a beer together.  And maybe they didn’t.  But I guess if you want to be a rock star bad enough, you can align yourself with a talented prick partner and grit your teeth long enough to make it.  (I think) I’m (mostly) glad they did.  This album seems to give itself away right away, but I keep finding more in it with additional listens.  If I could separate it from being sandwiched between Kansas and Journey and creating Yngwie Malmsteen, or if I could pretend I was a 14-year-old in 1978 whose older brother got him this album for Chrstmas, I may be able to pop this up to four clowns even.  I want to, I just can’t.

“Atomic Punk”
“Runnin’ With The Devil,” “You Really Got Me,” “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love,” “Little Dreamer,” “On Fire”
“Eruption,” “I’m The One,” “Jamie’s Cryin’,” “Feel Your Love Tonight,” “Ice Cream Man

Track Notes:

  1. Runnin’ With The Devil – His vocals are just a parody of themselves.  But I love them. Not sure hi-hat hits ever sounded so huge.
  2. Eruption – This is well done and all that, but there’s no song here.  It’s just pyrotechnics.  And it’s to blame for all the tuneless guitar wanking I’ve ever had to sit through at rock shows.  Maybe I’d have liked it back in the day, but it’s just impossible to separate from its legacy now.
  3. You Really Got Me – The Kinks cover, natch.  I love how it always seems like they’re about to veer out of control.  Rock and roll on the edge.  This is really probably more of a like but I have to keep it because what is this album without this song?
  4. Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love – Again, it’s amazing how many of these I know.  Is he saying “you’re semi-good looking”?  This is quite a strut.  And at such a good clip…probably the fastest strut song ever.  Take out the shouted title part and this might be mix.  It’s a tough thing to overlook, but it’s quite a well-crafted gem.
  5. I’m The One – Throwaway?  More wanky guitar stuff at the top.  But the song is also growing on me quite a bit.
  6. Jamie’s Cryin’ – I love the classic rock harmonies at “one night stands.”
  7. Atomic Punk – Not expected at all, but it totally works.  This would go on to influence a completely different type of band than you normally think of as being influenced by Van Halen.  I like how they go all Stooges “Search & Destroy” and Springsteen “Backstreets” in the lyrics while still having such a good time with it.  It’s just so different from so much of what they’ve done.
  8. Feel Your Love Tonight – It’s amazing how many songs on this album I know.
  9. Little Dreamer – Like it on first listen, but I don’t think I know this one.
  10. Ice Cream Man – “All my flavors are guaranteed to satisfy.”  Yep, I even know this one, a cover of a track by an old bluesman.  (Is there any other type of bluesman?)  This might be the definition of like.
  11. On Fire – God who does that scream remind me of?  Is it Geoff Tate?  Ronnie James Dio?  I never realized how much metal vocalists owed to DLR’s upper range theatrics.  Not even like so much, but has parts I like.  Eh, it’s growing on me.  I might even keep this.  And if I do then the album as a whole has a real chance to go up to 3.5 clowns.

One thought on “Van Halen: Van Halen

  1. Pingback: Playlist Review: Xbox Music Heavy Metal Showdown – Classic vs. New | fatclown

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