UnNews:Van Halen's first album: 40 years later

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Sunday, February 11, 2018

EVH, unlike many rock stars, didn't die. He just got really fuckin old.

Tuesday marked 40 years since Van Halen released its landmark self-titled debut album on Warner Bros. Records. Ever since the release of this groundbreaking album, the names Eddie Van Halen and David Lee Roth have never been forgotten, and the electric guitar has never been the same.

Eddie reinvented the guitar physically, musically and sonically -- combining elements of a Fender Strat with those of a Gibson SG or Les Paul into what he called a "Frankenstrat." He put these really crazy stripes on his guitar and used his whammy bar like he was masturbating.

Let us look back on this musical landmark, which I've just listened to in full on HDCD.

Van Halen's first album opens with "Runnin' With the Devil" -- Specifically, the car horn/alarm thingy. Then the next sound you hear is not Eddie, but the thumping bass of Michael Anthony. The next sound you hear is a little twinkling. It is piano keys, or is it Eddie playing behind the nut of the guitar? (The nut being, not testicles, but that black thingy between the headstock and the fretboard.) Then, after Alex Van Halen leads the way by pounding beat four on his drums, in comes Eddie -- panned hard left (as he is on most of the album) -- with the famous riff.

Dave sings about living his life "like there's no tomorroooooow! All I got I had to steeeaaaalll!" But hey, at least he didn't have to "beg and borroooowwwww!"

Then comes what is most definitely the centerpiece of the album, "Eruption." Eddie Van Halen, front and center (and panned that way, too!) unleashes his tapping technique in earnest. There was simply nothing like it before. Eddie's guitar playing was revolutionary -- using a wide range of techniques, from power chords to hammer-ons and pull offs, to tremolo picking, to the bold and daring use of the whammy bar, to the previously unheard-of tapping (which had actually already been around). The song has intimidated guitarists for 40 years.

"Eruption" seamlessly segues into a cover of The Kink's revolutionary hit, "You Really Got Me" (which pioneered the use of distorted power chords in a rock song). The band continues to break sonic ground. Eddie -- once again panned hard right -- rarely plays the exact same part twice. He ends his solo by flickering the killswitch on his guitar. Also, check out Eddie and Mike's harmony vocals, especially Mike. Dave proves that the is a better frontman than future Van Halen crooner Sammy Hagar, who at the time was best known as the lead singer from Montrose -- another band named after its guitarist -- and was years away from his "I Can't Drive 55" solo career, which also predated Van Hagar.

Along with the first three tracks, the next song makes the tracklist read like a Greatest Hits album, "Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love." The song was intended as a satire of punk rock, but ended up sounding nothing like it, except in attitude. While Eddie is panned hard left (as usual) while playing a palm muted main lick, he plays an electric sitar panned hard right, accompanying the guitar solo. For years, I thought the Sitar was a flanger or phaser effect -- which are Eddie's signature effects. Dave delivers such classic lines as "I heard the news baby / All about your disease / Yeah, you may have all you want, baby / But I got somethin' you need, oh yeah!" and "You know you're semi-good looking / And on the streets again / Ooh yeah, you think you're really cookin', baby / You better find yourself a friend, oh yeah," and "My love it rotten to the core / Just like I told you before."

Side A ends with "I'm the One," "the one you want." Eddie's playing is quite fast and rambunctious. The structure of this song is not unlike 1984 highlight "Hot for Teacher." In fact, they're basically twin songs.

Side B begins with classic rock staple "Jamie's Cryin'," which details a one night stand. The opening drum fill, a decade later, would be sampled on Tone Loc's "Wild Thing," which featured prominently in the movie Uncle Buck. Eddie is panned hard left for most of the song, but the lead guitar (with minimal use of the whammy bar) is panned hard right.

"Atomic Punk" opens with a funny scratching/rubbing effect playing a 16th-note shuffle, with Eddie's signature flanger effect. All four men are at the top of their game, giving it their all. Dave is just as fierce as Eddie. Alex bangs on his drums like it's the last time he ever will. Mike plays the hell out of that bass.

"Feel Your Love Tonight" is less aggressive and sounds like the Top 40 radio hit that would define Van Halen's later career, especially the 1984 album. The chorus is very singalong, Eddie's riffs are similar to "Panama" and "Dance The Night Away."

"Little Dreamer" is another great song on the album, a tune about someone whose dreams and ambitions didn't pan out. The song is a lot less flashy -- even Eddie -- and allows Dave to truly show off his vocals. Mike has a crowning moment with his harmonies on the chorus. Hard to believe it's four guys creating this huge sound.

"Ice Cream Man" is actually an old blues song by John Brim. But Dave, Eddie, Alex and Mike kick it into the stratosphere! The only song to feature an acoustic guitar, which is positioned in the center. And when it switches to 12/8 time at the end. Wow. Everyone gets a moment to shine.

"On Fire" brings the album to a, ahem, fiery conclusion. Eddie holds nothing back when he begins the song with the power chords Eb5, Db5, B5 (or Cb5, if you will), Db5, Bb5 -- punctuated by Alex's cymbals. Dave's vocals reach great heights (and a fiery falsetto) on the chorus; you'd think he were literally on fire.

Van Halen is one of the best-selling albums of all time, and is certified diamond. They released several more albums with David Lee Roth, and then Sammy Hagar ruined everything (just kidding, but seriously, Dave's better), then Gary Cherone really ruined everything. Dave reunited with the band in 2007; Eddie opted for his son, Wolfgang, to replace Mike. No one's exactly sure why. But Sam and Mike are already in a band called Chickenfoot, which also features fellow guitar shredding legend Joe Satriani and Will Ferrell Chad Smith.

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