Van Halen: The David Lee Roth Years

Like, totally

I'm only reviewing the band's career between 1978 (their debut) and 1984 (in which they wittily issued an album entitled 1984), in which they were fronted by this obnoxious showman by the name of David Lee Roth. Mind you, I'm not a huge fan of Roth - I don't own any of his solo albums - but there's one good solid reason why my dalliance with Van Halen ends with Roth's departure. The reason is called Sammy Hagar. It's hard to imagine a more pedestrian vocalist and frontman than Hagar, who seems to have watched Spinal Tap a dozen times without once clueing in to the irony. However, I'm not quite sure you can entirely blame Hagar for Van Halen's decline into self-parody; also factored must be some sort of creative drought for Eddie Van Halen, who seems to be so enamoured of guitar technique that he's forgotten how to write decent pop songs.

Ah, now that's the rub: leaving aside Eddie's groundbreaking guitar playing, what separated Van Halen from the metal hordes was a sharp sense of good pop songwriting. As far as hooks and melodies, some of their tunes are worthy of the concurrent Buzzcocks - and some even worthier. They were the biggest and loudest party band of their era, literally defining life for millions of highschoolers coming of age in the early '80s. They were the ultimate soundtrack to a Cameron Crowe flick involving beer and babes, and they totally rocked, dude! No, really, they did - sometimes (I'd better check that excessive irony of mine. Might turn into a typical '90s slacker asshole). Especially the hooks - Eddie found weird places on the guitar to turn into weirder sounds, and turned those into grab-ya-on-the-radio anthemic riffs. They were the Led Zeppelin of the '80s, only not as full of themselves, they wrote lyrics that actually made sense, they didn't wank off very much, and they were fun. Sorry, metal dudes, I just think Zep are way overrated. Influential, for sure, but half of Zep's music is too pompous to not bore the Tolkien out of me. But anyway, I like the Halen Bros. & Co. By the way, have I mentioned that Eddie, on a technical level, may be the greatest rock guitarist since Hendrix? Does stuff Tom Verlaine can only dream of (I like Television, too, that's not a knock against'em).

Van Halen (1978) ****

The second song, "Eruption," must have blown guitarists' minds back in the day; today it sounds like dated wank-off filler, but hey - so does nearly the entirety of Sgt. Pepper. I'm not an ace guitar technician - I know a few chords and can play around with'em a little, that's it - so I'm going to face the Sisyphean task of reviewing Van Halen's output without spending much technical detail on Eddie's playing. It's neat, and those hammer-ons and bluesless speedy runs were revolutionary, and that's all I've got to say. Anyway, the record kicks off with some fake Satanism (if you're in a heavy metal band, the rules stipulate that you write at least one song adressed to the man downstairs. And at least one ode to a slut. And the anti-authority song. And the let's rock and party dude song), and doesn't really let up until the final three songs - some folks like the cover of "Ice Cream Man", but to me it's just typical smarmy Dave goin' to Vegas corn, which I can most certainly do without. In between, they send a Kinks classic over the top to self-parody, sprint with a trio of neo-punk songs that never get played on the radio 'cause they're too "punk", I guess ("I'm One," "On Fire," and oh yeah, "Atomic Punk"). "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" was later covered by the Minutemen. And if you find a more brutally honest song about treating a girl like shit that isn't written by Elvis Costello or the Afghan Whigs than "Janie's Crying", then tell me about it.

Van Halen II (1979) ***

It sounds the same as the debut, but something's wrong.... Hey, what happened to the hooks? It leads off with another cover, this one via Linda Ronstadt, that tries hard to be atmospheric and foreboding but falls flat on its face. Luckily, that leads straight into the album's highlight, "Dance the Night Away," that cuts the Motors' song of the same title, and stands as one of the band's best-ever pure pop songs. Unfortunately, the next big highlight comes at the very end, "Beautiful Girls," that gets over on Diamond Dave's hysterical beach bum monologue. In between there are a bunch of songs they don't play endlessly on the radio (like they do with nearly everything off the debut), for good reason. Some of it's okay, but too much of this sounds like a rush job. Steady Eddie's magic fingers and Diamond Dave's manic mugging save this from mediocrity - not the weak songwriting.

Women and Children First (1980) ***

Two dull albums in a row; fortunately, their fortunes started perking up with the next album. At least it starts off really hot. "And the Cradle Will Rock" shows their songwriting develop a little bit, as Dave gets misty-eyed over '50s rebellion ("Have you seen junior's grades?") - corny as all get-out, more Back to the Future than Clockwork Orange is their idea of teen rebellion, but then again nihilistic anti-social tendencies aren't as cool as they're cracked up to be. "Everybody Wants Some!!" gets straight to the heart of the matter of human existence: as a wise man (Ice Cube) once said, "Life ain't nuthin' but bitches and money." Then it starts sliding downhill, though "Tora Tora" is a nice way to waste 40 seconds. For some reason, Dave mugs even more than usual - it's sad to see a grown man act like a 13--year-old boy.

Fair Warning (1981) ***1/2

Dumb party-hearty clowns? Well, Van Halen do fit that description, but this album doesn't. In fact, the album is rather dark. Obviously influenced by the upstart hardcore punks infiltrating L.A. at the time, these songs are the band's heaviest and meanest, and least pop. Kicks off with Dave walking past the crazies on "Mean Street" and the next one has underage porn stars in it. The only radio hit was "Unchained," 'cause every Van Halen album has to have at least one radio song off it according to AOR radio programmers, but none of the rest sound very commercial at all. That's why some folks don't like this too much, but what they're missing is some of Eddie's best playing, some weird moody shit, and the sound of Dave not acting like a fool for once. Okay, so that last sound is genetically impossible, but at least Dave tries to not act like a boor ("Gimme a break, Dave" - "One break, coming up!"). A little instrumental ditty entitled "Sunday Afternoon In the Park" introduces Eddie's love affair with synthesizers (Pete Townshend parallel, anyone?). It's their art record and thereby not long on pop bliss, so if that's what you're looking for, skip it; but it doesn't sound like any of their other records, so it gets bonus points.

Diver Down (1982) **1/2

Their songwriting skills must have gone out the door at this point, 'cause half of these tunes are covers, and covers aren't why I listen to bands unless I'm paying a cover charge at the local beer mill. The Kinks cover, "Where Have All The Good Times Gone" is lame, as if Dave didn't grasp a syllable of Ray Davies' irony and he's playing it for a good time party tune. Dated synths ruin "Dancing In the Streets" a song that a)is over-covered, and b)wasn't even a good song in the first place. "Big Bad Bill" and "Happy Trails" further prepare Dave for Las Vegas. That leaves "Oh Pretty Woman" as the sole good cover, taking Roy Orbison's classic of leering lust to hooks it never imagined. The originals aren't very strong either, except for "Little Guitar", an ode to a Senorita that stands as one of the band's best-ever pop songs. And maybe "Cathredal" if you're into guitar playing as art-mood muzak. It's amazing to think that a band running this low on creativity would turn so far around with the next album....

1984 ****

Here's where it all comes together. You probably know exactly what you think of this album already, and of the songs that they don't play endlessly on AOR radio, only "Top Jimmy" (a tribute to a "legendary" L.A. musician, and I put legendary in quotes 'cause I've never heard his stuff. Anyway, what do "roots" mean in L.A., anyway - it's not like it's the Mississippi Delta. Top Jimmy probably laid down the roots of the L.A. Toto/Foriegner tradition for all I know), deserves to be (this sentence doesn't flow very well unless you ignore all the parantheses, so do so). "Drop Dead Legs" and "House of Pain" and "Bad Girl" just don't really do anything for me, though the synthesizer instrumental is pretty lively as far as synthesizer muzak goes. So that leaves the four songs they play endlessly on the radio and will continue to do until the military holds its annual underground Nevada nuke testing in Las Vegas, as they should have done a long time ago (seriously. We would have never have heard of Wayne Newton or Tom Jones if they'd done the right thing back in the '50s). Though I admit I play the acoustic Aztec Camera version a lot more, 'cause I'm sick of the original's radio overplay, "Jump" is one heckuva a single - it's got a synthhook catchier than "Baba O'Riley" and as someone once said (I'm atrociously paraphrasing) it has a life-affirming spirit that restores your faith in humanity. Okay, scratch that, I don't think anybody ever put it quite that way, but "Jump" really is a great song. As devout Trotskyite Libertarians, Van Halen disguise a pointed commentary on Jimmy Carter's return of the Panama Canal as a mindless car song. "Hot For Teacher" sounds like a wicked outtake from Schoolboys In Disgrace, though it blows out of the water anything off that weak Kinks album (and knowing what big Kinks fans these guys are, I bet it was an intentional homage. Or maybe Dave was just horny for some student teacher). "I'll Wait" possesses a nice, moody little synthesizer melody and has Dave falling in love with a centerfold, kind of like in "Pictures of Lily". My main problem with this album is that it's too short, but at least the bad parts are over pretty quick and you won't get bored with it. People complain about half-hour albums - I say we oughta bring'em back, 'cause what I get sick of is 70-minute CDs that go on forever with only (if you're lucky) a half-hour's worth of listenable material. Really, does anyone need to hear two hours of the Smashing Pumpkins - in a row?

Reader Comments

Nick Karn,

Nice approach there by focusing only on the DLR era of Van Halen, which of course in my opinion, and in the opinion of 95% of the fanbase, were the glory days of the band. I'm not so much a fan of the Sammy Hagar-era either, but I will say "5150" is an excellent album. However, it's the only great one they did during his reign.

Anway, the first album I used to consider a 5-star classic but I realized that I find "I'm The One" and "Ice Cream Man" kind of corny, and for some reason "Janie's Cryin'" doesn't do anything for me. Groundbreaking guitar, though. I give it 4-1/2 stars. "Van Halen II" I actually like better than the debut on some days -- it's fairly consistent but of course way too short like all their early albums are. "D.O.A.", "Outta Love Again", "Dance The Night Away" and "Women In Love" are my faves. I give that one 4 stars.

"Women and Children First" to me is their first misstep. On that one I'd say Roth acts like an idiot the most, and it grates on me. If "Take Your Whiskey Home", "Romeo Delight", and "In A Simple Rhyme" weren't so phenomenal, it wouldn't be worthy of my 3 star rating. "Fair Warning" in my eyes is their 5 star classic. I really dig their dark nighttime vibe a lot and Eddie's guitar is the shit here. Every track is great, no filler, but damn it, why is it their shortest album yet?!?!?

"Diver Down" is another misfire, as I really don't dig the idea of a half cover-half original album after the brilliance of the last one. There are really only two great originals here ("Secrets", "Cathedral") which sucks. The covers are well done sometimes though, I give that 3 stars too. "1984" I feel is a little bit overrated -- some dated synthesizers in the title song and "I'll Wait" as well as the lame "Top Jimmy" and "Drop Dead Legs" automatically exclude this album from getting 5 stars, but "Girl Gone Bad", "Jump", and "Hot For Teacher" are a few of the most amazing songs of their career. This one's a 4 star album.

As for the wisely missing Van Hagar era, I'd rate the albums somewhat lower, although I'd give 5150 a 4-1/2 star rating because the songwriting is at a very high level here. Of course, pretty much all of this stuff was written before DLR left the band. I guess this logic would also explain why AC/DC's first with Brian Johnson, "Back In Black", was so popular (probably Bon Scott inspired) and it went downhill from there.

The remainder: OU812 (***) is their most uneven album to date, For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge (***-1/2) is better but it's clearer Hagar's got his head up his ass, Live: Right Here Right Now (**-1/2) is a disgrace to the Van Halen name in a concert setting, Balance (**) is the absolute worst in their catalog (no explanation needed), and Best of Volume 1 (***-1/2) just doesn't work as a greatest hits collection, but the two new tracks with Roth redeem it.

By the way, Van Halen 3 (***) is a nice rebound with Gary Cherone as the singer, but Cherone for some reason tries too hard to sound like Sammy. Speaking as an Extreme fan, why?? Some great tunes here ("Dirty Water Dog", "Once", "Josephina", "How Many Say I") but EVH has simply lost it guitar wise, now he just wanks off for his own sake -- and his solos don't go with the song at all for the most part, and that hurts the album.

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