VAN HALEN (Not Van Hagar!) Part 2: On Fire
My latest series of reviews at mikeladano.com is an in-depth look at all the classic VAN HALEN albums, with David Lee Roth. Jump in!
Part 1: The Early Years (Zero – 1977)
Then, the inevitable happened: Van Halen signed with Warner Brothers in 1977, and went into the recording studio with Ted Templeman. The producer, probably best known for his work with the Doobie Brothers (though he did have a Captain Beefheart record under his belt), helped hone Van Halen’s sound to a razor-sharp edge. The relationship was to be a long and fruitful one. Templeman was responsible for every classic Van Halen album, before helming David Lee Roth’s Eat ‘Em and Smile in 1986. Templeman even returned to co-produce the Van Hagar album For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge. One might venture that the producer had a huge impact on the overall sound of early Van Halen.
Their first collaboration was released in February 1978. Van Halen. When my dad first heard the name, he responded, “Van Halen? Sounds like some kind of tropical disease.” But they had built an audience playing legendary gigs at Gazzarri’s in West Hollywood, and with the help of a 1978 tour they propelled the album to #18 in the US. Not bad for a rock band in the middle of punk.
It’s impossible to talk about the songs without talking about the players. Edward Van Halen’s guitar work here set a very high bar, even for himself. His biggest complaint about the guitar on Van Halen is that it is mixed hard to the left channel. This old fashioned recording technique failed to create the beefy sound Van Halen had heard in his head. As he put it himself, if you were in a car with the left speaker blown, you wouldn’t hear any guitar, only its faint shadow on the right.
Van Halen may not have introduced techniques such as tapping, pick slides, pinch harmonics, and whammy bar dives but he did use them in new, in-your-face ways. He turned these simple tricks into music, and on Van Halen, he did it mostly without overdubs. Much of the album consists of a single track of guitar. Templeman was trying to capture their live sound, but Edward would later get his way when it came to the guitar.
David Lee Roth was the most exciting rock frontman of the era, in this writer’s opinion, and he managed to bring that to vinyl. He’s raw, menacing, and cool. Every shriek, every sigh, every squeal is scientifically designed for maximum impact at the exact right moment. Meanwhile, Michael Anthony’s backing vocals helped create that “Van Halen sound” — hard rock with harmonies. Like only a few others (Hendrix for example), Van Halen managed to extend their own sound into the covers they did, to the point that their cover versions are as well known as the originals. “You Really Got Me” (The Kinks) is an apt example.
It is not difficult to argue that every song on Van Halen, from the originals to the covers to the 1:45 guitar solo, is classic. There is not much more to be said about these tracks. They had been stewing in Edward’s head and fingers for years, and had acquired a deadly tightness. Side One is one of the heaviest sides of rock and roll in the 1970’s. From the slow burnin’ “Runnin’ With the Devil” to the explosive “I’m the One”, the first side is non-stop smoke. Putting a guitar solo as track #2 might be suicide for some records, but on Van Halen, “Eruption” only serves to whet the appetite for more.
“Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is menacing, ominous, forboding, and heavy. Roth’s banshee wails are unholy enough to frighten wild beasts. For songwriting, “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is a highpoint of Van Halen’s entire canon. They continued to play it live with Sammy Hagar on the 5150 tour.
Side Two lets up a bit and introduces Roth’s early pop tendencies with “Jamie’s Cryin'”. Edward’s inimitable riff was later sampled by Tone Lōc for his hit “Wild Thing”, introducing Van Halen to yet another new audience. The reprieve is brief; next is a stampede from the “Atomic Punk”. Although the guitar work is miles above and beyond any punk band, the loud spirit is there and menacing as any other. Switching gears yet again, “Feel Your Love Tonight” is catchy and danceable. The harmonies of Michael Anthony and the Van Halen brothers make the chorus something special, and Eddie’s guitar solo throws in lots of those signature licks that you know and love. “Little Dreamer” is darker, another side that Van Halen does very well. Roth and Edward gel together to paint an aural picture, while Michael and Alex stay out of the way.
David Lee Roth plays the acoustic guitar on “Ice Cream Man”, a blues song by John Brim dating back to 1953. Brim never could have envisioned where Van Halen take the song after the first minute. The space-age guitar solos would have been unimaginable to a bluesman of the 1950’s. What Edward did with the blues on “Ice Cream Man” can only be described as completely original. And let’s not forget about David Lee Roth! “Guarantee-ee-ee-ee-ee-eed…to satis-a-fy!”
Finally, “On Fire” (which opened the Gene Simmons-produced Zero demo) closes this rollercoaster album. Pure heavy metal with burning fretwork is an apt description. Roth has mentioned in the past Van Halen’s early Black Sabbath influences. Here, Van Halen anticipate where Black Sabbath would go with Ian Gillan on Born Again.
Even their logo was bad ass. Van Halen has it all.
As great as Van Halen still is today, and as highly as I rated it…the best was still yet to come.