REVIEW: Van Halen – Van Halen (1978)

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)

VH_0001VAN HALEN – Van Halen (1978 Warner)

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.

VH_0002Side 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.

5/5 stars

As great as Van Halen still is today, and as highly as I rated it…the best was still yet to come.

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50 comments

  1. Awesome review very detailed..and bang on with the Fiver!
    I remember yrs ago reading that Ed went to some Hollywood bash when Halen was recording the debut and bumped into some dude from Angel(think that’s the band) and played him You Really Got Me and the next day Ed told Templemen this and Templemen went apeshit on Ed telling him that he heard thru the grapevine that Angel was gonna put a version of You Really Got Me as well!
    So Halen had to rush there version out ….
    Interesting ..don’t know if Angel was the band but perhaps….
    The crazy thing is this debut still sounds fresh today that for me is the classic sound. When I listen to it now I don’t say man that sounds like it’s from the 70s/80s/90s it’s just got a timeless classic sonic quality to it!!

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    1. True that man! It does sound fresh continually. Regardless of Eddie’s complaints about the guitar tracks, the overall sound is pretty damn impressive.

      Didn’t know that story about You Really Got Me but it wouldn’t surprise me. Angel would be the right time frame.

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  2. When I started buying CDs back in 88 out of the first 10 I bought were the first 6 Halen,Back In Black,Permanent Vacation,Apetite For Destruction and Hysteria…..
    And than I went crazy…hahaha….

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    1. I started buying in 89. I got 4 for Christmas that year. The first one I bought was the Stairway to Heaven/Highway to Hell compilation!

      But very soon after, I found Fair Warning at a local store called Dutch Boy. Because I’d never seen it before, I grabbed it.

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  3. Oh yeah the Jovi Anti Drug cd…I bought that as well…one of my favs from 89 that I bought in 89 was Billy Squiers Hear and Now disc.
    That is one of the best well written AOR releases I have ever heard. Still stands up to this day but it sold peanuts as that Rock Me Tonite vid destroyed him….Mike if ever come across Hear and Now check it out…the rest of his stuff I can take it or leave it but he had some heavy hitters on that thing like Desmond Child…..

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    1. Yep the anti drug one, you got it.

      I vaguely remember Hear and Now but I can’t remember a single track. I’ll pay attention if I see it again though!

      For a first Van Halen CD, I’m proud to say it was Fair Warning.

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  4. Absolutely your mind must have been blown by the time you got to,track 3(Sinners Swing)
    And than it’s like ok gotta get the rest!!

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  5. I forgot to add that man it’s ballsy to put a guitar solo as your second track on your debut studio release no doubt!
    When I seen Halen back in 2012 just like a Peart drum solo you don’t leave just like a Van Halen guitar solo…u Stand at attention sir!
    Now on the other hand I seen the Crue live 4 times in the 80s and three of those times when they were headlining we would go and buy our tour shirts during Mars solo…
    Hahaha …….

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    1. Ack. Well I’m sorry that I won’t have much for you to be interested in for the next little while :( That’s the only drag with a series like this. You always lose a few people for a little while, and it’s not their fault. You can’t “make” somebody like a band. You can expose them to one, but you’ve already had plenty of exposure I’ll wager.

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      1. I should do a survey of comment-counts between the (partial) Rush series I just finished and the current Beastie Boys series. Be a big difference, given most of the KMA’s readers are rawkers. It happens. But maybe you can turn 1537 into a big fan with your bang-up reviews. Roll up yer sleeves, get in there, get sweaty and GIVE ‘ER!

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      2. I love certain tracks, it doesn’t get much better than Jump for me, but overall not my bag. Women & Children First is probably my fave of theirs.

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    1. Right — when I rate albums I tend to stick loosely to Martin Popoff’s format, though he rates out of 10. Popoff had a lot of 10/10 star albums, and he indexes them for handy reference. Still, there are some that are a bit more of a pinnacle than others.

      So rather than split hairs too fine and call this a 4.75 or a 4.9 or whatever, it’s a 5/5. It deserves every point, right?

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        1. I didn’t even talk about Eruption in detail. (Others have done so, with the technical know-how that I lack.) Suffice to say that it’s awesome for the player and non-player alike to enjoy. Very few guitar players have their solos covered, like Eruption has been covered.

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        2. Right. And to that I say, google it and listen. That’s all.

          Later on, I will get into a teeny tiny bit of technical detail, I promise I will, but only on a level that my meager musical brain can comprehend.

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  6. Love how your love for this shines out in the writing, makes it seem fresh to me, well done. Side note; Templeman’s Beefheart album CLEAR SPOT is an F’n MASTERPIECE. And Beefheart was notoriously impossible to work with.

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        1. No not at all. They came out with all guns blazing. All the best songs they could muster. They know they had the best guitarist in the world. I believe that DLR probably knew he was a contender to be a great frontman up there with the legends. They were brave, and with just cause.

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      1. This chick plays with Richie Sambora and Alice Cooper now. I saw her play with Coop at SRF. What a brilliant musician she is.

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  7. I remember it took me forever to become a big Van Halen fan. A friend of mine had a cassette with this album on one side and Def Leppard’s Pyromania on the other and we listened to that tape to death. This was 1983 and this album was the only Van Halen record I dug until I heard 5150 in 1986 and I only gave that a shot because I was a big Sammy Hagar fan. Still is. That – and the fact that I had another friend who was a complete Van Halen-nut who kept on nagging on me about them – made me seriously want to check them out and I have never looked back since.

    About your review, everything is spot on and there’s really nothing more to add. Other than the mentioned Tone Loc song also featured a guitar sample of Kiss’ Christine Sixteen. Or was that the other Tone Loc hit?

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    1. Truthfully I don’t know who Tone Loc sampled. He’s so far off my radar I barely care at all. He was in the first Ace Ventura film and I couldn’t even tell what he was saying!

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        1. Yeah. Unfortunately. I realize that I probably don’t “get” rap very much, but stuff like Tone Loc, I tend to see less as music and more as cutting and pasting.

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  8. Tone loc sampled Jamie’s Crying on his hit Funky Cold Medina. Hagar was the one who noticed it and told the bros telling him up guys can get some cash out of this….

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    1. Yeah, that’s the one. It has the guitars from Christine Sixteen sampled on it, but it was Wild Thing that had Jamie’s Cryin’.

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  9. This is such a monstrous album and I still remember my jaw hitting the floor the first time I heard it in 1980. I had been unaware of Van Halen until then (I turned 14 that year, so I should be forgiven for my ignorance). My first VH album was Women & Children First, and I immediately went back to get the first two within weeks. The debut still sounds fresh, like it was recorded this week, and I think that’s all down to Templeman’s perfect production. You did a phenomenal job of describing what makes this album so special. I’ve often said that “Appetite For Destruction” was cut from the same cloth as this, with both sharing a similar huge sound. I wonder if the GnR guys used this as a template.

    Here’s a related note taken from my third blog post on Van Morrison’s catalog, which I wrote more than 3 years ago shortly after starting up the blog:
    >>An interesting tidbit I discovered when scouring the credits is that “Tupelo Honey” (as well as its successor, “Saint Dominic’s Preview”) was co-produced by Ted Templeman, who also plays organ here, and features Ronnie Montrose on lead guitar. Templeman also produced the first album by Ronnie’s band Montrose, which featured a young singer named Sammy Hagar, who of course went on to replace David Lee Roth in Van Halen many years later. And bringing all of this together, Ted Templeman produced the first 6 Van Halen albums, which makes him probably the only person who helped shape the sound of music’s two great Vans (with all due respect to the great songwriter & creator of “The Hustle,” Van McCoy).<<

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    1. I just learned about Ted Templeman! Very cool.

      I never really equated this album with Appetite before. I hear what you’re saying. I’m also 100% sure that every member of Guns N’ Roses had Van Halen albums back then. It’s possible!

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