REVIEW: Van Halen – Fair Warning (1981)

VAN HALEN (Not Van Hagar!) Part 5: Push Comes to Shove

My latest series of reviews at mikeladano.com is an in-depth look at all the classic VAN HALEN albums, with David Lee Roth.  Dig in!

Part 1: The Early Years (Zero – 1977)
Part 2:
On Fire (Van Halen – 1978)
Part 3: Somebody Get Me A Doctor (Van Halen II – 1979)
Part 4: Everybody Wants Some!! (Women and Children First – 1980)

VAN HALEN – Fair Warning (1981 Warner)

If Women and Children First was the point where the party got dark and a little ugly, then Fair Warning is the hangover.  It was also the point where, according to Edward Van Halen, the band started butting heads.  Eddie was interested in pushing his guitar, and himself, to new limits.  Other influences were more interested in the band continuing to create hits.  The conflict seeps through the grooves of what might be called an angry hard rock album.

A year prior, the band had planned on opening album #4 with “Growth”, a riff that was to continue on from the outro to Women and Children First.  That concept was abandoned in favor of a bold move: inaugurating the album with a funky guitar solo piece.  Edward tried slapping the strings like a bass player would for the unique intro to “Mean Street”; then this changes to his patented tapping technique.  There is only one guitar player who naturally sounds like this, and that’s Eddie.  Then it’s off to “Mean Street”, a chugging rocker with Roth offering us an ominous warning:

See, a gun is real easy on this desperate side of town,
Turns you from hunted into hunter, Go and hunt somebody down.
Wait a minute, somebody said “Fair Warning, Lord!”
Lord, strike that poor boy down!

What a killer opener to a killer album.  Now you know what you’re up against.  Van Halen, as heavy as ever, give no quarter on Fair Warning.  Maybe that’s why it is such a fan favourite today.

“‘Dirty Movies'” turns in some more stunningly original fretwork.  This dark rocker has a catchy chorus and more wickedly cool Roth lyrics.  Mike and Alex lay back and let the song breathe.  Another classic, “Sinner’s Swing!” doesn’t let up.  The Van Halen harmonies are intact, and this is the first upbeat track of the album.  Saving the best for last, “Hear About It Later” closes Side One.  This is one of my all-time favourite Van Halen tracks.  It captures all the classic ingredients:  innovative guitar, a smokin’ riff, a great chorus with the VH harmonies, and a whole lot of that Roth attitude.

VH FW_0004

 

It’s hard to follow a track like that, unless it’s “Unchained” doing the following.  Side Two’s classic opener kicks your ass, my ass, and any asses left in the room.  Edward puts the flanger on overdrive for that killer riff.  Roth throws down one of his classic spoken word breaks in the middle:  “Hey hey hey hey!  One break, comin’ up…”

“Unchained” is one of the most important Van Halen tracks in the canon.  Some would consider it a peak for this band, and I think that theory holds water.  It’s definitely a high water mark, a flawless combination of all the crucial components.  “Unchained” is a memorable classic on an album that, at times, can be more difficult to penetrate on first listen.

One of Fair Warning‘s hidden gems is “Push Comes To Shove”.  It features a slow disco beat and a funky, slippery bass intro.  Eddie’s innovative guitar work is a highlight, but the song is soaked with a cool whiskey-stained vibe.  Roth would later explore similar territory on his solo track “Ladies Night in Buffalo?”

“So This Is Love?” was, like “Unchained”, chosen as a single.  It has a cool walking bass line by Michael Anthony, something I associate with early Van Halen quite a lot.  The track is upbeat and irresistible.   It’s a mere reprieve though before “Sunday Afternoon in the Park”.  This forboding experimental synthesizer piece acts as an intro to the final song, “One Foot Out the Door”, but the two parts are actually equal in length (just under two minutes each).  You can hear the foreshadowing of what would come later on the 1984 album.  The synthesizer merges with the whole band on “One Foot Out the Door” which is as heavy as synth-based rock can get.  It’s a smoking track regardless of what instruments are playing it.  Fear not, Eddie throws in an amazing extended guitar solo with which he closes the song, and album.

Of note is the cover art, a painting called The Maze by William Kurelek.  It depicts childhood bullying, and reflects the some of the darker tones inside.  Van Halen were changing, and their album artwork alluded to this.

Fair Warning did not sell as well as Women and Chidren First, though it is equal to and arguably superior in quality.  The downturn in sales influenced the direction of the next album, which would appear one year later.

5/5 stars

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45 comments

    1. Well my party analogy tends to break down after Diver Down. But I think Diver Down was the guys a bit older, a bit wiser, coming back to play the same parties the started at.

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  1. Definitely a great review. Good call on Push Comes to Shove … I was literally thinking of the same Roth song in comparison before I came to that part of the review.One thing that this album gave to the rock world was the above video for Unchained and the subsequent same-show video of Hear About it Later. Even though i had seen many concerts already at this point, these videos opened up my eyes to the difference between live music and studio music. This was during a time that no band was releasing actual live performance videos to be put in rotation. And in an arena setting too? The band was in its peak and showed it by upping the ante for all bands. I actually prefer the Hear About it Later video myself and i think i will post.simply because i wanna see it now .. and you should too.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes…those 3 videos from Fair Warning are the best of the best for Van Halen. At their peak in 1981. And I’ll complain all day long that they won’t release an official live concert from those years…. but THANK god we at least have those 3 vids.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I thank you sir.

      I have actually never seen that video before. Thanks for sharing because I didn’t know it existed. Leastwise, I don’t remember Much ever playing it, or I would have taped it.

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  2. Yeah These reviews are awesome and since I’m a old geezer at 46 these reviews that Mike throws up here bring back a ton of memories ….
    Fair Warning was my second VH purchase the first being WACF earlier in 1981 and man this one is a solid album. FW fires on a cylinders I mean everything from the artwork down to the spray paint Hunted Into Hunter Phrase….I mean talk about minds being blown and being 15 at around this time when other acts which were favs of mine were floundering here comes Halen kicking me in the side if the head with Meanstreets!!
    This album does not let down…it’s dark,moody and a big middle finger to everyone that’s not on board !
    Love it……
    Those videos that u posted Uncle Meat are awesome and there’s always been the theory that where is the rest of the show since only 3 vids were made public.
    Check out VHND as they posted a I depth article about the whereabouts if a actual full show exists or not.
    Good read if anything!
    When I caught em live of course Ed did the beginning tapping to Meanstreets and they opened up with Unchained but the surprise for me was when they played Hear About It Later!
    Actually they could have played WACF& FW front to back and I would have been ok with that!
    Hahaha…….
    Classic …can’t be beaten!

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    1. Dude I will definitely check out VHND.

      When I was growing up, this was the one VH album that was hard to find. That’s actually why I bought it. When I saw it on CD, I snagged it because I’d never seen it before, only in magazines.

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  3. This is my favourite VH album. Absolutely humungous record! The Unchained riff… holy crap. Love the cover too. I read an interesting interview from this period with Eddie and he seemed very whingy, and very down on Michael Anthony in particular. He wasn’t putting the work in apparently.

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    1. Yup def huge VH record (even though the least selling of the Dave era). My fave. I know that interview. Only found it in the last several years. Was pretty strange Ed was blasting Mike in there in full view interview. But we know Ed had/has issues.

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      1. Definite issues. I just found the mag. It was in an old issue of Guitar One. An archive interview from the FW era. He says Mike had no input whatsoever but remodels his house and buys a porsche with his VH proceeds. “Whatever”

        Ouch!

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    2. Well, you hear that sometimes. “So and so didn’t put in the work.” But he’s the bass player. He probably had his parts recorded in two days. What are you gonna do?

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      1. I know! And did Eddie really want him to do more? I doubt it. I think he’s the type that likes full control. It sounded like he was just resenting the pressure of having to come up with all the music. He kept saying how everyone was asking him “Whaddya Got?” all the time.

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  4. I’m so glad you titled this post “Push Comes To Shove” as that’s the key track here for me. I was taken aback by it when it first came out (Van Halen’s doing funk? Not what a 15-year-old white boy wants to hear), but very quickly I realized how cool & different it was for them, and the guitar solo is one of the best things Eddie’s ever committed to tape. I was getting heavily into jazz-fusion at the time, and several guitar-playing buddies of mine pointed out the similarity between Eddie’s playing and that of guitar virtuoso Allan Holdsworth. Since then anytime I hear the song I think of Holdsworth, and I have to imagine that Eddie was influenced by him since he influenced nearly everyone back then.

    For some reason the “One break…coming uuuup” thing always bugged me even though “Unchained” is otherwise a brilliant song. I guess this is the point where DLR’s schtick started to get tiresome, and I was never as passionate about VH after Fair Warning.

    Another killer review, Mike. Nice job on this series.

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    1. Push Comes To Shove is an awesome song and one of Ed’s best solos.
      Yup.. around 79-84 Ed was heavy into Holdsworth. There’s a 1982 interview where he talks about Alan a lot … and helped get him signed to WBR. He was supposed to produce a record but never happened.

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    2. Thanks man. I’m really glad you liked it.

      Eddie was very influenced by Holdsworth, as somebody said earlier.

      Push Comes to Shove…it’s great to hear so much love for it. It’s a truly great, special track. Again, when I was a kid I probably considered it filler! But that sure did change.

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  5. I remember this album took a while to get into. I mean, there were the two first party records and then WACF which had a bit more heaviness to it, but this one had a dark feel which was unheard of when it came to VH at the time, Mean Streets in particular. But I do love this record and almost every song on here is a killer. But with only 9 songs and the two last ones don’t cut it all the way, I still think that three albums before this are all better. Or they have more better songs on them, at least.

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