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!
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.
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.