VAN HALEN (Not Van Hagar!) Part 7: House of Pain
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)
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)
Part 5: Push Comes to Shove (Fair Warning – 1981)
Part 6: Intruder (Diver Down – 1982)
INTERMISSION – “Beat It”
Edward Van Halen picked up the phone. On the other end was a man claiming to be “Quincy Jones”, asking Eddie if he was available to play on an album. Not knowing the name “Quincy Jones” and assuming it was a crank call, Eddie slammed down the phone yelling, “Fuck off, asshole!” Only a followup phone call from Michael Jackson clarified the situation. Quincy Jones, the legendary record producer, was working on the new Michael Jackson album. Could Eddie come by and play a guitar solo on an upbeat, driving song?
What Eddie laid down (in reportedly two takes) was selected by Guitar magazine as the greatest guitar solo of the 1980’s.
In one tension-filled solo, Eddie threw every trick from his bag: whammy dives, complex neo-classical trills, hammer-ons, pull-offs, tapping, harmonics, squeals, and finally a big fat pick slide.
If one wants to hear what Eddie Van Halen sounds like, all they need to do is play “Beat It”.
VAN HALEN – 1984 (MCMLXXXIV) (1984 Warner)
Having compromised his artistic instincts on 1982’s Diver Down, Edward Van Halen refused to do the same again. He and longtime engineer Donn Landee proceeded to build 5150, Eddie’s home recording studio. There he was free to experiment with the synthesizers that had begun to creep into Van Halen albums. When the studio was complete, Eddie felt that he had more control.
But there were other issues beginning to surface. The Michael Jackson cameo, for example. Roth had reportedly vetoed previous offers for Van Halen to do guest appearances on records. (Van Halen had also appeared on the semi-obscure Brian May and Friends EP Star Fleet Project.) When Quincy Jones and Michael Jackson extended the offer to appear on “Beat It”, Edward did it without telling the others in the band. Roth claims he never would have objected to Edward working with an artist of Quincy Jones’ stature, but the feelings of betrayal had set in.
Edward and Roth both recall that Van Halen had the main keyboard hook from “Jump” for years, and had submitted it for consideration twice. Roth and producer Ted Templeman rejected it both times, wishing Eddie to keep the focus on his guitar playing. The third time was the charm, and Roth finally agreed to write lyrics for the song, now titled “Jump”. Another synth piece of Eddie’s, now called “1984” was used on the album to precede “Jump”.
It’s impossible to underestimate the impact of “Jump”. Those big fat Oberheim keys were unlike any that Van Halen had used before. The song’s success made other bands pay attention, who were quick to begin adding keyboards themselves. The trends this song ushered included the successes of Bon Jovi, Europe and the like. Veteran bands like Kiss started adding keyboards to their live shows. “Jump” was a perfect storm. It captured Van Halen’s already likable and cool party-hearty spirit, with the cool new wave bands that had replaced punk. Eddie’s tasteful guitar solo ensured that his fans would still listen to every note in order to figure out just how the hell he did that. Meanwhile, who couldn’t love his sheepish grin in the music video?
If you listen carefully during the fade, you’ll hear a familiar guitar riff. Can you name it? That very riff was recycled in 1991 on Van Hagar’s song “Top of the World”!
“Panama” was also a single, no keyboards this time! David made the ladies faint every time during the middle break. The high-flying video showed their sense of humour and electric stage show. If any fan was left doubting after “Jump”, then “Panama” assured them that all was alright. Guitar pyrotechnics and cool lyrics are where’s it at.
What’s not to like about “Top Jimmy”? Perfectly fusing his experimental and hard rocking sides, Eddie created a hook using guitar harmonics for “Top Jimmy”. There’s the patented Van Halen backing vocals, a smokin’ song, and David Lee Roth running the show. This is one of those album cuts that’s every bit as good as the better known tracks. Same with “Drop Dead Legs”. Alex’s steady beat, Eddie’s smoldering riff, and Roth’s leathery moan are a trifecta of perfection. If you listen to the riff, you’ll notice Eddie’s innovative way of using a whammy bar in a musical fashion, as an actual part of the music. Towards the end, Eddie goes into a different riff, and solos his way to the side’s fade-out.
“Sit down, Waldo!”
Dave’s knack for video scored a home run with “Hot For Teacher”. You wouldn’t necessarily think a song like this, a hard shuffle with a lot of talking in it, would make for hit. Hell it opens with 30 seconds of nothing but drums! “Hot For Teacher” remains a pinnacle of hard rock music videos. There’s the humour, the girls, the cool car, and of course “Waldo” who got the last laugh, didn’t he?
“I’ll Wait” is the third and last synth track on the album (including “1984”). It too was chosen as a single, and like all the others, it has stood the test of time. “I’ll Wait” is a very transitional song. Roth keeps it cool, but musically, Van Hagar was already in sight. The echo of later songs like “Feels So Good” can be heard in that throbbing keyboard. “I’ll Wait” (credited to the band and Michael McDonald) went through a period in the 1990’s of sounding dated, but today it sounds timeless. Rather than commercial, today the keyboards sound classy. The guitar solo is simple and full of feel.
Ominous guitar tapping and shredding opens “Girl Gone Bad”, a devastating assault of Eddie’s most aggressive guitar. A song like this absolutely needed to be on 1984 in order to maintain the band’s metal credentials. Many teenagers injured their wrists trying to pick as fast as Edward. Meanwhile, Roth does his very best Robert Plant impression during the middle section. “Yeah, ahh, ahh, owww! Oooooooowhoah! Ma…ma…ma…oh!”
Finally, exhumed from the band’s distant past is “House of Pain”. This song was always one of Van Halen’s heaviest, featuring a chugging metallic riff. Eddie’s increasingly interesting solos have evolved, and they make the last couple minutes of “House of Pain” absolutely indispensable for anyone wanting to know anything about the electric guitar.
As “House of Pain” fades out and 1984 comes to close, a sadness overtakes me. The end sounds abrupt; unfinished. The album was so good, so great, that I want to hear more. But there is no more.
Another successful tour followed the 1984 album, and the band were burned out. David Lee Roth got the covers EP Crazy From the Heat out of his system. There was also some kind of companion movie to the EP in the works, something that bothered the Van Halen brothers greatly. After a while, the band settled in to begin writing the next album, their seventh. It was not to be. According to Alex Van Halen in a fall 1991 M.E.A.T Magazine interview, David Lee Roth fired the entire band.
Van Halen had to replace a frontman, a difficult thing to do in any circumstances, much less when that frontman was David Lee Roth. In the meantime, David Lee Roth had to replace an entire band. A difficult thing, especially when the lead guitar player of that band is oft-recognized as the best in the world.
Both bounced back. Van Halen pondered a number of singers including Patty Smyth of Scandal, before meeting Sammy Hagar. Hagar’s energy and musical chops helped fill Roth’s sizable shoes. Meanwhile, Roth chose to replace Van Halen with not one but two acclaimed virtuosos. On bass was ex-Talas maestro Billy Sheehan. On guitar, from Frank Zappa’s band, little Stevie Vai. Throw in the talented Gregg Bissonette on drums, and you had one hell of a band.
Both artists would find 1984 hard to top in the eyes of the most stubborn old fans. It’s hard to blame them. 1984 is a very special record, and quite arguably Van Halen’s very best.
And that is all.
They did try again, in 1996. We’ll be taking a look at that next time.