After yesterday’s disco double-album extravaganza and a flurry of punk rock and new sounds, one might have been wondering, what was left for the guitar rock and roll band to accomplish? The giants of the British Invasion era were all running low on fuel, and while we saw some innovation from bands like Boston and AC/DC, the format was looking a bit tired. Thankfully, for all of us, we got the guitar hero we needed and wanted, when we needed him most. Entering the big time in 1978 was none other than Edward Van Halen and his band, which included his brother Alex on drums, Michael Anthony on bass, and the one and only David Lee Roth on lead vocals. “Van Halen” is one of three major self-titled debut albums to enter the scene in 1978, and none carried more weight and influence ultimately than these southern California sensations who redefined the term “party band”, as they had spent years honing their craft literally playing backyard parties and bars building their brand. This highly influential album, rated way too low in my opinion, is the #292 rated album on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Each of the other three members were key contributors to their success. Often overshadowed by his younger brother, Alex Van Halen is a phenomenal and distinctive drummer whose sound is instantly recognizable. Nobody goes overboard with praise for Michael Anthony’s work on bass, but aside from his steady work there, his real gift to the band was his powerful high harmony backing vocals. And of course, there is David Lee Roth. He is cartoonish, excessive in every way, and more than a little absurd and ridiculous, but back in these early days, his alpha-male bad-ass command of the stage made him the lead singer most every girl wanted, and most every guy wanted to be. His gift for bringing fun and showmanship to the songwriting, cover song selection, and performing was a major part of lifting Van Halen to a status other guitar-heavy bands could only dream about.
The album opens with the thunderous “Runnin’ with the Devil”. An attention getter for sure, but the next five minutes or so gave us all we needed to know that this was something new and amazing. We start with one of the greatest recorded rock guitar solo performances of all time, “Eruption”, which leads right into the raucous cover of “You Really Got Me”, originally performed by the Kinks. This is truly party rock at its finest, and just a spectacular and much needed resurrection of guitar rock.
This album is almost completely a smash from beginning to end, with only two tracks that I don’t really enjoy. “Ain’t Talkin’ ‘Bout Love” is more Eddie Van Halen magic, with an equal dose of David Lee Roth bravado. Side one ends with more insane guitar work from Eddie on “I’m The One”, which also has some of Alex’s best drumming, and even an impromptu doo-wop chorus.
Side two opens with more rock machismo on “Jamie’s Cryin’”, the Van Halen warning note for one-night stands on tour. “Atomic Punk” is one of the two songs I typically skip, it is just a bit too caustic for my tastes. They bounce back strongly with “Feel Your Love Tonight”, another celebration of the rock and roll dream we all had growing up, as the aspiring life of the party with your buddies and the girls who may or may not have noticed or cared. That may be my favorite song on an album filled with great ones.
“Little Dreamer” is a slower, bluesy song, which showcases both Roth and Anthony and their vocal prowess. Next, we have the perfect song to end this great album, “Ice Cream Man”, a blues cover by John Brim that goes from zero to one hundred quickly, just one more Van Halen blowout. Much like “Bring It On Home” on Led Zeppelin II in terms of slow-fast-slow, it is an all-time classic for the band. Unfortunately, the band felt the need to put one more song on the record, and that song, “On Fire”, is a pretty rough listen. Just too much, too high, too loud, and too unmelodic. After this great album, we can overlook this last misstep.
Just this past week, we sadly looked back at the one-year anniversary of Eddie Van Halen’s untimely death. The rock world has many guitar heroes, but in my Mt. Rushmore of guitar gods, Eddie’s place is forever secure. Van Halen has given me many great memories over the years, and I will always recall what a groundbreaking debut this album was.