Anytime an artist or band explodes on the scene with an amazing debut, the obvious question is can they back it up with a second release? Occasionally they are good enough to hit another home run, sometimes it is a complete flop, and they are never to be heard from again, and of course there is lots of middle ground as well. With “Van Halen II”, I think the answer is closer to smash than trash, although I do rate it a notch or two below their first album.
With the talent of Eddie Van Halen, it would have been almost impossible to go wrong, but even someone as magical as Eddie couldn’t do it alone. He needed David Lee Roth just as much as Diamond Dave needed Eddie. Left with out Roth, Eddie would have likely gone full-on guitar scientist, creating a lot of interesting music that may have been lost on the larger general public. David Lee Roth, who on his own would have wound up as the cheesy lounge singer he eventually devolved into, was able to bring the pop, the dance, the fun, and the alpha-male charisma to the band. Whether through well-chosen and brilliantly performed cover songs that they mastered as a SoCal party band, or “the party is on” original hits like “Dance the Night Away” or “Beautiful Girls”, the band had the bravado and the talent to back it all up.
The album opens with the cover of “You’re No Good”, originally written by Clint Ballard Jr. and made most famous previously by Linda Ronstadt. It isn’t my all-time favorite cover by the band, but it certainly sets the tone that Van Halen is here, once again, to take over the stage and blow away any potential competition. “Dance the Night Away” IS an all-time favorite of mine, and very representative of the best Roth and the band could bring together between them. Another amazing Eddie riff fuels “Somebody Get Me a Doctor”, even if the overall track doesn’t quite flow as some of their best hits from the first album. “Bottom’s Up” is somewhat in the same category, but the mixture of another filthy riff and another presentation of ad-hoc doo-wop from the band takes it up a notch. The last song on side one, “Outta Love Again”, and the first song on side two, “Light Up the Sky”, are probably two of the best examples of inconsistency. They aren’t flat-out annoying like “Atomic Punk” or “On Fire”, but they don’t have nearly as much of a hook as other songs on either of the first two albums. Granted, it is still entertaining with Eddie and Alex Van Halen absolutely blasting through each song, but to me they are not quite as good as the rest of the album.
“Spanish Fly” is more Eddie magic, as he is now essentially giving us an acoustic follow-up to “Eruption” from the first album. A cool subtle touch is hearing Eddie (I assume) taking a deep breath as he wrapped up the performance.
The last three songs really close the album out on a high note. “D.O.A.”, short for dead or alive, is a knockout combination of macho Dave and Eddie’s ruthless guitar, with some great backing vocals from Michael Anthony and Eddie. “Women in Love” is a softer track that plays into their well-earned reputation as lady-killers on the rock scene, and of course, that theme is exponentially advanced on the last track, “Beautiful Girls”. Musically it is more perfect party rock, and of course it is vintage Diamond Dave being the life and center of every celebration. It is songs like this and “Dance the Night Away” that elevated them to a unique place where the guys could rock and the girls could dance and swoon.
At this stage in the game, Van Halen had pretty much taken a leadership role in the world of guitar-centric rock and roll. Led Zeppelin and The Who had hit the wall, the Stones were in transition and coming closer to the end of their long run, and in my opinion, the only band that came close to being able to match the quality, popularity, energy, showmanship and delivery of Van Halen at this point was AC/DC, and they had more than their share of issues to deal with, particularly in 1979. These first two albums from Van Halen were both game-changers, and in many ways set the stage for an entire next wave of hard rock and guitar-centric pop and glam metal that would take off in the 1980s.