There certainly can’t be any better album to kick off 1984 than “1984” by Van Halen. This record is significant for many reasons. First off, it was a return to all original tracks after the cover-laden “Diver Down”. Second, it is the first album to broadly feature Eddie Van Halen on synthesizers in addition to his brilliant guitar playing, and in case you weren’t there at the time, a lot of people really panicked that this was the beginning of the end of Van Halen, if Eddie was now playing keyboards instead of guitar. The reality is that he was gifted enough to master and play both, and keyboards had already surfaced on previous albums in a less prominent fashion. As a result of his and all of their combined talents, the overall musicality on this record is fantastic. So, while it wasn’t the end of Van Halen because of keyboards, it did sadly prove to be the end of the run for the band with David Lee Roth on vocals. It is pretty clear that neither he nor Eddie were always easy to get along with, and as their creative differences and clashing personalities began to escalate, ultimately Dave released a solo album, and the band moved on without him.
For all of that turmoil, the band really went out on a high note with “1984”. As good as Eddie and Dave still sound on this record, in my opinion, the unsung hero of this album is drummer Alex Van Halen. His playing on the entire record rocks, and there is a three-song sequence in the middle of the album where he is a dominant element on each song. Of course, the album notably opens with the keyboard title track which flows into “Jump”, their smash single that remains a huge hit to this day. Again, as the first song released from this album, there was a lot of angst in the rock world, but Eddie’s keyboards have a great tone to them, and he even adds a Van Halen-brand guitar solo on top of the track. All is still OK here, people.
If there was any doubt, “Panama” brings back the guitars in powerful fashion as the second-biggest hit on the record. I have never been a fan of “Top Jimmy”; I find the chorus and overall hook lacking, even with some more great Van Halen riffs. However, side one finishes strong as we shine the spotlight on Alex Van Halen during “Drop Dead Legs”. His recurring beat and his fills, along with the mix of his drums are so good; he really drives and leads the impact on this great song that also has the rest of the band at their best.
If you weren’t already convinced, just listen to Alex’s insane multi-track drum intro to “Hot for Teacher”, simulating a revving engine. Beyond that explosive intro, the rest of the song serves as the perfect final show of greatness from the band. Dave’s alpha-male rock star personality gets one last moment in the sun, Eddie’s guitar work is immaculate, and Michael Anthony does his usual solid work on bass with some added backing vocals. If this had to be their last release, at least they went out on top with a song like this, and they backed it up with an equally memorable music video.
“I’ll Wait” is another synth-dominant track that again features Alex’s drums in overdrive. It is a very pop song that gets its edge from Alex, without question. The last two tracks, “Girl Gone Bad” and “House of Pain”, don’t have quite the hook as the first six tracks, but are two more examples of the entire band rocking with tightly contained reckless abandon, if that makes sense.
Accompanying this album was their last major tour with this lineup, and we finally caught up with them at McNichols Arena. I’m pretty sure I attended with Mike and Jim, and I think Matt and Shane also attended with two separately located tickets. I’m forever grateful that I saw this lineup in their original state when I did, although I will say I always thought the show was really good, but not great. Maybe the cracks in the chemistry were starting to show through, and as time passed, we all saw the rough edges surface more and more in Dave’s singing voice live. I’ll never know for sure, but regardless of those minor drawbacks, I’m so glad I saw this band while I still could.
After this, Roth and the other three went separate directions, never to reach the same heights again. We will take one look at the Sammy Hagar era of Van Halen, and while I think that Sammy is probably a better technical singer than Dave, and probably a more genuine and authentic person, the Van Hagar era was not even in the same ballpark as the bad-ass party band that Dave and the Van Halen brothers spent nearly a decade crafting into the untouchable machine they were at their prime.